Food Systems At Risk

Transformative Adaptation for Long-Term Food Security

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Chapter 3

Adaptation Policy and Planning Responses Are Inadequate

Despite the daunting challenges, few governments are identifying and addressing situations where climate impacts have already or will soon exceed the resilience that incremental measures provide.

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A review of the agricultural adaptation components of available NAPs, NDCs, and Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture documents revealed that most agricultural adaptation plans thus far have emphasized the rapid scaling of measures intended to preserve existing systems by building resilience over the short term; few include language indicating that they are planning for systemic shifts in anticipation of intensifying climate change impacts (see Figure 7).

Figure 7 | Key Areas of Agriculture in Nationally Determined Contributions that Reflect Transformative Adaptation

Sources: Livestock management (Salman et al. 2019); crop research and development (Niles et al. 2020); climate services (Ashley et al. 2020); water management (Authors).

Exceptions include Bolivia’s prioritization in its NDC of a “transition to semi-intensive systems of livestock management and integrated management of agroforestry and silviculture techniques,” (PSB 2016) and Burkina Faso’s mention in its NAP of “abandoning certain crops in favor of those which are more resistant to climate shocks” (MEFR 2015). In addition, Costa Rica’s NAP recommends using a long-term perspective in planning and implementing interventions, and appears to be unique in that it defines transformative adaptation as follows:

"Transformation implies a structural change in the institutional, cultural, technological, economic and ecological dimensions of a system to establish new development pathways. It must take shape through changes in productive systems, public investments, urban and territorial planning, to positively impact underlying risk factors and avoid eventual climate damages and losses (GCR 2018)."

3.1 Lack of Clarity and Cohesion on What Transformation Entails

One reason for the dearth of language (and, consequently, action) regarding longer-term, systemic change may be a lack of common understanding about what transformation entails. The term “transformation” and its variants are currently being widely applied to adaptation with a range of meanings—often to indicate the need for “bigger, better adaptation,” or more durable and equitable adaptation, but referencing only scaling up current adaptation practices rather than acknowledging that fundamental changes will be needed. A review of strategic documents from 21 of the largest adaptation funding entities, including multilateral and bilateral banks and donor agencies, finds that ambiguity around the meaning of “transformation” extends to their interpretations of transformative adaptation and its role in their portfolios of projects and programs varies considerably.

Another source of confusion about transformative adaptation is conflating it with agricultural transformation, which has been defined as a process that leads to higher productivity on farms, commercially orients farming, and strengthens the link between farming and other sectors of the economy (Boateng 2017). This form of transformation typically aligns with development goals but is not initiated with the intention of explicitly delivering climate resilience outcomes and may or may not achieve that goal.

3.2 Autonomous Transformative Adaptations Are Limited

The handful of autonomous transformative adaptations that have taken place in response to climate change impacts without external planning or support are instructive in understanding what motivates and enables fundamental, systemic changes to food systems. Examples include the following:  

  • Borana herders in northern Kenya are shifting from cattle to camels in response to increasing heat and aridity (Salman et al. 2018; Kagunyu and Wanjohi 2014).
  • Bangladeshi farmers in Bagerhat District have shifted from rice production to aquaculture in response to increased salinity due to saltwater inundation from the sea and reduced seasonal river flows (Faruque et al. 2016). 
  • In Costa Rica, some coffee farmers in areas that have grown too warm to continue producing coffee are switching to citrus (Ferdinand et al. 2020).
  • In southeast Kazakhstan, increasingly scarce water supplies have been reallocated to less water intensive crops in response to reductions in snow cover and water supply with the intention of shifting the mix of crops grown in the region (Barrett et al. 2017).
  • In Uttarakhand, India, mountain farming villages affected by increased rainfall variability are being abandoned and reverted to forest or pastureland while more people engage in intensive agriculture in river valleys or shift to nonagricultural livelihoods (IMI 2019).
  • In Northeast India, dragon fruit has been successfully cultivated for the first time due to hotter and drier climate conditions (Thokchom et al. 2019).

Figure 8 illustrates additional examples from India of changes initiated by farmers that were not part of a specific national or subnational policy, program, or project. Box 1 provides a more detailed explanation of the process and outcomes for the switch in Himachal Pradesh.

Figure 8 | Examples of Autonomous Transformative Adaptation in India

Source: Authors.

These types of transformations often take place gradually over years or even decades. They usually involve sequences of incremental actions of various types that together result in significantly different growing locations or methods of production for crops and livestock, or even landscape-scale changes in the type of food system. Such transformations may have increased resilience to climate change as either the primary goal or as a side benefit; alternatively, they may in fact have increased vulnerability (i.e., maladaptation). Box 1 provides an example of a transformation that inadvertently—but fortunately—increased resilience in India.

Box 1 | Case Study: Transformative Change from Apple Production toward More Diversified Production Schemes in Himachal Pradesh, India

A changing climate has contributed to decreased apple production in Himachal Pradesh, India, over the past 20 years, mostly due to warming winters, which have reduced the chilling hours required to produce high-quality apples. In response, farmers have diversified their crop production in low and mid-altitudes that are now marginal for producing apples. In these areas, farmers have started intercropping vegetables such as tomatoes, peas, cauliflower, broccoli, and cabbage in apple orchards, and cultivating “low chill” fruits such as pomegranates and kiwis.a At the same time, apple production is shifting into higher elevation areas that were previously too cold.

Farmers in Himachal Pradesh were able to transform agricultural production in response to climate change because of a series of events that began in the late 1950s (before climate change was explicitly considered), which steadily increased apple acreage in higher latitudes.b At that time, the government targeted India’s Western Himalayan region with commercial horticulture programs to improve livelihoods. The Sino-Indian War at the border of India and Tibet led to significant infrastructure development, which improved agricultural market connections.c In 1971, the World Bank financed the establishment of the Himachal Pradesh Horticultural Produce Marketing and Processing Corporation to provide post-harvest facilities such as cold storage and packing centers.

Simultaneously, a network of localized crop research and development (R&D) institutions started expanding to assist farmers and the growing local horticulture sector with research, seeds, and advice, including the Central Potato Research Institute at Shimla; Directorate of Mushroom Research in Solan; Indian Agricultural Research Institute’s Regional Research Station for Vegetable Research in Katrain (Kullu Valley); Institute of Himalayan Bioresource Technology in Palampur; and the University of Horticulture and Forestry in Solan.d Critical for adaptive capacity, the New Policy on Seed Development was implemented by the Indian government in 1988. A market intervention scheme was also developed to fix the prices of fruit crops and smooth harvest shocks.e

Although not intended to facilitate adaptation to climate change, the multisectoral development of market infrastructure and post-harvest facilities (which also reduce food loss and waste), an agricultural R&D network, and effective seed and pricing policies provided the enabling conditions for the farmers of Himachal Pradesh to move cultivation of apples to higher elevations and replace diminishing orchards with high-value vegetable and fruit production. Local land tenure arrangements wherein low-to-mid-latitude farmers own land in both lower and higher altitudes (known as kanda) also made it more possible to relocate crops when climate impacts made this beneficial. Active investment in civil society and empowerment of women, including the enforcement of political representation for women, welfare programs, and a culture of promoting women’s self-interest, also facilitated transformation. Additionally, an active and supportive space for nongovernmental organizations has supported the implementation of significant projects in various sectors including agriculture.f

This transformation from an apple-dominated production system toward more diversified production was made possible by compounding strategies, projects, and programs over decades and with the involvement of government, farmers, and the private sector. Although the specifics will vary according to context, this case study demonstrates how the capacity for transformative adaptation can be built through investment in enabling conditions over the long term.

Notes: a.India Science Wire 2018; b. Basannagari and Kala 2013; c. Rahimzadeh 2017; d. Sharma 2011; e. Sharma 2011; f. Drèze and Sen 2002.

While these examples provide evidence that transformative adaptation is possible, simply waiting for such significant changes to take place organically is unlikely to enable those living in poverty and the most vulnerable farmers, including women and youth, to keep up with intensifying climate change impacts. Few individual farmers are able to identify and embrace such changes on their own, and many lack the resources needed to enact them. As noted in Ferdinand et al. (2020) and Tye and Grinspan (2020), research indicates that farmers who are able to make such changes without external assistance tend to be those with greater access to resources (e.g., land, credit, information, technical capacity), those with ways of reducing risk, and/or those who have a higher tolerance for risk.

In addition, systemic shifts require not only changing what farmers and herders themselves do, but also addressing other links in value chains, such as processing, marketing, and distribution, plus the availability of adequate inputs, labor, and credit, which are largely beyond the control of individuals. However, engaging pioneer farmers and herders and building on their experiences is essential to enabling more widespread, long-term, and systemic change to occur.

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