Countries around the world are facing urgent agricultural challenges. The combination of a finite land base with growing populations and global consumption of food, fiber, and fuel is increasing competition among land uses. At the same time, unsustainable management practices and climate change, exacerbated by weak systems for information and governance, threaten land productivity [1]. In 2012, seven major strategies for addressing the interconnected challenges of food insecurity, unsustainable agriculture, and climate change were proposed by the international scientific Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change [2]. One of these strategies focused on integrating food security and sustainable agriculture into global and national policies.

The concept of ‘climate-smart’ agriculture is gaining greater visibility in international policy circles. Members of the recently launched Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture—including governments, multilateral agencies, farmers and other agricultural supply chain actors, researchers, and civil society—aspire to three transformational outcomes: (i) sustainable and equitable increases in agricultural productivity and incomes; (ii) greater resilience of food systems and farming livelihoods; and (iii) reduction and/or removal of greenhouse gas emissions associated with agriculture (including the relationship between agriculture and ecosystems), wherever possiblea. One of the leading strategies of this alliance is to promote the integration of climate-smart agriculture (CSA) into national policies. But what does it mean for CSA to become embedded in a country’s policy framework? A wide variety of policy contexts means the approach will never be identical in any two countries, but there is great value in cross-country learning from case studies. This is the rationale for the report ‘Integrated National Policy Approaches to Climate-Smart Agriculture: Insights from Brazil, Ethiopia, and New Zealand’ recently published by the CGIAR program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security [3]. The three countries were selected for their early action on CSA, in contrasting biophysical and socio-political environments (see Table 1). All three countries pursue agricultural development that centers on enhancing crop and livestock productivity rather than cropland, rangeland, or pasture expansion.

Table 1 Biophysical and socio-political conditions of the three case study countries

Three country case studies

In recent decades, Brazil has become a major player in international commodity markets and policy processes as well as a significant source of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, primarily from agriculture and deforestation [4]-[7]. A series of national policies have demonstrated a stewardship commitment for globally significant carbon and biodiversity reserves [7]-[10]. Catalyzed by a national pledge to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and numerous domestic legal and financial mechanisms, Brazil is pursuing a diverse set of climate change mitigation opportunities that emphasize sustainable agricultural intensification [7],[11],[12]. Brazil has built an impressive knowledge base on tropical agriculture and combined this with technology (e.g., monitoring and enforcement innovations) and policy (e.g., sectoral plans, financing, lending restrictions) to promote more sustainable, higher-yielding production practices [7]. Under Brazil’s Low Carbon Agriculture (ABC) program, crop and livestock producers access low-interest loans to implement activities that align with national voluntary mitigation targets including low-till practices, nitrogen-fixation, and pasture rehabilitation [12]. Brazil’s concurrent increase in total agricultural output and historically low rates of deforestation [13],[14] were aided by presidential leadership, an integrated forest conservation strategy that engaged 14 ministries and multiple stakeholders, support by global donors, and a mix of policy measures that included both restrictions (including new laws and enforcement of existing laws) and incentives [7].

With high economic growth rates and the potential to be a major regional hydropower supplier, Ethiopia is already experiencing climate changes that threaten food security for millions of people. While Ethiopian agricultural production has consistently increased over the past decade, there is an urgent need to tackle low agricultural productivity, land degradation, and poverty while also reducing GHG emissions from a large livestock sector [15]-[18]. With the Climate-Resilient Green Economy (CRGE) Strategy, Ethiopia is marshaling national and international funds toward an integrated approach to low-carbon development anchored in sustainable agricultural intensification [19],[20]. Processes for operationalizing the CRGE Strategy strongly emphasize a multi-scale ‘whole of government’ policy design [21]. As a global leader in testing and scaling up community-based development programs that link food security safety nets, land restoration, and enhancement of productive assets, Ethiopia has attracted support from global donors by developing tangible targets, staged implementation plans, and mechanisms to scale up [22]-[25]. Empowerment of women has resulted from a combination of policy shifts in land ownership and use rights, government-sponsored micro-lending, and nutrition and health education programs [26]-[28].

In New Zealand, an agriculture-dependent developed nation already experiencing significant economic impacts from climate change, the national policy mix demonstrates a commitment to minimizing agricultural subsidies [29] and maladaptive signals to agricultural producers. Under the Adverse Event Policy, producers are expected to adopt available risk management strategies, with support from government research and private sector advisory services, and are eligible for recovery assistance only if they undergo extreme and unpredictable circumstances. In the context of a national emissions trading scheme, New Zealand’s agriculture sector is gaining experience with factor-based estimation of GHG emissions and receiving a stronger economic signal to afforest marginal agricultural land. Through a public-private initiative, carbon footprint assessments have been completed for over 80% of New Zealand agricultural exports, clarifying important sectoral emissions sources. Public-private research investments in sustainable agricultural intensification have achieved major improvements in emissions intensity, while supporting economic growth. New Zealand has used an iterative multi-stakeholder policy process to make fundamental policy shifts that have resulted in an agriculture system that is much better equipped to operate efficiently and to respond to climate change [30],[31].

Lessons for national CSA policy

Policy interventions in Brazil, Ethiopia, and New Zealand illustrate the major technical and institutional investments that governments will need to make in pursuit of CSA. National policy implementation of CSA is generally seen to include the following elements [32]-[34]:

Context-specific assessments

National policy makers can marshal domestic resources and international partnerships toward holistic assessments that enable stakeholders to gauge the potential for CSA pathways. Assessments should ideally cover both impacts of climate change on agriculture and capabilities and vulnerabilities within the sector. Robust estimates of costs and benefits (and beneficiaries) under current and climate-smart agriculture regimes can be complemented by assessment of barriers to scaling up CSA approaches (e.g., weak information or legal systems) and policy levers that can empower key social groups to take action (e.g., micro-lending to women; land tenure shifts).

For example, in Brazil, robust, multi-institutional engagement in preparation of National Communications to the UNFCCC and analysis published in international reports [35] pioneered methods for reporting and projecting land-based emissions, documented the significant contribution of land use to national GHG emissions, and catalyzed the eventual engagement of the agricultural sector in mitigation. In Ethiopia, the Rural Household Survey revealed the important contribution of both the 2003 community-level land registration policy and the 2000 reform of the Family Code to improved access for women to land and livestock [28]. In New Zealand, policy action on climate change was catalyzed by several modeling studies including a 2008 report that predicted greater drought frequency in pastoral systems [36] and a 2012 evaluation of adaptation options for all major production groups [37].

Strong multi-stakeholder institutions

Entrenched political positions among different stakeholder groups inhibit policy innovation necessary to accelerate CSA approaches. Stable platforms are needed through which political leaders, domestic constituencies, and international partners can explore shared risks and negotiate policy priorities. Transparent and credible information-sharing is a key function of multi-stakeholder institutional arrangements. As multi-stakeholder processes converge on policy objectives, governments can respond by developing natural resource governance mechanisms to incentivize action by farmers and other private sector actors.

For example, in 2000, the Brazilian Climate Change Forum, led by the President, was established to facilitate public, private, scientific, and civil society stakeholder engagement in climate change issues [12]. In 2009, the Ethiopian Strategic Investment Framework for Sustainable Land Management was launched to promote adoption of traditional and modern sustainable land management practices through multi-sectoral partnerships and harmonized investments [16],[17]. In New Zealand, improvements in farm efficiency, including GHG emissions intensities, have been credited to removal of farm subsidies and R&D investments. The lamb meat sub-sector, for instance, now produces slightly higher output from a 43% smaller flock [31].

Coordination frameworks

Achieving tangible targets for adaptation, mitigation, and food security requires participation by government, producers, agribusinesses, and international partners. By establishing strategic frameworks, national governments can more effectively promote CSA by coordinating the contributions of private and civil sector actors including market incentives (e.g., market access), financial mechanisms (e.g., sustainability criteria for lending), technical assistance (e.g., producer support programs), and public campaigns. Coordinating agriculture, forestry, and land use policies—commonly under the mandate of different ministries—is important to avoid perverse outcomes. Multi-scale ‘whole of government’ models, with substantial powers at the local level, may be useful for designing and implementing new CSA-supportive policies while reducing maladaptive signals from existing land sector policies.

For example, in 2004, Brazil implemented the interministerial Action Plan for Prevention and Control of Legal Amazon Deforestation, which included 200 initiatives for planning, sustainable use, and monitoring of forested areas, supported by remote sensing and law enforcement for illegal logging [7],[9],[10]. In Ethiopia, the government built broad-based capacity for the CRGE Strategy through an inclusive design process, a high-level forum for reporting progress and addressing challenges, and diverse partnerships for technical implementation [19]. In New Zealand, under the Plan of Action for Sustainable Land Management and Climate Change, a variety of climate change initiatives for forestry, agriculture, horticulture, and arable farming sectors were undertaken in partnership with land managers, Māori communities, and local government [30],[31],[38].

Multi-scale information systems

Climate-smart agriculture entails high knowledge requirements for assessing risks, vulnerabilities, and context-specific strategies for increasing agricultural productivity and reducing GHG emissions. To harvest the benefits of CSA, countries need inclusive knowledge systems including R&D, advisory services (which should draw on knowledge generated in farmers’ fields as well as in research centers), information technologies, and monitoring and evaluation. The ability to document and report on outcomes of improved methods and technologies is essential for producers to benefit from incentive programs (e.g., offset markets, subsidized credit), for ‘late adopters’ to be informed about potential benefits of CSA approaches and for voluntary and regulatory program managers to evaluate impact. Including farmers in information systems is critical. A partnership approach among government, land managers, and researchers can generate and share practical information for the agriculture sector including spatially explicit recommendations for combining tested methods and technologies for CSA. Financial and opportunity costs associated with testing and establishing CSA-supportive policies are likely to be more immediately apparent than CSA benefits, which may be distributed over time and space and accrue to new beneficiaries. Therefore, information systems are needed to estimate the full range of benefits and costs so that informed policy debates are possible.

Multi-scale information systems require significant investments and it is noteworthy that the governments of Brazil, New Zealand, and Ethiopia have all chosen to make these investments. For example, in Brazil, public sector agricultural R&D contributed to significant improvements in productivity and livelihoods as well as to reduced agricultural expansion rates [6]. In Ethiopia, to improve agricultural extension and smallholder productivity, the Ethiopian Soil Information System (EthioSIS) was initiated in 2011 and a National Soils Database and soil fertility map is being developed to determine soil nutrient deficiencies and develop tailored fertilization regimes [39]. Such information systems are designed to reach the local level, with a target of 70% of experts at district (woreda) level reporting use [17]. Sustained investment in extension services in recent years has been critical in raising mean cereal yields to 2.3 tons per hectare and enhancing women’s knowledge on nutrition and health [19],[40]. In New Zealand, sustainable dairy advisors work with farmers to assess risks and management options [31]. Building on domestic research investments from the private and public sectors, in 2009, New Zealand initiated the Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases (GRA), which now coordinates research on agricultural productivity and GHG emission reduction among more than 40 member countries [30],[41].

While the three case study countries illustrate progress toward an integrated, CSA-supportive national policy, they are also instructive regarding potentially circuitous pathways. In Brazil, the Forest Code has undergone significant changes since its origins in 1965, notably the innovative 2001 requirement that 80% of original forest cover be retained on parcels in the Amazon region and the subsequent 2012 revision that pragmatically provided amnesty to noncompliant landowners (while also compelling participation in a rural environmental registry) [12],[42]. In Ethiopia, of 3.6 M ha of rural land targeted for agricultural development, only 470,000 ha have been leased, mostly to foreign investors for industrial crop production due to high capital requirements, and about 200,000 ha of leased land have been retaken by the government due to poor performance and noncompliance to the agreed modalities [43]. In New Zealand, the intention to include the farm sector within the obligatory emissions trading scheme is waiting on improvements in the cost-effectiveness of available agricultural emissions reduction technologies [31].


In the absence of clear international policy signals and strong global agreements, countries are making unilateral efforts to achieve the CSA ‘triple win’ of climate change adaptation, mitigation, and food security based on a pragmatic understanding of their unique economic, environmental, and institutional context. Brazil has invested in research to support sustainable agricultural intensification while creating legal, monitoring, and enforcement mechanisms to protect forest areas as a response to unrestrained agricultural expansion. Ethiopia partnered with international institutions to implement innovative food security and participatory watershed development programs to help smallholder farmers working on marginal land with limited technological resources to break out of a poverty cycle. New Zealand has removed agricultural subsidies while partnering on R&D with the private sector to embed emission efficiency and climate change adaptation in an agricultural sector threatened by climate change.

Together, these three country case studies demonstrate that to assemble an integrated set of national policies that fosters CSA, governments will need (a) context-specific assessments, (b) strong institutions, (c) coordination frameworks, and (d) multi-scale information systems. Many existing national policy goals and public programs designed to increase agricultural production, improve livelihoods, and reduce environmental risks can become important pillars of a national CSA strategy.


aJoint Statement for Agriculture, Food Security and Nutrition at the Climate Summit 23 September 2014 (