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'Regret-free' approaches for adapting agriculture to climate change – University of Reading

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'Regret-free' approaches for adapting agriculture to climate change

Release Date 17 June 2013

A new study calls for governments and farmers to adapt to climate shifts, despite uncertainties about what growing conditions will look like decades from now.

The study, from the CGIAR research programme on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), which includes work by University of Reading scientists, shows how decision-makers can sift through scientific uncertainty to understand where there is a general consensus.

Moreover, it encourages a broader approach to agriculture adaptation that looks beyond climate models to consider the socioeconomic conditions on the ground. These conditions, such as a particular farmer's or community's capacity to make the necessary farming changes, will determine whether a particular adaptation strategy is likely to succeed.

The study included research by Dr Ed Hawkins, of NCAS (National Centre for Atmospheric Science) at the University of Reading. He said: "While we are learning more about the changing climate every day, it's perhaps even more important that governments, farmers, businesses and others begin to adapt their practices to better suit a climate that we know is not staying the same.

"While we as scientists are always on the hunt for better predictions, it's in everybody's interest that we start to adapt to the reality of climate change and climate variability now."

The study uses examples from the programme's recent work in the developing world to illustrate how some countries have pursued climate change adaptation strategies. Some of the strategies involve relatively straightforward efforts to accommodate changes in the near-term that will present growing conditions that are not significantly different from what farmers have experienced in the past. For example, faced with conflicting climate models about levels of precipitation, the Sri Lankan government is working with farmers to revisit traditional approaches to water storage to provide insurance against what, at the very least, will be climate variability.

The authors also explore "no regrets" strategies, in which agricultural planning takes into consideration long-term changes that exceed historical experience and require substantial changes to livelihoods and diets. "Some farmers and countries are going to need to make big transitions in what food they produce," says Sonja Vermeulen, head of research at CCAFS and the lead author of the study.

For example, while various climate models offer different assessments of changes expected in Central America, they agree that over the long-term, higher temperatures are likely to render Arabica coffee production unsuitable at lower altitudes. A long-term strategy could involve shifting some production to higher altitudes and at lower altitudes switching to a different, but similarly lucrative crop, like cocoa. 

 "Climate projections will always have a degree of uncertainty, but we need to stop using uncertainty as a rationale for inaction," concludes Vermeulen. "Helping governments and farmers plan ahead will make all the difference in avoiding the food insecurity and suffering that climate change threatens."


For more information, please contact Pete Castle at the University of Reading press office on 0118 378 7391 or

Notes to editors:

The University of Reading is ranked among the top 1% of universities in the world (THE World University Rankings 2012). Its Department of Meteorology is internationally renowned for teaching and study of atmospheric, oceanic and climate science and earth observation. Reading is involved with pioneering research on weather and climate and is home to the Walker Institute for Climate System Research

The full paper by Sonja Vermeulen et al., ‘Addressing uncertainty in adaptation planning for agriculture', PNAS (2013) is available to download (vol. 110 no. 21.

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