May 28, 2012

Agroecological zones and climate

Much of my research on climate change and agriculture over the past year has focused on how innovation-- mostly biological, such as plant breeding, but also technological, such as irrigation-- has expanded the range of certain crops, such as wheat and soybeans in North America. Looking at these historical cases, we might be able to learn something about adaptation of crops to new climate zones due to climate change.

The Consultative Group for International Agriculture (CGIAR) has also picked up on this idea of climate adaptation through crop innovation. This makes perfect sense, given their historical roots in plant breeding, and their access to large repositories of plant genetic material around the world. They have lately focused on bridging gaps between climate modeling, plant breeding, and climate-tolerant crops. For example, if we can predict that the climate in Nepal is going to be similar to Bangladesh in 20 years, then Nepali farmers and plant breeders should be not only learning from their Bangladeshi counterparts, but also starting to grow Bangladeshi varieties of rice.

But Bangladesh alone has about 30 agroecological zones (see figure above). Agroecological zones are based on regional soil types and climate zones. This means that farmers in each zone are likely to differ, even if by just a little, in the type of irrigation they use, variety of crops they grow, and when they plant and harvest those crops. Agroecological zones are also useful in categorizing the maximum yield productivity of a region-- for example, rice just might grow better in certain zones.

Today many crops have mixed genetic heritages that span not just countries but continents, and we can even grow traditional Japanese rice in Australia. If we look back to the Green Revolution, Norman Borlaug introduced a variety of wheat to India that was originally bred in Mexico. Borlaug also innovated a plant breeding technique called "shuttle breeding," which is where you test a new crop in two different climate locations. This would make the plant "hardier" and able to survive in a larger climate zone.

The problem lies in reducing agriculture to a simple equation of climate and genetics. The CGIAR is falling a bit too closely into a "Seeing Like a State" mentality. The drive to simplify and cross-apply broad agricultural knowledge across regions ignores many local factors, both biophysical (types of local insects, soil salinity, climate variability) and social (gender roles in farming, innovativeness, access to resources).

I've written about these generalizations of climate vulnerability before, and how such generalized information is likely limited in its use. Climate change is not the only challenge to farmers: in fact, short term climate variability may be more important. Miguel Altieri and other agroecologists argue that local networks of agrobiodiversity and seed sharing are more important than international efforts to improve yields through modernization of agriculture. On the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog, an author writes about the problems with using recent online climate-zone tools produced by the CGIAR and FAO.

So despite my skepticism about the usefulness of climate models and technological fixes, I'm extremely excited to work on this issue more in the upcoming year, and especially looking at farmer participation and innovation for climate adaptation in India.


  1. Marci,

    Great read. I am especially grateful for your reflections on how societies are becoming (or at least attempting to be) more reactive to climate change.

    One of the conceptual challenges I struggle with is the difference between a "flexible" and "inflexible" society. Technologies become embedded and relied upon, social and economic disparities remain, and the tensions between long-term and short-term planning persist.

    A way that I envision the issues: Imagine Farmer A grows Crop G on Plot X. Over time, climate change rears its ugly head and decisions need to be made. First, should Farmer A move to Plot Y to continue growing Crop G? Should Farmer A learn to grow a new crop, Crop H? Should Farmer A do both? It appears we have hit a brick wall: regardless of what Farmer A plans, the economic realities are no different than before. Information becomes key, and risk is inescapable. Or, as you suggest, instead of saying that Farmer A has to move Crop G to Plot Y, we could follow the traditional route and use technology to compete with climate?

    In effect, while it is one thing to say that we should be more "flexible" human beings tend to be a bit more fickle and I highly doubt that there are "answers" to the questions that we are asking about climate change. Ultimately, and this may reveal my cynical approach to things (or maybe just unimaginative), how humanity reacts to climate change is intimatley wedded to our beliefs and assumptions about how we ought to live. Unless the values change, everything else is secondary.

    1. Gabe, thank you so much for your comments. It does sound pessimistic, but I agree that humans, farmers included, are resistant to change. When we envision new technologies that don't have short term benefits, these are extremely difficult to get people to adopt. It does really come down to economics. I guess this is where "muddling through" comes in. Some of the historical case studies by Mickey Glantz are relevant here.

      I'm really interested in how "adaptive capacity" and "innovation" interact- obviously they are closely related. But I also wonder if extremely resource poor farmers might be more willing to adopt new innovations than farmers "set in their ways"- such as farmers in Arizona, for example- or are perhaps more innovative themselves.

  2. This is all seriously fascinating. I've been wondering lately how the climate regions here in the US might be shifting -- just based on temperature alone though. Sometimes I forget that soil conditions are important too. And while I can imagine a portion of people suggesting GM plants to deal with shifting climate zones, I'm wary of jumping to a solution like that because it is more complicated and I feel like there are factors we aren't accounting for (ones beyond climate and genetics) that may prove important in 20 years.

    1. Hi Brandi! Yes, climate regions in the US have been a big deal recently, especially after this spring I'm sure... I just read this article that I think you would enjoy based on your comment. If you can't access it, I can email you a copy. Actually, I'll just email you a copy anyway :)

  3. Yes, Marci, my pessimism is something I should work on! :) I wonder, though, about the role of insurance and risk aversion when it comes to flexibly reacting to changing climate-induced agricultural patterns.
    Does the general public pay (i.e. taxes) Farmer A to take on the risk of transitioning to a new crop or even a new location? Or, do we influence his decision-making by creating a market of insurance? The rationale: the farmer would pay into a general pool of funds for cases where climate change is perceived as unduly harming crop production, and therefore provides some incentive to respond? The only issue: this presumes a great deal (does the farmer have the knowledge to grow another crop and/or move to another area, does the farmer have the resources to respond to climatic change, does the farmer have the incentive to stay in farming if his crops are no longer producing enough to support a family, how does one prove that climate change is unduly hurting or "stressing" agricultural output, etc.).

    I wonder, in sum, if agricultural responses to climate change allows for private market forces and individual decision-making? Flexibility denotes long-term planning, which seems to mean that short-term gains and incentives need to be subordinate? According to a fairly old article, Glantz (1990), private market forces seem to respond to climate change rather markedly (i.e. he describes how orange shortages in Florida were looked at as an opportunity for Brazilian entrepreneurs). . . changing fortunes for changing climates, I suppose.

    Marci, has much changed in the last 20 or so years since the Glantz article? In what respect?

    Glantz, Michael, "On the Interactions between Climate and Society," Population and Development Review (1990): pp. 179-200

    1. Crop insurance is an interesting thing, and is being discussed on the current farm bill. Here are some recent articles:

      The private is so relevant here. My prof was telling us about some guys from Google who, knowing nothing about agriculture, started a private insurance company where farmers can insure their crop based on weather/temperature. A farmer can insure for specific weather/climate events, such as frost or excessive heat. I'm not sure how that's going for them, but it's an interesting innovation over regular crop insurance.

      Thanks for sharing that article, I hadn't seen it before! I enjoy Glantz's work, and he is incredibly perceptive of issues that are relevant today, over 20 years later. The idea of climate "boundaries" vs. variability is something I'm grappling with, and that the ag. research community also seems to be (hence this post...). Also, I know I recommended it to you before, but Mike Davis' Late Victorian Holocausts... I'm still reading it, but it's worth skimming the first (incredibly depressing) half and getting to the stuff about El Nino.

    2. Thank you for the suggestion. By the way, have you read Roger Revelle's "World Supply of Agricultural Land" (1982)?


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