The role of Climate-Smart Agriculture in climate adaptation and mitigation in the Northeast

Renfroe Farms utilizes conservation practices

As farmers confront the challenges of climate change, you may be hearing the term “Climate-Smart Agriculture” brought up more often. Climate-Smart Agriculture has often been endorsed by USDA’s Climate Hubs since their launch in 2014. In 2016, USDA featured Climate-Smart Agriculture in its report called Building Blocks for Climate Smart Agriculture and Forestry. Most recently, President Biden’s Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad cited the important role of Climate-Smart Agriculture in tackling climate change. With all these mentions of Climate-Smart Agriculture, it’s still not always clear what people mean by this turn of phrase. To the casual reader, Climate-Smart Agriculture is a catchy term that seems to imply farming smarter in a changing climate. Even so, Climate-Smart Agriculture is rarely well defined. Likewise, Climate-Smart Agriculture often suggests different things to different people.

So, where did the term “Climate-Smart Agriculture” actually come from?

Climate-Smart Agriculture was first defined in a 2010 report by The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. The report showed that farming was adversely impacted by climate change. At the same time, the report also showed that greenhouse gas emissions from farming made climate change worse. Climate-Smart Agriculture was seen as a way for farmers to address these twin problems while maintaining yields.

Today, Climate-Smart Agriculture is guided by three main goals:

  1. Increased productivity (sustainably intensifying agriculture)
  2. Enhanced resilience (adapting to climate change)
  3. Reduced emissions (mitigating greenhouse gas emissions)

It is worth noting that Climate-Smart Agriculture does not define any new farming practices. In fact, Climate-Smart Agriculture includes many practices that farmers already use:

  • Conservation tillage
  • Cover cropping
  • Nutrient management
  • Agroforestry
  • other practices to reduce GHG emissions

Steering these practices toward production, adaptation, and mitigation goals is what makes them “Climate-Smart”.

Here in the Northeast, the concept of Climate-Smart Agriculture is already taking root.

Through its ‘As If You Were There’ program, USDA’s Northeast Climate Hub helps farmers take virtual tours of farms that are already applying the principles of Climate-Smart Agriculture. Farmers can also obtain hands-on knowledge through the Climate Adaptation Fellowship program, which enables farmers to learn from other farmers about building climate resilience on their farms. Finally, Cornell University’s Climate Smart Farming platform provides farmers with resources and tools to assist with the adoption of climate-smart farming practices. Similar efforts are growing out of partnerships among USDA, state, local, and Tribal governments, and the private sector. With a greater focus on Climate-Smart Agriculture, it is hoped that farmers in the Northeast can better manage their lands in an era of climate change.

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by Dr. Anthony Buda, Co-Director, USDA Northeast Climate Hub