The climate crisis dramatically impacts food production, ecosystems, and livelihoods around the world. More than 500 million farmers are struggling with extreme weather events tied to climate change such as floods and droughts. By leading processes and actions where science, policy, and finance join forces to deliver action on climate challenges, the Alliance is transforming food systems to better respond to the climate crisis.
Over the last year, our researchers explored how climate change is affecting staples such as wheat and rice, cash crops like coffee and cacao, and the range of diverse species and varieties that are critical for future adaptation. They developed resources and tools to help farmers adapt while highlighting the importance of supportive policies and investments to promote climate action.
Tracking climate change impacts on major crop-growing regions across the globe
To echo the language of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), it is “virtually certain” that temperatures will continue to rise globally. Less is known about the future of precipitation. Rainfall is extremely crucial for rain-fed agriculture, which encompasses the majority of farmland in the countries where the Alliance works.
Dry earth, Colombia. CIAT/N.Palmer
In a new study, Alliance scientists predicted the “time of emergence” for new rainfall patterns, the date by which precipitation changes so dramatically that it is permanently different from what farmers had experienced just a few decades ago.
In fact, vast areas of cropland are already wetter or drier than they were less than a generation ago. Many more are already on a trajectory of irreversible change. New rainfall regimes are likely for large areas of wheat, maize, rice and soybean, even if fast action is taken to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.
If emissions continue their current path, by 2040, 14 percent of land for these four crops will be drier and 31 percent will be wetter, according to a study published by Alliance researchers in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The research showed that climate action in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement would not avoid these scenarios, only push their “time of emergence” deeper into the future.
“Farmers growing crops in those areas are going to experience significantly different conditions than what they are used to,” said Julian Ramirez-Villegas, an Alliance co-author. “They’re going to be completely outside their normal historical environments.”
Drier regions include Southwestern Australia, Southern Africa, southwestern South America, and the Mediterranean. Wheat cropland in Central Mexico is also headed for a drier future. Wetter areas include Canada, Russia, India, and the Eastern United States.
The four crops in the study represent about 40 percent of global caloric intake.
The authors say that, regardless of how much mitigation is achieved, all regions – both wetter and drier – need to invest in adaptation, and do so urgently.
“These are definitely countries that will need to think rather quickly what they’d like to do with their wheat production,” said Maisa Rojas, the study’s lead author and climatologist at Universidad de Chile.
This study was one of the Alliance’s top outputs last year as rated by Altmetric score. The map illustrations created by the Alliance’s communications department will be featured in the United Nations World Water Development Report, Water and Climate Change, due out in 2020. The study also contributes the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report, which is currently underway.
Anticipating the effects of climate change, farmers around the world are adapting and expanding the range of crops that they grow. As Alliance contributions to the recent book Climate Change and Food Security indicate, agricultural biodiversity is both threatened by climate change and a vital resource in potential adaptation.
A pearl millet variety improved through participatory plant breeding. Chimukoko Farmer Field School, Zimbabwe. Bioversity International/R.Vernooy
Many communities are already working to conserve and utilize plant genetic diversity at the local level. For example, they are saving seeds or testing traditional rice varieties that resist fluctuating coastal soil salinity. However, for the full benefits to be felt, a whole ecosystem approach must be supported by supportive strategies, training, and tools that help farmers apply scientific knowledge.
Cover of the Resilient Seed Systems Handbook
One such tool is the Resilient Seed System handbook, an open-access resource first published in 2016 to help plant breeders, researchers, genebank managers, educators, and policymakers build capacity around diverse seed systems. The handbook’s latest edition has been updated to include guidance on seed production and distribution, and documents best practices gleaned from applications of the first edition methodology in countries such as Burkina Faso (acquiring new millet accessions), Bhutan (predicting climate change scenarios for rice, maize, chile and potato), and Rwanda and Uganda (testing adaptive bean varieties based on crop suitability analysis).
With special attention to gender, the Alliance has also held training sessions and workshops for men and women farmers on methods to access diverse seeds and the supportive policies in places, such as the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.
If we wish to continue eating coffee and chocolate in years to come, we need to change our production strategies now for these high-value crops. Climate change poses a serious threat to coffee and cacao yields, as well as the livelihoods of the farmers who grow them. In Ghana, for example, 40 percent of the population relies on cocoa for income but projections indicate that the West African country’s northwest swath of the ‘cocoa belt’ will not be suitable for production by 2050.
Cacao processing on a farm in the Department of Guaviare, Colombia. CIAT/N.Palmer
In 2019, Alliance partnerships and research in Latin America, Africa, and Asia focused on developing climate-smart agriculture for coffee and cocoa, promoting a wide range of tools and resources.
Coffee picking in Cauca, southwestern Colombia. CIAT/N.Palmer
For example, researchers in Central America investigated ways to adapt agroforestry production in areas where coffee and cocoa are often grown in integrated management systems including trees. The study shows that rethinking the types of trees grown in these systems – by including underutilized and novel combinations of species – can boost resilience. Elsewhere in Central America and the Caribbean, our researchers used maps and data compilation to develop an atlas of climate change impacts on cacao production and accompanying workshops that could help farmers visualize how their landscapes are changing.
A farmer in his coffee plantation in Copán, Honduras. Bioversity International/K. de Sousa
Meanwhile in Ghana, to reach the next generation of farmers, Alliance researchers partnered with the CocoaLink App to deliver innovative content such as an interactive map that displays climate impacts for different growing zones. The mobile application also prompts farmer engagement with quizzes and climate-smart practices that users rate according to potential investment. As research leader Mark Lundy explained, “The app allows farmers to develop tailored solutions based on their climate challenges and economic conditions, thus avoiding the ‘one size fits all’ trap.”
Demo of the CocoaLink App
We also developed a knowledge-sharing platform intended to collect multi-country climate resilience work on cacao, connecting stakeholders from international research organizations to the private sector with the goal of creating a set of shared approaches and protocols that will help embed resilience in cacao production worldwide.
More bang for the climate buck: making smart investments in agriculture
Reducing climate change’s impact on agriculture will be costly. But money spent on climate action can be a profitable investment. If money is well spent, farmers and communities can reduce losses and reap long-term gains, and nations can meet greenhouse gas reduction targets, thus potentially saving billions of dollars in the process.
A seedling growing in cracked earth. CIAT/N.Palmer
Climate-smart agriculture (CSA) boosts productivity, enhances resilience, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. The Climate Smart Agriculture Papers, published last January, is a 26-chapter tome edited by CGIAR authors including the Alliance’s Evan Girvetz. In addition to the previously published CSA country profiles, the 26-chapter tome is a must-have reference for CSA practitioners. In collaboration with the World Bank, the Alliance unveiled its first in series of Climate Smart Agriculture Investment Plans (CSAIPs) at the United Nations’ annual climate conference. With these plans, the World Bank intends to finance $2.5 billion in projects aligned with CSA objectives. CSAIPs exist for Bangladesh, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, and Zambia, and plans are being developed for Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Congo-Brazzaville, Ghana, Iraq, Lesotho, Namibia, Nepal, and Zimbabwe.
The Alliance and CCAFS worked to secure US$5.8 million through national and international funding sources to close the gaps between research and action for partners in Colombia and Guatemala. The research on climate-smart villages (CSV) and Digital CSA enabled these stakeholders to implement subnational climate change strategies aligned with national policies and to realize more robust interventions addressing productivity, adaptation, and mitigation to climate change while improving rural livelihoods.
More Alliance research last year detailed money-saving, climate-helping investments.
A farmer in a Climate-Smart Village in Vietnam. CIAT/G.Smith
In Vietnam, a study by Alliance scientists showed that the country can increase commitments under the Paris Agreement and save about US$2.3 billion by 2030. Profitable practices included the use of agroforestry in coffee plantations, intermittently watering rice paddies instead of flooding them, and providing cattle with improved feed. The study evaluated 41 emissions-reducing measures for land use in the country.
Moreover, not every approach to boost productivity under climate needs to be technologically complicated or expensive, even in suboptimal growing conditions found across sub-Saharan Africa. A study by Alliance researchers and colleagues detailed the benefits of a simple method to retain moisture and regenerate soils on sandy farms.
“Moving forward, all investment in agriculture is going to have to be aligned with mitigation and adaptation to climate change,” said scientist Evan Girvetz. “If we hope to meet 2030 development goals and learn how to better withstand global shocks like those caused by COVID-19, we need to make wise investments to make agriculture more resilient.”