Even those of you with just a passing interest in climate change issues might well have stumbled across the term ‘climate-smart agriculture’.

Companies like McDonald’s, which uses 2 per cent of the world’s beef and Walmart, the world’s biggest company, regularly refer to it when describing how their products come to market. Heads of state – from US President Barack Obama to Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte – have also made reference to it when debating climate targets. Of course, it was a focal point of much discussion as the world came to an agreement on tackling global warming at the COP21 meeting in Paris last Christmas.

But what exactly is climate-smart agriculture (CSA)?

Well, the impacts of our changing climate – extreme weather events, erratic storms, pest outbreaks, pesky droughts and disrupted growing seasons – continue to put the world’s farmers in an uncomfortable, vulnerable and destabilised position. Their ability to continue to produce the crops we so rely upon for many of our beloved foodstuffs is becoming increasingly compromised, particularly in developing countries where smallholder farmers and indigenous communities depend solely on farming to survive.

CSA is a defined way of practicing farming that mitigates the risks associated with climate change. 

It was created by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) during a conference held in the Hague in 2010 – and is a way of encouraging farmers, policymakers, governments and businesses at every stage of the food supply chain, to consider not only think about the environmental impacts of farming, but also the economic and social issues too.

So, to adopt CSA means to improve farm productivity by using compost to boost soil fertility or to implement water-saving techniques, for example. It also means that farms are not encroaching on forests or using more fertiliser than they should, thus not contributing to global warming unnecessarily.

The trouble is, some companies have jumped on the CSA bandwagon, claiming their goods originate from farms practising CSA, when in fact there is no evidence to suggest that’s the case at all. 

It might also mean that farmers are diversifying their crops. They might plant banana trees within their coffee plantations to protect themselves against price shocks and create viable alternative income streams in difficult times. All of this is sound best practice, being adopted by farms throughout the tropics and beyond, with proven success in protecting farmer livelihoods – and the foods we love – for the long-term.

The problem with CSA is that it is merely a concept; a set of ideas that can be used by farmers everywhere. The trouble is, some companies have jumped on the CSA bandwagon, claiming their goods originate from farms practising CSA, when in fact there is no evidence to suggest that’s the case at all. In September 2014, a letter signed by 100 organisations loudly rejected the fact that companies making use of industrial agriculture approaches that actually increase greenhouse gas emissions are more than welcome to use climate-smart labelling.

That’s where certification bodies are able to help. The Rainforest Alliance (RA) – which has certified 14.5 per cent of the world’s cocoa and 20 per cent of global exports of bananas – as being produced in the most environmentally and socially responsible way – promotes the use of CSA principles. To grab an RA certificate, farms must meet the standards set out by the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN), which includes criteria that inherently promotes CSA.

Last week’s New York meeting which saw hundreds of countries sign up to the landmark COP21 climate change deal is a step in the right direction. But it’s important to remember that those signatures penned by wealthy and powerful policymakers will have such a huge impact on those at the end of the social and economic scale working in fields everywhere and already grappling with changes to the growing season – the proliferation of which is something scientists agree is connected to climate change. CSA principles are a helpful addition to the ongoing movement to build resilience, sustainability and security for food in the long term.

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