Transformative adaptation in agriculture is imperative to ensure food security in the face of climate change
Climate change is already undermining food systems worldwide, contributing to a rise in global hunger and threatening the livelihoods of millions of farmers, herders, and fishers.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report, 690 million people－60 million more than in 2014－are already going hungry, in part due to climate change. Farmers, herders and other rural people make up a large proportion of the 100 million people that climate change threatens to pull below the poverty line.
Agriculture in China has also been severely impacted by climate change. Drought has had the greatest influence, followed by floods and hailstorm disasters. Changes in temperature and precipitation patterns caused by climate change in the future will continue to reduce crop yields directly or indirectly. It is expected that by 2030, seasonal droughts will reduce the yield of China's three major staple food crops (rice, wheat and corn) by 8 percent.
It's becoming clearer that agriculture as we know it will not be able to thrive in a warming world－especially in hotspots such as coasts, semi-arid and arid areas, and in farming regions fed by glaciers and snowpack. Incremental adaptation alone won't be enough in these places. Agricultural systems will need to be fundamentally transformed to survive.
A new World Resources Institute report, Food Systems at Risk: Transformative Adaptation for Long-Term Food Security, underscores the need for transformative adaptation in agriculture and lays out what is needed to make it happen.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change defines transformative adaptation as being that in which the focus is on larger, more profound system changes, in contrast to incremental measures that aim at maintaining existing systems by taking relatively minor measures, such as introducing more drought-resistant varieties of crops or using more efficient irrigation means.
Transformative adaptation, in relation to agriculture, intends to change the fundamental attributes of agricultural systems in response to actual or expected climate change and its effects, often at a scale and ambition greater than incremental activities. Our research shows that there are often three key types of actions associated with transformative adaptation in agriculture.
First, shifting the geographical locations where specific types of crops and livestock are produced, processed, and marketed. For example, some Costa Rican coffee farmers in areas that are becoming too warm for coffee production are switching to citrus fruits instead. In Ethiopia, cultivation of staple crops such as wheat and teff are shifting to higher, cooler elevations as temperatures rise. In their place, farmers are now growing maize more widely.
The second key aspect of transformative adaptation is aligning agricultural production with changing ecosystems and available water and arable land. For example, in China, 400,000 hectares of saline-alkali land nationwide have been obtained for commercial production of a saline-alkali tolerant type of rice called seawater rice, which was developed through cross-breeding and other technologies to grow in tidal flats or other areas with heavy salt concentrations. Compared to conventional rice, seawater rice has a deeper root system and taller plants, so it can be more resistant to dislodging and won't be easily submerged completely by rising seawater. Even if submerged by seawater, it still grows fine after the tide is out. Therefore, in areas where sea levels are rising due to climate change, seawater rice is a good choice. In June 2019, experts from China and the United Arab Emirates observed the yield of this rice, planted in the deserts of Dubai, reaching 9,435 kilograms per hectare. Chinese experts say the yield is on par with the advanced level of international rice planting in desert areas and saline-alkali soil.
The third aspect of transformative adaptation is new methodologies and technologies being applied at a scale that substantially changes the types of agricultural products, and the way existing ones are produced and processed, in a particular area. For example, in parts of India, vegetable farmers have started using low-cost polyhouses (plastic greenhouses) to protect their produce from more severe storms. They discovered that the polyhouses also enable them to produce a wider range of vegetables and conserve increasingly scarce water resources.
China has already seen successful examples of transformative adaptation in agriculture locally, but more work needs to be done to ensure that it is prepared to undertake systemic changes as climate change impacts become more severe. In the examples above, it is wealthier farmers who have greater access to key resources such as credit, information and land that are leading these types of transformations; poorer farmers will need additional support to ensure that they are not left behind. For example, more investment will be needed to teach local farmers the technical knowhow required to produce unfamiliar types of crops and livestock. More financial resources and policy support are also required to encourage less wealthy farmers and communities to make these transformative changes－especially to make sure that those most vulnerable to climate change impacts, including smallholders, women and children－are able to make such changes.
Who can drive the action to create transformative changes in food systems?
Implementing transformative adaptation is difficult if not impossible for most farmers and communities to carry out on their own. Without focused action, food system shifts tend to occur on medium- to long-term timelines. It takes time to alter fundamental components of existing systems, as well as markets and institutional arrangements. Supporting and expanding transformative adaptation in food systems will therefore require action from policymakers, funders and research organizations, who must work collaboratively to enhance food security, minimize losses and damages, and reduce the risk of displacements and conflicts.
Perhaps the most important opportunity that transformative approaches to adaptation offer is time and space for those most affected by climate change to have greater decision-making power about which solutions are best for them. Meaningful inclusion in participatory planning processes is far more likely with advanced planning, rather than after extreme climate events have already pushed existing systems beyond their tipping points. Vulnerable communities also need better access to evidence about which adaptation options will work in their context, as well as longer-term, predictable funding to help them enact the solutions they choose.
The UN is convening a Food Systems Summit as part of the Decade of Action to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, which aims to awaken the world to work together to transform the way the world produces, consumes and thinks about food. We need more ambitious actions to deliver progress on all 17 SDGs, each of which relies to some degree on healthier, more sustainable, and equitable food systems－and to include transformative adaptation as a powerful solution.