Aug 20 2013 | Posted by SSSandy

“Regret-free” approaches for adapting agriculture to climate change

agricultural worker sorting beans or coffee
A new study calls for governments and farmers to adapt to climate shifts, despite uncertainties about what growing conditions will look like decades from now.
The study, from the CGIAR research programme on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), which involves researchers from the University of Leeds, shows how decision-makers can sift through scientific uncertainty to understand where there is a general consensus.
Moreover, it encourages a broader approach to agriculture adaptation that looks beyond climate models to consider the socioeconomic conditions on the ground. These conditions, such as a particular farmer’s or community’s capacity to make the necessary farming changes, will determine whether a particular adaptation strategy is likely to succeed.
“Getting farmers, communities, governments, donors and other stakeholders to embrace various adaptation strategies can end up being equally or more important than seeking higher levels of scientific certainty from a climate model,” says Professor Andy Challinor, from the School of Earth and Environment at the University of Leeds, who co-leads research on climate adaptation at CCAFS and was an author of the study. “There is no question that climate science is constantly improving. But scientists also need to understand the broader processes involved in agriculture adaptation and consider how we can better communicate what we do know in ways that are relevant to a diverse audience.”
The study uses examples from the programme’s recent work in the developing world to illustrate how some countries have pursued climate change adaptation strategies. Some of the strategies involve relatively straightforward efforts to accommodate changes in the near-term that will present growing conditions that are not significantly different from what farmers have experienced in the past. For example, faced with conflicting climate models about levels of precipitation, the Sri Lankan government is working with farmers to revisit traditional approaches to water storage to provide insurance against what, at the very least, will be climate variability.
The authors also explore “no regrets” strategies, in which agricultural planning takes into consideration long-term changes that exceed historical experience and require substantial changes to livelihoods and diets. “Some farmers and countries are going to need to make big transitions in what food they produce” says Sonja Vermeulen, head of research at CCAFS and the lead author of the study.
For example, while various climate models offer different assessments of changes expected in Central America, they agree that over the long-term, higher temperatures are likely to render Arabica coffee production unsuitable at lower altitudes. A long-term strategy could involve shifting some production to higher altitudes and at lower altitudes switching to a different, but similarly lucrative crop, like cocoa. 
 “Climate projections will always have a degree of uncertainty, but we need to stop using uncertainty as a rationale for inaction,” concludes Vermeulen. “Helping governments and farmers plan ahead will make all the difference in avoiding the food insecurity and suffering that climate change threatens.”

Further information

To interview Professor Andy Challinor, please contact Sarah Reed, Press Officer, University of Leeds; phone 0113 34 34196 or email
The full paper by Sonja Vermeulen et al., ‘Addressing uncertainty in adaptation planning for agriculture’, PNAS (2013) is available to download (vol. 110 no. 21. 
Photo: N. Palmer (CIAT)