A recent e-discussion on the EvalForward platform gave me the opportunity to introduce the Climate-Smart Agriculture (CSA) Farm Sustainability Assessment Framework—a monitoring and evaluation tool we are developing at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), with funding from FAO’s Flexible Multi-partner Mechanism.
It was also a chance to learn from the community about successful strategies for engaging farmers in monitoring and evaluation exercises and making the process meaningful and useful to them (you can find a full summary of the e-discussion here).
In this post, I would like to tell the community a bit more about the background and rationale of the CSA Framework and give an overview of current developments and next steps.
The CSA approach and its relevance to agricultural sustainability
CSA is an integrated approach to supporting sustainable agricultural development and food security in the context of climate change. It has three main objectives:
- to sustainably increase agricultural productivity and the incomes of food producers
- to strengthen the capacity of agricultural communities to build resilience and adapt to the impacts of climate change
- to reduce and/or remove greenhouse gas emissions where possible.
CSA does not prescribe a certain set of “climate-smart” agricultural practices. Rather, it aims to identify suitable combinations of practices for a given context and create an enabling environment to facilitate their adoption. It builds on the principles of sustainable food and agriculture, sustainable intensification, agroecology and efficient resource use and promotes the use of integrated and holistic approaches. These include, for instance, the landscape approach, community- and ecosystem-based adaptation, sustainable soil and land management, integrated watershed management, the water–energy–food nexus approach and the sustainable food value-chain approach, while evaluating the enabling environment provided by factors such as governance, policy, consumer preferences, education and research. The Climate-Smart Agriculture Sourcebook provides guidance on these themes and many others, including gender-sensitive approaches, social protection and decent rural employment, as well as the sustainable management of land, water, genetic resources and biodiversity. It is clear that the CSA concept is strongly aligned with the principles of (agricultural) sustainability from an economic, environmental and social perspective.
Assessing farm-level agricultural sustainability
Monitoring and evaluation are essential to assessing the success of CSA interventions and our progress on the three CSA objectives and sustainability more broadly. Many frameworks have been proposed for CSA monitoring and evaluation at national, project, community and household level. However, these frameworks tend to be complex and leave the choice of indicators and metrics entirely to the user, meaning project results are not comparable. Moreover, existing frameworks focus largely on indicators of productivity, which are easier to quantify than adaptation and mitigation and are often lacking when it comes to the social aspects of sustainability. An indicator framework, therefore, that is standardized (while also allowing some flexibility for adaptation to the local context of various interventions) can be a central building block in the harmonization of monitoring and evaluation frameworks for CSA.
The CSA Farm Sustainability Assessment Framework we are developing at FAO puts forward a standardized set of core indicators to monitor progress on the three CSA objectives, as well as overall sustainability at farm level. The 56 indicators were developed by expanding on SDG 2.4.1 (the proportion of agricultural area under productive and sustainable agriculture) to capture the multidimensional nature of sustainability, particularly, its economic, environmental and social elements. They are determined using a simple farm survey that does not require specific measurements or devices other than a tablet and a freely accessible digital survey app (or paper survey). The indicators and survey questions target one main respondent (for example, the head of household or another household member, depending on project context and needs), who answers questions related to the household and farm holding as a whole. The survey is easy to conduct and, thus, serves as a standard building block for any CSA monitoring and evaluation framework. A major advantage of such a standardized approach is the comparability of results between projects, communities and countries, as well as over time.
In this context, the farm-level sustainability assessment of CSA interventions has two important functions. First, it allows us to monitor and assess the effects – positive or negative – of CSA interventions on the farm holding and the farmer’s livelihood, taking all aspects of sustainability into account. Second, starting from the baseline data-collection stage, it can support the identification of potential risks and barriers to the adoption of certain practices that could impair the success of targeted CSA strategies. These may include, for instance, inadequate access to land, water and other productive resources, an advanced degree of land degradation or unsafe working environments. The assessment can identify gaps and highlight target areas to improve the overall sustainability of the farm system, such as encouraging farmers to implement soil improvement and water conservation practices, putting in place safe practices for handling agrochemicals or mitigating the risks associated with farm-based activities.
The CSA Framework: latest developments and next steps
The EvalForward e-discussion took place in parallel to the peer review of the CSA Framework and the accompanying guidance manual our team is putting together. Based on input received throughout the process, we have thoroughly revised and updated the framework itself, the farm survey and guidance manual. Meanwhile, in collaboration with local partners, we have tested the CSA Framework in Bangladesh and North Macedonia to fine-tune some of the practical aspects of implementation and to further refine the guidance manual to incorporate feedback from country teams, enumerators and local producers.
We will soon launch the CSA Framework and accompanying materials officially and share them with EvalForward members. We are always looking for opportunities to connect and collaborate with organizations and individuals working on CSA and sustainable agriculture, so if you know of any such opportunities, need more information on the CSA Framework and/or would like to implement it in one of your projects, please get in touch. You can reach us at: David.Colozza@fao.org and Reuben.Sessa@fao.org.