IFPRI Paper – Rising temperatures make agriculture a risky business

Welcome back to Digested Reads, telling you what to think about reports that tell you what to think, or in this case, telling you what to think about discussion papers that raise interesting questions (less catchy, but hey, still easier than the real thing)

Today – a discussion paper from the International Food Policy Research Institute, entitled “How does Climate Change Affect Agricultural Strategies to Support Food Security” – by Phillip Thornton and Leslie Lipper.

Who? The IFPRI researches policy solutions aimed at reducing food insecurity, malnutrition and poverty. This report, aimed at the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) raises some of the issues in agricultural policymaking and makes some suggestions for the FAO in terms of policy, future research and monitoring and evaluation. The FAO “leads international efforts to defeat hunger”.

2 Line summary : Climate change is bad for agriculture. Adaptation needs to aim for efficiency above all. It also needs to work with people to prepare for uncertainty – planning for a variety of risks and spreading risk across various interventions.

Fact is, after 2030, climate change will come to define the future of agriculture. It’s likely to have negative effects on productivity, (it will be very difficult to grow Maize in most of Africa in a +2.5 degree world) and that’s clearly bad for food security. 70% of food insecure people are dependent on agriculture directly for food. If GDP is your thing (we’re looking at you, IMF/World Bank/most mainstream economists), then consider that agricultural growth, especially in LDC’s, is closely associated with GDP (economic) growth – There is a serious need for “no regrets strategies” in agricultural adaptation.

Higher temperatures will affect the way animals eat (over 30 degrees, livestock eat less = less nutritious = more deaths = less value), and the way farmers manage their seeds and crops. Much of the impact will be mediated through water – rising demand for fresh water for drinking, farming, and feeding livestock, and less freshwater supplies to go around. By 2050, 50% of the worlds population will live in countries with severe water constraints. There’s also close links to emissions – methane from livestock, the production of fertilizer, the cutting down of forests for more agricultural land – all of these effect Greenhouse Gas emissions.

There’s a lot we don’t know. How much impact climate change will have on crops diseases and pests?  How will climate change affect specific geographical areas? All still research topics.

Responding to Climate Change

Uncertainty therefore, is a big concern. Adaptation systems must embrace diversification to hedge against the various risks. For now, incremental changes to what already exists are sufficient, but after a 2 degree rise in average global temperatures, we have to start considering “transformative” adaptation (that it also “no regrets”) – which could mean a change in goal (i.e what people grow) or location (where people live).

Transformative adaptation is more likely when there is greater adaptive capacity – especially managerial capacity. Theres a warning sign in there (for me at least), because it suggests that the most positive and forward thinking adaptation can only really be done by those who can afford it or are big enough to handle it. It would be a real failure if private companies were brought into manage transformative adaptation for their own gain, and everybody else got stuck with “resilience”, being able to do nothing more than cope, rather than benefit from change.

Land shortages and the growing political impracticality of cutting down forests (unless you are a large corporation, apparently) means that adaptation has to make efficient what’s already there. Sustainable intensification necessitates sharing local knowledge as well as organic and technological innovation. 

Risk Management

How can we make decisions about adapting to future changes when we can’t predict exactly when a drought or heavy rain will come, or how severe impacts will be on a given space? Adaptation has to be distribute risks across time (storage), space (being mobile), assets, communities and via the market. The report commendably puts people participation high on the agenda in mapping out scenarios for policy implementation. Qualitative and quantitative domains can be merged by linking community opinions with economic modelling. That also means “building latent social capacities”, empowering women and children to have more rights and more say in the agricultural planning.

Every care must be taken to avoid “maladaptation” – putting costs on the most vulnerable, misreading the potential changes, or causing high financial, emotional, social costs or unintended consequences.

Policy Implications for FAO

Recognising that innovation and technology is about more than having good ideas, they embrace the evolutionary process of development, emphasising that sharing and modifying ideas is just as important as having them in the first place. What’s more, context matters. Local Institutions can be supported to connect to local people and be a conduit for disseminating new adaptation ideas, weather reports or community meetings. Real participation can ensure that information crosses language or scientific understanding barriers, and remains relevant.

Collective action is also needed – for addressing market failures and establishing local public goods are all important, particularly in managing scare access to resources (land, water) and preventing conflict. 

Internationally speaking – there is a need to highlight agriculture as an issue, bringing together knowledge on food insecurity, agricultural development and climate change. You can’t deal with agriculture without bringing together experts in water, food, energy, forestry and climate change mitigation. We need to be more aware of the fact that unlike normal planning, the future is uncertain. That means multiple possible futures have to be scoped and different policy suggestions put forward for each of them. Notably every mention of the private sector comes, almost always, in conjunction with government or other actors.

There is certainly no “the private sector will save the day” story here – public private partnerships are the way to go, with the dangers of private led traditional fertilizer use being noted as increasing emissions.

So a solid paper from IFPRI. We can address some of the policy implications on another occasion (there isn’t space here), but the key takeaways are clearly challenging from a policy perspective – uncertainty throws a spanner in the works of long term planning. Flexibility and Participation are buzzwords of the day.