Food Systems At Risk

Transformative Adaptation for Long-Term Food Security

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Chapter 1

Transforming Agriculture to Meet the Climate–Food Security Challenge

Countries around the world committed to ending hunger and to achieving climate-resilient, low-carbon development when they signed the Paris Agreement in December 2015 and the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development in January 2016.

Ashraful Haque Akash/Unsplash

The urgency of ramping up adaptation action for agriculture was highlighted in the Global Commission on Adaptation’s 2019 report Adapt Now: A Global Call for Leadership on Climate Change Adaptation, which urged “a large-scale, international mobilization over the coming decade to deliver improved incomes, ecologically sustainable food systems, and resilience for 300 million small-scale food producers” (Bapna et al. 2019, 60).

The challenge before the global community to build resilience and improve food security is profound. Even without accounting for climate change impacts on agriculture, the global “food gap,” i.e., the difference between the amount of food produced and the amount necessary to meet likely demand by 2050, has been estimated at 56 percent more than what was produced in 2010 (Searchinger et al. 2018). At the same time, unanticipated crises like the COVID-19 pandemic can further undermine food security.

Climate change is further exacerbating the food security gap: Globally, the agricultural sector already accounts for an average of 26 percent of the total damage and losses from climate-related disasters (FAO 2017). This does not include slow-onset events, which the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) describes as including sea level rise, increasing temperatures, ocean acidification, glacial retreat and related impacts, salinization, land and forest degradation, loss of biodiversity, and desertification (UNFCCC 2019).

Beyond 2030, the negative impacts of climate change on the productivity of crops, livestock, fisheries, and forestry will become increasingly severe in all regions of the world (Gourdji et al. 2013; IPCC 2014). Global agricultural yields may decline by up to 30 percent by 2050 in the absence of ambitious climate action (Porter et al. 2014). The world also faces an increasing “potential risk of multi-breadbasket failure” (Wallace-Wells 2019; Gaupp et al. 2019), undermining our ability to cover regional food deficits through shifting global markets.

In part due to greater climate variability and more extreme weather events, global hunger is rising again after a decade of decline, with nearly 60 million more undernourished people than in 2014—an increase in the global prevalence of undernutrition from 8.6 to 8.9 percent of the world’s population (FAO 2020a). Hunger and malnutrition are projected to increase further, by up to 20 percent by 2050, even if warming is kept to 1.5 degrees Celsius (°C) (IPCC 2014). Farmers, pastoralists, and other rural people make up a large proportion of the 120 million people that climate change puts at risk of falling below the poverty line by 2030 (Alston 2019).

In addition to climate change’s direct impacts on agricultural production, it is linked with conflict, another key threat to food security for people living in poverty. For example, Hsiang and Cane (2011) demonstrated that the probability of new civil conflicts arising throughout the tropics doubles during El Niño years relative to La Niña years, while Hendrix and Salehyan (2012) analyzed over 6,000 instances of social conflict in Africa over 20 years to determine that rainfall variability has a marked effect on both large-scale and smaller-scale instances of political conflict. Impacts on food supplies are often the trigger; Iceland (2017) and Gleick and Iceland (2018) found that climate change impacts on water in relation to agriculture are often at the heart of such conflicts. The 2015 U.S. National Security Strategy notes that climate change is an urgent and growing threat, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources such as food and water.

Migration and internal displacement are outcomes of food insecurity, which is becoming more prevalent as climate change impacts intensify and is likely to increase in low-income countries that depend heavily on agriculture (FAO 2017). While the decision to migrate (and when) should be an adaptive choice for rural households, it is already a necessity in some areas where climate change impacts have made maintaining any type of agricultural production nearly impossible; small producers may have little choice but to forfeit their land and migrate to other areas (typically cities). These same conditions affect many other people whose livelihoods depend on agricultural value chains; for example, harvesting often relies on landless migrant laborers, and women frequently form the majority of workers in packaging and processing plants. Indian farmers from Uttarakhand and Maharashtra have migrated to regional cities due in part to devastating floods and chronic droughts, respectively, which have made their existing agricultural livelihoods impossible (Lal 2016). Similarly, increased numbers of Central American farmers attempting to cross the Mexican–U.S. border illustrate the beginning stages of the World Bank’s estimate of around 2 million people being displaced from Central America by the year 2050 due to factors related to climate change (World Bank 2018).

Transformative adaptation for agriculture—which the authors define as promoting long-term resilience by continually shifting the geographical locations where specific types of crops and livestock are produced, aligning agricultural production with changing landscapes and ecosystems, and/or introducing resilience-building production methods and technologies across value chains—can provide the opportunity to improve livelihoods and create jobs. For example, some high-elevation areas may experience higher productivity or become warm enough to shift to higher-value crops. This is the case with coffee production in areas where it can be shifted up mountainsides (Moat et al. 2017). However, seizing such opportunities requires recognizing in advance how climate change will affect crop and livestock suitability and ensuring that farmers can access the knowledge, technologies, and inputs, as well as credit and markets, required to produce new types of agricultural products. However, shifting suitability can also raise the temptation for farmers and herders to encroach into areas like forested mountaintops that are rich in biodiversity, essential for maintaining vibrant watersheds and other ecosystem services, and vital for carbon sequestration. Such emerging threats must also be better anticipated and integrated into transformative adaptation plans and policies.

The world is beginning to respond to the dire projections of how climate change stands to undermine global food security. Dozens of countries are developing national adaptation plans (NAPs), which generally reflect the countries’ largest economic sectors and highest priorities. Agriculture is often central in these plans. Additionally, more than 90 percent of current nationally determined contributions (NDCs) mention agriculture in some way (such as needs for support, inclusion in an economy-wide target, or specific policies and actions that address agriculture mitigation and/or adaptation). The existing NDCs of 131 countries (out of 189 total) include agricultural adaptation policies and measures—the vast majority of which emphasize crops and livestock, including water management and irrigation (Ross et al. 2019). And countries are increasingly recognizing that the planned 2020 NDC updates offer an opportunity to be more explicit about the transformations they intend to achieve, what it will take to get there equitably and sustainably, and what assistance will be needed (Ross et al. 2019). Research organizations are also stepping up their efforts to expand understanding of where agricultural adaptation measures are most needed and which are proving most effective in various contexts (see, for example, Thornton et al. 2019 and De Pinto et al. 2019).

Despite progress on the policy and planning fronts, adaptation funding amounts to only 5 percent of tracked climate finance data (Buchner et al. 2019) and continues to fall short of the $1.8 trillion projected annual cost from 2020 to 2030 (UNEP 2018). An estimated $7.8 billion out of $30 billion in adaptation finance was allocated to the agriculture, forestry, land use, and natural resource management sector (Buchner et al. 2019). The water and wastewater management sector alone received more funding ($9.9 billion). Given the magnitude of the agricultural adaptation challenge, the amount allocated to this sector needs to increase. The agriculture sector forms the economic backbone of many developing countries; safeguarding it from climate change impacts is essential to reducing poverty and ultimately driving wider economic growth. This section explores how expanding adaptation action to include transformative approaches could build momentum for additional investments.

Evidence is emerging from the literature discussed below that even full implementation of common approaches to agricultural adaptation, such as breeding more resilient varieties of crops and livestock, improving seasonal forecasts and early warning systems, and expanding insurance for farmers and herders, may prove insufficient to address the challenges that lie ahead. New approaches to agricultural adaptation—such as transformative adaptationare needed to complement the scaling of more conventional incremental measures. Transformative adaptation helps to avert and minimize loss and damage while enhancing global food security; reducing escalating risks of displacement, conflict, and crisis; and avoiding maladaptation. To enact transformative approaches to building climate resilience, adaptation policymakers, funders, and practitioners will need to shift their fundamental understanding of adaptation, and how it can transition systems and the societies they operate in (Pelling 2011; Pelling et al. 2014).

1.1 Attributes of Transformative Adaptation

Research organizations and adaptation funding entities have divergent perspectives on what transformative adaptation entails; this ambiguity has hindered progress toward identifying common goals and best practices. Therefore, the initial Transforming Agriculture for Climate Resilience (TACR) framework (Carter et al. 2018) offered an actionable definition (now refined) of what transformative adaptation for food systems entails, which, if widely adopted, could remove some of the lack of clarity that may be limiting progress:

Intentional alterations intended to build resilience in response to or anticipation of climate change impacts that are at such scale and significance and over a long enough time span that they change fundamental aspects of food systems.

The TACR framework first established three key attributes, which have evolved slightly from the original (Carter et al. 2018), that the authors hypothesize will often be included in agricultural adaptation plans, policies, funding proposals, and projects with high potential to be truly transformative:

  • Shifting the geographical locations where specific types of crops and livestock are produced, processed, and marketed (growing more resilient varieties of the same types of crops and livestock would not require fundamental, systemic change, and is thus not considered transformative)
  • Aligning agricultural production with changing ecosystems and available water and arable land resources—for example, shifting from irrigated crops to grazing when humid tropics transition to semi-arid grasslands after wildfires; or shifting from cropping to aquaculture in anticipation of or response to sea level rise
  • Applying new methodologies and technologies that substantially change the types of agricultural products, or the way existing ones are produced and processed, within a particular region or production system; for example, producing cheese instead of fresh milk to reduce the risk of spoilage in warmer conditions

An example of each of these attributes is illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1 | Examples of Attributes of Transformative Adaptation in Ethiopia, Bangladesh, and India (from left to right)

Source: Authors.

After describing why transformative adaptation in food systems is needed, this report delves into the benefits that this approach can provide. It details how fundamental changes to food systems can be incorporated into research agendas, long-term planning, financing, and implementation of adaptation measures. It calls for researchers and decision-makers to explicitly consider gender and social equity issues so that solutions serve the needs of those most vulnerable to climate changes—those who often have the least capacity to adapt and are most at risk from further consolidation of wealth and power. It concludes with calls to action to adaptation funding entities, governments, and research organizations to take up the charge of incorporating transformative approaches into their efforts to assist farmers and other rural people to build sustainable, equitable, inclusive climate resilience.

1.2 Methodology

The TACR project began with an extensive review of published academic literature on agricultural transformation and adaptation using keyword searches that focused on adaptation, resilience, transformation, system shifts, and/or long-term planning. Analyses were completed to determine the following: how academics and other agricultural researchers are addressing agricultural transformation and adaptation via literature review and expert consultations; whether and how the 21 most significant bilateral and multilateral adaptation funding entities are approaching transformative adaptation via review of their strategy documents and websites; and whether and how countries are addressing long-term, systemic adaptation in agriculture in their NAPs, NDCs, and submissions to the UNFCCC Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture using Climate Watch and NAP Central.

Expert consultations with the working paper’s primary audiences (adaptation funding entities, planners and policymakers, researchers, and implementing agencies) and with government officials and technical experts in Ethiopia and India helped in identifying case studies of existing systemic shifts in food systems to build long-term resilience. Interviews and meetings were convened with experts in agricultural adaptation from state and national government agencies in Ethiopia and India and agricultural research organizations in both locations. These included both countries’ national research institutes and those affiliated with the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), including the International Livestock Research Institute, International Water Management Institute, and International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). Group discussions took place in Ethiopia with staff from the local branches of organizations including the World Food Programme, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, and the Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency. In India, the authors conducted a workshop, organized by the state Environmental Planning and Coordination Organization, with agricultural stakeholders in Madhya Pradesh. The research was also enriched through the authors’ participation in panel discussions and workshops at UNFCCC events such as the 22nd and 23rd annual Conferences of the Parties (COPs), Intersessional meetings, and NAP Expos; the FAO’s World Summit on Food Security; the CGIAR’s 5th Global Science Conference on Climate-Smart Agriculture; the 2018 Adaptation Futures conference; and others. Input from adaptation funding entities was gathered on an ad hoc basis over the course of the research and through a roundtable discussion the authors convened during the 2019 UNFCCC Intersessional. Please note that consultations with the organizations mentioned above do not constitute their endorsement of the research and ideas contained in this report, which are those of the authors alone.

This preliminary research led to publication of a framework—Transforming Agriculture for Climate Resilience: A Framework for Systemic Change (Carter et al. 2018)—which established a workable definition for transformative adaptation in agriculture based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) definition mentioned in the Executive Summary.

This framework was then applied in three working papers on key agricultural topics: crop research and development (Niles et al. 2020), livestock production (Salman et al. 2018), and climate services (Ashley et al. 2020). Each of these papers started with its own detailed and technical review of relevant literature on each topic. Researchers also analyzed whether and how these topics were mentioned in NDCs or NAPs, and whether the relevant text included the elements of transformative adaptation established in the framework paper (Carter et al. 2018). Based on an assessment of the state of adaptation action in each topical area, researchers then identified gaps and challenges that hindered progress on transformative adaptation. Each of the papers recommended actions that the three key audience groups (researchers, governments, and adaptation funding entities) could take to encourage more widespread application of transformative approaches to adaptation.

World Resources Institute (WRI) researchers have also applied the TACR framework to coffee production in Costa Rica (Tye and Grinspan 2020) and tested against locally led climate-driven transformations (Ferdinand et al. 2020). With each application of the framework to these various topics and case studies, the researchers’ thinking evolved regarding what constituted transformative adaptation and how it could be enhanced and more widely applied to build the long-term resilience of locations nearing tipping points for diminishing productivity of key agricultural products.

This final synthesis report both summarizes previous research and includes additional analysis of the limitations of incremental adaptation measures to global staple crops and the need to continually align crop and livestock production with changing ecological conditions. It assesses the potential for this approach to provide a broader range of benefits, including averting and minimizing economic and non-economic losses and damages as defined by the UNFCCC. It also includes an economic model that WRI researchers constructed and applied to a hypothetical shift from coffee to vanilla production in the highlands of Ethiopia to determine when transformative approaches make more economic sense than employing only incremental changes. The methodology used is detailed in Appendix A.

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