Learn About Climate-Smart Agriculture

Why is climate-smart agriculture so important?

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that feeding the world population will require a 60% increase in total agricultural production. With many of the resources needed for sustainable food security already stretched, the food security challenges are huge. Climate risks to cropping, livestock and forestry are expected to increase in coming decades, particularly in low-income countries where adaptive capacity is weaker. Impacts on agriculture threaten both food security and agriculture’s pivotal role in rural livelihoods and broad-based development. Additionally, if emissions from land use change are also included, the agricultural sector generates about one-quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. Thus, agriculture is both a cause of climate change and is impacted by climate change.

The Fourth National Climate Assessment, which assesses the science of climate change and variability and its impacts across the United States, provides these key messages on the impacts that climate change is having and will continue to have on Agriculture and Rural Communities throughout United States:

Reduced Agricultural Productivity

Food and forage production will decline in regions experiencing increased frequency and duration of drought. Shifting precipitation patterns, when associated with high temperatures, will intensify wildfires that reduce forage on rangelands, accelerate the depletion of water supplies for irrigation, and expand the distribution and incidence of pests and diseases for crops and livestock. Modern breeding approaches and the use of novel genes from crop wild relatives are being employed to develop higher-yielding, stress-tolerant crops.

Degradation of Soil and Water Resources

The degradation of critical soil and water resources will expand as extreme precipitation events increase across our agricultural landscape. Sustainable crop production is threatened by excessive runoff, leaching, and flooding, which results in soil erosion, degraded water quality in lakes and streams, and damage to rural community infrastructure. Management practices to restore soil structure and the hydrologic function of landscapes are essential for improving resilience to these challenges.

Health Challenges to Rural Populations and Livestock

Challenges to human and livestock health are growing due to the increased frequency and intensity of high temperature extremes. Extreme heat conditions contribute to heat exhaustion, heatstroke, and heart attacks in humans. Heat stress in livestock results in large economic losses for producers. Expanded health services in rural areas, heat-tolerant livestock, and improved design of confined animal housing are all important advances to minimize these challenges.

Vulnerability and Adaptive Capacity of Rural Communities

Residents in rural communities often have limited capacity to respond to climate change impacts, due to poverty and limitations in community resources. Communication, transportation, water, and sanitary infrastructure are vulnerable to disruption from climate stressors. Achieving social resilience to these challenges would require increases in local capacity to make adaptive improvements in shared community resources.

In terms of Colorado, the Fourth National Climate Assessment provides these key messages on the impacts that climate change is having and will continue to have on the Southwestern United States:


Food production in the Southwest is vulnerable to water shortages. Increased drought, heat waves, and reduction of winter chill hours can harm crops and livestock; exacerbate competition for water among agriculture, energy generation, and municipal uses; and increase future food insecurity.

Water Resources

Water for people and nature in the Southwest has declined during droughts, due in part to human-caused climate change. Intensifying droughts and occasional large floods, combined with critical water demands from a growing population, deteriorating infrastructure, and groundwater depletion, suggest the need for flexible water management techniques that address changing risks over time, balancing declining supplies with greater demands.

In 2018, much of the Western U.S., especially the Southwestern U.S., saw extremes never before recorded: the lowest precipitation on record in the Four Corners region of the U.S. and the warmest temperatures on record in many parts of the Southwestern U.S. (WestWide Drought Tracker, 2019). 

As the hottest and driest area of the U.S., climate change poses significant challenges to the southwestern U.S., and ultimately, its vital agricultural sector. It is highly likely that climate change has increased the severity of recent drought conditions in the Western U.S., especially the Southwestern U.S., due to the influence of warming temperatures on snowpack, streamflow and soil moisture (Lukas et al., 2014). Due to Colorado’s semi-arid climate, a significant quantity of water is necessary to sustain agricultural activities: of the total amount of water withdrawn or diverted statewide, approximately 86% goes to agricultural uses (WEC, n.d.b, 2016). In terms of consumptive use, agricultural water use accounts for 89% of the statewide total, or approximately 4.7 million acre-feet (AF) (WEC, 2016; State of Colorado, 2015). While this is a significant amount of water consumptively used, the CWCB (2011) reports that crops grown within the state (as of 2010) could stand to use an additional two million AF in order to be fully irrigated.

Statewide Water Withdrawals

  • Agriculture, 86.7%
  • Municipal & Industrial, 6.7%
  • Non-Consumptive, 5.5%
  • Self-Supplied Industrial, 1.1%

Chart recreated from Colorado Water Plan (2015).

Colorado Consumptive Water Use

  • Agricultural Water Use, 4,700,000 AF
  • Municipal & Industrial Water Use, 400,000 AF
  • Self-Supplied Industrial Water Use, 200,000 AF

Recreated from Colorado Water Plan (2015). Note that figures represent consumptive use (water permanently removed from immediate water environment) by each sector, and therefore are lower than total water withdrawn or diverted.

In 2016, the U.S. produced nearly $400 billion in agricultural commodities, with the value of crop production contributing approximately $189 billion, and livestock (and their products) contributing roughly $165 billion (USDA ERS, 2018). Undoubtedly, agriculture plays a crucial role in the nation’s economy. The arid southwest region of the U.S. (Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, Idaho and New Mexico) contributes significantly to the nation’s agricultural economy, as the region produces more than half of the nation’s high-value specialty crops (Gowda et al., 2014; Gonzalez et al., 2014). Colorado, in particular, produced over $7.2 in agricultural commodities in 2016, with livestock products accounting for over 60% (USDA ERS, 2018). An analysis of agriculture’s overall contribution to Colorado’s economy (e.g. including subsectors of the economy, such as production, processing and input supply) found that total industry sales were $24 billion of direct output (sales) and $41 billion in total output (Davies et al., 2012). The analysis utilized 2007 Ag Census data, and since the state’s agricultural sector has continued to grow since then, it can be inferred that these estimates have also increased.

What are the main objectives of CSA?


Extreme heat, drought, disease and heavy downpours. These are just some of the climate-related disruptions already facing agriculture in the U.S. and globally, and of which are projected to only increase into the future. Although some regions of the U.S. and some forms of agricultural production may prove to be more resilient than others in the face of these disruptions, “from mid-century on, climate change is projected to have more [increasingly] negative impacts on crops and livestock across the country” (Hatfield et al., 2014: 151). Adapting to the changing climate and building resiliency to the more frequent climate-related disruptions is imperative for the survival of producer’s livelihoods, the state of the environment, and the ability to feed an ever growing population.

Climate change is projected to cause increased warming and periods of drought, as well changes to rain and snowpack in the southwestern U.S. (Hatfield et al., 2014). And although Colorado agriculture has the potential to benefit from some of these projected climate changes, such as warmer conditions and a longer growing season, increasing demand and competition for the already scarce water supply may act as a major barrier to adapting to such changes (Travis, 2011). With regards to the high volume of specialty crops grown in Colorado, most are irrigation-dependent and vulnerable to extremes of moisture, cold and heat; therefore, these changes have the potential to cause significant damage to these crops and the overall agricultural sector in the region (Hatfield et al., 2014; Garfin et al., 2014). Deviations from optimal core body temperatures for livestock can disrupt performance, production and fertility, which for Colorado in particular, has the potential to be extremely detrimental to the overall agricultural economy (Childress, Kelly & Travis, 2015; Hatfield et al., 2014). The table below outlines the projected climate impacts and key vulnerability to Colorado’s agricultural sector:

 Climate ImpactKey Vulnerabilities
Field CropsRising temperaturesCrop yields vulnerable to reductions due to heat stress
Increasing frequency and severity of droughtMore frequent losses of crops, forage, and soil
Earlier onset of spring; longer growing seasonsCrops vulnerable to increased weeds
and pests due to longer growing season
Potentially reduced
Production losses due to irrigation shortages
Increased CO2 levels Crops potentially affected by weeds
encouraged by CO2 fertilization
Extreme weather eventsContinued losses of crops, facilities
(structures, ditches, equipment)
Fruits and VegatablesEarlier spring thawsFruit crops vulnerable to frost damage worsened by early budburst
Increasing frequency and severity of droughtIncreased potential for water shortages
occurring simultaneously with higher crop water demand
Reduction in streamflow, especially in late summerReduced production due to limited irrigation supply, increased water prices
LivestockMore favorable conditions
for pathogens
Cattle vulnerable to lower weight gain
and other health problems due to
higher temperatures
Increasing temperaturesLoss of weight and animal health in
higher temperature; increased costs of
Green Industry*Extreme weather eventsDamage to facilities and products
Potential reduction in
Loss of production due to water use
Source: Childress, Kelly & Travis (2015: 84).
* The green industry is defined as including plants raised for residential, recreational, and commercial landscaping, gardening, or for indoor ornamental use.

Adaptation & Mitigation

In order for agriculture to build resiliency to the changing climate, the sector must learn to adapt to the changing conditions, as well as mitigate their current contributions to rising greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This table presents examples of climate change adaptation strategies to key biophysical and social drivers of adaptation (Iglesias, et al. 2007, Smit and Skinner, 2002). The adaptation strategies are grouped according to the actors involved and the form the adaptation takes. The first three categories mainly involve enterprise-scale decision-making by producers. The last two are typically the responsibility of public agencies and agribusiness. Adaptations included in these categories could be thought of as system-wide.

Agricultural processes produce significant amounts of greenhouse gasses, and as a result, agriculture is a large contributor to climate change. Globally, agriculture is estimated to be responsible for nearly a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. In 

Actions to Mitigate Greenhouse Gases

The following has been recreated from the USDA’s (2015) “Building Blocks to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions.” The building blocks are a comprehensive, detailed and voluntary approach to support farmers, ranchers and forest owners who want to respond to climate change. The framework contains 10 building blocks that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase carbon storage, or provide alternative energy.

Nitrogen Stewardship

Focus on the right timing, type, placement and quantity of nutrients to reduce nitrous oxide emissions and provide cost savings through efficient application.

Conservation of Sensitive Lands

Use of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) to reduce GHG emissions through riparian buffers, tree planting, and the conservation of wetlands and organic soils. By 2025, USDA aims to enroll 400,000 acres through easements, and gain additional benefits by transferring expiring by transferring expiring CRP acres to permanent easements.

Stewardship of Federal Forests

Reforest areas damaged by wildfire, insects, or disease, and restore forests to increase their resilience to those disturbances. USDA plans to reforest 5,000 additional post disturbance acres by 2025.

Livestock Partnerships

Encourage broader deployment of anaerobic digesters, lagoon covers, composting and solids separators to reduce methane emissions from cattle, dairy, and swine operations. USDA plans to support 500 new digesters over the next 10 years, as well as expand the use of covers on 10% of anaerobic lagoons used in dairy cattle and hog operations.

Soil Health

Improve soil resilience and increase productivity by promoting conservation tillage and no-till systems, planting cover crops, planting perennial forages, managing organic inputs and compost application, and alleviating compaction. USDA aims to increase no-till implementation from the current 67 million acres to over 100 million acres by 2025.

Energy Generation & Efficiency

Promote renewable energy technologies and improve energy efficiency. Through the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Loan Program, work with utilities to improve the efficiency of equipment and appliances. Using the Rural Energy for America Program and other programs, develop additional renewable energy, bioenergy and biofuel opportunities. Support the National On-Farm Energy Initiative to improve farm energy efficiency through cost-sharing and energy audits. 

Promotion of Wood Products

Increase the use of wood as a building material, to store additional carbon in buildings while offsetting the use of energy from fossil fuel. USDA plans to expand the number of wood building projects supported through cooperative agreements with partners and technical assistance, in addition to research and market promotion for new, innovative wood building products.

Grazing & Pasture Lands

Support rotational grazing and management, avoiding soil carbon loss through improved management of forage, soils and grazing livestock. By 2025, USDA plans to support improved grazing management on an additional 4 million acres, for a total of 20 million acres.

Private Forest Growth & Retention

Through the Forest Legacy Program and the Community Forest and Open Space Conservation Program, protect almost 1 million additional acres of working landscapes. Employ the Forest Stewardship Program to cover an average of 2.1 million acres annually (new or revised plans), in addition to the 26 million acres covered by active plans.

Urban Forests

Encourage tree planting in urban areas to reduce energy costs, stormwater runoff, and urban heat island effects while increasing carbon sequestration, curb appeal, and property values. Working with partners, USDA plans to plant an average of 9,000 additional trees in urban areas per year through 2025.

However, it is important to note that CSA is not a set of practices that can be universally applied, but rather it is an approach that involves different elements embedded in local contexts. CSA relates to actions both on-farm and beyond the farm, and incorporates technologies, policies, institutions and investment. The primary difference between CSA and conventional agriculture is an explicit consideration of climactic risks.

What are the main elements of CSA?

Different elements which can be integrated in climate-smart agricultural approaches include:

1. Management of farms, crops, livestock and forestry to manage resources better, produce more with less while increasing resilience

2. Ecosystem and landscape management to conserve ecosystem services that are key to increase at the same time resource efficiency and resilience

3. Services for farmers and land managers to enable them to implement the necessary changes

What actions are needed to implement CSA?

Governments and organizations seeking to facilitate the implementation of CSA can undertake a range of actions to provide the foundation for effective CSA across agricultural systems, landscapes and food systems. CSA approaches include four major types of actions:

1. Expanding the evidence base and assessment tools to identify agricultural growth strategies for food security that integrate necessary adaptation and potential mitigation

2. Building policy frameworks and consensus to support implementation at scale

3. Strengthening national and local institutions to enable farmer management of climate risks and adoption of context-suitable agricultural practices, technologies and systems

4. Enhancing financing options to support implementation, linking climate and agricultural finance

How is climate-smart agriculture different from sustainable agriculture?

It boils down to three essential differences:

1. Explicit focus on climate change
Although CSA is also based on the principles of increased productivity and sustainability, it is distinguished by its focus on climate change by addressing adaptation and mitigation challenges while working towards global food security. Essentially, CSA = Sustainable Agriculture + Resilience – Emissions.

2. Outcomes, synergies and trade-offs
In order to develop interventions that simultaneously meet the three main challenges (productivity, adaptation and mitigation), CSA must consider the synergies and trade-offs that exist between productivity, adaptation and mitigation, as well as the interactions that occur at different levels including wider socio-ecological implications. This is in addition to a focus on technologies and practices to address the interventions. 

3. New funding opportunities for agricultural development
With a focus on climate change, CSA opens up new funding opportunities for agricultural development, by allowing the sector to tap into climate finance for adaptation and mitigation. This is extremely important due to the fact that there is currently an enormous deficit in the investment necessary to meet food security.

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