As the global climate continues to warm, the severity and frequency of weather events it brings add increasing challenges to farmers. No one is spared from its effects and agriculture is especially susceptible to climate impacts while global food demand rises and profitability becomes volatile.
Developments in agriculture have been dictated by market demands even at the expense of balanced land stewardship. However, intensive agricultural practices are becoming less and less viable as extreme weather worsens pre-existing farm concerns related to soil, nutrients, yields, and costs.
These challenges are estimated to persist for the next generation, leading more farmers worldwide to become proactive in preparing for the future while dealing with present issues.
Agriculture remains indispensable. And this current predicament incites concerted efforts across markets, policies, science, technology, and land management to drive the sustainable development of agriculture that can meet demands while upholding the livelihood of farmers.
How is climate change affecting agriculture: impacts and adaptation
- Current impacts of climate change in agriculture
- The future of farming with climate change
- How to strengthen farm resilience to climate risks
Climate change is negatively impacting global food systems
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have been studying what science is saying about the state of climate change and its impacts. Changing rainfall and temperature patterns are already affecting farm operations, output, and profit.
1. Slowed productivity
Disruptions in a farming cycle are becoming frequent due to floods, droughts, or extreme cold, depending on a farm’s location. Crop yields and harvest stability are compromised, forcing some farms to rely on chemical inputs to compensate for losses or even to abandon farming altogether when operations become too costly to maintain.
2. Altered production timeline
Warming trends have shifted sowing and harvest dates for many farms. Different crops have different responses to climatic changes, pushing some crops to have a shorter life cycle while some could take even longer to grow. Pests, weeds, and diseases can also persist as cropping timelines change. These seasonal shifts add labour and cost expenses to farmers who may have to make costly investments in new cultivars and equipment to adapt.
3. Threatened livelihood and food security
Climate change disproportionately affects populations, including farmers. Regional variations will find farmers adapting differently from those in other places. Globally, this creates instability in food availability, nutrition, and prices. On the farm, new investments may be required in crops, resources, and management practices that can further strain revenues from farming, which many farmers already struggle to begin with.
Impending risks in agriculture from continued warming
In a worst-case scenario of the future, the world is projected to warm by 2º more at the end of the century. This is catastrophic for all life on the planet and should be avoided at all costs.
Negative effects are still expected even when we make our best collective effort to limit warming at less than 1.5º, and the time for action is slowly slipping. Some effects will be felt sooner (starting in the middle of the century), with vulnerable groups affected more gravely than others.
1. Limited land availability
Current agricultural areas will become unsuitable for producing crops with increasing global temperatures. In Europe for example, agricultural production is expected to shift northward (Ceglar et al., 2019), forcing some southern European farmers to abandon generational farmlands as weather conditions become too warm and dry.
Some farmers will be forced to seek new arable lands by converting forests or peatlands to continue their livelihood. Prices of productive lands will come at a premium driven by limited land availability.
2. Decreased nutrition and food safety
Climate and environmental factors affect harvest quality, including the nutritional value of crops. Increasing CO2 concentrations are found to have negative effects on nutrient concentrations on food crops (Uddling et al., 2018). Similarly, extreme heat and droughts reduce soil fertility and could increase land degradation that affects crop productivity.
Pests and diseases also affect crop production negatively with high temperatures and events of floods and droughts. Farmers not only incur losses but the entire food supply chain is also disrupted by extreme weather events.
3. Worsened farm-work conditions
Extreme heat will worsen outdoor working conditions. This can result in increased exposure to dangerous working conditions for farmworkers or reduced productivity. Both scenarios would mean higher farm management costs and increased prices of crops.
4. Increased pressures on limited resources (soil, water, and air)
Along with other human activities, intensive land management contributed to the degradation of soil, water, and air. Degraded soil, water, and air quality negatively affect yield productivity made worse with extreme temperatures and weather.
Important components of fertile lands such as organic matter content drive soil functions, including its capacity to store carbon. Soil is the biggest storage of carbon and high temperatures increase the rate of soil organic matter loss that affects yield and its capacity to store carbon, among others. Carbon lost from the soil returns to the atmosphere, and in large amounts, makes warming worse.
Taking on climate challenges
Current and projected effects of climate change in agriculture informs us that doing business as usual just won’t cut it — concrete actions must be made. In doing so, we must build the capacity of food producers to withstand pressures while limiting impacts on food supply.
1. Supporting farmers
A strong foundation is crucial for success. Establishing support systems will strengthen the agricultural response to adaptation and mitigation to climate change.
- Policies: Strong support from government institutions will enhance response to climate change. There must be a push for policies that make it easier for farmers to adopt climate-smart practices to boost resilience. A robust framework will aid farmers and food producers in this time of transition and in the years to come.
- Youth and community engagements: Skills and knowledge-building can ensure the development of sustainable farming in the next generation. Youth and community involvement in agriculture can help rebuild livelihood and economic opportunities.
- Financial investments from public and private institutions: Shifting to sustainable farming practices can introduce new expenses to the farm. Financing is crucial to build new skills and implement changes needed for adaptation. Investment instruments can be direct incentives to farmers or can come in the form of building better infrastructures around farming.
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2. Enhancing resilience
Adaptation strategies will play a central role in agriculture’s response to climate change. These strategies range from farm-level practices to technological advancements.
- Ecosystem-based approaches: Agroecology is the application of ecological principles to agriculture. Some applications of it are cover crops, minimising tillage, and nutrient management. Agroecology, agroforestry, and crop and cultivar diversification are some in-farm principles that have high potential to strengthen resilience according to the IPCC.
- Sustainable resource management: Conservation agriculture enriches the environmental impact of farming. Managing irrigation and nutrient runoff, as well as soil health management, are some ways that can lead to sustainable crop production.
- Robust analyses with monitoring and feedback: Monitoring and measurement tools have improved over the years. From remote-sensing to satellites and better modelling for forecasting, farmers need to have easier access to information that can improve their operations.
3. Limiting emissions
All of our efforts to adapt will be negated with continued pollution of the atmosphere with excessive greenhouse gasses. Limiting emissions is still the best response to climate change and every industry needs to make changes, not just food production systems.
In agriculture, carbon farming introduces mechanisms that enable farmers to adopt carbon removal strategies on the farm. Verified credits from this process can then help contribute to further reducing residual emissions from other organisations while providing income for farmers.
How can you make climate-smart agriculture work for your farm?
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- Ceglar, A., M. Zampieri, A. Toreti and F. Dentener, 2019: Observed Northward Migration of Agro-Climate Zones in Europe Will Further Accelerate Under Climate Change. Earth’s Future, 7(9), 1088-1101, doi:10.1029/2019EF001178.
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