Science To Support Adaptation In Agricultural Systems

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The ability of farmers and the entire food production, processing, and distribution system to adapt to climate change will contribute to, and to some extent govern, the ultimate impacts of climate change on food production. Adaptation strategies may include changes in location as well as in-place changes such as shifts in planting dates and varieties; expansion of irrigated or managed areas; diversification of crops and other income sources; application of agricultural chemicals; changes in livestock care, infrastructure, and water and feed management; selling assets or borrowing credit (Moser et al., 2008; NRC, 2010a; Wolfe et al., 2008). At the broadest level, adaptation also includes investment in agricultural research and in institutions to reduce vulnerability. This is because the ability of farmers and others to adapt depends in important ways on available technology, financial resources and financial risk-management instruments, market opportunities, availability of alternative agricultural practices, and importantly, access to, trust in, and use of information such as seasonal forecasts (Cash, 2001; Cash et al., 2006a). It also depends on specific institutional arrangements, including property rights, social norms, trust, monitoring and sanctions, and agricultural extension institutions that can facilitate diversification (Agrawal and Perrin, 2008). Not all farmers have access to such strategies or support institutions, and smallholders— especially those with substantial debt, and the landless in poor countries—are most likely to suffer negative effects on their livelihoods and food security. Smallholder and subsistence farmers will suffer complex, localized impacts of climate change (Easter-ling et al., 2007).

Integrated assessment models, which combine climate models with crop models and models of the responses of farmers and markets, have been used to simulate the impacts of climate changes on productivity and also on factors such as farm income and crop management. Some modeling studies have included adaptations in these integrated assessments (McCarl, 2008; Reilly et al., 2003), for example by adjusting planting dates or varieties and by reallocating crops according to changes in profitability. For the United States, these studies usually project very small effects of climate change on the agricultural economy, and, in some regions, positive increases in productivity and profitability (assuming adaptation through cropping systems changes). As noted earlier with regard to climate-crop models, assessments have not yet included potential impacts of pests and pathogens or extreme events, nor have they included site- and crop-specific responses to climate change or variations. Moreover, even integrated assessment models that include adaptation do not include estimates of rates of technological change, costs of adaptation, or planned interventions (Antle, 2009). Thus, our understanding of the effects climate change will have on U.S. agriculture and on international food supplies, distribution, trade, and food security remains quite limited and warrants further research.

As they have in the past, both autonomous adaptations by farmers and planned interventions by governments and other institutions to facilitate, enable, and inform farmers' responses will be important in reducing potential damages from climate change and other related changes. Investments in crop development, especially in developing countries, have stagnated since the 1980s (Pardey and Beintema, 2002), although recent investments by foundations may fill some of the void. Private-sector expenditures play an important role, especially in developed countries, and some companies are engaging in efforts to develop varieties well suited for a changing climate (Burke et al., 2009; Wolfe et al., 2008).

Government investments in new or rehabilitated irrigation systems (of all sizes) and efficient water use and allocation technologies, transportation infrastructure, financial infrastructure such as availability of credit and insurance mechanisms (Barnett et al., 2008; Gine et al., 2008; World Bank, 2007), and access to fair markets are also important elements of adaptation (Burke et al., 2009). Likewise, investments in participatory research and information provision to farmers have been a keystone of past agricultural development strategies (e.g., through extension services in both developed and developing countries) and no doubt will remain so in the future. Finally, the provision of social safety nets (e.g., formal and informal sharing of risks and costs, labor exchange, crop insurance programs, food aid during emergencies, public works programs, or cash payments), which have long been a mainstay of agriculture in the developed world, will remain important (Agrawal, 2008; Agrawal and Perrin, 2008). These considerations need to be integrated into development planning.

It is important that agriculture be viewed as an integrated system. As noted above, the United States and the rest of the world will be simultaneously developing strategies to adapt agriculture to climate change, to utilize the potential of agricultural practices and other land uses to reduce the magnitude of climate change, and to increase agricultural production to meet rising global demands. With careful analysis and institutional design, these efforts may be able to complement one another while also enhancing our ability to improve global food security. However, without such integrated analysis, various practices and policies could easily work at cross purposes, moving the global food production system further from, rather than closer to, sustainability. For example, increased biofuel production would decrease reliance on fossil fuels but could increase demand for land and food resources (Fargione et al., 2008).

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