By recognizing links between our choices in agricultural systems and outcomes related to food systems in human dimensions, the incorporation of food security as an imperative for CSA differentiates it from concepts such as sustainable intensification  and ecoefficiency . Balancing priorities at the intersections of food security, adaptation and mitigation, however, always occurs in the context of region-specific conditions and cultures. Why should resource-poor farmers invest in agricultural practices that may reduce emissions if there are few if any immediate benefits related to food or water security? (“It’s hard to be green when you are in the red.”) CSA, as currently conceived and implemented, fails entirely to recognize different actors, incentives and interactions between different (but related) provisioning demands for food, water, energy, materials and ecosystem services.
Furthermore, the concept of CSA fails to consider possible impacts of agriculture on other ecosystem services, biodiversity conservation and broader social, political and cultural dynamics. Reducing GHG emissions or improving resilience may not always result in the best natural resource management outcomes if consequences include biodiversity loss, degradation of cultural heritage, increased social inequity or long-term ecosystem instability .
Finally, CSA has been defined to focus exclusively in developing countries because national food security and development goals have been implicitly and incorrectly understood as issues of importance only in the developing world . This focus has engendered opposition from those who fear that some developed countries may insist on mitigation of agricultural GHG emissions as a condition of continued development aid. Food security, nutritional security and nutritional health are obviously not limited to the developing world; there is also a widespread prevalence of food insecurity in high-income countries, where there are different, but overlapping, policy, governance and technical challenges . With regard to the recent focus on smallholder farmers , the policy dialogue about CSA now systematically overlooks any impacts and opportunities connected to innovations and implications of large-scale agricultural practices for and in food systems in both developing and developed country contexts, further reducing the utility of the CSA framework.
In summary, the current framing of CSA gives no specific direction, no new science agenda, no ability to negotiate and prioritize contentious and conflicting agendas and no compelling reason to increase or shift investment, despite the monumental importance of these challenges in the coming decades. In fact, current agricultural practices are neither smart nor dumb. Our current agricultural and food systems are simply the manifestations of political, biophysical, socioeconomic and other influences that lead to sustainable or unsustainable outcomes, depending on the perspectives, scales, valuations of trade-offs and time frames considered. In the aggregate, however, our current systems fall well outside any defensible concept of long-term safe operating space considered in human and/or environmental terms [9, 10]. Without radical interventions and innovations to curb fundamentally extractive processes toward the renewal of the resources upon which agricultural productivity depends, we stand only to slip further away [11–14].
This recognition provides a strong mandate for agricultural systems that better meet human and environmental needs. Although major improvements in food security and livelihoods through agricultural development have been achieved, often this has occurred at the expense of nutritional health and environmental sustainability, thereby eroding the very foundations of our long-term capacity to care for ourselves. Under current default development pathways, food systems often arise in such a way that large populations remain food-insecure while other populations begin to suffer from the pathologies of over- or malnutrition. Although equity issues dictate clear differences in responsibilities between developed and developing countries, agricultural systems that will lead to the desired outcomes of improved food security and dietary health remain common goals for our global community.
Recent reportsa have set forth specific principles and recommendations to improve the sustainability of agriculture and food systems that explicitly address various threats, including that of climate change . None of these reports, however, moved beyond incremental improvements to specify in any detail a future state in which we commit ourselves to a food-secure world within planetary or local boundaries over the short or long term. Recently, the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change synthesized a vast array of literature on agriculture, food systems, food and nutritional security, dietary health, adaptation to climate change and mitigation of agricultural GHG emissions into a series of recommended policy actions [10, 16]. In its report, the commission extended the concept of “safe operating space” beyond the original framing, which focused on biophysical attributes of the planet, to include social-ecological systems related to human welfare, agriculture and food security [9, 10, 17].
In our view, a safe operating space for agricultural and food systems represents a set of conditions that demonstrably better meets human needs in the short and long term within foreseeable local and planetary limits and holds ourselves accountable for outcomes across temporal and spatial scales. In our view, agriculture and food systems are climate-smart when it can be shown that they bring us closer to safe operating spaces.
Although well-intentioned and potentially costly, the current mode of incremental improvement may still fall well short of achieving safer spaces. For instance, some argue that we are already able to produce enough food to feed a worldwide human population of 9 billion, especially under scenarios of improved dietary health, reduced waste and loss and diversified, intensified production systems . Although this view is valid and important, we still do not know whether, even after such major shifts, our food systems would be in long-term balance with our natural resources base. Along the way, we may cross tipping points that demarcate permanent transitions to new states that will become apparent only when it is too late to turn back.
Improvements in the management of agricultural systems that bring us significantly closer to safe operating spaces (however we learn to define these conditions) will require transformational changes in governance, management and use of our natural resources that are underpinned by enabling political, social and economic conditions. This is a major challenge in itself, considering that investments in agricultural development have often yielded unintended detrimental social and environmental consequences on various spatial and temporal scales [19, 20].
As a coordinated international attempt to address such issues, Rio+20 member states recently reaffirmed in the outcome document “The Future We Want” their commitments regarding “the right of everyone to have access to safe, sufficient and nutritious food” . India and Mexico, for example, have moved to enshrine the right to food in law and are seeking means by which to implement such policy effectively [22, 23]. Although the recognition of a human right to food security places human welfare and humanitarian values at the center of development, the short- and long-term social, economic, political and environmental effects of such commitments remain unclear. For instance, how will these efforts affect a “land-degradation neutral world” that these countries committed themselves to in the same document?
To answer such a question, we need to have processes in place that can provide relevant insights into issues such as the following. Can these more holistic approaches be integrated into research and development, informing a robust representation of conditions on the ground in near real time and more informative tools looking forward? Can we integrate approaches and insights derived from diverse sources to predict, mitigate and innovate regarding food security and nutritional health issues in the face of climate change? What are the specific boundaries of safe spaces? How do we deal with ambiguity and uncertainty across scales and priorities? How will we describe these boundaries and how they move dynamically as the trajectories of food systems evolve? Can we identify synergistic, transformational changes that may vault us to more stable and secure food systems across scales? What governance mechanisms are needed to ensure that the benefits and costs of well-grounded choices and their positive and negative consequences are shared as equitably as possible? How will we know whether our collective investments in the future are bringing us closer to safer spaces? Can we reach a condition which we can objectively defend as a safer space at any scale before reaching critical tipping points and thresholds in Earth and human systems? How will we know whether the changes are sufficiently bold so that, by the middle of this century, we can avoid the recognition we now face with virtual certainty that our best intentions simply have not been good enough?