The Triple Win Revisited: the Need of Integrating Social Equity in Climate-smart Agriculture

By Nasir Abbas Khan

As the world grapples with the escalating climate crisis, the concept of climate-smart agriculture (CSA) has emerged as a light of hope. Designed to enhance adaptation, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and contribute to food security, CSA promises a so-called “triple win.” However, as the popularity of CSA grows, it’s crucial to look beyond mere adoption rates and see its real impacts, particularly on human development. The complex dynamics of CSA reveal that while CSA has potential benefits, it can also inadvertently lead to ‘maladaptation,’ reinforcing existing vulnerabilities and inequalities within agricultural communities.

Understanding Maladaptation in CSA

Maladaptation in the context of CSA occurs when interventions intended to mitigate climate impacts end up exacerbating existing vulnerabilities. This often happens when CSA initiatives benefit powerful elites, leaving marginalized groups further behind, or when risks and exposures are transferred between different groups. For instance, a new irrigation technology might improve yields for wealthier farmers who can afford it, while poorer farmers without access to this technology see their relative position worsen.

This maladaptive outcome typically stems from adaptation programs that are too technical and driven by external objectives. Such programs frequently overlook the complex social and political drivers that shape vulnerability. When CSA initiatives do not consider the socio-economic contexts in which they are implemented, they risk failing to reduce rural poverty and improve equity.

The Emerging Perspective on CSA

A new perspective on CSA is increasingly gaining traction. This perspective emphasizes the importance of contextualizing CSA within the broader socio-economic dynamics of agri-food systems. It acknowledges that certain categories of farmers are particularly vulnerable to climate change due to these systemic factors. For CSA to truly contribute to reducing rural poverty and increasing equity, it must address these underlying structural contributors to vulnerability.

This realization has led to a growing focus on transformative approaches within CSA. These approaches go beyond superficial changes and aim for incorporating social, institutional, technological, and cultural factors. By addressing the structural factors that contribute to differential exposure to climate risks, transformative CSA seeks to create more equitable and resilient agricultural systems.

The Importance of Social Context and Power Relations

To achieve this transformative potential, it is essential to carefully consider the social contexts and power relations through which agriculture is both researched and practiced. Recognizing the heterogeneity among farmers is crucial. Not all farmers have the same capacity to adopt new technologies or practices, and not all will benefit equally from them. Therefore, CSA initiatives must be designed with an acute awareness of these differences to avoid exacerbating existing inequities.

Moreover, it is important to be aware of the risks of benefiting already better-off farmers at the expense of the most vulnerable. In some cases, focusing on farmers for whom agriculture is not a viable pathway out of poverty can lead to misplaced efforts and resources. Instead, CSA should aim to empower those who are most in need and who have the potential to benefit most from these interventions.

The Path Forward: Transdisciplinary Partnerships and Systems Approaches

The success of transformative CSA approaches depends on transdisciplinary partnerships and systems approaches. These partnerships should involve a diverse range of stakeholders, including farmers, researchers, policymakers, and civil society organizations. By working together, these stakeholders can ensure that adaptation and mitigation goals are aligned with broader objectives of equitable incomes, food security, and human development.

Adopting a systems approach is also critical. This means looking at the agricultural system as a whole, considering both agro-ecological and socio-ecological dimensions of resilience. By taking into account the complex interconnections within agricultural systems, CSA initiatives can be more effectively tailored to address the root causes of vulnerability and promote sustainable development.

Conclusion: Climate-Resilient vs. Climate-Smart Agriculture

The distinction between climate-resilient and climate-smart agriculture lies in the emphasis on social equity and human well-being. While CSA focuses on technical solutions for climate adaptation and mitigation, climate-resilient agriculture goes a step further by integrating social dimensions into its framework. This involves recognizing and addressing the diverse needs and vulnerabilities of different farmer groups, ensuring that CSA initiatives do not reinforce existing inequalities.

By prioritizing social equity and human development, climate-resilient agriculture can contribute to broader development goals, creating a more just and sustainable future for all. As we move forward in the fight against climate change, it is essential to embrace this holistic approach, ensuring that no one is left behind in the quest for a climate-smart world.

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