The interaction of future climatic variability and change with economic and political uncertainty has received little attention in climate change research (Leichenko and O'Brien, 2002; O'Brien and Leichenko, 2000). Greater openness of global markets has reportedly improved consumer choice and the efficiency of food distribution (FAO, 2003). Markets have opened to foreign investment and trade, and agricultural technologies and information are likely to be more available now to farmers than in the past. However, some populations, often those in developing countries who were the beneficiaries of former protectionist policies and public intervention, have not always felt the full benefits of market liberalization (FAO, 2003). These populations are often the same ones singled out as potentially vulnerable to the negative impacts of climatic change (Leichenko and O'Brien, 2002).
The impacts of market liberalization vary among sectors and countries, making generalization difficult. However, the process of market liberalization in world agriculture has been particularly hard for smallholder and peasant producers who lack the resources to participate actively in export markets. The continued protection of particular agricultural commodities (e.g., cotton) in industrialized nations has also prohibited the competition of many commercial farmers in developing nations. Many farmers in the tropics have faced declining prices for their harvests, rising costs of imported inputs, reduced access to private and public finance, and greater market volatility (Buttel, 1997; Dixon et al., 2001; Gledhill, 1995; Leichenko and O'Brien, 2002; McMichael, 1994).
These farmers enter the 21st century at a considerable disadvantage. They tend to have been subject to considerable past state intervention and protectionism. In many countries, smallholders were also unable to benefit directly from the technological advances of the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, and since that period have often been ignored in national agricultural research and development programs in favor of more "modern" farming subsectors.
Open markets can mean lower food prices for net food buyers, but they can also mean increased dependence on food imports, and thus greater sensitivity to market volatility and the politics of international agricultural trade. As commodity chains become increasingly integrated and controlled by a handful of large transnational agribusinesses (FAO, 2003), this dependence is also subject to the policies and performance of a limited number of large economic enterprises. (The FAO report, World Agriculture Towards 2015/2030, estimates that only three transnational companies now control 80% of U.S. maize exports. This means that the performance of these three companies has important implications for countries such as
Mexico, which derives 98% of its maize imports from the United States.)
There is also a concern that, as agriculture in developing nations is restructured to meet global consumer preferences and demands, production will be increasingly disconnected from local consumption (FAO, 2003; Friedmann, 1994). As part of this process, major food staples and the places in which they are produced that have no place in global markets, such as millet, cassava, and preferred varieties of maize or rice, can be devalued (Marsden, 1997). With food supplies determined by the preferences of wealthier consumers at the global scale, and food-deficit countries increasingly import dependent, populations in developing regions have progressively less control over the price, quality, and content of the foods they import, and when and where food is available (Raynolds, 1997). For many developing countries, the impact of climate change will thus depend largely on how their agricultural sectors respond to both old challenges such as persistent hunger, population growth, and degraded resources, and new challenges, such as market globalization, and access to technology and information, in addition to climatic variability and change (Reilly and Schilmmelpfenning, 1999).
On a more optimistic note, many nations considered to be vulnerable to hunger and climatic hazards may also be a valuable source of knowledge and experience about adaptation to risk and survival under climatic uncertainty. Farmers in Latin America have a long history of adaptation to climatic and other biophysical constraints (Denevan, 1980; Whitmore and Turner, 1992). A wide diversity of climatic-risk mitigation strategies, including soil moisture conservation techniques, tillage practices, seed selection for stress tolerance, intercropping, and other forms of microclimate adjustments, continue to be practiced in many traditional agricultural systems in Mexico (see, for example, Altieri and Trujillo, 1987; Bellon, 1991; Brush et al., 1988; Doolittle, 1989; Trujillo, 1990; Wilken, 1982, 1987).
The extent of and possibilities for adaptation have also been illustrated in research on climate forecast applications in Sub-Saharan Africa, Mexico, and South America. Small farmers are acutely aware of climatic variability and its consequences for production as well as a wide range of possible management techniques for mitigating anticipated impacts (Eakin, 1999, 2000; O'Brien and Vogel, 2003; Phillips et al., 1998). While it would be erroneous to suggest that these methods are always effective, they represent a wealth of knowledge and experience that should be used as a point of departure for research on more resilient and adaptive agricultural systems.
However, to be adaptive a system needs to be flexible, and in order to respond proactively, it also needs to have a certain amount of stability. Instability and volatility tend to inhibit capacities for future planning. Perhaps most important, adaptation depends on having access to resources financial, human, social, physical, natural in order to accommodate changing demands on land's productive capacity. Although many smallholders are capable of finding niches in today's more open markets, they do not have access to investments in technology and research that benefited agriculture in more industrial countries in recent decades (Cotter, 1994; Loker, 1996; Yapa, 1996). Small farmers in Latin America face challenges related to participating in commercial markets, such as lack of credit, rising input costs, lack of access to agricultural research, poor rural extension services, and water scarcity. All these factors will complicate their ability to employ the types of adaptations to climatic change often proposed for industrial agriculture.
Thus, as attention is given to the challenge of adaptation, it will become even more important to understand the role of climate in accentuating existing vulnerabilities, and, conversely, to understand the role of policy trends and economic stress in increasing farmers' sensitivity to climate impacts in the near future. Although these interactions may still defy modeling efforts, the recent past can serve as a useful reference for the near and perhaps medium term strategy formulation. The implications of policy change, economic uncertainty, and climatic change for future food security and food sovereignty are examined in the next section by examining Mexican maize production and policy.
Was this article helpful?