Food Systems At Risk

Transformative Adaptation for Long-Term Food Security

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Chapter 4

Transformative Adaptation to Build Climate Resilience

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.

Himanshu Choudhary/Unsplash

In addition to helping to avoid the negative impacts described in Section 3, transformative approaches to adaptation can help address these challenges, and have the potential to provide a range of adaptation benefits including reducing the risk of maladaptation, averting and minimizing loss and damage, and providing economic, social, and environmental co-benefits.

4.1 Reducing the Risk of Maladaptation

Although increased funding and political will are ramping up the speed and scale of adaptation to climate change, greater foresight is required to ensure that today’s adaptation investments will stand the test of time. Transformative approaches to agricultural adaptation can help avoid short-sighted investments that will lead to maladaptation; that is, actions that may lead to increased risk of adverse climate-related outcomes (IPCC 2019). The IPCC (2014) and Ericksen et al. (2021) note that maladaptation can arise from decisions that emphasize (or consider only) short-term outcomes, while a longer-term or more systemic perspective would reveal that the proposed intervention is in fact increasing climate risk, rather than lowering it. The risk of unintended negative consequences from technological adaptation interventions merits particular attention.

In fact, agricultural transformation has sometimes led to maladaptation, as a case study from Peru demonstrates (see Box 2). In this case, better understanding of climate change impacts on the water supply and, thus, the long-term viability of the irrigation system would have been helpful when decisions regarding initial investments were made. Funding might have instead been channeled to expand production of varieties of crops that were more suitable for the arid landscape or to support nonagricultural economic activities.

Box 2 | Maladaptation in Water Management in Peru

With the intention to improve agriculture and livelihoods in the country’s arid north, the Peruvian government began in 1985 an ambitious irrigation project to build a 50-mile canal to bring both irrigation water and electricity from a large hydroelectric plant to villages in the area of Chavimochic. Over the ensuing decades, the project has been expanded with funding from various multilateral development banks to add hundreds of thousands of irrigated acres and new jobsa and provide a water treatment plant that serves 70 percent of the local population, enabling Peru to triple its agricultural exports from $400 million to $1.2 billion.b The total cost of the project is estimated at $825 million.

By standard development measures, the project has admirably met its goals of reducing poverty and improving livelihoods: This area is one of the most economically competitive in the country, with better human development indices and higher average life expectancy and family income than those of many locations.c In addition, women from rural areas have reportedly benefited from more formal work opportunities, rural development, poverty reduction, improvement in purchasing power and prosperity, improvement in gross domestic product per capita in the region, and an increase in exports and foreign currency for the country.d

However, from a climate impacts perspective, the project is running on borrowed time. Glaciers, which provide about 7 percent of the water in this irrigation system on average and over half in times of severe drought,e are shrinking quickly—by 40 percent since 1970 and up to 30 feet per year more recently.f Not only is agriculture threatened, so are the livelihoods of 50,000 people who receive electricity from the hydroelectric plant, and 700,000 who consume treated river water.g The threat of conflict is also growing, as drainage and pesticide runoff raise pollution and salinity levels, making farmlands unfit for cultivation.h New approaches to water management are urgently needed because, despite widespread evidence of highly sophisticated Andean adaptations to variability in water availability, climate change “may be so rapid that traditional agricultural and water management practices are no longer useful.”i

Although this case study is specific to Peru, it is just one example of how decisions based on existing data and focused on providing an immediate solution (without considering long-term impacts) are being replicated in many ways and contexts across the world. Only time will tell how much of the current spending on adaptation measures will ultimately prove maladaptive—but longer-term planning for systemic change offers the best chance of reducing risk and ensuring that investments will stand the test of time by reducing intensifying climate risks, so that they can continue to be beneficial.

Notes: a. Schmall 2010; b. CAF 2013; c. Amaro 2017. d. Amaro 2017; e. Buytaert et al. 2017; f. Casey 2017; g. Casey 2017; h. Lynch 2015; i. Lynch 2015.

4.2 Averting and Minimizing Loss and Damage

In addition to reducing maladaptation, transformative approaches to adaptation offer great potential for shaping a comprehensive, inclusive, and strategic approach for averting and minimizing loss and damage; that is, impacts of climate change that have not been or cannot be avoided through mitigation and adaptation efforts (Van der Geest and Warner 2015). Examples could include sea level rise that is too severe to be stopped by sea walls, mangroves, or other solutions, or permanent desertification of savannah areas. The Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss & Damage associated with Climate Change Impacts (WIM), which was created by the UNFCCC at COP16, has engaged Parties to the Paris Agreement in exploring responses to extreme and slow-onset events, and includes transformative adaptation (UNFCCC 2011) in the WIM Executive Committee’s work plan.

Transformative approaches to adaptation can minimize or avert loss and damage by improving economic outcomes over other adaptation approaches, as the case study in Box 3 illustrates. It models a case study on the potential economic benefits of three possible approaches to managing risk and mitigating loss and damage due to the decreasing productivity of arabica coffee in regions of Ethiopia that are growing too warm for it. Three scenarios are tested, one of which results in significant losses to livelihoods; a second in which such damages are minimized; and a third in which losses are averted by taking a transformative approach to planning for future coffee production.

4.3 Improving Investment Strategies

Scaling up incremental agricultural adaptation interventions, such as mulching, small-scale irrigation, and water harvesting, may seem both more affordable and manageable for individual farmers, and appear to make the most economic sense. However, in circumstances where climate change impacts will be so severe that such measures will eventually prove insufficient, continual investment with short-term planning horizons may in fact cost more over time and do little to avert or minimize permanent losses and damages.

Box 3 shares the results of an economic analysis undertaken for this project. It compares the economic outcomes of three adaptation scenarios: no action, incremental, and transformative.

Box 3 | Economic Modeling of Climate Change–Induced Shifts in Ethiopian Coffee Production

Intensifying droughts and increased variability of rainfall threaten the livelihoods of 15 million people in Ethiopia who directly or indirectly rely on coffee production, the majority of whom are smallholder coffee farmers.a It is estimated that per-hectare productivity of existing coffee systems will decline due to rising temperatures,b and 39–59 percent of current coffee farms in Ethiopia will become unsuitable for coffee production by 2050.c This will also affect the 25 percent of the country’s export earnings that are attributed to coffee production.d

The following illustrative economic analysis assessed three scenarios designed to compare economic outcomes of different adaptation pathways going out to 2050:

  • Scenario 1: A no-action scenario in which no adaptation action occurs. Arabica coffee production declines due to higher temperatures. This scenario serves as a baseline for estimating the economic losses due to climate change impacts.
  • Scenario 2: An incremental adaptation scenario in which coffee farmers whose land becomes too warm to continue producing arabica coffee replace it with more heat-tolerant robusta coffee. Ethiopia has yet to enter the robusta coffee market, in large part because of the variety’s much lower market prices. However, switching to robusta coffeee could help farmers maintain high coffee productivity without fundamentally changing inputs or cultivation practices. This option was chosen as the incremental scenario over other potential actions such as adding irrigation, shade trees, or mulching in cultivation practices so that the current production system would be maintained (and due to a lack of analyzable data on the costs of such measures).
  • Scenario 3: A transformative adaptation scenario in which areas that become unsuitable for arabica production are fundamentally changed by replacing coffee with an alternative high-value perennial cash crop—in this case, vanilla. Vanilla was selected as it has been cited as a potential alternative to coffee production that would provide equal or higher economic value.f In this scenario, vanilla is produced in shade houses that can control for humidity, which is a limiting factor in some regions of Ethiopia. However, vanilla trial plots in Ethiopia were found to be adaptable to all trial locations with comparable yields and quality.g Other potential coffee alternatives not analyzed in this case study but that could be used in a similar economic analysis include cocoa, macadamia nuts, and spices (cardamom, cinnamon, and nutmeg).h,3 The objective of this scenario is not to analyze the commodity or suggest that farmers switch to it, but instead to enable a comparison between incremental versus transformative approaches.

Temperature increases are expected to remain within the optimal ranges for growing robusta coffee and vanilla for several decades. Benefits and costs were estimated for the three future adaptation scenarios for a period of 35 years between 2015 and 2050, which enabled comparison of the costs of Scenario 1, the no adaptation baseline, with the respective economic gains of Scenario 2, incremental adaptation, and Scenario 3, transformative adaptation (see Table B3.1).

Two potential temperature increase scenarios were considered in the baseline scenario (Scenario 1) to account for uncertainty regarding how much and how quickly temperatures will rise and how this will affect arabica coffee production in the future. Our analysis suggests that, with no adaptation measures (as illustrated in Scenario 1), local coffee farmers are expected to face a collective permanent loss of $208–256 million (measured at a discount rate of 6 percent) between 2015 and 2050 due to climate change impacts on arabica production.

However, if coffee farmers moved toward an incremental adaptation trajectory (Scenario 2), in which a large-scale conversion from arabica to robusta coffee would occur in production areas that are no longer suitable for arabica, farmers could generate moderate net economic gains of up to $115 million by 2050 (compared with baseline Scenario 1), after deducting the adaptation costs (US$2.3 billion). These costs include those for labor and materials necessary to establish and maintain the robusta coffee production system during a full lifecycle, as well as institutional costs arising from developing climate adaptation strategies, increasing the awareness of adaptation risks at the local level, and investing in projects to improve capacity, monitoring, evaluation, and local learning, among others. This would effectively minimize, or even avert, these anticipated losses and damages.

If more transformative adaptation actions were taken, such as switching soon-to-be unsuitable arabica coffee production areas to vanilla production (Scenario 3), local farmers would generate net economic gains of approximately $15.8 billion (compared with baseline Scenario 1), despite the higher upfront adaptation costs ($3.4 billion) as compared with Scenario 2 ($2.3 billion).4 This is mostly due to the higher market value and productivity of vanilla as compared with robusta coffee. An investment of this magnitude would clearly avert losses and damages. However, it should be noted that efforts to breed high-quality robusta coffee and expand the specialty robusta market may narrow this gap.

Table B3.1 | Cost-Benefit Analysis of Coffee vs. Vanilla Production in Ethiopia

Estimated Costs and Benefits of Three Scenarios (2015–2050), dr= 6%


Baseline Scenario (S1)

Incremental Adaptation Scenario (S2)

Transformative Adaptation Scenario (S3)


Under Maximum CC Impact (3°C increase)a

Under Minimum CC Impact (1.5°C increase)

Under Maximum CC Impact (3°C increase)

Under Minimum CC Impact (1.5°C increase)

Under Maximum CC Impact (3°C increase)

Under Minimum CC Impact (1.5°C increase)

Discounted total benefits (millions, US$)







Additional losses or gains of the adopted production system (millions, $)

-208 (losses from declined arabica production)

-256 (losses from declined arabica production)

2,441 (gain from robusta coffee production)

18,063 (gain from vanilla production)

Discounted total costs (millions, $)

9,531 ($0 adaptation cost)

11,857 (of which $2.3 billion was for switching to robusta coffee)

15,142 (of which $3.4 billion was for switching to vanilla production)

NPV (millions, $, 2015–2050)







Land area by 2050 (ha)







Notes: Abbreviations: dr: discount rate; CC: climate change; °C: degrees Celsius; NPV: net present value; ha: hectares; a.In Ethiopia, the mean temperature is projected to rise between 1.5 and 3°C by the 2050s (Adaptation Fund 2017).

Source: Analysis by WRI researchers.

Despite limitations in the nuances of the analysis, our findings provide insights into the economic implications of incremental versus transformative approaches in coffee production in Ethiopia and more broadly. In particular, a comparison of the net economic gains across the three scenarios suggests that Scenario 3, the transformative adaptation scenario, may result in much greater society-wide economic gains.

However, this analysis is not intended to imply that in all circumstances this approach should be employed where coffee production is impacted by climate change. Careful consideration should be given to local contexts including extent of climate impacts, community vulnerability, land use and resource use trade-offs, market variables, cultural and traditional dynamics, and social equity components. For example, this study did not analyze the impacts of a crop switch on women or the availability of water needed for vanilla versus coffee.

Moreover, the results of the analysis need to be approached with great caution, as the analysis was constrained by a lack of local data and strong assumptions were made based on more detailed field data reported in other countries, illustrating the need for further research of this nature.

Finally, one should also note that although Scenario 3 generates higher economic gains, this scenario is also associated with much greater adaptation costs, which implies higher financial risks for farmers. Hence, it is very unlikely that farmers will choose the transformative adaptation option without government assistance or external private sector investment.

Notes: a. Tefera and Tefera 2014; b. USGS and USAID 2012; c. Moat et al. 2017; d. Moat et al. 2017; e. Killeen and Harper 2010; f. Shriver 2015; g. Kifelew et al. 2016; h. Shriver 2015.

4.4 Reducing Risks of Crisis, Conflict, and Displacement

The losses and damages generated by climate change impacts can also be social in nature and escalate into social unrest, crisis, and conflict. In some situations, transformative approaches can help guide food systems to more sustainable futures, thus averting or minimizing losses and damages instead of allowing responses to occur haphazardly and devolve into crisis. This requires recognizing the need for widespread changes to what can be grown or raised where, to potentially ease current or future tensions, particularly around resource use. Such forward-looking action may increase the odds that alternative (in some cases, nonagricultural) livelihoods will be possible when needed if transformative pathways are started sooner rather than later. Brück and d’Errico (2019) summarize the linkages by noting that “resilience protects whatever development progress has been achieved so far and contributes to preventing conflict and humanitarian emergencies.” For example, some farmers in Costa Rica are shifting from coffee production to citrus in response to increased heat and other climate change impacts, as well as volatile global coffee prices. These farmers can continue working in agriculture while reducing their risks and increasing household incomes (Carter and Tye 2018; Ferdinand et al. 2020).

The example in Box 4 highlights a transformation in livestock feed and related markets that has successfully avoided crisis and reduced the odds of conflict over watering points and grazing lands by mitigating the impacts of drought on herders in Ethiopia, thus averting socioeconomic losses and damages. In addition to the increased resilience that the example focuses on, this transformative approach to adaptation will also reduce overgrazing of already stressed rangeland, enabling forage plants—and the herders whose livestock depend on them—to bounce back more quickly once the rains come.

Box 4 | FEED for Crisis Mitigation

Livestock production in Ethiopia is a major economic sector, contributing to the livelihoods of 60 to 70 percent of the country’s population. Inadequate quantity and poor quality of and limited access to feed have impeded livestock sector development in Ethiopia and the ability of livestock owners to withstand the impacts of an increasingly variable climate.

In response, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food for Progress program designed the Feed Enhancement for Ethiopian Development (FEED) project to increase incomes of smallholder farmers by improving access to, and use of, consistent, affordable, high-quality feed that can support greater livestock and poultry productivity and efficiency. FEED project activities are broad-based, addressing feed resources on and off farms as well as farmers’ ability to properly use them. A key component of this approach was the establishment of 24 commercial feed manufacturing enterprises built on the existing cooperative union system (cooperation organizations among farmers for sharing services and inputs, such as machinery, with legal trade representation). Because the unions are geographically dispersed, the enterprises are better able to use locally available grains and agro-industrial by-products; they can also maintain linkages with more distant sources that can be accessed when local supplies are inadequate to meet increases in demand, be that due to market expansion or drought. These enterprises enable the growth of livestock and poultry production in Ethiopia and constitute a new piece of the food production system in the communities they serve—one that provides added flexibility in responding to shocks to the system; that is, greater resilience and food security.

The outcomes of the 2015–16 drought illustrate these benefits. The drought was, by many accounts, the worst in 50 years. Some of the worst impacts were in the northern region of Tigray. According to information provided by the project partner, ACDI/VOCA, 661,008 animals in Tigray were at risk, with 163,210 identified as needing immediate assistance. Government agencies and nongovernmental organizations in the region turned to FEED project unions for assistance in mitigating the effects of the drought. Because of the USDA’s original investment through the FEED project, as well as the commercial nature of the business that sustains it, infrastructure was already in place, as were ingredient procurement and distribution systems to respond to the drought. The unions were able to distribute concentrated feed to more than 307,000 animals owned by almost 119,000 farmers. According to local interviews, not a single animal receiving supplemental feed was lost. In outside areas that were not part of the FEED program, livestock productivity decreased, but there were no animal deaths, migrations, or forced livestock sales. This greatly contrasts with previous drought years where, nationally, millions of animals died. Projects like this one will become all the more critical as the frequency and severity of droughts increase.

Source: Adapted from Salman et al. (2019).

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