Food Systems At Risk

Transformative Adaptation for Long-Term Food Security

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Chapter 5

Calls to Action to Accelerate Transformative Adaptation

Adapt Now report by the Global Commission on Adaptation, adaptation actions can be grouped into three critical areas, all of which are essential for advancing adaptation action: understanding, planning, and financing (Bapna et al. 2019).

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The following three subsections loosely follow the same structure to summarize the authors’ perspectives on how the most important points from the preceding evidence can be converted to action on transformative adaptation. The subsections issue calls to action describing what research organizations, governments, and funding entities can do to advance understanding of and planning and financing for transformative approaches to agricultural adaptation. If this group of actors can mobilize to support the right research, actionable plans, and funded projects, we will be much closer to achieving the adaptation goals set forth in the Paris Agreement and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). At the same time, we will be advancing the Global Commission on Adaptation’s recommendations and thereby ensuring long-term, sustainable, equitable resilience for smallholder farmers and herders.

Note that many of the citations included in this section refer to the TACR topical papers on crop research and development (Niles et al. 2020), climate services (Ashley et al. 2020), and livestock production (Salman et al. 2018), as well as additional WRI publications on transformative adaptation (Ferdinand et al. 2020; Tye and Grinspan 2020). Specific references to how these calls to action can support and enhance the Global Commission on Adaptation’s Agriculture and Food Security Action Track goals are included.

5.1 Understanding

Expand research and development to make climate risks visible and engage farmers and herders in identifying transformative solutions for building long-term resilience

International, national, and subnational agricultural research systems and related mechanisms—for example, extension services, which work directly with farmers to distill the results of research to on-the-ground actions in their fields, and producers’ associations, which can also promote new practices and market opportunities—all have a role to play in advancing understanding of long-term, systemic change. In particular, they can help fill the many gaps in data, analysis, and conceptual understanding in this new area of research. These research systems and mechanisms are well-positioned to identify where and when significant shifts will be needed and what potential climate adaptation solutions exist and engage those most vulnerable. They have improved dramatically over recent decades in their capacity to meet farmers’ research and information needs thanks to technological advancement, interorganizational collaboration, and participatory engagement with communities.

As explored in Opportunities for Crop Research, Development and Adoption to Drive Transformative Adaptation in Agriculture (Niles et al. 2020), investments in crop research and development (R&D) have yielded important technological advancements—such as faster breeding times for more stress-resistant, productive, and nutritious crops—to support incremental adaptation. However, the paper concluded that more needs to be done that goes beyond the limits of improved breeding to increase farmers’ access to new and more diverse crops, create more robust and agile seed production and distribution systems, and establish creative market and financial mechanisms for the faster adoption of new crops suitable for future climates.

Similarly, Transformative Adaptation in Livestock Production Systems (Salman et al. 2019) found that systemic shifts to improve the long-term resilience of livestock production may include relocating livestock production systems, introducing new livestock species, or transitioning into or out of livestock for other agricultural or nonagricultural livelihoods. Salman et al. (2019) identified specific areas in need of additional research and investment, without which some livestock systems may not withstand intensifying direct and indirect climate impacts such as changing disease dynamics and could exclude or disadvantage those living in poverty and other vulnerable groups.

In addition, Applying Climate Services to Transformative Adaptation in Agriculture (Ashley et al. 2020) concluded that while climate services (CS) have generated sophisticated knowledge about climate change and its impacts on agricultural production across timescales, CS could be enhanced to support transformative adaptation. Additional findings from this paper are expanded upon in Section 5.1.3.

This section draws upon these findings to identify key research areas that are needed to speed the scaling of longer-term, systemic adaptation. This process has thus far been slow, perhaps due to reasons that include more immediate priorities and the increasing uncertainty of climate projections further into the future; a lack of capacity to envision and understand the full ramifications of future climate impacts; an inability to access critical information and technologies; inadequate research infrastructure and networks; and too few private-public partnerships and suitable legal frameworks (e.g., intellectual property law for newly developed crop species) needed to expedite adaptation solutions.

5.1.1 Focus on the needs of the most vulnerable users

Research efforts must focus squarely on the needs, experiences, and solutions of those living in poverty and those most vulnerable to climate change impacts—especially smallholder farmers, fishers, and herders.

Smallholder farmers, fishers, and herders, as well as Indigenous peoples and those living in poverty, are often among the most vulnerable, but they also have a wealth of experience to contribute to the evidence base regarding which adaptation measures work best in particular contexts. Greater collaboration with these groups is needed for effective on-the-ground implementation of adaptation action (Ferdinand et al. 2020; Tye and Grinspan 2020). For example, participatory methods to improve seed systems can be helpful. In Ethiopia, locally organized and managed trial plots of new varieties and further breeding to adapt them to local conditions has improved community seed systems, leading to immediate benefits and providing a channel for the dissemination of new crops as they are developed (Niles et al. 2020).

Investments are also needed to improve the resilience and productivity of traditional and wild crops that may not appear in global supply chains but are essential to local food security and nutrition. While generally lower yielding than hybrid varieties, they may be more resilient to drought and other expected climate changes, are often nutritionally dense (Kole et al. 2015; Tadele and Assefa 2012), and are important for regional food production and food security (Naylor et al. 2004). The application of modern technologies could improve their productivity without losing their nutritional value and durability (Niles et al. 2020). Enabling greater reliance on locally appropriate traditional crops by applying modern crop breeding techniques to increase their productivity while retaining climate-resilient traits would be transformative.

Investments in crop R&D must be matched by assistance in helping farmers adopt new crops. This entails improving access to and participation in improved seed systems and agricultural input markets so that farmers can effectively grow and sell new climate-resilient crop varieties and species while better meeting their food security needs. Additional research is needed into how to make extension and adoption pipelines more effective at ensuring that new technologies and crops are both appropriate for and accepted by farmers, especially those that are at high risk and have limited access to financial resources, land, and information.

People living in poverty and other vulnerable groups must be able to make decisions regarding systemic shifts at all links in value chains, so that no one is left behind. Key inputs, such as new varieties of crops, fish, and livestock—as well as information required to successfully produce, harvest, process, and market them—must be made more accessible to marginalized farmers, fishers, and herders.

5.1.2 Emphasize research needed for transformative adaptation

The research agendas of global research systems, such as the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization; National Agricultural Research Systems; and local agricultural research and outreach organizations should build capacity to promote and engage in transformative adaptation approaches to food system shifts.

More research is needed on how crops and livestock will respond to long-term changes in temperature, shortened rainfall seasons, shifts in precipitation and wind patterns, and impacts on pollinators, among others. These data could inform understanding of which crop and livestock varieties may be approaching thresholds that could make continued investments in maintaining current systems less beneficial than investing in alternatives (including indigenous varieties). While some slow-onset events, such as increasing coastal freshwater salinity, have obvious effects on agriculture and aquaculture, understanding is more limited of how more subtle changes in climate, such as more wind and fire or higher humidity, can threaten the viability of food systems.

Global research networks like CGIAR and the FAO play a critical role in this type of research, and in promoting global food security through research and innovation, including by helping farmers better manage climate change risks. The CGIAR’s newly launched Research and Innovation Strategy highlights systems transformation to frame the research, and places agriculture within the broader context of how water and land systems will be affected by and must be adapted to the climate crisis, as explained in Box 5, which references the Adapt Now report (Bapna et al 2019).

Box 5 | ADAPT NOW: Expanding the Research Agenda of CGIAR

The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) system is embarking upon a transition to fully embed climate change in every aspect of its new 10-year strategy. The Global Commission on Adaptation’s Agriculture and Food Security Action Track includes the aim of doubling the scale of investment in agricultural research through the CGIAR system to support 200 million small-scale producers in adapting their farming systems, livelihoods, and landscapes to be more climate resilient by 2030.

While doubling investment and integrating climate change into all research work streams is important, how that investment is allocated is even more critical. The CGIAR research agenda can be made more transformative by explicitly identifying which types of crops and livestock will be most resilient in significantly altered conditions.

Particular attention must be given to vulnerable smallholder farmers and herders, who must be better engaged in setting the CGIAR’s regional research agendas and participating in their implementation to ensure that their needs are addressed.

The CGIAR system could specifically promote transformative actions such as considering entirely different types of crops and livestock where needed, accelerating implementation of significantly new technologies, and recognizing that in some cases entire landscapes will need to shift from one type of production to another.

While generally not as well funded or sophisticated, National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS) play a critical role in the early stages of building the capacity to promote and engage in food system shifts for climate resilience, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. The ability of NARS to conduct crop R&D is a prerequisite for transformative adaptation, which governments and adaptation funders should prioritize making investments in—specifically, in efforts to decrease breeding times; expand gene banks and related data systems, the range of crops researched (e.g., traditional and orphan crops), and the diversity of available genetic breeding material; and scale up participatory breeding approaches.

In addition, local research organizations (often local universities and colleges) and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) such as those that work closely with farmers also need greater capacity to encourage farmers to experiment with new types of crops and livestock and other transformative elements. A greater share of funding must be channeled to them to help identify what will work in particular contexts.

Five specific actions could help both global and national agricultural research organizations improve crop breeding to better support long-term, systemic change:

  1. Develop a suite of technological strategies. There is no single best strategy for breeding climate-resilient crops, and different breeding strategies may confer a range of agronomic, economic, environmental, and social benefits and challenges. Specifically, greater investment is needed to support precision phenotyping, trials under a range of environmental conditions, and the incorporation of traditional, wild, and climate-resilient crops and traits into breeding cycles. By developing more diverse sets of crops with wider ranges of genetic traits, crop researchers will be better able to develop the crops needed under transformative adaptation scenarios.
  2. Speed up the crop and livestock breeding process from development to adoption. Current average breeding times in low-income countries are seven to nine years from development to adoption, which hinders the ability to get new types of crops and livestock into the hands of farmers as quickly as will be needed for transformative adaptation to become more widespread. To keep pace with a changing climate, this should be brought down to three or four years, as is happening in developed countries, by accelerating trials, building out crop profiles, and reforming intellectual property laws (Niles et al. 2020). Improving seed distribution and protective mechanisms for crop and livestock genetic diversity requires additional investment, as does generating better information regarding genetics and seed adoption.
  3. Improve pest and disease surveillance networks. Very little is known about shifting pest and disease dynamics in changing climates. Expanding surveillance networks and building out data platforms for agricultural pests and diseases would enable existing food systems to be maintained and increase the odds that emerging ones will be viable.
  4. Promote intersectoral, interregional coordination. Determining sustainable solutions to long-term adaptation challenges will not be possible without looking at regional- and country-level analyses of how other sectors will impact agriculture in the future, especially those related to water use, industrial development, and land use planning. Agriculture will need to shift according to not only climate change impacts but other sociopolitical dynamics—making location-specific intersectoral and interregional coordination platforms essential.
  5. Develop capacity to undertake a range of analyses. In addition to traditional cost-benefit analyses that focus primarily on crop yields, greater emphasis should be placed on accounting for externalities (i.e., hidden costs, often to environmental sustainability), trade-offs, and co-benefits. In addition, social impact analyses should be more widely used to better understand which types of crops, livestock, technologies, and other interventions will be a good fit with local cultures and preferences. Political economy analyses can identify barriers to interventions reaching and being adopted by those living in poverty and other vulnerable groups. Foresight analysis, which has been defined as “a systematic, participatory, future-intelligence-gathering and medium-to-long-term vision-building process aimed at enabling present-day decisions and mobilizing joint action,” has also been used as a tool for transformative scenario planning (UNDP 2014, 7).

5.1.3 Enhance climate services and information platforms to support transformative adaptation

Research organizations, with support from governments and funding entities, should enhance climate services and information platforms to enable identification of hotspots and aid decision-makers in designing transformative pathways.

As Box 6 summarizes, climate services (CS) could be enhanced to better support transformative adaptation by identifying transformation hotspots, assessing more resilient options, and mapping transformative pathways. Several studies and initiatives have aimed to identify climate change hotspots in terms of where communities will be the most vulnerable, most exposed, and most sensitive to climate impacts (Mani et al. 2018; UCS 2011; Parker et al. 2019; FAO 2014). However, few research initiatives have stress-tested the limits of how much specific regional food systems can adapt to the severity of climate change impacts expected under different emissions scenarios or in response to combinations of climate change impacts, nor the adequacy of current adaptation interventions for preventing steep productivity declines and crises in transformation hotspots.

Box 6 | Enhanced Climate Services for Transformative Adaptation

  • New types of information to identify transformation hotspots and determine best-fit solutions (e.g., crop/livestock climate suitability thresholds, scenarios of increased frequency of extreme events, market projections)
  • Expanded time horizons (e.g., longer-term scenarios beyond 10 years; short-, medium-, and long-term adaptation options)
  • Tailored, bundled information: Different transformative pathway actors require different “bundles,” or combinations, of information, which should be tailored to meet their needs

Source: Derived from Ashley et al. (2020).

Tools for analyzing probabilistic scenarios of various climate impact scenarios occurring over the longer term could include greater consideration of slow-onset events and decadal and longer-term (2050 and end-of-century) climate change projections (Ashley et al 2020).

By the same token, greater investment in developing tools to help identify opportunities to produce crops that may be new to a region will be critical to incentivizing farmers to recognize that substantial changes are needed. Most currently available crop suitability models focus on identifying which globally traded staple crops will no longer be suitable in particular areas due to climate change impacts. Future models need to identify a broader range of crops, some of which may be non-market traditional varieties, that will become more suitable (Kole et al. 2015; Tadele and Assefa 2012).

While some studies have assessed crop suitability under various climate change scenarios, along with more general climate change impacts on agricultural livelihoods (see Box 3 for an example), few researcher programs have been systematically designed or implemented to provide holistic information and analyses for entire regions or suites of crops or livestock species to determine tipping points. FAO’s Modelling System for Agricultural Impacts of Climate Change (MOSAICC) is an example of an existing model that integrates components related to climate, agronomics, hydrology, economics, and forestry (FAO 2015). However, application of the model seems to be limited to a handful of countries (e.g., Uruguay, Paraguay, Indonesia, Morocco, Peru, Philippines, Malawi, Zambia), and its climate components are based on historical climate variability that does not adequately reflect climate change predictions. IFPRI’s International Model for Policy Analysis of Agricultural Commodities and Trade (IMPACT) (Robinson et al. 2015) is another promising example. It was developed in the early 1990s to consider the long-term challenges facing policymakers in reducing hunger and poverty. It has been expanded and improved repeatedly to respond to increasingly complex policy questions and the state-of-the-art of modeling, and now includes a network of linked economic and market, water, and crop models, as well as the capacity to analyze climate change impacts. Models like these could be made accessible to non-experts and prioritized for rapid scaling to improve adaptation efforts.

More localized and specific analysis of crop viability and options for new crops should include input from farmers and herders regarding their observations, experiences, and preferences. Research is also needed to assess the costs and benefits of potential new crops, the socioeconomic impacts on different communities and groups, and the markets and policies needed for new crops to translate into viable livelihoods and sustainable climate-resilient economic development (Niles et al. 2020). These insights will reduce the risk of spending limited resources on maladaptive, unsustainable, or unwanted projects or programs.

Generating this information will require more investment in robust baseline data collection and high-resolution, contextualized data (Ashley et al. 2020). The satellite data and related models that most existing hotspot-type analyses are based on are generally not designed to predict system tipping points. This is particularly true for water data, as watershed dynamics are highly complex and difficult to model, and meteorological stations are spotty in many countries. Model predictions for precipitation in particular are often based on broad assumptions, and often reveal too broad a range of possibilities to be useful for medium- and long-term agricultural planning. More open access to climate and environmental data collected by governments or private companies is also needed. Farmers can also play an important role in improving available information through systems that enable them to share their observations with other farmers and researchers, as described in Box 7 (Ferdinand et al. forthcoming).

Box 7 | ADAPT NOW: Assisting Autonomous Adaptation through Digital Advisory Services

As part of the Agriculture and Food Security Action Track, the Global Commission on Adaptation has developed a partnership with the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, the World Food Programme, and other partners to expand two-way data sharing and access to weather and seasonal forecasts, pest and disease early warnings, digital soil maps, and information on adaptive production practices.

Transformative adaptation could be incorporated in the development of innovative and adaptive digital advisory services by including information on long-term future climates, suggestions for alternative crops for specific hotspots, information on how to cultivate them and their required inputs, and a platform for sharing lessons learned by innovative and entrepreneurial farmers.

Source: Adapted from Ferdinand et al. (forthcoming).

To better support policymakers in applying transformative adaptation to planning processes, specific types of information for better determining crop suitability should be tailored to their needs and bundled together. For example, government policymakers would require long-term scenarios that include more transparent land tenure and socioeconomic data, while private sector investors might want to know more about market niches, risk mitigation approaches, and opportunities for novel crops. Adaptation funding entities could require information including social safeguards and the effectiveness of various interventions in similar systems. Strengthening laws regarding the security of land tenure, particularly for women, may be necessary to encourage farmers to invest more in long-term adaptation strategies.

Analyses that look at intersectoral trade-offs on natural resource use, socioeconomic variables, international/domestic price and market models, sociocultural variables, and ecological/environmental impact assessments, among others, will be more useful to policymakers with broad scopes of responsibility, and will also facilitate mainstreaming climate change adaptation across multiple sectors. This is particularly true if the outputs from these often-complex analyses are presented in a format that is accessible to policymakers and customized for them. For example, agricultural labs in Madhya Pradesh have developed and applied a Water Evaluation and Planning system–based decision support tool that can simulate agricultural water demand in river watersheds based on IPCC future climate projections (Aggarwal et al. 2018), although it is reported by some that this tool is quite complex to use.

Producing and packaging tailored information that includes many of the factors that concern decision-makers also requires finding clear and compelling ways of visualizing complex data (Tye and Grinspan 2020). Figure 9 features an example of the use of a straightforward data visualization tool, PREPdata, which may be more accessible to decision-makers than more complex platforms.

Figure 9 | PREPdata Visualization of Changes in Coffee Suitability in Costa Rica

Source: Costa Rica coffee data: Ovalle Rivera 2018. Visualized using PREPdata platform,

5.2 Planning

Transformative approaches to adaptation must be integrated into planning processes.

For transformative approaches to adaptation to actually build long-term, sustainable resilience, they must be integrated into national and subnational planning and budgeting processes and then implemented. Long-term, systemic change can best be mainstreamed and scaled up by embedding transformative pathways in the full range of adaptation policies and planning mechanisms, from the international to the local level. This will require improved coordination between local and national governments, as well as among governments, funding entities, and research organizations, all while using transformative approaches to plan over longer time scales.

For transformation to occur at a broader scale more quickly, governance structures at all levels, from national to local, must remain robust for the decades that will be required to implement coordinated sequences of actions over many years, despite changing power dynamics that can include differing leadership, regional or international issues, or groups within countries. Other useful measures include improving institutional structures and networks; eliminating inequitable policies; and improving access to information, data, and credit. In addition, building leadership skills, capacity, and institutional memory among technical leaders who are unlikely to change with each new administration—particularly those in Ministries of Finance and Planning—may also be helpful. Budgets must integrate climate adaptation considerations and prioritize transformative adaptation where and when it is needed. Finally, the UNFCCC and its organizations have a role to play in building momentum among Parties to the Paris Agreement for this approach to be more widely applied.

It is important to note that addressing the need for long-term, systemic change may be politically risky and unpalatable when attention is focused on the next election rather than decades in the future—but reducing future conflicts and chaos, creating sustainable jobs and new enterprise opportunities, and fueling economic growth make this a worthwhile endeavor. This case can more effectively be made if policymakers are armed with the right information.

5.2.1 Mainstream transformation into national and subnational planning processes

National and subnational governments should integrate into planning processes an understanding of when, where, and how food systems will need to shift over the coming decades.

Effective design of transformative pathways depends upon integrating the types of research and analysis described in Section 5.1 into plans and policies. These can include National Adaptation Planning processes, of which 21 have been posted on the UNFCCC website as of mid-February 2021, while over 90 are currently in the works. Countries can also include transformative pathways in broader multisectoral development plans and policies and align them with plans to achieve the SDGs (Carter et al. 2018). Tools like the NAP-SDG iFrame can assist countries in aligning development agendas (UNFCCC 2018a).

Plans and policies must recognize that many systems—such as water, trade, and employment—operate across boundaries, both geographical and political, and that shifting food systems will often rely on better collaboration around management of cross-boundary systems. Transformations also require linking systems that operate at many scales; for example, agricultural R&D networks should be connected from community to national and international levels, while food systems operate at local, regional, national, and global scales.

5.2.2 Include all stakeholders, especially those often marginalized, in decision-making

Planning for transformative adaptation should center on inclusive, participatory processes that engage a diverse range of stakeholders, including smallholder farmers, herders, and fishers from groups that may often be marginalized in decision-making, such as women, youth, and Indigenous peoples, so that no one is left behind.

The types of fundamental, systemic changes described in this report will almost always be challenging to implement, in part because what farmers and herders produce is often central to their identity, sense of place, and pride. Even so, engaging communities in making difficult decisions about their futures is preferable to turning a blind eye to foreseeable crises. This will require governance structures such as participatory planning processes that facilitate effective two-way communication from the local to the national levels, as well as sufficient financial and technical support for communities to enact food system shifts. Farmer-producer cooperatives and similar organizations, as well as relevant local and regional NGOs, can play an important role, particularly in introducing new interventions to their areas and in identifying pioneer farmers.

Farmers, fishers, and herders and their communities need to be involved from the onset in deciding when, where, and how system shifts will occur (within the scope of what scientific data indicate will be feasible). In some situations where agriculture is already becoming marginal and severe climate change impacts are anticipated, farmers, fishers, and herders may have to move away from culturally significant species to more climate-resilient ones or, more drastically, out of farming altogether.

Governments should base planning on transparent information and consultations with a range of stakeholders to make evidence-based decisions regarding the types of transformative adaptation that would be good investments and offer social and economic co-benefits once future climate impacts are considered (Salman et al. 2019; Ashley et al. 2020; Niles et al. 2020).

Even broad-scale interventions will still need to be responsive to the local context because measures appropriate in one part of a region may not work well in other areas (due to differences in soil, topography, microclimates, and other factors). For example, adaptation experts interviewed in the Hindu Kush Himalaya region said that scaling up the shift to a new, climate-resilient crop (e.g., apples; see Box 1) might not be a sustainable solution for many communities due to diverse cultural and environmental conditions in this mountainous region.

Interviewees in the Hindu Kush5 and Ethiopia6 suggested that the proper scale for implementing systemic change might be at the watershed (or even micro-watershed) level. Communities within the same watershed will have interconnected water, soil, and microclimate dynamics, and what happens upstream will affect those downstream, and vice versa, which could bring diverse stakeholders together around common adaptation goals and methods.

As previously mentioned, where transformative adaptation is already occurring, it is often autonomous and unplanned, and is being led by pioneer farmers who tend to have better access to land, credit, information, and other resources that enable them to take the risks and invest in new alternatives. Cases of autonomous adaptation have been more prevalent so far than strategically planned interventions, but raise concerns that those who do not have sufficient access to these resources will not be able to engage in transformation where and when it is the best response. This can lead to greater consolidation of wealth and power, leaving those living in poverty and other vulnerable groups further behind.

Governments can partner with research organizations to identify autonomous transformative adaptation and related shifts that are already occurring. They could then scale up existing strategies through policies and financial instruments that make the necessary resources available, including to farmers and herders who are living in poverty and otherwise marginalized. Research organizations can help identify key enabling conditions and barriers that poorer farmers face and suggest policy solutions such as improved access to information and credit.

5.2.3 Link transformative adaptation to the UNFCCC process

The UNFCCC can facilitate and catalyze the development, dissemination, and use of knowledge to advance transformative adaptation policies and practices. The imperative toward long-term, systemic shifts should be part of ongoing discussions of the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss & Damage associated with Climate Change Impacts (WIM), the Nairobi Work Programme (NWP), and the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture (KJWA), as well as the preparation of NDCs, NAPs, and other reporting requirements. There is little guidance and there are few examples available to Parties on how to incorporate this approach to adaptation into plans, policies, and funding proposals. UNFCCC bodies can play an important role in creating and disseminating this information. Given the number and diversity of stakeholders expected to be engaged through the UNFCCC, these multilateral bodies can play an important role in driving action, setting the pace of change, and providing guidance.

Loss and damage, which refers to impacts of climate change that have not been or cannot be avoided through mitigation and adaptation efforts (Van der Geest and Warner 2015), is addressed by the UNFCCC through the WIM. Avoiding or reducing loss and damage could be a main driver for transformative adaptation in agriculture. Such approaches are mentioned as a key area of work on comprehensive risk management through the Loss and Damage Work Programme of the WIM. Although a few relevant examples have been widely documented, such as Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration in the Sahel, substantially more attention should be given to this aspect of the work program, with a specific emphasis on agriculture and food security. The next update to the WIM Executive Committee’s work plan, which was scheduled to be reviewed in 2020, offers an entry point for sharing examples and lessons learned, including those produced by the TACR project. The Executive Committee could also consider how the knowledge and expertise it has developed since its creation could be shared with and support the development of the KJWA, through activities such as joint workshops, research, or policy analysis.

The Nairobi Work Programme could incorporate a specific thematic focus area on transformative adaptation. Its Lima Adaptation Knowledge Initiative in particular offers an opportunity to foster regionally specific dialogue among Parties, observers, and other organizations on how best to enable transformation where and when it is needed. Sector-specific development, dissemination, and use of relevant knowledge, including for agriculture and food security, could be advanced by this cross-cutting initiative. The NWP could also promote greater investment in and use of tailored analyses, which could highlight impacts such as drought, water scarcity, and land degradation, or those on specific ecosystems such as oceans, coastal areas, mega deltas, coral reefs, and mangroves.

The UNFCCC’s Least Developed Countries Expert Group (LEG) could continue to lead development of improved NAPs for least developed countries that incorporate transformative approaches to adaptation. Sessions on this topic during the 2018 and 2019 NAP Expos enabled Parties and supporting organizations to share experiences and ideas. LEG could rally countries to request improved guidance on long-term, systemic approaches to agricultural adaptation, of which little currently exists.

The Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture could promote the development and implementation of transformative pathways. Initiated in 2017, KJWA asks Parties and observers to submit their views on a range of methods and approaches to address climate change impacts on agriculture (UNFCCC 2018b). The challenges of and promising approaches to making long-term, systemic change should be explicitly considered in the planned KWJA workshops on livestock management and the socioeconomic and food security dimensions of climate change in the agriculture sector, which took place virtually during the Climate Dialogues in November and December 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Parties could integrate long-term, systemic adaptation into potential future topics for the KJWA to include at COP26—for example, improving crop R&D with a focus on seed systems to enable agricultural transformations; building capacity for long-term planning; analytical approaches to identify where and when transformative change will be needed; options for alternatives; and policy and market incentives.

Adaptation communications to the UNFCCC, including nationally determined contributions, national communications, and national adaptation plans—which many countries are currently updating or drafting in the run-up to COP26—offer an additional way for Parties to signal their recognition of the need for long-term, systemic resilience that engages policymakers across ministries and disciplines. Although more than 90 percent of current NDCs mention agriculture in some way (such as inclusion in an economy-wide target or specific policies and actions that address agriculture mitigation and/or adaptation), the current round of NDC updates presents an opportunity to be more explicit about what each country intends to achieve, how to get there, and what support is needed (Ross et al. 2019). These enhanced NDCs should also reflect the perspectives outlined in the UNFCCC’s Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform to ensure that these often marginalized groups are at the core of efforts to reduce or minimize countries’ vulnerability to climate change. The enhanced NDCs should also be gender-responsive as per the UNFCCC’s Gender Action Plan. As for NAPs, a key objective of the NAP process is to develop and enhance Parties’ long-term capacity for planning and implementing adaptation actions. As of November 2020, 125 out of 154 developing countries had undertaken preparation and/or implementation of these processes (UNFCCC 2020); as of mid-February 2021, 21 of these countries had completed and posted their first NAPs as per the NAP Central website.

5.3 Finance

Finance to mobilize resources is needed to accelerate transformative adaptation.

Entities that fund action on climate change, both multilateral and bilateral, are recognizing the need to increase the amount of funding devoted to adaptation. However, given the challenges that the global food system faces, a massive increase in funding for agricultural adaptation is urgently needed, for both incremental and transformative approaches.

Adaptation finance increased 35 percent from 2015/2016 to 2017/2018—from $22 billion to $30 billion (Buchner et al. 2019). Global adaptation funding for the agriculture, forestry, land use, and natural resource management sector increased from $5 to $7 billion from 2015/2016 to 2017/2018. It continued to be the second-highest-funded sector after water and wastewater management (Buchner et al. 2019). Box 8 offers a reference for further detail.

Box 8 | Multilateral Climate Funders of Adaptation

Binet et al. (2021) conducted a recent evaluation of the Green Climate Fund’s adaptation portfolio and approach and found that there are six multilateral climate funds particularly relevant to adaptation: the Least Developed Countries Fund, the Special Climate Change Fund, the Adaptation Fund, the Pilot Program for Climate Resilience, the Adaptation for Smallholder Agriculture Programme, and the Green Climate Fund. More information about how these funds are structured and comparisons among them can be found in the report.

Agriculture is the highest-funded sector in the adaptation portfolios of the Adaptation Fund, the Least Developed Countries Fund, the Pilot Program for Climate Resilience, and the Green Climate Fund. Approximately 45 percent of adaptation projects from these funds have an agriculture focus (WRI 2018).

However, adaptation funding overall amounts to only 5 percent of tracked climate finance data (Buchner et al. 2019). At this rate, adaptation funding will continue to fall short of the $280–500 billion projected to be needed annually by 2050 (UNEP 2018). Given the magnitude of the agricultural adaptation challenge, the amount allocated to this sector is unlikely to be enough. The amount of funding must rapidly be scaled up to be at least in line with the Paris Agreement commitments of mobilizing $100 billion per year from 2020 onward. While the costs of transformative adaptation have not yet been calculated, they are likely to be high, given the extensive scale and scope of the changes it will entail—although avoiding losses and damages is likely to pay off over the long term. This section explores how expanding adaptation action to include transformative adaptation and the additional investments it will require might be accomplished.

5.3.1 Improve alignment among funders

Adaptation funders, including bilateral and multilateral agencies, need to develop complementary approaches to transformation and shift their funding modalities to support projects and programs that identify and prioritize building resilience in transformation hotspots.

As described previously, adaptation funders have divergent perspectives on what transformative adaptation entails—which makes coming together around common goals and best practices difficult. In response, the TACR project offered a definition for transformative approaches to agricultural adaptation that, if widely adopted, could remove some of the ambiguity that may be limiting progress.

Regardless of whether or not this happens, closer collaboration could help ensure that this diversity of viewpoints can be brought together to create a complementary range of mechanisms to better manage long-term, systemic risks through transformative adaptation. Adaptation funding entities, both multilateral institutions, such as the Green Climate Fund, Adaptation Fund, and World Bank, and bilateral donors, such as the U.S. Agency for International Development, the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the British Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, could also more deeply engage with peer organizations, leverage each entity’s comparative advantages, and broaden their focus from isolated projects to wider initiatives. Funders could concentrate specifically on leveraging their respective comparative strengths to better determine whether, when, and where transformative approaches may be needed and encourage proposals that reflect this. They could implement such changes by using common (or at least complementary) funding objectives or criteria (such as the three points in the TACR definition outlined in Section 1.1).

New mechanisms could be put in place to improve coordination—perhaps along the lines of what the NDC Partnership does among countries working to implement their NDCs and funders who are supporting them. The Green Climate Fund, Global Environment Facility, and Adaptation Fund have undertaken efforts to strengthen their coherence and coordination around other issues and could take on systemic adaptation as well. Other funding entities could follow suit.

Adaptation funders could also encourage or even require proposals for agricultural adaptation and related sectors (e.g., water resources) to incorporate more information on long-term climate impacts and identify how the proposal’s actions contribute to transformative pathways. Where climate change is expected to make existing food systems nonviable, proposals should consider designing pathways for a range of climate scenarios that acknowledge trade-offs among sectors and stakeholders for each of them. Box 9 summarizes the Adapt Now report’s recommendation on this topic.

Box 9 | ADAPT NOW: Diversification and Transformation

The Adapt Now reporta recommends that the adaptation community help small-scale farmers better manage increased variability and climate shocks by supporting on- and off-farm livelihood diversification and increased market access.

This recommendation is closely linked to the impending need for large-scale, systemic shifts to better manage climate impacts. Both diversification and transformative adaptation can be promoted through particular types of actions such as switching to different types of crops and livestock where needed, changing to significantly new technologies, and/or recognizing that in some cases, entire landscapes will need to shift from one type of production to another.

Farmers and other rural people will need financial and technical support to make transformative approaches to adaptation more accessible, diversify their incomes as they transition to alternative farming systems, or even leave farming altogether in situations where no type of agriculture is viable.

Note: a. Bapna et al. 2019.

5.3.2 Incentivize transformation

Governments and the private sector can create adaptive incentives and disincentives to initiate and sustain shifts in food systems.

Governments and the private sector, including banks and financiers, could create market incentives and disincentives such as taxes, fixed pricing, and other market mechanisms to provide opportunities (or remove barriers) for farmers to invest in unfamiliar and potentially risky transitions to other types of agricultural (or nonagricultural) livelihoods (Niles et al. 2020). Grants, loans, subsidies, taxes, and improved co-financing tools, among others, could also provide farmers with opportunities to invest in such transformations (Bapna et al. 2019). Insurance may also have a role to play over the short term, although its long-term ability to continue paying out when disasters become more frequent and severe is questionable. Redesigning subsidy structures for new crops and their inputs, promoting marketing campaigns, and encouraging selective seed market development are additional options to encourage adaptive crop switches (Niles et al. 2020).

Market incentives and disincentives are likely to be a particularly powerful tool to encourage the investments in climate-resilient crops and livestock that will be required in transformative adaptation scenarios. For example, investment in crop R&D, as well as what farmers decide to grow and what consumers choose to buy, is often dictated by the market and a reflection of consumer (and corporate) preferences. Based on current and future research that indicates which crops may be suitable where (considering climate impacts), policymakers could create market incentives for climate-resilient crops, including traditional crops. Decentralized agro-processing of new crops near where they are produced could also incentivize production of new agricultural products while providing additional jobs and income, and ease entry into new markets.

Table 1 includes three examples from India of water-related financial incentives and disincentives with the potential to lead to transformative change.

Table 1 | Financial Incentives and Disincentives for Agricultural Water Use in India




Reduction in electricity subsidies

Manage groundwater and electricity demand

To manage groundwater demand, a centrally sponsored energy policy reform, referred to as Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Gram Jyoti Yojana, which focuses on rationing farm power supply through interventions in electricity infrastructure, was introduced in the state of Gujarat. It was then expanded to other states such as Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab, Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Madhya Pradesh. This scheme has not only led to a more efficient use of power and groundwater and curtailed groundwater withdrawals dramatically but also improved quality of life due to better power supply in nonfarm facilities such as schools, hospitals, and private businesses.

Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES)

To encourage large-scale watershed protection at state level or transition from traditional farming systems to agroforestry

Watershed services provided by the forests in Himachal Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh alone are valued at approximately $34 billion per year (in 2018 US$).a The states can sell these services to beneficiaries for payments (i.e., PES) that will be used to compensate projects converting forestland or practices that protect the watershed. The state government realized the value of these services by trading them through the World Bank as carbon credits, which provided important alternatives to government funds for large-scale forest conservation.b

Grants or loans

To lower farmers’ investment costs and allow more farmers to participate in water management activities

The Indian government approved a total budget of $15.5 million (in 2018 US$) to fund 133 demonstrative recharge projects in 16 Indian states, which has led to the construction of 1,661 artificial recharge structures, and annual water recharge of 55.20 million cubic meters.c

Notes: a. IIFMB 2006; b. CGWB 2016; c. DWR 2017.

Policy decisions regarding incentives, such as where to institute agricultural subsidies, should reflect the complex webs of context-specific factors and be tailored to specific regions and ecosystems, rather than applied uniformly across countries and regions. For example, subsidies to encourage greater production of thirsty crops should be limited to humid watersheds and tailored to promote more suitable crops in areas with less water availability, even in cases where this seems contrary to generating the greatest short-term profits. Building resilience over the longer term provides greater stability and benefits to a wider range of stakeholders, including people living in poverty, than engaging in boom-and-bust cycles—often at the expense of a more sustainable use of natural resources and social cohesion.

Transformative adaptation should be explicitly considered in national budgets, as well as sectoral adaptation and development plans. For example, subsidy, public expenditure, and taxation mechanisms to build long-term resilience in a country’s livestock sector (e.g., those affecting feed, vaccinations, land) should be examined to ensure they encourage transformations that promote food security, sustainable resource use, greenhouse gas mitigation, and social equity (Salman et al. 2019).

Coordination must also be improved among governments, funding entities, and research organizations to create and finance transformative pathways. Strengthening connections with the research community can help ensure that the types of crops and livestock production that governments choose to invest in are well-suited to changing climatic conditions.

5.3.3 Fund comprehensive, long-term, multi-phase adaptation

When considering parameters of adaptation interventions, funders need to encourage comprehensive, long-term, multi-phase adaptation programs that recognize the interconnectedness of food systems with other systems—as well as political stability—so that such programs have a chance to be implemented.

On their own, food system shifts tend to occur on medium-to-long-term timelines, as the earlier example of shifting apple production upslope in Himachal Pradesh, India, demonstrated (see Box 1). It takes time to alter fundamental components of existing systems, as well as markets and institutional arrangements. These shifts will require funding mechanisms that can support more comprehensive, longer-term initiatives than many typical adaptation projects allow. For example, a recently approved Green Climate Fund proposal from Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Commission introduces crop alternatives and climate-resilient irrigation schemes over a 14-year timeframe (GCF 2019).

Longer timelines also afford the opportunity to distribute costs and risks while maintaining flexible adaptation pathways that can evolve as future climate impacts become clearer (Carter et al. 2018). Funders and governments can accommodate longer timeframes by investing in multi-phased projects and programs that span several years or even decades. This will require enhanced collaboration so that projects and programs continuously build off one another. Such long-term, comprehensive initiatives could also be funded by forming multi-funder “ecosystems” of programs, potentially at a regional level, that would take advantage of funders’ various strengths and niches.

For example, to build long-term resilience in livestock production, governments, funders, and the private sector should go beyond animal breeding to include investments that improve livestock infrastructure, veterinary and disease prevention services, feed manufacturing and markets, and land rehabilitation mechanisms. Strategically combining these adaptation interventions has the potential for transformative outcomes by fundamentally changing the livestock production system (Salman et al. 2019).

It is also crucial that adaptation funding entities back investments throughout value chains for products that are likely to stand the test of time in a changing climate. Both public and private investment in value chain development and related market policies and programs are needed to enable innovative farmers to produce new products. For example, predictive analytical tools could be co-financed to help producers understand the global market and find better niches in it—and also warn producers when niches are closing due to climate conditions or changing market dynamics.

For example, the switch from coffee to citrus by farmers in some areas of Costa Rica provided a new opportunity for resilient agricultural production. However, processing plants, storage, and export market access are limited, raising the risk that local and domestic markets may quickly become saturated, leading to the waste of excess produce and price declines. Fortunately, private sector actors have invested in a plant that produces orange juice concentrate.

Of particular interest are plant and animal products that can be produced in increasingly hot and dry areas where more traditional options will soon become unsuitable. For example, the economic value of camels for transportation and meat in Mongolia had been declining for decades due to more appealing and economically viable alternatives—but rising consumer demand for milk due to greater awareness of the product’s nutritional benefits led local governments to introduce private sector companies that are working with herders to enhance milk production (XinhuaNet 2020). In another example, cactus pear (Opuntia ficus-indica) is a crop that can grow on land where everything else fails. A processing plant in Souk Ahras, Algeria, has improved incomes by processing essential oils, pharmaceuticals, juice, jam, and livestock feed made using it (FAO and ICARDA 2017), which is likely to encourage additional production.

Existing financing modalities must be expanded to support transformative approaches to adaptation, particularly in the form of grants rather than loans, which could easily exacerbate the debt crisis. Instruments and tools designed to finance shorter-term, incremental adaptation may not be as useful for financing longer-term, systemic change—for example, insurance schemes that are designed to buffer farmers against occasional weather-linked losses are likely to go bankrupt as impacts intensify and today’s extreme events become “the new normal.” However, there may be a role for measures such as reducing premiums for actions that help initiate progress along transformative pathways.

Finally, existing adaptation finance windows could be expanded to include transformative adaptation strategies. The renewed focus on loss and damage that is anticipated at COP26 may offer new opportunities to direct funding toward approaches that facilitate averting and minimizing loss and damage.

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