Background paper: Rural livelihoods, food security and rural transformation under climate change


Executive summary

Despite decades of attention to agricultural development, food security and rural poverty, poverty and food insecurity remain, especially amongst rural dwellers in Asia, Africa and Central America. With climate change the challenges only increase and will further intensify as extreme events and variable weather patterns make small-scale production even more difficult.
For any list of recommendations, leverage points or action points, the criticism can easily be that we have heard it all before. There are no silver bullets and some actions and strategies can have mixed outcomes, though nascent and yet-to-be-developed technologies could shift rural livelihoods, agriculture and the broader food systems in unexpected ways in the coming decade, both positively and negatively.

Our thesis is that transformational change in rural livelihoods is needed for climate change adaptation, that this change needs to embrace the broader food system, and that these actions can have benefits in multiple dimensions beyond climate change adaptation: poverty, nutrition, employment and the environment. If transformational change is to be achieved, several elements will be needed in synergy, with less or more emphasis on particular elements, depending on context and considering household heterogeneity. Given that in many places there are at most 12 harvests left to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), urgency in the implementation of the actions under the following elements is imperative:

• Firstly, and fundamentally, the policy and institutional environment needs to change, to provide appropriate incentives for transformational change. Policies that can generate or enhance risks should be avoided. Key objectives in the policy domain include promoting landscape planning and management, rethinking subsidies, making markets work, reducing risks in agriculture, improved water supply in the less humid zones, improved soil and water conservation, enhanced good governance in all sectors, tenure reform, and targeting the poorest of the poor with productive social safety nets and alternative options. In many cases policy action is required outside the agricultural sector and a much stronger focus on more localized enabling environments will be needed, such as rethinking of current financial incentive mechanisms for state budget allocation that discourage local authorities from implementing sustainable policies, policies on migration, policies that enhance environmental standards and law enforcement and promotion of participatory and gender-sensitive decision-making and free trade policies.

• Secondly, appropriate climate-resilient practices and technologies need to be identified and further developed, and perhaps more importantly, scaled up. Technologies are highly context specific, but considering small-scale producers, some key areas for action are around solar micro-irrigation, technologies for high value commodities that link to changing urban markets (e.g., climate-smart dairy production, smallscale aquaculture, horticulture), nature-based solutions such as ecosystem-based adaptation, diversified systems that help manage climate risk, likely early winners in new technology such as alternative protein sources for humans and livestock, and food storage innovations. Stress tolerance in crops and livestock will be important, in particular for closing yield gaps in some of the world’s poorest and most climatevulnerable regions, with more attention required for some of the lesser researched and lesser incentivized crops (e.g., in the African context: beans, cassava, millet, plantain/banana, potato and sorghum) and to pests and diseases. Greater focus on rural mechanization and post-harvest storage and processing relevant to small-scale producers can also be a boost to rural entrepreneurship. These technologies need to be identified based on local needs and need to be transferred to local people.

• Thirdly, orders of magnitude more investments are required, however, these are largely expected to be from the private sector (e.g., role of large national and multinational corporations in adaptation not only through their potential to finance projects but also to develop technologies and innovative solutions) and driven by appropriate government policies, with investments coming from multiple sources used to leverage private investments, e.g., through de-risking agriculture. Innovation in financial models and in the use of climate finance is sorely needed. Index-based insurance is advancing rapidly and is likely to be an important risk mitigation option.

• Fourthly, given that different agricultural value-chains and market configurations can provide big opportunities for rural producers, considerable attention needs to be focused on reshaping supply chains, food retail, marketing and procurement. This must address food loss and waste issues, shifts in consumption towards healthier diets, building the resilience of supply chains, and, most importantly, ensuring that supply chains link to small-scale producers and enhance rural employment opportunities.

• Fifthly, we must realize the digital era for rural livelihoods, agriculture and food systems. Agriculture is behind other sectors in digitalization, and digital agriculture has the potential to revolutionize agriculture and supply chains. For example, two-way digital extension services integrated with weather advisories can change information flows to and from small-scale producers, and change how farmers respond to climate risk. Digitalization can also enhance local networking and increase rural employment opportunities.

• Sixthly, and to address the issue that a strong private sector approach is being advocated, considerable attention needs to be given to empowering producer and consumer organizations, women, youth and marginalized groups such as indigenous communities to promote local action, strengthen negotiating power and increase access to resources. Local networking has been shown to have important positive consequences for climate adaptation. Capacity development must run through all the elements.

Taken together, implementing these elements for action simultaneously would constitute a new approach to innovation and enabling it: co-creating new knowledge, “renovating” existing but as-yet under-utilized scientific and indigenous knowledge, and sharing knowledge between all stakeholders and levels in the food system, producers and consumers alike.

Fostering transformation in rural livelihoods, agriculture and food systems will mean very different things for different sub-sectors of the rural population, where we recognize at least four livelihood types: “stepping up” (investing in agricultural assets, and purchasing at least some inputs or services); “stepping out” (accumulating assets that allow investments in or switches to new activities outside agriculture); “hanging in” (maintaining and protecting current levels of wealth and welfare in the face of threats of stresses and shocks; focused on subsistence or low-input agriculture), and “food insecure” (chronically food-insecure, some landless or reliant on casual agricultural or nonagricultural labour). Market approaches are likely to benefit those stepping up or stepping out, while for others—often the majority in many communities—food insecurity can increase, and the population of those hanging in could increase.

Thus, we have to recognize differentiated pathways to adaptation—tailored to different sectors of the population often with multiple pathways in the same geography. We discuss five main pathways:

  1. Increasing market integration and/or consolidating land so as to step up 2. Climate-informed shifts in the farming system so as to step up 3. From landless to small-scale entrepreneurship (including highly intensive production on micro landholdings)

  2. Climate-informed productive social safety nets and nature-based solutions for those least integrated into markets 5. Exiting/reducing agriculture in the livelihood portfolio