Food Security

, Volume 9, Issue 3, pp 537–560 | Cite as

How climate-smart is conservation agriculture (CA)? – its potential to deliver on adaptation, mitigation and productivity on smallholder farms in southern Africa

  • Christian ThierfelderEmail author
  • Pauline Chivenge
  • Walter Mupangwa
  • Todd S. Rosenstock
  • Christine Lamanna
  • Joseph X. Eyre


Climate resilient cropping systems are required to adapt to the increasing threats of climate change projected for Southern Africa and to better manage current climate variability. Conservation agriculture (CA) has been proposed among technologies that are climate-smart. For a cropping system to be labelled “climate-smart” it has to deliver three benefits: a) adapt to the effects of climate and be of increased resilience; b) mitigate climate effects by sequestering carbon (C) and reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHG); and c) sustainably increase productivity and income. Research on smallholder farms from Southern Africa was analysed to assess if CA can deliver on the three principles of climate-smart agriculture. Results from Southern Africa showed that CA systems have a positive effect on adaptation and productivity, but its mitigation potential lags far behind expectations. CA systems maintain higher infiltration rates and conserve soil moisture, which helps to overcome seasonal dry-spells. Increased productivity and profitability were recorded although a lag period of 2–5 cropping seasons is common until yield benefits become significant. Immediate economic benefits such as reduced labour requirements in some systems will make CA more attractive in the short term to farmers who cannot afford to wait for several seasons until yield benefits accrue. The available data summarizing the effects of CA on soil organic C (SOC) and reductions in greenhouse gases, are often contradictory and depend a great deal on the agro-ecological environment and the available biomass for surface residue retention. There is an urgent need for more research to better quantify the mitigation effects, as the current data are scanty. Possible co-interventions such as improved intercropping/relay cropping systems, agroforestry and other tree-based systems may improve delivery of mitigation benefits and need further exploration.


No-tillage Sustainable intensification Resilience Climate-smart agriculture Climate variability 



The authors acknowledge the logistical support of CIMMYT, ICRISAT, ICRAF and QUAAFI who have supported this study at various stages. Funding is gratefully acknowledged from the CGIAR Research Programs CCAFS and MAIZE. We thank the farmers, extension officers, field coordinators and researchers from the national programs of Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Special thanks go the Total LandCare for supporting CIMMYT’s research on CA systems in Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique for more than a decade.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflicts of interest

The authors declare no conflicts of interest whatsoever in publishing this research.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht and International Society for Plant Pathology 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Christian Thierfelder
    • 1
    Email author
  • Pauline Chivenge
    • 2
  • Walter Mupangwa
    • 1
  • Todd S. Rosenstock
    • 3
  • Christine Lamanna
    • 3
  • Joseph X. Eyre
    • 4
  1. 1.International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT)HarareZimbabwe
  2. 2.International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT)BulawayoZimbabwe
  3. 3.World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF)NairobiKenya
  4. 4.Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food InnovationUniversity of Queensland, CIMMYTHarareZimbabwe

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