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Why we must scale up climate-smart agriculture to feed a hungrier world

climate-smart agriculture Indonesia Rainforest Alliance

Climate-smart agriculture can improve productivity, increase resilience and reduce emissions. Image: Caroline Bennett/Rainforest Alliance

Abdul-Razak Saeed
Climate Lead, Rainforest Alliance
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SDG 13: Climate Action

  • Climate-smart agriculture, or CSA, is an approach to food production that can improve productivity, increase resilience to climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • At scale, these practices have the potential to feed the planet.
  • Scaling up will require massive stakeholder engagement, cooperation and investment on every level.

With the world’s population estimated to hit 9.8 billion by 2050 – a 2 billion increase over the next 30 years – our current food production systems face an enormous challenge, made even more daunting by climate change. Experts say agriculture must increase its output by a startling 50% in the next 30 years – while halving its carbon footprint.

To address the world’s ballooning food needs in the midst of a worsening climate crisis, we must dramatically scale up climate-smart agriculture (CSA), an approach to food production that can improve productivity, increase resilience to climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

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And it’s possible. As we have learned from implementation for over a decade in Africa and at the farm level around the world, localized CSA practices have the potential for far-reaching positive impacts on the global food system when scaled.

Mainstreaming climate-smart agriculture
How can we scale up climate-smart agriculture? Image: International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT)

Localizing CSA efforts

Understanding the specific current and future risks that climate change poses to agricultural lands and commodities – based on geography – is a critical first step towards reorienting agricultural production. Farmers can then use localized, climate-smart measures to address these risks. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations asserts that CSA allows producers to sustainably increase productivity and incomes, adapt and build resilience to the changing climate, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Ultimately, it’s a nature-positive production approach leveraging best management practices, spun through a climate change lens and tailored to specific crops, regions and ecosystems.

Countless farmers have reported dramatic increases in production, pest control and other advantages to implementing CSA practices.

“I reaped many benefits by adopting CSA practices in my farm such as planted cover crops and weed management, reduced pests and diseases. The soil is not dry in the dry season, and [we experience] only the minimum level of black pod caused by phytophthora during the rainy season,” said Dashat Tandibua, a cocoa farmer in Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, who is currently engaged in agroforestry and shade tree management.

Tandibua recorded an increase in yield from 550kg/ha in 2018 to 643kg/ha in 2019 attributed to agroforestry, which hinges on growing trees intermixed with crops.

Combined with other CSA practices, agroforestry leads to improved productivity, less erosion and healthier ecosystems. It also restores soil health, which reduces the need for fertilizer while increasing income. At scale, CSA practices have the potential to feed the planet.

The 3 pillars of CSA
The three pillars of climate-smart agriculture Image: FAO

A shared responsibility

It’s unfair and unrealistic to think that producers alone can scale up CSA. This must be a coordinated process involving multiple stakeholders, from governments to private sector actors to other parties across supply chains. Governments must first ensure that an adequate institutional framework on land use is in place to implement CSA practices so as to avoid competing priorities. Increased collaboration among stakeholders will help coordinate harmonious policies across climate change, land use, agricultural, water and other relevant sectors that otherwise may not align.

Image: Caroline Bennett/Rainforest Alliance

Technological capital

In many landscapes, there is limited knowledge around what the context-specific climate risks are, and what adaptation measures and alternative farming practices are available. We need more developed information and capacity building for producers, agricultural extension officers and other actors engaged in agriculture and landscape governance.

For instance, global climate impact maps help us understand and identify context-specific risks to crops. Once identified, producers and key players in the agricultural sector must attain the technical knowledge to embrace measures such as conservation agriculture, intercropping, water management, tree management, mulching, reduced/no tillage and cover cropping. These actions not only increase resilience and boost productivity, but also reduce emissions and increase the sequestration of carbon in soil, which also benefits production.

Building technological capital involves public and private support of research that generates data illustrating the comparable long-term costs associated with CSA (when compared to other agricultural methods). One such cost-benefit analysis is being conducted by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture and the Rainforest Alliance in Ghana, and several other studies are in the pipeline awaiting support.

Sustainability standards and certifications also play a significant role in scaling up CSA. A 2020 study about cocoa and palm oil production revealed that sustainability certification that pushes adoption of good agricultural practices has a widely positive impact on farm yields and associated income. In its new 2020 Sustainable Agriculture Standard, the Rainforest Alliance has embedded CSA principles, a climate risk assessment tool for farmers and a shared responsibility approach for sustainability measures.

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Image: Caroline Bennett/Rainforest Alliance

Financial investments

Finally, major investment involving the entire supply chain is required to scale up CSA. As agriculture is an economic mainstay for many countries, public investment in CSA should be prioritized in order to further incentivise producers to adopt CSA practices.

Government ministries of agriculture, the environment and other land use sectors should engage with private sector financiers on CSA. This could include improving access to sustainability-linked loans with lower interest rates and more favourable lending periods than conventional commercial loans. Increasing finance to CSA also requires that the private sector be invested in responsible business.

While great strides are needed, plans to scale up CSA are in the works around the globe. Take, for instance, the World Bank’s CSA investment plans, developed with a range of partners including the International Center for Tropical Agriculture and the African Agriculture Initiative. These specific investment plans contain concrete CSA investment opportunities along with policy design and implementation plans that nations may adopt. They also help the private sector and other stakeholders make informed investment decisions around identified CSA technologies.


What is the World Economic Forum doing to help ensure global food security?

Based on the success stories of local African and Asian farmers already embracing climate-smart practices, we have seen that adopting CSA at scale is critical for healthier, more resilient agricultural landscapes and livelihoods that are at the core of sustainable food systems. Scaling up will require massive stakeholder engagement, cooperation and investment on every level in order to succeed in feeding an increasingly hungry planet.

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