Climate change is already and will continue to impact agriculture and the world’s food supply. As the new report from the IPCC illustrates, the higher the temperature climbs, the more costly and dangerous the impacts—from flooded homes and deadly heat waves to devastated supply chains and crop failure. These changes can undermine global efforts to reduce poverty, as the new report also points out.

Adaptation Can’t Wait

Limiting the Earth’s warming to 1.5 Celsius will be exceedingly challenging, although it is still possible if global leaders more quickly implement the far-reaching societal shifts that the climate crisis demands. To manage intensifying climate impacts, we must begin to transform the way we adapt to such changes. Transformative adaptation in agriculture—that is, broad, fundamental, systemic changes in food production systems—offers the potential to maintain and enhance global food security and reduce the risk of crisis and conflict. This concept is the focus of a new WRI working paper, A Framework for Systemic Change.

We must ramp up efforts to both reduce emissions and adapt to climate change impacts. Adaptation must focus on attention-grabbing disasters and also less visible, slow-onset changes, such as sea level rise and desertification. These will eventually transform where and how we live, how we earn a living, and importantly, what we eat.

Globalization Has Transformed the Planet—and Climate Risks

The globalization of agriculture means that both producers and consumers can be affected by climate impacts, even those that occur in seemingly remote locations. Crop and livestock losses in one location can be countered by trading commodities from areas that have experienced robust harvests. But volatility and potential for conflict is made worse by the fact that the global food system largely depends on relatively few critical shipment and distribution points, according to a recent study by Chatham House. Fourteen of the most important shipment and distribution points were identified as vulnerable to climate change impacts, such as sea level rise and more frequent and intense storms.

Global patterns of food production and distribution may need to shift significantly as climate change progresses. Crops currently grown in tropical regions may need to move to more temperate regions. In particular, farmers in increasingly arid areas may need to swap thirsty crops—such as rice, sugar cane and cotton—for those that are more sparing of water supplies, such as drought-resistant varieties of corn, sorghum and other grains. In Costa Rica, where coffee plantations have been stressed by warmer temperatures, some farmers are already shifting to the cultivation of orange trees.

Transformative adaptation can go beyond farmers’ fields to enable additional flexibility of global food supplies. For example, recent investments in roads and ports expedite the movement of food from drought- or flood-afflicted areas to unaffected areas. New technology and improvements in processing and storing food will also help to even out year-to-year fluctuations in food supply and demand.

Transformative Adaptation is Part of the Solution

Enabling farmers and other rural people to make major changes in agricultural production requires foresight and long-term planning, as well as greater willingness to consider actions such as:

  • Significantly shifting the geographical locations where specific types of crops and livestock, and the systems that support them, are located.
  • Fundamentally altering the agricultural landscape through changes to food production and marketing systems.
  • Applying new methodologies and technologies that change the types of agricultural products, or the way existing ones are produced. This must be done at broad geographical scales within a particular region or production system.

A Framework for Systemic Change, produced through the Transforming Agriculture for Climate Resilience (TACR) project, focuses on these types of changes. With this project, WRI seeks to increase finance, understanding, action and support for transformative approaches to agricultural adaptation. The framework paper illustrates what transformative adaptation is and why it is needed. We are also creating methodologies, guidance and case studies to help planners, funding entities, policymakers and researchers to incorporate transformative approaches into adaptation plans and investments.

In addition to the newly released framework paper, WRI will publish over the next year a series of papers on transformative solutions in four key areas of agriculture: crop research and development, livestock production, farmer information services, and irrigation and water management.

As the latest IPCC report indicates, such fundamental shifts are likely to  be required in many locations. By starting to better identify whether, where and when such approaches will be needed, we can ease major transitions, protect global food security and potentially even reduce conflict and crisis.