June 6, 2011

Agricultural innovation: the threat of global climate change

Image source: Josh Haner/New York Times

A front-page feature of the New York Times this weekend is all about global food and the predicted impacts of climate change. The need for innovation in a warming, higher-CO2 planet was one of the key themes. The take-home message was that the impacts of climate change will be worse for agriculture than previously predicted. Extreme weather events, such as floods, droughts and increased weather variability are potential "deal breakers" for entire crops. The more gradual aspects of climate change, such as average temperature increase and sea level rise, may be more manageable, but disasters exacerbate crop losses through a convergence of environmental and economic factors.

So what do disasters have to do with innovation? According to the New York Times and many others, we need to innovate crops that can withstand these weather extremes. The article states,

Leading researchers say it is possible to create crop varieties that are more resistant to drought and flooding and that respond especially well to rising carbon dioxide. The scientists are less certain that crops can be made to withstand withering heat, though genetic engineering may eventually do the trick.

A lot of the narrative about how agriculture can respond to a changing climate relies on this scientific concept: using plant breeding and biotechnology for better, more resilient crops. Plant breeding, or selecting crops based on the positive traits of the parent generations, led to some of the fundamental advances in crop science during the past century. Check out this graphic for a synopsis of the gains made in food production during the Green Revolution (coincidentally, produced by a colleague of mine at ASU). In fact, during the "Green Revolution" that started in the 1940s and continued to very recently, some plant breeders were international celebrities, especially in the science policy and international development circles. However, other economic and political factors pushed for more fertilizer, mechanized labor, and irrigation. Without these "packages" of technologies, the better seeds alone would not have done much.

So what are some fundmental lessons we can learn from innovation during the Green Revolution to apply to innovation in a post-normal climate?

1) Agricultural innovations are shaped by a variety of factors, not just "fundamental breakthroughs." These include private industry, public agricultural research, economic, and political factors. Two famous Green Revolution agricultural economists, Hayami and Ruttan, studied the agricultural history of the U.S. and Japan and created a theory called the "induced innovation hypothesis." This hypothesis explains how technological change is based on economic factors of supply and demand, rather than spontaneous discoveries (Ruttan, 2006a). For example, Hayami and Ruttan demonstrated how agricultural technologies in Japan were based on a “biological” innovation track, while the United States was more focused on “mechanical” innovations (Ruttan, 2006a). Factors such as availability of land and cost of inputs (fertilizer, labor, and mechanical power) influenced the technological trajectory of each country (Ruttan, 2006a). Institutional factors (policy, research systems, and other social rules and organizations) also play a role in innovation, and these institutions respond to supply and demand forces to innovate themselves (Ruttan & Hayami, 1984; Ruttan, 2006b).

2) Supply and demand factors will likely influence how different agricultural innovation systems respond to climate change. However, unlike most agricultural inputs, “climate is not priced, so it is difficult to provide clear examples of climatic inducements to agricultural research based on price signals” (Easterling, 1996, p. 19). Although climate does not have a market price, prevailing policies seek to reduce greenhouse emissions. Therefore climate mitigation will require farmers to adapt to these economic limits as well as a changing climate (Smith & Olesen, 2010).

3) Let's not view plant breeding and biotechnology as a panacea to climate change. There are many other factors in global agriculture that are not related to climate change. Improved plant varieties can be difficult to translate into direct benefits, especially in developing countries, because farmers must use new management techniques and buy into the higher-input system. This is why extension education is critical for agricultural development, in all parts of the world. In parts of sub-Saharan Africa, farmers would just benefit from using more fertilizer, which is the main barrier to higher crop yields (Vitousek et al., 2009). However, fertilizer prices are exorbitantly high (Otsuka & Kijima, 2010). Thus, technology is not the easy answer that we wish it were. Otsuka and Kijima write that, "we should not overlook the fact that rice yield increased by roughly 50% and non-rice yield increased by nearly 100% in SSA over the last three decades since around 1970 despite the absence of major technological breakthroughs" (Otsuka & Kijima, 2010, p. ii66). Even in the Green Revolution, it was not a straightforward path from science to technology to application.


Easterling, W.E. (1996). Adapting North American agriculture to climate change in review. Agricultural and Forest Meteorology, 80, l-53.

Gillis, J. (4 June 2011). "A Warming Planet Struggles to Feed Itself." New York Times.

Otsuka, K. & Kijima, Y. (2010). Technology Policies for a Green Revolution and Agricultural Transformation in Africa. JOURNAL OF AFRICAN ECONOMIES, VOLUME 19, AERC SUPPLEMENT 2, p. ii60–ii76 doi:10.1093/jae/ejp025

Ruttan, V.W. (2006a). Is War Necessary for Economic Growth? Military Procurement and Technology Development. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ruttan, V.W. (2006b). Social science knowledge and induced institutional innovation: an institutional design perspective. Journal of Institutional Economics, 2(3), 249-272.

Ruttan, V.W. and Hayami, Y. (1984). Toward a theory of induced institutional innovation. Journal of Development Studies, 20(4), 203-223.

Smith, P. & Olesen, J.E. (2010). Synergies between the mitigation of, and adaptation to, climate change in agriculture. Journal of Agricultural Science, 148, 543-552.

Vitousek, P.M. et al. (2009). Nutrient imbalances in agricultural development. Science 324, 1519-1520.


  1. Pretty good post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed reading your blog posts. Any way I'll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you post again soon.

    1. Thanks for reading! I haven't been posting much lately because I'm working on my dissertation now. But I will update occasionally.


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