How Vulnerable is the Agricultural Industry to Climate Change?

Mounting evidence indicates agriculture is vulnerable to the effects of climate change. In recent decades, research has therefore prioritized the development of adaptive measures to avoid the collapse of food production systems in vulnerable areas.  

Climate Change Could Affect Global Agriculture Within 10 Years

Understanding the agricultural consequences of global climate change

Despite growing evidence over recent decades that the agricultural industry would be severely impacted by climate change, reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) state food production remains one of the most vulnerable sectors.

The IPCC defines vulnerability as “the extent to which a natural or social system is susceptible to sustaining damage from climate change impacts, and is a function of exposure, sensitivity and adaptive capacity”.

The aggregation of these components, therefore, dictates the impact of climate change on agriculture and livelihoods. To understand the vulnerability of agricultural systems to climate change, understanding these components is therefore essential.

The rise of global temperatures alongside increases in the frequency, severity, and duration, of extreme weather events are the primary direct impacts of global climate change on agricultural systems. In addition, indirect factors generated by increased temperatures such as a higher prevalence of pests and pathogens as well as invasive species, also threaten food production.

To date, studies have provided evidence for the consequences of climate change, which allow insights into how agriculture may further be affected in the future. In recent years, a consensus has emerged that crop yields are declining due to climate change. This includes losses in the production of cacao, and coffee, with losses in wheat, maize, and sorghum across Africa and South Asia.

Projected models estimate a mean yield loss of 8% by 2050 for wheat, maize, and sorghum, and 17% for wheat production in Africa. In India, climate change-induced disturbances to the monsoon between 1966–2002 are estimated to have reduced rice yields by 4%. These yields would have been 1.7% higher on average if monsoon characteristics had not changed since 1960.

Effects are therefore already being documented across certain regions. Moreover, although evidence indicates the impacts of climate change affect national and global industries, studies emphasize that it is the marginalized and impoverished rural communities in developing countries whose livelihoods are dependent upon small-scale agriculture who are particularly vulnerable.

A 2021 study by Ortiz Bobea et al., quantified the extent to which climate change is affecting agriculture now and into the future. Using robust econometric models of weather effects on global agricultural total factor productivity (TFP) combined with counterfactual climate scenarios to evaluate impacts of past climate trends productivity, the researchers found climate change has reduced agricultural productivity by 21% since 1961.

Aligning with other studies, models also showed these effects were more severe in lower latitudes, with reductions between 26 to 34% in warmer regions such as Africa Latin America, and the Caribbean.

Importantly, however, authors also found global agriculture has grown more vulnerable to ongoing climate change over time. This may be due to factors such as increased monocultures and reduced soil quality as well as feedback systems that accelerate the degradation of habitats.

Developing effective adaptation measures addressing climate change in vulnerable regions

In response to the impacts of climate change, researchers and policymakers have focused on designing and implementing effective measures to adapt to the effects of climate change or mitigate its impacts. Although many policies have been put forward, few have been implemented effectively.

In a 2020 study discussing the importance and efficacy of adaptation measures in South Asia, Prakash Aryal et al reviewed the major options in the agricultural sector that are available for adaptation to climate change. Authors emphasize that adaptation measures are required to sustain agricultural productivity, reduce vulnerability, and enhance the resilience of the agricultural system to climate change.

The study then presents how agricultural practices that help climate change adaptation in agriculture are available, while the institutional setup to implement and disseminate those technical solutions is yet to be strengthened. Thus, the mismatch between measures and governance appears to hinder the adaptive capacity of agricultural systems.

Although the study limits its review to South Asia, its implications have a global reach, as authors discuss how socioeconomic and political initiatives are able to facilitate but also inhibit adaptation measures if relevant factors are not considered.

The authors conclude by advocating for institutional change to design dynamic policies for long-term climate change adaptation in agriculture rather than a mere focus on agricultural technology. In turn, this will avoid maladaptation and the possibility of large-scale agricultural collapses due to climate change.

Another study by Parker et al. published in 2019 used the Climate Risk Vulnerability Assessment (CRVA) methodology to examine the agricultural systems of Vietnam, Uganda, and Nicaragua, three developing countries particularly vulnerable to climate change.

The models showed that adaptive capacity to climate change differs between regions within each country and identified hotspots of vulnerability as well as the underlying driving indicators.

For example, in Vietnam authors found the Mekong delta to be one of the vulnerable regions due to a decline in the climatic suitability of rice and maize, combined with high exposure to flooding, sea-level rise, and drought. However, the region is marked by a relatively high adaptive capacity due to developed infrastructure and comparatively high levels of education. Similar trends were found in both other countries considered, demonstrating the importance of considering spatial complexity when attempting to understand the impacts of climate change.

Recent studies have therefore honed their focus into finer spatial and temporal scales and have gradually considered how factors of complexity could affect projections and the accuracy of projections. Together, these predictive models can then be assembled and used to design successful action plans, which studies have shown to require dynamic and reactionary adaptability in the face of unpredictable climate change impacts.

Climate Change and Agriculture

Image Credit: Scott Book/Shutterstock.com

Current limitations and future implications for agriculture in an era of climate change

Research efforts addressing the effects of climate change on agriculture have increased in recent years, but the progress in implementing adaptation measures and understanding complexities remains unclear.

For instance, a study published 10 years ago discussing the research progress in agricultural vulnerability to climate change reviewed the existing problems in current research. Authors analyzed issues with scenario application, methods, and uncertainties, before presenting a projection of the direction for future research in the assessment of agricultural vulnerability. The study highlighted major problems in existing literature at the time including, which can be allocated into 4 key issues.

First, the indicator system method of assessing vulnerability faced difficulties as the weight of indices was not standardized. Information such as expert analysis and artificial neural network methods are difficult to weigh, are weighted differently, and the relationships between subsequent indices eventually become a bottleneck of the indicator system method.

Second, the adaptive capacity remained scarce and authors suggested this requires attention in the future, particularly when considering variations over spatial and temporal scales.

Thirdly, the authors demonstrated that the analysis and assessment of agricultural vulnerability are two aspects of vulnerability research that require consideration. The vulnerability of agricultural systems and agricultural vulnerability to climate change should be scientifically identified and distinguished in research, and the problem of uncertainty should be considered in the evaluation process.

Finally, the authors highlight the need to address the lack of socio-economic scenario data and to study in more depth the relatively simple climate scenarios currently applied, specifically focusing on the availability and reliability of data and information.

Since the publication of the paper, some of the issues have been addressed and improved upon. This is particularly true for the attention to adaptive capacity and assessment of vulnerability factors, as seen in case studies on key regions. However, issues on standardizing indices as well as the availability and integration of socio-economic data remains disparate, demonstrating that challenges within agricultural research remain.

Altogether, research has shown climatic variability explains a large proportion of yield variability, which influences food production and the livelihood of populations around the world.  Further research considering dynamic factors of variability will improve our understanding of climatic complexity, providing valuable insights to ensure adequate food security in the future.

Sources:

  • Aryal, J. P., Sapkota, T. B., Khurana, R., Khatri-Chhetri, A., Rahut, D. B., & Jat, M. L. (2019). Climate change and agriculture in South Asia: adaptation options in smallholder production systems. Environment, Development and Sustainability, 22(6), 5045–5075. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10668-019-00414-4
  • Ortiz-Bobea, A., Ault, T. R., Carrillo, C. M., Chambers, R. G., & Lobell, D. B. (2021). Anthropogenic climate change has slowed global agricultural productivity growth. Nature Climate Change, 11(4), 306–312. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-021-01000-1
  • Parker, L., Bourgoin, C., Martinez-Valle, A., & Läderach, P. (2019). Vulnerability of the agricultural sector to climate change: The development of a pan-tropical Climate Risk Vulnerability Assessment to inform sub-national decision making. PLOS ONE, 14(3), e0213641. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0213641
  • Tao, S., Xu, Y., Liu, K., Pan, J., & Gou, S. (2011). Research Progress in Agricultural Vulnerability to Climate Change. Advances in Climate Change Research, 2(4), 203–210. https://doi.org/10.3724/sp.j.1248.2011.00203

Further Reading

Last Updated: Jan 28, 2022

James Ducker

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James Ducker

James completed his bachelor in Science studying Zoology at the University of Manchester, with his undergraduate work culminating in the study of the physiological impacts of ocean warming and hypoxia on catsharks. He then pursued a Masters in Research (MRes) in Marine Biology at the University of Plymouth focusing on the urbanization of coastlines and its consequences for biodiversity.  

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