Many of the effects of changing climate patterns on food security are obvious. For example, more frequent and extreme droughts and floods are making farming more challenging, leading to abbreviated growing seasons, lost crops, and depleted family food stores. But climate variability and change are causing many other less obvious effects on food security, many of which are just beginning to be understood.
USAID’s climate risk management (CRM) screenings are drawing attention to some of these effects. In 2016, the Agency started requiring that all strategies, projects, and activities be screened to ensure that they have fully considered how climate variability and change might undermine the Agency’s development objectives and any potential opportunities that climate variability and change might present. These screenings have been completed for dozens of programs around the world, and a few common themes have emerged. Alex Apotsos, Climate Change Advisor for the Africa Bureau, took the time to describe some of these themes to Climatelinks.
Uncertainty is one of the most pervasive themes. “[Farmers] are no longer able to depend on rainfall falling when it used to.” He says that this throws off traditional farming practices about “when to plant, when to apply fertilizer, when to clear fields, which makes it much more difficult for folks to engage in subsistence agriculture, and therefore also affects their ability to be food secure.”
At a larger, program level, this uncertainty is challenging for determining strategies. Do you plan for smaller-scale climate impacts that are now happening more regularly or for the major events like multi-year droughts or 100-year floods that are less frequent but more devastating when they do occur? “There’s a lot of discussion about how you balance that uncertainty, and that uncertainty grows the longer you look out into the future,” he says. “How do I ensure that this community grows enough food this year and next year while at the same time ensuring that in five or ten years, they’re in a better place to secure their food supply than today?”
Compounding this uncertainty is the issue of thresholds. Apotsos explains that we often make planning decisions based on the misconception that systems behave linearly, for example, thinking a 20 percent decrease in rainfall will have twice the effect of a 10 percent decrease. However, agricultural and other natural systems are often much more complex than this. “There’s certain thresholds after which you get a non-linear response. So you might see a marginal impact on agriculture for a 10 percent decrease in rainfall, but once you crack that 10 percent, you might see a big, huge impact because all of a sudden you have exceeded the threshold at which the crop can survive. It’s much more difficult for us to take into account these non-linear thresholds at which suddenly the response from the system and its effect on food security changes drastically, even though there’s only a small change in the climate signal. This is at least partly due to our not knowing exactly where and when these thresholds will be crossed.”
Processes like recurrent monitoring can help uncover these thresholds. Detailed, repetitive monitoring can provide real-time information on climate impacts at the community, regional, and national levels, which can help USAID adjust programs as needed. “Oftentimes you’re trying to plan robust options that are as effective as possible across as wide a range of potential future scenarios as possible. What recurrent monitoring systems essentially allow you to do is tweak or adjust those as specific scenarios are realized,” he says. “You have the information to know not just what is happening but how it’s impacting and who it’s impacting, and you can adjust your interventions accordingly.”
Effects Beyond Production
Generally the development community has a fairly good grasp on the potential climate impacts on agriculture production. However, food systems extend well beyond just production, and we are just beginning to understand the climate effects further down the value chain. “Once you start looking at these other aspects of the larger food market system, impact can ripple in more complex ways. An example of that would be if there’s increased rainfall, which causes flooding, which then delays the transport of food that has been produced from one area to another. How does that affect people’s food security, especially in urban and peri-urban areas, where that might increase the cost of certain foods, which therefore affects people’s food security?”
While we often look at climate impacts across large spatial scales, what really matters to communities and households is the local impacts on their livelihoods, which can vary from community to community. Understanding this spatial variability is another theme that Apotsos says has emerged from the CRM screenings. “There’s a lot of local contextual factors like soil type, slope, crop grown that really affect the actual risk. At what level does that need to be analyzed and included in our programs when we’re trying to ensure food security for a wide range of individuals?”
Improving Information Availability
A final theme that Apotsos has noticed in the CRM screenings has been a call for better dissemination of useful information, such as long-range weather forecasts. He points out that there is no one solution to the challenges of a changing climate, that different farmers may use different approaches depending on their own context. “It’s less about trying to tell people how to farm better and more to give them the information that they need to incorporate into their own knowledge such that they can make the best decision for the outcomes in their individual contexts.”
At the same time, he stresses that information alone is often not enough. “We’ve had feedback from folks who said ‘It’s all well and good that you've told me that it’s going to be a really bad rainfall season, but if I can’t buy improved seeds, if I don’t have the money to get extra inputs, or the time to do all these other adaptive practices, all the information in the world does me no good.’ That information has to be combined with other resources such that especially the poor and the most vulnerable can act on that information in a productive way.”
While the CRM screenings have helped identify a number of climate risks, one of the big takeaways from these screenings is that climate variability is just one of many factors that affect food security. “One of the big questions is how does one incorporate climate considerations into the much wider environment in which either food security or the lack of food security exists,” Apotsos says. “How do we develop programs that tackle not only climate change but the other issues that are preventing people from becoming food secure?” These are questions that USAID and other donors, and their local partners, are working to answer.
Christine Chumbler is a communications professional with more than 20 years experience in writing, editing, and publications design. She has expertise in every stage of publication production, from concept and writing to editing, design, and printing. In the mid-1990s, she was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi. This experience led to a career using her writing and editorial skills with international development and foreign policy organizations, many of which worked to directly support USAID’s efforts. She has worked in a freelance capacity full-time since May 2016. Chumbler has a Master’s in journalism from the University of Michigan and a Bachelor’s in environmental studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz.