Food Systems At Risk

Transformative Adaptation for Long-Term Food Security

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Executive Summary

Climate change impacts are already reducing crop and livestock productivity and decreasing food security for millions of people around the world—and these impacts will intensify over the coming decades. Longer-term, systemic, transformative approaches to adaptation are needed to protect rural lives and livelihoods. This report explores how climate change is affecting agriculture and the benefits that transformative approaches to adaptation offer.

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  • Strategic investments in resilient food systems are crucial to manage intensifying climate change impacts and feed 9.7 billion people by 2050.
  • In some geographical hotspots climate change is already undermining food systems, even where incremental adaptation measures are ramping up.
  • Beginning now to anticipate, plan for, and expand financing options through transformative adaptation is critical to averting and minimizing loss and damage; enhancing global food security; reducing risks of displacement, conflict, and crisis; and avoiding maladaptation.
  • The authors define transformative adaptation in agriculture 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 significantly new resilience-building production methods and technologies at broad scale across value chains.
  • Planning for transformative adaptation should center on inclusive, participatory processes that engage a diverse range of stakeholders who may often be marginalized in decision-making, such as women, youth, and Indigenous peoples.
  • After taking stock of the evidence regarding the harsh impacts on agriculture anticipated from warming of 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius (°C) or higher over the coming decades, this report presents evidence to support a call for urgent action by
    • agricultural research organizations, to build and share knowledge regarding transformative approaches;
    • governments, to integrate this knowledge into plans and policies by establishing and implementing transformative pathways; and
    • funding entities, to increase financial support for agricultural adaptation and design sustainable financing mechanisms with the right incentives and disincentives to support transformative adaptation.


As climate change impacts intensify, hard-won development gains are already being undermined. After a decade of decline, global hunger is rising, 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—which is attributable in part to greater climate variability and more extreme weather events (FAO 2020a). In the coming decades, the impacts of climate change on the productivity of crops, livestock, fisheries, and forestry will become more severe (Gourdji et al. 2013; IPCC 2014), while the global human population is expected to expand to 9.7 billion by 2050 (UNESA 2019).

Currently, most agricultural adaptation focuses on scaling up incremental measures. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) defines such measures as “actions where the central aim is to maintain the essence and integrity of the existing technological, institutional, governance, and value systems, such as through adjustments to cropping systems via new varieties, changing planting times, or using more efficient irrigation” (IPCC 2014, 839; emphasis added). While such measures are extremely important and valuable, evidence is mounting that incremental measures alone will not adequately protect farmers, fishers, herders, and other rural people from growing risks as climate change impacts intensify. Transformative adaptation, which the IPCC refers to as an approach that “seeks to change the fundamental attributes of systems in response to actual or expected climate change and its effects, often at a scale and ambition greater than incremental activities,” is an essential complement. The IPCC goes on to note that transformative adaptation includes measures “such as changing livelihoods from cropping to livestock or by migrating to take up a livelihood elsewhere, and also changes in our perceptions and paradigms about the nature of climate change, adaptation, and their relationship to other natural and human systems” (IPCC 2014, 836; emphasis added).

In some locations, the limits of incremental adaptation are already being tested, with permanent implications for the long-term viability of local food systems. Risks are especially high in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and small island developing nations (SIDS), and for vulnerable groups such as women, youth, Indigenous peoples, and people living in poverty, among others.

Box ES1 offers a few examples of transformative adaptation from around the world.

Box ES1 | Examples of Transformative Adaptation

Costa Rican coffee farmers in areas that are becoming too warm for coffee production are shifting to citrus instead.a

Farmers in Bagerhat District, Bangladesh, have shifted from rice production to aquaculture in response to increased salinity due to saltwater inundation from the sea and reduced seasonal river flows.b 

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.c 

In Ethiopia, cultivation of staple crops including wheat and teff has been moving to higher elevations as temperatures rise, while maize is replacing these crops and being grown more widely.d

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.e

In Northeast India, dragon fruit has been successfully cultivated for the first time due to hotter and drier climate conditions.f

Notes: a. Ferdinand et al. 2020; b. Faruque et al. 2016; c. Barrett et al. 2017; d. Tan et al. 2016; e. IMI 2019; f. Thokchom et al. 2019.

New approaches to adaptation are needed where current systems will not be able to support existing agricultural livelihoods under future climate stresses. This report explores one of them—transformative adaptation—and concludes that it is critical to avert and minimize loss and damage while enhancing global food security; reducing escalating risks of displacement, conflict, and crisis; and avoiding maladaptation.

About This Report

The Transforming Agriculture for Climate Resilience (TACR) project, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, aims to increase investments in agricultural adaptation and strengthen our collective understanding of and support for transformative approaches to adaptation where and when they are needed. This report is based on three years of research to delineate the following: what transformative adaptation is and how it applies to agriculture; why it is needed and what benefits it can offer; and how it can be better integrated into research, policy, planning, and funding processes to build the long-term resilience of farmers, herders, and others involved in agricultural value chains.

The TACR project recognizes that risks are increasing for ecosystems and regions as described in the 2019 IPCC Global Warming of 1.5°C report (see Section 2.4 of this report; IPCC 2019). Such threats mean that some “natural, managed and human systems” around the world, including crop yields, will experience severe and widespread climate change impacts and risks as temperatures exceed 2°C—which more recent research (Sherwood et al. 2020) indicates is highly likely to occur. Other systems that humans depend on for food security, such as warm-water coral reefs and tropical freshwater fisheries, as well as coastal areas that are home to 10 percent of the world’s population, are already facing tipping points.

In these ecosystems and regions, severe, irreversible climate change impacts will increase as temperatures rise and the limitations of adaptation are reached (IPCC 2019). These tipping points are likely to drive some systems to the point that they cannot continue to exist in their current form—including the food systems of an increasing number of places. In these situations, fundamental, systemic transformation is needed. Anticipating, planning for, and financing these transformations will require answering an important set of questions:

  • How can we better identify, anticipate, and address situations where climate change impacts have already or will soon exceed the resilience that incremental adaptation measures can provide?
  • How can we build the understanding, capacity, and technical knowledge needed to recurrently match the right crops and livestock varieties and production methods with farmers who face continually evolving conditions, while also ensuring that other vital components of value chains—such as processing, marketing, and distribution—can keep pace with these changes and support such significant shifts?
  • How can we design, establish, finance, and implement transformative pathways (i.e., coordinated sequences of short- and medium-term actions or projects intended to prepare food systems for unprecedented climate conditions) so that those most vulnerable to climate change are part of decision-making?

The TACR project set out to determine how fundamental, systemic transformation can be achieved. As described in greater detail in Section 1.2, the TACR project began with an extensive review of published academic literature on agricultural transformation and adaptation, as well as a review of publications from and consultations with representatives of the key audiences for this report: agriculture and adaptation researchers, governments, and adaptation funding entities. Examples of funding entities include multilateral institutions such as the Green Climate Fund, the Adaptation Fund, and the World Bank, as well as bilateral donors like the U.S. Agency for International Development, the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the British Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office. Based on this research, a framework that included a workable definition for transformative adaptation in agriculture was established (Carter et al. 2018). 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. 2019), and climate services (Ashley et al. 2020). World Resources Institute (WRI) researchers also applied the TACR framework to coffee production in Costa Rica (Tye and Grinspan 2020) and tested it on locally led climate-driven transformations in Costa Rica, Bhutan, and Ethiopia (Ferdinand et al. 2020).

This synthesis report is based on the framework and working papers mentioned above. It also reflects an ongoing series of interviews and consultations with experts in agricultural adaptation from state and national government agencies and agricultural research organizations in Ethiopia and India. Input from adaptation funding entities was gathered on an ad hoc basis over the course of the research. Preliminary findings were discussed and enriched during panel discussions and workshops at United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) events and other relevant public fora.

The paper also includes updated analyses based on new research such as the IPCC Global Warming of 1.5°C report (IPCC 2019). It takes a deeper look at the need for agriculture to shift in alignment with climate-driven ecosystem changes, as well as new linkages to the UNFCCC discussion on loss and damage. It also includes an economic model constructed by WRI researchers to determine when transformation makes economic sense.

The framework, working papers, and this synthesis report largely focus on the need for “top-down” action by research organizations, governments, and adaptation funding entities to better support smallholder farmers, herders, and fishers and marginalized communities to engage in more widespread transformative adaptation. Examples are emerging of locally led, or autonomous, transformative adaptations to climate change, in which local residents respond to climate change impacts (often among other drivers) without external support or guidance. However, our research indicates that the number of “pioneer farmers” and communities with the ability to make transformative changes without external assistance is quite limited. They tend to be those with greater access to resources (e.g., land, credit, information, technical capacity) with which to manage increasing climate risks. Implementing the elements of transformative adaptation for agriculture—i.e., shifting the locations where specific types of crops and livestock are produced, aligning agricultural production with changing landscapes and ecosystems, and/or introducing innovative production methods and technologies suitable for significantly changed conditions—is difficult for most farmers and communities to do on their own. This is especially true for those that are most vulnerable to climate change impacts: people living in poverty and other often marginalized groups including women, youth, and Indigenous peoples. While large agribusinesses with ties to global supply chains may have the financial, technical, and other resources needed to effectively engage in transformative adaptation, these more vulnerable groups often require external support to do so, and are therefore the focus of this paper. While the private sector writ large will need to respond to climate change and can promote and incentivize building agricultural resilience, it is less often a source of assistance for these most vulnerable groups than are organizations with a public mandate to ensure that no one is left behind.

While the TACR project was underway, the Global Commission on Adaptation was formed, with the aim of inspiring heads of state, government officials, community leaders, business executives, investors, and other international actors to prepare for and respond to the disruptive effects of climate change with urgency, determination, and foresight. The commission launched its flagship report Adapt Now: A Global Call for Leadership on Climate Resilience in September 2019 (Bapna et al. 2019), and engaged in 2020 in a Year of Action on eight action tracks, including one focused on agriculture and food security. This report refers often to Adapt Now to suggest ways that transformative approaches to agricultural adaptation can be carried forward.

This report’s recommendations are intended to encourage adaptation funding entities, governments, and research organizations to make long-term, systemic—i.e., transformative—approaches to resilience possible, especially for the poorest and most vulnerable farmers, by including such approaches in plans, projects, policies, and investment agendas. Promoting and supporting resilience will improve the odds of reducing risk and improving sustainability over the short term (less than 5 years), medium term (5 to 10 years), and long term (over 10 years).

Calls to Action

Based on the evidence it presents, this report calls for funding entities, governments, and research organizations to better understand, plan for, and finance transformative approaches to adaptation for food systems. The following three priorities expand on the “three revolutions” introduced by the Global Commission on Adaptation’s Adapt Now report (Bapna et al. 2019) to adequately factor climate change impacts and risks into key decisions through improved understanding, planning, and financing.1

  1. Understanding through expanded research and development

    Research and development must be expanded to make climate risks visible over multiple timescales and geographies and engage farmers, fishers, and herders in identifying transformative solutions for building long-term resilience.

    • Research efforts must focus squarely on the needs, experiences, and solutions of people living in poverty and others most vulnerable to climate change impacts—especially small-scale producers. This includes ensuring that these groups, and particularly Indigenous peoples, can contribute their knowledge and add to the evidence base regarding which adaptation measures will work best in their particular contexts, as well as facilitating their access to information. Poor and other vulnerable communities must have a voice in decision-making regarding systemic shifts at all links in value chains, so that their knowledge, expertise, needs, and preferences can shape actions, and so that no one is left behind. This will require strengthening their capacity to access and translate longer-term climate change projections so that they can better choose options that will serve them and their families over the coming decades—including whether and when to encourage the next generation to choose different livelihoods if climate projections indicate that agriculture will no longer be tenable in their area. Inputs required for transformative adaptation—e.g., new types of crops, fish, and livestock along with the information, skills, inputs, and financing required to successfully produce and market them—must be made accessible to these groups, particularly those living in poverty. Moreover, perceived risks of trying new crops and production methods must be tempered. Investments are needed to improve the resilience and productivity of traditional crops that may not appear in global supply chains but are essential to local food security and nutrition. Involving stakeholders and minimizing barriers to implementing resulting strategies will require greater collaboration with and participation from farmers, herders, fishers, and local communities who are the on-the-ground implementers of adaptation action (Ferdinand et al. 2020; Tye and Grinspan 2020).
    • The research agendas of global research systems, such as the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR); National Agricultural Research Systems; and especially local research institutions and organizations that work closely with farmers should expand to promote transformative adaptation approaches across food, land, and water system shifts (Ashley et al. 2020), with support from governmental agricultural policy, planning, and extension offices. Local organizations in particular, including producers’ associations, 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 support work to identify what will work in particular contexts. Current gaps for all types of research entities include speeding up the development-to-adoption timeframe of new crop and livestock varieties by improving infrastructure and technology exchanges; expanding pest and surveillance networks; improving access to meteorological and water supply and demand data, as well as data on soil health; and engaging in intersectoral and interregional coordination platforms (Salman et al. 2019; Niles et al. 2020). More attention should be given to improved breeding of livestock and orphan crops rather than continuing to invest mostly in research on global staple cereal crops like rice, wheat, and maize. Finally, capacity must be built to undertake a broader range of analyses including accounting for externalities (i.e., hidden costs, often to environmental sustainability), trade-offs, and co-benefits; social impacts; political economy; and foresight analysis. The last of 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” (UNDP 2014, 7).
    • Research organizations, with support from governments and funding entities, should enhance climate services and information platforms with new types of information to identify hotspots and aid decision-makers in designing transformative pathways. This necessitates providing easily understandable information with greater consideration for slow-onset events and decadal and longer-term data and projections (Ashley et al. 2020); more transparent data around intersectoral trade-offs on natural resource use, prices, and market models (Tye and Grinspan 2020); and other non-climate variables important for planning and prioritization (Ashley et al. 2020). Also needed are more robust baseline data collection and greater availability and accessibility of high-resolution, contextualized data on climate change impacts (Ashley et al. 2020). Improved climate-crop suitability models and analyses are a prerequisite to increasing understanding of which varieties and species will lose and gain suitability in different regions (Ashley et al. 2020; Niles et al. 2020). Information on broader production conditions, markets, and other types of risks to agriculture could be added in to enable a more holistic risk assessment.
  2. Planning (and implementation) to improve policy and investment decisions

    Coordination must be improved among governments, adaptation funding entities, and research organizations to create and finance transformative pathways in a way that is coherent, inclusive, and participatory, and based on an understanding of existing political economies. This could be done by, for example, leveraging national development plans, United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and readiness programs (Carter et al. 2018).

    • National and subnational governments should integrate an understanding of when, where, and how food systems will need to shift over the coming decades into their planning processes and use inclusive, participatory processes to design transformative pathways so that smallholder farmers, herders, and fishers and rural communities are not left behind. Addressing the need for long-term, systemic change may be politically risky and unattractive when attention is focused on the next election rather than decades in the future, but its potential for providing food security and improving livelihoods may reduce future conflicts and chaos, which makes it a worthwhile endeavor. If done well, such changes can also pave the way for investments in new job-generating businesses and improved incomes based on growing and processing novel agricultural products. Governments should phase in longer-term planning based on transparent information and in consultation with a range of stakeholders, rather than waiting for increasingly frequent crises to make further delays impossible. Effectively designing transformative pathways requires that government agencies integrate research and analysis into plans, policies, budgets, and funding proposals. Institutional arrangements must promote collaboration and reduce fragmentation among ministries and departments so that many systems—e.g., water, trade, employment, finance—can operate across boundaries, both geographical or political, as well as at different scales, from local to national and beyond.
    • Planning for transformative adaptation should center on inclusive, participatory processes that engage a diverse range of stakeholders, including smallholder farmers, fishers, and herders from groups that may often be marginalized in decision-making, such as women, youth, and Indigenous peoples. Transformative change will almost always be challenging because what farmers and herders produce is often central to their identity, sense of place, and pride. Even so, agroecological conditions will inevitably change around them. They should be the ones making the difficult decisions about how to manage such changes—and supported even when this means finding nonagricultural livelihoods. Participatory governance structures that facilitate effective two-way communication from the local to national level are needed, as well as sufficient financial and technical support for communities to enact food system shifts. Strengthening farmer-focused organizations like cooperatives, producer organizations, and community savings groups will be helpful in many situations. While there are cases of autonomous transformative adaptations already taking place, research indicates that it is often those with more land and better access to credit and information that are able to make such changes on their own. This points to the need to provide better support to people who are living in poverty or who are otherwise marginalized and improve their access to resources required for transformative adaptation (e.g., credit, information, inputs) so they can have a wider range of choices, better manage risk, and make decisions about their futures under new climatic conditions.
    • The UNFCCC, as well as international organizations like CGIAR and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, 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 focused on loss and damage,2 the Nairobi Work Programme, the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture, nationally determined contributions, national adaptation plans, and long-term strategies. Little guidance and few examples are available to Parties on how to incorporate transformative approaches to adaptation in their plans, policies, and funding proposals. UNFCCC entities can play an important role in creating and disseminating this information and showcasing best practices. In addition, global agricultural organizations like CGIAR and FAO can contribute their agricultural and climate expertise to speed implementation.
  3. Finance to mobilize resources to accelerate transformative adaptation

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. While the costs of transformative adaptation have not yet been calculated, its potential for averting and minimizing losses and damages makes it likely to pay off over the longer term. More specific actions include the following:

  • Adaptation funders, including bilateral and multilateral agencies, need to develop complementary understandings of transformation and shift their funding approaches to support projects and programs that prioritize building resilience in hotspots where systemic tipping points make fundamental changes urgent. Such an understanding can be achieved through deeper engagement with peer organizations, leveraging each entity’s comparative advantages, and broadening the focus from isolated projects to more comprehensive programs. Funding entities can incentivize governments to incorporate transformative adaptation into planning efforts by including it in their funding guidelines and potentially offering special funds to cover this.
  • Governments and the private sector must refocus the use of incentives and disincentives to initiate and sustain adaptive shifts in food systems. Governments and the private sector, particularly 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, pricing policies (such as minimum support pricing or energy and water pricing), and improved co-financing tools, among others, could be effective in changing farmer choices and providing farmers with opportunities to invest in such transformations (Bapna et al. 2019)—these tools could be made more effective by making them more accessible and tailoring them to support transformative adaptation. Improved access to insurance could make taking the risks of trying new types of crops and livestock or new production and processing methods more acceptable. Redesigning subsidy structures for new crops and their inputs, offering grants for de-risking experimentation with crops likely to prove more resilient, promoting marketing campaigns, and encouraging selective seed market intensification are additional options to encourage adaptive crop and livestock switches (Niles et al. 2020).

When considering parameters of adaptation interventions, multilateral and bilateral adaptation funding entities need to expand their financing modalities to encourage and support comprehensive, long-term adaptation programs that recognize the interconnectedness of food systems with other systems, and governments need to include this approach in their budgets and proposals. For example, longer-term funding (e.g., 10 years instead of 5) would cover the sequential but continuous changes required to implement transformative pathways. Financing packages could include the private sector and be scaled at the right geographical level (e.g., farming system); acknowledge ecological considerations (e.g., humid tropical regions becoming semi-arid); and incorporate existing institutions and socioeconomic factors (e.g., civil society, research and development networks, markets, cultural considerations).

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