The Role of Climate-Smart Agriculture in Addressing Land Degradation

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Lance Cheung / USDA
A farmer handpicks sweet potatoes at Kirby Farms in Mechanicsville, VA. Soil is the most significant natural capital for ensuring food, water, and energy security.

In Brief

Land degradation has profound consequences for food and water security, poverty, mass migrations, and increased vulnerability of affected areas to climate change. It currently affects 1.5 billion people and could lead to the displacement of 135 million more people by 2045. Feeding the growing population will require ingenuity and innovation in producing food and managing land sustainably. Climate-smart agriculture (CSA) helps to address the problems of land degradation, food security, and climate change by sustainably increasing agricultural productivity and incomes; adapting and building resilience to climate change; and reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. CSA technological solutions include integrated soil fertility management, agroforestry, farmer-managed land restoration, conservation agriculture, rainwater harvesting, improved livestock management, and alternate wet and dry rice production systems. While CSA technologies and practices are generating significant benefits, their adoption often faces a variety of socioeconomic and institutional barriers. Urgent solutions for scaling up CSA include promoting nationally-owned climate smart agricultural policies to increase adoption of CSA technologies, increasing national investment to boost CSA, creating sustainable private-sector-led input markets, ensuring equitable access to land, and promoting inclusive and innovative knowledge management systems.

Key Concepts

  • Smallholders suffer the most from land degradation; degraded soil conditions combined with climate variability, land tenure insecurity, and limited market access pressure them to make short-term tradeoffs that compromise long-term gains.

  • Climate-smart agriculture (CSA) is an alternative approach to managing land sustainably and increasing agricultural productivity under the new realities of a changing climate.

  • CSA is composed of three pillars: sustainably increasing agricultural productivity and incomes, adapting and building resilience to climate change, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.

  • Farmers face substantial barriers in adopting CSA practices. These include significant upfront expenditures required for adopting new technology, lack of information about the potential gains of adopting a new technology, the non-availability of inputs in local markets, and limited capacities in implementing improved practices.

  • Action-oriented solutions for scaling up CSA include promoting nationally-owned climate smart agricultural policies to increase adoption of CSA technologies, increasing national investment to boost CSA, and building sustainable private-sector-led input markets, ensuring equitable land access, and fostering inclusive and innovative knowledge management systems.

Every year, we lose an area of land roughly the size of Honduras to desertification, and 24 billion tons of fertile soil to erosion. This threatens the livelihoods of 1.5 billion people, and is likely to displace 135 million by 2045.1 We already have the first mass migrations in the Middle East, where the refugee crisis has been linked to years of drought in Syria and Iraq. Egypt, Ghana, Central African Republic, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Paraguay are all experiencing significant land degradation and soaring food prices as a result.

As populations grow, the pressure on land resources will only increase. Unsuitable or especially biodiverse land such as rainforest will be claimed for farming, and will become more vulnerable to degradation as a result. The largest increase in food demand is expected in the poorest regions, where the most people live. Smallholder farmers suffer the most because poor soil conditions, climate and weather variability, land tenure insecurity, and limited access to markets pressure them to make short-term trade-offs that compromise long-term gains.

Feeding the growing population in the coming years will require ingenuity and innovation to produce more food on less land in more sustainable ways. So, how do we manage land better?

It will all come down to what we do with our soil, which is the most significant natural capital for ensuring food, water, and energy security while adapting and building resilience to climate change. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the soil’s nutrient cycling provides the largest contribution (51 percent) of the total value (USD$33 trillion) of all ‘ecosystem services’ provided each year.2 Yet soil’s important function is often forgotten as the missing link in our pursuit of sustainable development.


IFPRI/Milo Mitchell
Tilling soil in Senegal, where land degradation is a prominent issue. Adopting integrated soil fertility management practices will offer farmers a higher profit and increase sustainability, yet adoption rate of the method remain low in the region.

Climate-smart agriculture (CSA) is an alternative approach to managing land sustainably while increasing agricultural productivity.3 The idea, first championed in 2010 at the first Global Conference on Agriculture, Food Security and Climate Change at The Hague, is composed of three main pillars: sustainably increasing agricultural productivity and incomes; adapting and building resilience to climate change; and, reducing and/or removing greenhouse gas emissions.4 The techniques developed over the past few years are already transforming the way the world thinks about agricultural assistance. The idea of facilitating the supply of chemical fertilizer and genetically improved seeds to farmers and enhancing their access to output markets is giving way to an approach that is centered on developing smallholders’ ability to help themselves.

Happily, soil is the central element of most CSA approaches.5 One of the best examples of CSA in action is the use of so-called ‘Integrated Soil Fertility Management.’6 This approach, developed in Africa in the early 2000s, involves fostering the use of plants that have historically been adapted to the local environment, and thus already have a high genetic yield potential, pest and disease resistance, drought resistance, and nutrient and water-use efficiency. Combined with judicious quantities of mineral fertilizers, as well as organic inputs, such as crop residue and manure, that are readily available to smallholders, you have a low-tech solution that offers the greatest resilience to climate change.

Other climate-smart practices include agroforestry, an integrated land-use system combining trees and shrubs with crops and livestock; and, conservation agriculture, a system based on minimum soil disturbance through mechanical tillage, permanent soil cover through residue management, and crop rotation and diversification using legumes and green manure or cover crops. Degraded croplands and grazing lands can be restored through farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR) of trees and shrubs from tree stumps, roots and seeds. Rainwater can be harvested; alternate wet and dry rice production systems can be employed that use flush irrigation to strategically supplement rainfall for parts of the growing season. For livestock, improved pasture management, such as rotational grazing, can make a huge difference.

While CSA practices are generating significant benefits, farmers face substantial socioeconomic barriers to their adoption. Land management practices that require any upfront expenditure is often a barrier for poor farmers. The non-availability of inputs in local markets can also be a major obstacle. Despite the widespread growth of cell-phone use, the ability to pass on information to those in need is another constraint. Lastly, when technologies are inconsistent with community rules and traditional practices, their adoption is often resisted. Breaking down centuries of poor practice—or more recent adoptions of chemical fertilizers—can be the stiffest challenge, but one that brings with it the most reward, because it is when smallholders work together that they can have the greatest success.

Over the past five years since CSA became a priority among the development community, we are starting to see solutions emerge to each of these challenges, which, taken together, suggest a program for change.

Promote climate-smart agricultural policies

The goals of climate-smart agriculture cannot be met without policies and initiatives that encourage agricultural innovations and research, and establish stronger linkages between farmers, climate-smart supply chains, and markets. CSA needs to shift beyond development practitioners to involve government agencies more often. We have seen that nationally owned climate-smart agricultural policies and action frameworks tend to increase the adoption of CSA technologies. Brazil, for example, has invested in research to support sustainable intensification, while creating legal and regulatory mechanisms to protect forest areas as a response to unrestrained agricultural expansion driven by market demand.7 CSA requires judicious policy management: proper coordination between agencies across different sectors at central and local levels. A wider landscape approach is needed for the better management of agricultural production and ecosystem services.

Increase investment in agriculture


Neil Palmer (CIAT)
An example of agroforestry at a natural reserve near Palmira, Colombia. Agroforestry is an integrated land-use system combining trees and shrubs with crops and livestock.

An increased level and quality of national investment is needed to boost CSA. Improvements in agriculture can be a powerful engine for economic development and poverty reduction. It is well established that growth in agriculture is twice as effective in reducing poverty as growth originating from other sectors.8 Investments made in the agricultural sector have traditionally been intended to achieve multiple objectives, such as agricultural growth for food security, poverty reduction and economic development. However, climate change has significantly altered agricultural investment needs.

The estimated investment gap for food security and adapting agricultural systems to climate change in developing countries amounts to US$320 to $360 billion per year according to the World Investment Report published by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.9

While increasing national investment in CSA might be a tall order in countries with severe budget constraints, finite public resources can be more selectively targeted by prioritizing CSA approaches that generate the most short-term returns or by introducing incentives that encourage private sector investment. Public investment can also be used to leverage private investment in areas such as research and development, provision of climate information services, or by bundling agricultural credit and insurance together and providing different forms of risk management such as index-based weather insurance.10

Taking these measures can help ameliorate land degradation. But, the real Holy Grail is to reverse existing habitat loss. Direct public investment in landscape restoration and rehabilitation can bring about sizeable livelihood benefits and create better conditions for attracting further investments by farmers and communities, but this requires strong political will. The China Loess Plateau and Rwanda Hillside Land Husbandry are well-documented success stories of landscape restoration. The China Loess Plateau project sought to restore China’s heavily degraded Loess Plateau through one of the world’s largest erosion control efforts, with the goal of returning this poor part of China to an area of sustainable agricultural production.11 More than 2.5 million people in four of China’s poorest provinces—Shanxi, Shaanxi, and Gansu, as well as the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region—were lifted out of poverty. Incomes in project households grew from about US$70 per year per person to about US$200, while the employment rate increased from 70 percent to 87 percent. Agricultural production has changed from generating a narrow range of food and low-value grain commodities to high-value products. Per capita grain output increased from 365 to 591 kilograms per year. Sedimentation of waterways dramatically reduced: flow of sediment from the Plateau into the Yellow River reduced by more than 100 million tons per year. Tree replanting and bans on grazing led to an increase in perennial vegetation cover from 17 to 34 percent.


Charlie Qiu
The Loess Plateau in Shanxi, China. The China Loess Plateau project sought to restore the heavily degraded plateau through one of the world’s largest erosion control efforts, and lifted 2.5 million people out of poverty.

Agriculture as the backbone of the Rwandan economy accounts for 39 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), 80 percent of employment, 63 percent of foreign exchange earnings, and 90 percent of the country’s food needs. The sector is challenged by land constraints due to population pressure (population density is 490 persons per square kilometer), poor water management, small average land holdings, lack of public and private capacity, and limited commercialization constrained by poor access to output and financial markets. The country’s average annual income of US$550 per capita reflects a rural poverty rate of 49 percent, a figure that soars to 76 percent for families whose main source of income is agriculture. To address this problem, the Land Husbandry, Water Harvesting and Hillside Irrigation project was initiated to increase the productivity and commercialization of hillside agriculture in target areas. The project has reversed harmful erosion by protecting 2,346 hectares of land, increased the share of commercialized products from target areas to 69 percent, increased rainfed productivity of non-irrigated land from US$469 to $2,240 per hectare, and benefited 19,828 Rwandans.12


Hillside farming outside of Burera, Rwanda. The Land Husbandry, Water Harvesting and Hillside Irrigation project in Rwanda was initiated to increase the productivity and commercialization of such hillside agriculture.

Ensure equitable access to land

Often what drives land degradation is the question of social justice and the equitable distribution of resources. One of the most prominent issues is the practice of “land grabbing,” a phenomenon increasingly driven by the desire to secure land rights to the food and energy needs of foreign investors.13,14,15 It is estimated that up to 63 million hectares have been allotted in land deals, or are under negotiation in 27 countries in Africa.16 Other challenges of land governance include corruption, inefficient land administration, and low capacity and demand for land administration professionals.

Secure land rights are necessary for climate-smart agriculture, providing incentives for local communities to manage land more sustainably. Customary land rights and gender equality need to be recognized. Women—the primary subsistence producers—are all too often locked out of land ownership by customary laws. Fast, effective, and low-cost approaches involving the use of satellite images, global position systems, and computerized data management technologies to access, register, and administer land rights are needed.

Improving land governance—the manner in which land rights are defined and administered— can be the missing link between abundant land and development. Mexico’s successful registration of communal lands (ejidos) during the 1990s and Brazil’s successful model of market-assisted land reform offer positive lessons for many countries.17,18 In Africa, Tanzania has surveyed almost all of its communal lands; about 60 percent have been registered, at an average cost of about US$500 per village. Malawi successfully piloted a community-based, willing-seller willing-buyer approach to land reform, benefiting more than 15,000 poor farm families, raising agricultural incomes by 40 percent per year, and attaining an economic internal rate of return of 20 percent. Ghana reduced the number of days to transfer property from 169 in 2005 to 34 in 2011, and increased land-related revenue from US$12 million in 2003 to US$132 million in 2010 by decentralizing and computerizing its land registries, merging its land agencies, and strengthening property valuation. For countries to boost land governance, such improved approaches and comprehensive policy reforms will need to be scaled up. The estimated cost of scaling up improved land governance in sub Saharan Africa is USD$4.5 billion over 10 years.19

Facilitate increased input use


A Darfurian refugee woman digs a plot in Eastern Chad. In many societies, women are the primary subsistence producers, and yet are locked out of land ownership by customary laws.

Reversing land degradation in Africa and South Asia will require increased but targeted use of fertilizers and other inputs. This, in turn, will require building sustainable private-sector-led input markets. But, progress in improving input distribution systems is likely to be unsustainable without strong, effective demand for the inputs. Effective demand can only be assured if farmers have access to reliable markets to sell their products at a profit.20 Thus, both demand- and supply-side interventions are needed to strategically break the adoption barriers associated with input use and other climate-smart practices.

Improve knowledge management systems

A number of climate-smart technologies are knowledge-intensive, and promoting their adoption will require well designed, inclusive, and innovative knowledge management systems. The priorities are to strengthen farmers’ knowledge of CSA practices, facilitate sharing the techniques, and provide the greatest support to local and indigenous knowledge systems.21 This will result in more robust knowledge systems and farmer-led approaches. The use of co-learning and co-management strategies involving scientists and farmers is one way to do this. Scientific experts and farmers working closely together will, in turn, lead to mutual accountability.

We need to reduce the negative impacts of land degradation, climate change, and desertification by returning to a CSA-based approach that returns our focus to smallholders and the soil upon which they rely for their livelihoods. Boosting prosperity and encouraging sustainable farming practices must go hand in hand.