Climate of Cooperation

This article originally appeared on the Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) blog

The Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) programme assesses current knowledge of how climate change affects agriculture and food security, toward mapping the way forward

As food demand rises and farmers begin to feel the impacts of a changing climate, a new and complex set of challenges are emerging. Scientists from across the CGIAR and its research partners are integrating expertise on climate change, agriculture and food security to meet these challenges.

A new paper from CCAFS (PDF) takes stock of current knowledge regarding climate change and approaches to mitigate and adapt to its impacts, aiming to chart the way forward for research and policy action. CCAFS is a partnership of the international agricultural research Centers of the CGIAR and the Earth Systems Science Partnership.

Transporting paddy. Harvest time in Bangladesh. Photo: jajankie/

The comprehensive review brings together current knowledge of the impacts of climate change on farming and food systems, as well as approaches for managing climate variability and risk now and over the long term. It also assesses knowledge regarding changes in farming practices that can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and regarding how these changes can be achieved without compromising farmers’ food security and livelihood.

Feeding 9 billion people in 2050 will require a transformation in agriculture, which is all the more urgent in the face of climate change.

“Actions taken within the next decade are critical,” says Sonja Vermeulen, CCAFS deputy director of research and lead author of the paper. “Science and policy must race against climate change to get the responses in place to deal with its impacts.”

Uncertainty clouds how climate change will affect the food system, partly for lack of basic data on weather, land use, and crop and livestock distribution. Moreover, data, tools and models tend to cover large geographical areas and long timeframes, which make their use impractical for national and local decision-makers, who focus on local and short-term policies. Tools and data need to be better targeted to decision-makers’ needs. Despite these gaps, existing studies on the impacts of climate change on crop yields, livestock, fish, pests and irrigation show that there will be severe consequences for agriculture, particularly in the tropics. Unpredictable temperatures and changing rainfall patterns will affect crop yields and food production, livestock health, marine and farm-level biodiversity, and food storage.

Adaptation to Amplified Challenges

At the farm level, climate change will amplify existing challenges and cause more frequent and more extreme weather events. Current research on adaptation to climate change focuses on managing current agricultural risks, as well as on planning and preparing for future changes. How can we help farmers immediately reduce their vulnerability to extreme events, particularly in the tropical and subtropical drylands where smallholder farmers rely exclusively on rainfall? A number of approaches have emerged and are being tested, including enhancing farmers’ access to seasonal climate forecasts, an index-based insurance scheme that compensates farmers after damaging weather events occur, and linking climate-based forecasts of food production with food trade and aid policies to dampen price swings and avoid disincentives for food production.

Accelerating adaptation to progressive climate change means planning for the future. A community’s capacity to adapt to change is determined by many factors, including farming and food systems, changes in the supply of agricultural inputs and food, the generation and use of new technologies, local institutions and infrastructure, and the political setting. Research on long-term adaptation must look at how these variables work together. Researchers are already finding adaptation approaches at multiple levels, from adjusting a particular agricultural practice such as the time of planting, to changing crop varieties, switching to new crops, or moving out of crop farming altogether. However, these changes can be risky, and the challenge is how to enable them without further stressing peoples’ livelihoods.

Potential for Mitigation

Agriculture was estimated to contribute 10-12% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions in 2005, but certain agricultural practices for sustainable land management, such as conservation tillage, can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and enhance carbon storage in soils and vegetation without compromising food production.

Agriculture further contributes to climate change as farms expand into forested areas. The conversion of carbon-rich forests into croplands releases large quantities of greenhouse gases. It is estimated that reducing deforestation caused by agricultural expansion by 10% during 2015-2020 could store half a billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. This can be achieved by producing more crops on less land, and a growing body of research is looking at the factors that can help enhance the benefits of cropping intensification, both for food production and for sparing forests. Tools for measuring and monitoring greenhouse gases across all land uses are being rapidly developed to support efforts to mitigate emissions from agriculture. Economic assessments are under way to understand how smallholder farmers may be able to participate in carbon markets and receive compensation for the carbon they store.

Integrating knowledge about climate change, agriculture and food security in a meaningful way urgently requires a change in the way research is planned and carried out, as well as in the way researchers explain their findings. A strategic approach to linking knowledge with action must facilitate greater interaction between decision-makers and researchers in all sectors, and greater collaboration across the climate change, agriculture and food security communities of practice. As no single research organization can tackle this work by itself, CCAFS is opening new partnership opportunities for studying these interactions.

Click to download the full paper (PDF), which was prepared as a background document for the Conference on Agriculture, Food Security and Climate Change in The Hague on 31 October-5 November 2010. It concludes with research questions to guide progress in the areas outlined above.