Transformative approaches to adaptation in agriculture will be needed to maintain and enhance global food security, avoid maladaptation and reduce growing risks of crisis and conflict. Today, the agriculture sector practices adaptation with relatively limited incremental adjustments to existing systems to better manage current climate variability and cope with near-term climate risks. Increasingly, severe climate impacts are beginning to test the limits of what we can adapt to through such relatively minor adjustments. These impacts will increasingly require more dramatic shifts at greater scale, speed, and intensity to manage risk, strengthen food security and protect lives and livelihoods—especially among the poorest and most vulnerable, who often depend on climate-sensitive sectors such as agriculture, fishing and tourism.

This working paper explores the concept of transformative adaptation for agriculture and why it is needed. It looks at how transformative outcomes could be achieved by aligning adaptation projects along pathways and adjusting planning processes to incorporate longer-term, more systemic approaches.

Key Findings

  • Transformative adaptation for agriculture is defined in this working paper as intentional responses to climate impacts that significantly shift the locations of agricultural production systems, introduce substantially new production methods or technologies at scale, or otherwise fundamentally alter key aspects of agricultural systems.
  • Although they may be disruptive and difficult, transformative approaches will be required where climate impacts are at present or are projected to be so severe that they are may undermine the continued viability of current agricultural systems.
  • Beginning now to identify, plan for, and finance transformative approaches over the coming decades offers the best opportunity to maintain and enhance global food security, avoid maladaptation, and reduce escalating risks of conflict and crisis as climate impacts intensify.
  • Finance can be targeted toward projects that are aligned to achieve transformative outcomes and gradually phased in through a series of short-, medium-, and long-term interventions to build transformative pathways.
  • Transformative adaptation will require new tools and methodologies, as well as collaboration between funding entities, national and subnational governments, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and other global institutions.
  • It will be subjective by nature, benefiting some groups over others depending on how decision-making power is distributed. It must therefore be implemented in an inclusive, equitable, and gender-responsive manner.

Executive Summary

Transformative adaptation in the agriculture sector may be the best approach in an increasing number of situations and locations to enhance global food security, avoid maladaptation, and reduce escalating risks as climate change impacts intensify. However, this approach is not a silver bullet to solve all adaptation challenges; nor is it necessarily a bigger, better form of adaptation. Instead, it involves a specific set of characteristics that will often make it more disruptive and difficult to plan and budget for, finance, and implement. For this reason, transformative approaches should be used only when the need for them is clear, based on analysis of data including climate projections and crop models (while acknowledging that these data sources include some degree of uncertainty), or when present-day impacts are already so great that significant change is warranted. Incremental adaptation to maintain existing systems will continue to be the preferable option in many situations, although the number of situations where it is possible will decrease in the future as climate impacts intensify.

Near-term incremental actions can be sequenced and gradually phased in to pave the way for longer-term transformative outcomes in the future. We refer to these incremental measures toward transformative goals as transformative pathways, which we define as coordinated sequences of short- and medium-term actions or projects that enable shifting agricultural production systems through significant, widespread changes to become more resilient to longer-term projected future climate impacts. Such transformative pathways must be flexible enough to shift in response to unforeseen circumstances and consequences. They could utilize decision windows, in which adaptation planners could evaluate key indicators alongside climate projections and crop models, potentially informed by improved agricultural monitoring and surveillance systems, to signal when a given production system may be transitioning from only requiring incremental adjustments to needing an increased focus on creating transformative outcomes that involve systemic change.

Governments should determine whether, when, and where transformative approaches are needed. They can start with the targeted set of questions included in this working paper, which seek to elicit greater understanding and articulation of long-term risks, transformative pathways, thresholds, and decision windows. Such questions include, “What are the near- and long-term climate risks to a given agricultural system? How might these longer-term risks result in trade-offs and potential conflicts over increasingly scarce resources? Will the best short-term options prohibit those that would be more resilient over the longer term?” These questions can be built into existing national adaptation planning processes, like the national adaptation plans (NAPs), and into existing technical guidelines, like those developed for agriculture NAPs by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Governments can review existing plans and policies to ensure that over the longer term, they will not inadvertently lead to maladaptation and squandered resources or increase the risk of conflict.

Funding agencies, including bilateral and multilateral donors, do not have a shared understanding of transformative adaptation; developing one may be useful as governments seek support for their strategies and proposals. To strengthen coherence and coordination among the major multilateral climate funds, they may wish to consider developing greater clarity on how each agency, building on its comparative strengths, supports country efforts to determine whether, when, and where transformative approaches may be needed, in selecting options that pave the way for such transformation, and in establishing decision windows.

Transformative adaptation may benefit some groups over others, depending on how decision-making power is distributed, making participation and coordination paramount. The perspectives, needs, and constraints of farmers and other rural people, especially the poorest and most vulnerable, must be squarely at the center of planning and implementation efforts. Local institutions, such as local governments and civil society organizations, must also be engaged, and coordination across sectors and ministries, as well as between national and subnational governments, is critical.

Governments have an opportunity to consider examining long-term trends, impacts, and vulnerabilities as they submit their next adaptation communications—either through the national communications, NAPs, or nationally determined contributions (NDCs). Decision-making on effective adaptation options by Parties could be strengthened by identifying thresholds in natural, social, and human-built systems, especially thresholds with long-term irreversible consequences. Understanding where such changes may take place can help generate adaptation options, transform agricultural production strategies, safeguard the delivery of public services, and protect lives and livelihoods. This could be a way for Parties to start building into their Party-driven communications responses to long-term climate changes that may require significant shifts in current production systems.

In supporting governments’ efforts to consider and implement transformative adaptation, technical organizations, such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and FAO, can consider ways they can incorporate into their support programs better consideration of long-term risks, transformative pathways, thresholds, and decision windows. This could be built into the guidelines they develop and use, like the FAO NAP-Ag Guidelines, and the trainings and capacity-building support provided by various NAP-related programs and partnerships.

The UNFCCC has the ability to strengthen understanding of, and action and support for, transformative adaptation in the agriculture sector. The Adaptation Committee, the Least Developed Countries Expert Group, and the Executive Committee of the Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage (WIM) could work together to address ways the UNFCCC can strengthen its support of Parties to consider transformative adaptation in the agriculture sector. This could entail contributing to the five workshops of the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture, a work program established by the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC in November 2017 to help the Parties consider the vulnerabilities of agriculture to climate change and approaches to addressing food security. They could also consider joint ways to review the NAP guidelines to take into account the issues highlighted in Section 4, and work with organizations like FAO to expand their guidelines to accommodate longer-term, more transformative planning and action.