Since breakfast this morning, the chances that you have eaten beans, corn, rice, soybeans, and wheat are very high. These staple foods represent key crops in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) and are critical to export earnings and food security. However, due to the climate crisis, these crops and the agricultural sector in the region face considerable challenges.
The region accounts for about a quarter of world exports of agricultural and fishery products. The sector is also very important for export earnings and livelihoods. In 2018, 14.1 per cent of the region’s workforce was employed in agriculture.
However, LAC, along with other regions, faces growing challenges due to accelerating global warming, increasing consumption of animal protein, gradual depletion of natural resources, increasing concentration of land ownership, limited access of small farmers to increasingly complex technologies and persistent or growing inequality.
Agricultural economies in LAC will face increasing challenges from climate change and variability, including rising temperatures, changing rainfall patterns, and more intense and frequent extreme weather events. These changes could affect production and food security. Jobs could also be affected: due to heat stress, 2.5 million jobs could be lost in LAC, particularly affecting the agriculture and construction sectors.
Globally, the region is home to three of the ten countries most affected by extreme weather events during the period 1998-2017, which have negatively affected agriculture and led to significant losses in livelihoods and economies. In Argentina, for example, floods have already caused losses estimated at US$3 billion per year during the last two decades.
The study, Vulnerability to climate change and economic impacts in the agricultural sector in Latin America and the Caribbean, estimates the potential impact of climate change on agricultural productivity and trade in key crops at the regional and national levels in the region. It analyses the situation in Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama, Peru, the Dominican Republic, and Uruguay and offers recommendations on adaptation measures for specific crops.
Climate models project an average 1-4°C increase in temperatures in LAC and a 30 per cent decrease in precipitation. This innovative research finds that, globally, in a “no climate change” (No-CC) scenario, the prices of beans, corn, rice, soybeans and wheat are expected to increase by 4.6 per cent until 2050, 27.6 per cent , 16.1 per cent, 6.5 per cent and 11.7 per cent respectively, over their current levels.
“Agricultural economies in LAC will face increasing challenges from climate change and variability, including rising temperatures, changing rainfall patterns, and more intense and frequent extreme weather events. These changes could affect production and food security.”
But the introduction of climate change amplifies this increase by 14.6 per cent, 15.4 per cent, 10.1 per cent, 0.5 per cent and 1.7 per cent, respectively. Price increases and trade deficits in the region suggest the possibility of greater exposure to food insecurity in most countries, with the exception of the Southern Cone.
Given these circumstances, most LAC countries will simply meet or fall below the critical food supply-demand ratio. The Andean, Mexico and Central America and the Caribbean regions could face substantial difficulties, in a scenario that is already challenging given the impacts generated by COVID-19.
Adaptation to climate variability and extreme events serves as the basis for reducing vulnerability to long-term climate change. All LAC countries include some form of adaptation-related measures as part of their agriculture-related legal framework and as part of their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC), although implementation remains a challenge. From our analysis, we identified five crucial adaptation measures:
1) Inclusion of climate change considerations to better inform and prioritise policies, strategies, actions and investments at the national and local levels. This includes the use of climate models for public policies and investments, as well as the availability and dissemination of information that could help producers in decision-making on production and marketing issues.
2) Promotion and support for research, development, adaptation and adoption of improved or less susceptible varieties. For example, those varieties with tolerance to drought, high temperatures, certain pests and diseases. This is crucial for key food security crops (eg corn and beans), as well as lucrative export crops (eg coffee and soybeans). The identification, conservation and use of ancient varieties has also proven important.
3) Increase the sustainable management and use of water. In LAC, the agricultural sector is the main user of water and consumes around 70 per cent of available fresh water. However, the availability of water is decreasing due to the unsustainable exploitation of hydrographic basins and the impacts of climate change. Sustainable water use and management measures are therefore a fundamental adaptation measure. These activities include sustainable irrigation and water reservoirs, watershed management, and considerations of the food, energy and water nexus for decision-making.
4) Recovery of degraded lands and sustainable intensification to avoid further deforestation. The land use and changing land use are emerging as critical features virtually all mitigation pathways seeking to limit warming to 1.5°C . In LAC, agriculture and land use change and forestry accounted for more than 42 per cent of emissions in 2016. Given the increasing rates of deforestation in some parts of the region due to the expansion of the agriculture and logging, the contribution to emissions could be even higher in 2021. However, the productive capacity of the agricultural sector depends on the conservation of ecosystems.
5) Implementation of technologies and practices that simultaneously contribute to increasing productivity while reducing vulnerability and/or emissions. There are numerous proven climate-smart technologies and practices (CSAs) that increase productivity while reducing climate vulnerability and / or emissions. For example, those often called climate-smart agricultural technologies / practices, such as agroforestry systems, improved varieties, irrigation, crop rotation, integrated pest management, etc. There is a wide spectrum of CSA options. Therefore, it is essential to understand the effectiveness of the different options, test and select the most effective ones in anticipation of future climate impacts.
There are differences at the national level that must be considered when designing and implementing policies, strategies and actions. Governments have highlighted in their first NDCs the relevance of the agricultural sector for climate action. In their revised NDCs, LAC countries could reduce climate impacts by adopting climate-smart agricultural practices that increase productivity while reducing emissions and adapting to changing growing conditions.
As the climate crisis worsens, LAC countries face the challenge of producing enough food to feed a growing population while conserving natural resources and ecosystems and adapting to climate change. Although the region may have 40 per cent of the world’s biodiversity, 50 per cent of the tropical forests, and is the largest exporter of crops, the adaptation of the agricultural sector to climatic impacts will be key to its survival.