Transformative adaptation: from climate‑smart to climate‑resilient agriculture

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For approaches to be transformative, what is required is a broader and more comprehensive understanding and appreciation of farmers’ realities and the changes needed to foster large-scale transformation in their livelihood trajectories while avoiding or mitigating the dangers of maladaptation. This means that the climate response has to involve those from numerous disciplines across the natural and social sciences. Furthermore, it has to ensure that it is embedded in transformative adaptation with more focus on tackling the root cause of vulnerability and giving more emphasis to human development.

The agricultural sector is at the forefront of the climate crisis in terms of being a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions while also being adversely impacted by rising temperatures, droughts, and floods. Much agricultural research seeks to mitigate the impacts of climate-related risk and to enhance resilience in the face of climate variability and extremes.

One area of focus has been the development and scaling of climate-smart agriculture (CSA) that reduces greenhouse gas emissions, enhances adaptation, and contributes to food security, the triple win. CSA encompasses a broad array of agricultural technologies and practices, including stress-adapted crop germplasm e.g., drought-tolerant maize varieties; conservation agriculture; agroforestry; and soil and water conservation.

Once the seemingly correct technologies and management practices are identified, then the challenge comes to scale them up through widespread dissemination among target populations, a challenge that has been readily taken up by international organizations such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and numerous NGOs.

Parallel to this emphasis on adaptation through climate-smart agriculture, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group 2 report, Climate Change 2022: impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, highlights the danger that climate responses can inadvertently lead to detrimental impacts upon vulnerable groups. Recent scientific studies refer to this outcome as “maladaptation”.

Climate adaptation projects can reinforce existing vulnerabilities either by promoting adaptation interventions that benefit powerful elites or by transferring risks and exposures between groups rather than alleviating them. In other cases, actions undertaken in the name of adaptation create new risks and sources of vulnerability, often by neglecting the unintended outcomes of project activities.

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