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Ecosystem-based adaptation strategies are essential to address climate disruptions to agriculture, forestry, fisheries, and aquaculture, but with the caveat that incautious strategies can have “maladaptive outcomes” that further harm the most vulnerable groups, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says in its report this week on climate impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability.
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Adaptation and mitigation policies that “ignore or worsen” the risks of adverse effects for different groups and ecosystems increase vulnerability, reduce capacity to deal with climate impacts, and impede sustainable development, the IPCC says, in a section on managed ecosystems that assesses the effects of climate change on global food systems, other ecosystem products, and the livelihoods of people who tend to these systems.
Rising temperatures, changing weather patterns, and extreme weather events have disrupted agriculture, forestry, fisheries, and aquaculture by altering the distribution, growing area suitability, and timing of key biological events. Even under a 1.5°C pathway, the IPCC predicts risks to food systems will increase by 2050, and they’re worse still under pathways with greater warming. Adaptation strategies that could be useful at 1.5°C will become less effective in hotter future scenarios, the IPCC warns.
Rising temperatures and humidity will put more pressure on food-producing ecosystems on land by reducing pollinator activity and air, soil, and water quality. These adverse conditions will also stress animals—including livestock and fish—and damage food safety by creating favourable conditions for different forms of animal and plant disease. This range of impacts will reduce meat, milk, and crop productivity, the IPCC warns.
With food quality and harvest stability disrupted, and the productivity of farms and fisheries declining, food insecurity will rise. Sudden food production losses have already increased since the mid-twentieth century, with extreme weather events making food less available and food prices higher, and threatening the food security, nutrition, and livelihoods of millions, writes the IPCC. All these impacts are both causes of, and compounded by, increased climate-linked human migration.
Vulnerable groups like women, children, low-income households, Indigenous or other minority groups, and small-scale producers are most affected by these changes because of their higher risk of malnutrition, livelihood loss, rising costs, and competition for resources.
Negative climate impacts will increase the number of people affected by food insecurity and diet-related death, with the greatest numbers of affected people concentrated in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Central America. Outdoor workers will also face acute impacts from higher outdoor temperatures.
Adaptation measures are key, and those that focus on “ecosystem-based approaches such as diversification, land restoration, agroecology, and agroforestry have the potential to strengthen resilience to climate change with multiple co-benefits,” the IPCC says.
Different communities are already working with adaptation strategies that could be “feasible and effective at reducing climate impacts” under the right circumstances, the authors say. Ecosystem-based adaptation strategies that harness “unexploited synergies” in agriculture systems can increase productivity and resilience by increasing biodiversity, adding organic matter to soils, and integrating livestock and forestry into farming practices.
But the IPCC warns that “trade-offs and benefits vary with socio-ecological context.” Social and economic barriers like insecure tenure agreements, gender inequalities, and failure to recognize Indigenous land rights can impede effective adaptation.
Decision-makers who ignore these factors run the risk of compounding climate vulnerability, the report states. For example, gender inequalities that result in unequal decision-making and access to resources can increase risks for women landholders who are diversifying crops or integrating livestock into cropping systems.
In other scenarios, smallholder farmers who have limited access to financial institutions will have difficulty participating in policies that rely on credit access, putting them at a disadvantage compared to larger operators.
Offset schemes that seek to limit deforestation or store carbon can have negative impacts on Indigenous and local communities without specific policies to protect their land rights, the IPCC adds. With the UN’s Reducing Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) program, the climate community learned that poor protection of land rights opens the door for “land grabs”, where corporations purchase large tracts of land to offset their emissions at the expense of Indigenous and other local communities.
Historically, large-scale land acquisitions like REDD+ have lacked sufficient stakeholder participation, leading to negative impacts for vulnerable groups. The IPCC says future policies and programs must adopt inclusive, rights-based approaches to adaptation and consider the risks of maladaptive outcomes for vulnerable groups.
“Robust analyses are needed that detail plausible pathways to move towards more resilient, equitable, and sustainable food systems in ways that are socially, economically, and environmentally acceptable through time,” the IPCC says.
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