Climate change is already affecting crop production, and in some cases is undermining the viability of current crop systems.

Crop research and development plays a critical role in developing the technologies and practices farmers need to maximize productivity and manage the increasing risks they face. This paper investigates how transformative adaptation - long-term, systemic change to fundamental aspects of systems in response to or anticipation of severe climate change impacts – can be sped up and scaled through crop research and development.

The paper explains why transformative adaptation is needed in cropping systems, how seeds systems play a key role in these systemic shifts, and what changes are needed in crop research and development to enable climate-resilient transformations. The paper concludes by providing recommendations for researchers, policymakers, and adaptation funding entities.

Key Findings

  • Climate change is already affecting crop production, and in some cases is undermining the viability of current crop systems. Recent estimates suggest that this trend will continue: global yields of rice, wheat, and maize are projected to decrease by 10 to 25 percent per degree of global mean surface warming (Deutsch et al. 2018). In low-latitude tropical countries, expected crop yield and nutritional losses may not be overcome through incremental adaptation measures intended to preserve existing cropping systems. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report has shown that practices such as shifting planting dates or optimizing irrigation or fertilizer use may be beneficial but not enough to mitigate increasingly negative climate impacts (Porter et al. 2014). Addressing the risks of failing cropping systems is becoming more urgent, as the rate of climate impacts will likely surpass incremental adaptation thresholds (Vermeulen et al. 2018).

  • Greater investment in crop viability and options research is urgently needed, especially in low income countries, to inform policy, investments, and climate action. While there is a growing body of scientific research on the impacts of climate change on crop production, much more localized and specific analysis of crop viability and options for new crops is needed to inform adaptation planning. Research needs to go beyond crop viability and assess the cost and benefits of new crops, the socioeconomic impact on different communities, on women and men, and on marginalized groups, as well as on the markets and policies needed for new crops to translate into viable livelihoods and sustainable climate-resilient economic development.

  • Governments, climate adaptation funders, and the private sector need to continue to scale up investments in crop research and development, ensuring that these investments support the development and dissemination of new crops needed for transformative adaptation. Greater basic capacities in crop R&D are prerequisites for transformative adaptation. Governments and adaptation funders should continue to invest in these capacities. These investments should explicitly support efforts to decrease breeding times, expand gene banks and related data systems, expand the range of crops researched (e.g., traditional and orphan crops), expand the diversity of available genetic breeding material, and scale up participatory breeding approaches.

  • A suite of technological strategies is important. 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 in precision-phenotyping, trials under a range of environmental conditions, and 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.

  • Investments in crop R&D must be matched by investments in helping farmers adopt new crops. Crop breeding alone will not change the fundamental characteristics of production systems and resource availability. Access to and participation in improved seed systems and agricultural input markets must be strengthened so that farmers are able to effectively grow, consume, and sell new climate-resilient crop varieties and species. This requires investment in extension and adoption pipelines to ensure 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. Our research illustrates the importance of strengthening seed systems in the most vulnerable countries. For example, in Ethiopia, using participatory plant breeding to improve community seed systems has had immediate benefits and provided a channel for the dissemination of new crops as they are developed.

  • Governments and their international partners need to make significant policy changes to accelerate the development and adoption of the new crops that transformative adaptation in agriculture will require. To date, few governments have included transformative adaptation in agriculture in their national climate change adaptation or broader economic development plans. Better use of recent investments in improved, more localized analysis of crop viability under climate change, and on the effectiveness of adaptation options, will enable governments and their partners to expand their national climate plans to include transformative adaptation of cropping systems. In addition, national and subnational policymakers must proactively consider redesigning market incentives for the climate-resilient crops required in transformative adaptation scenarios, reducing barriers to adoption. For example, international and national regulation bodies can streamline regulatory processes, intellectual property rights, and crop certification processes so that new technologies and new crops can more quickly be deployed.

  • Researchers and policymakers must explicitly consider gender and social equity as shifts in crop production systems may exclude the most vulnerable who have the least capacity to adapt and are most at risk from further consolidation of wealth and power. The poor and most vulnerable often face financial, social, or cultural barriers that may prevent them from effectively engaging in transformative adaptation. Researchers and policymakers must carefully consider marginalized communities in the development, selection, and use of new climate-resilient crops. They must integrate marginalized communities and groups into decisions to define new crops and crop traits to develop, where new crops will be grown, how these crops will be distributed and accessed by these groups, and how they will be marketed and transformed after they leave the farmgate.

Executive Summary


  • Climate change is already affecting food security, agriculture, and particularly crop production, at regional and global scales. In marginal agricultural areas with high poverty and food insecurity levels, current crops may lose viability as climate impacts intensify and agroecological zones shift.
  • While incremental adaptation measures intended to build the resilience of existing crop production systems may be adequate in many places, other locations will require transformative adaptation measures that fundamentally change crop production systems to improve local, regional, and national food security.
  • Investments in crop research and development (R&D) have yielded important technological advancements to support incremental adaptation, such as faster breeding times for more stress-resistant, productive, and nutritious crops. These investments should be expanded to enable transformative adaptation by improving farmers’ access to new and more diverse crops, creating more robust and agile seed production and distribution systems, and establishing creative market and financial mechanisms for the adoption of new crops suitable for the future climate.
  • Alongside investments for crop breeding, research on changing crop suitability patterns are needed to guide local and national adaptation planning, identify opportunities to increase investments, and avoid maladaptation in a socially equitable and gender responsive way.


Increasing frequency of extreme events, shifting temperature and rainfall patterns, and higher incidence of pests and diseases have negatively affected crop yields in many locations. Intensifying climate impacts are projected to exacerbate these issues, threatening the agronomic and commercial viability of various crops in different parts of the world. Where the viability of current cropping systems is threatened by climate change, transformative adaptation approaches will be needed. Carter et al. (2018) define transformative adaptation in agriculture as intentional alterations to an agricultural system in response to or in anticipation of climate impacts that are so significant that they change fundamental aspects of the system. Such alterations often include one or more of the following attributes:

  • shifting the geographical locations where specific types of crops and livestock are produced
  • applying new methodologies and technologies that change the types of agricultural products, or the way existing ones are produced, within a particular region or production system
  • fundamentally altering a region’s predominant type of agricultural landscape—for example, from cropping to aquaculture—as the result of changes to multiple aspects of food production systems and/or supply chains

Crop R&D systems play a critical role in developing the seeds farmers need to maximize productivity and manage the increasing risks they face. Great strides have been made in crop research and development over the last 75 years, contributing to development of the next generation of seeds that are more resilient against droughts, floods, pests, and diseases, as well as producing crops that are more nutritious and productive (Evenson and Golin 2003).

Despite these advances, this paper identifies a range of challenges that must be addressed if the global crop research and development system is going to successfully support the adaptation of crop production systems in contexts where transformative adaptation will be needed. The capacities to conduct modern and rapid crop research and development are lacking in many low-income countries and focused on major staple and cash crops, rather than on more localized traditional crops that may provide viable alternatives where major crops lose viability. Even with improved crop research and development capacities, the seed systems of low-income countries lack the capacity to quickly reproduce and distribute new seed varieties to farmers, highlighting that investment in adoption and extension pipelines is also critical. At the same time, the speed with which climate change is occurring means that crop research and development cycles must be shortened to stay ahead of climate change impacts. This is especially true in the areas most vulnerable to climate risk, such as the rainfed crop production systems that dominate agricultural systems in the developing world.

This paper examines these issues and identifies ways to promote long-term sustainability for food security and nutrition, economic livelihoods, and climate-resilient cropping systems by making strategic investments in crop research and development systems so that the public and private sectors in countries around the world have greater capacity to anticipate the needs of farmers, develop the seeds they need, and get those seeds into their hands.