Climate change, agriculture and food security in Latin America and the Caribbean

Like many regions in the developing world dependent on agriculture, Latin America and the Caribbean are confronting threats to their food security as a result of climate change. The following survey details the pressures facing societies in this region.

Climate change and agriculture

THE impact of climate change in Latin America and the Caribbean will be considerable, owing to the region's economic dependence on agriculture, the low adaptive capacity of its population and the geographical location of certain countries. In the northeast of Brazil, part of the Andean region and Central America, climate change is expected to impact crop yields and local economies, and compromise food security. Also expected are displacements - in altitude and latitude - of the optimum zones for growing major species such as coffee, sugarcane, potatoes and maize, among others. Moreover, pressure of diseases and pests is forecast to increase, along with a reduction in the availability of water for food production and other uses in the semi-arid zones and tropical Andes. This is the result of the retreat of glaciers, reduced rainfall and increased evaporative-transpiration in the semi-arid zones (Magrin, 2015).

According to existing models, agriculture in Latin America and the Caribbean is the economic activity most affected by climate change; and the countries whose crop-farming sectors are likely to be hardest hit by climate change (Ecuador, El Salvador, Paraguay, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Plurinational State of Bolivia) are those that already have food security problems, according to information from the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) in 2015.

Although some of the region's countries have made progress in designing climate change adaptation plans for the agriculture sector, it is a major challenge. Without considering the necessary policy changes and in terms of financial resources alone, needs are estimated at around 0.02% of regional gross domestic product (GDP) per year (ECLAC, 2015a).

Between 2008 and 2015, studies were made of the economics of climate change in various Latin American and Caribbean countries. The key objective of this regional initiative was to demonstrate the economic importance that climate change will have for societies, productive systems and the natural heritage of the region's countries over the next 100 years, to provide national and local policymakers with a tool enabling them to incorporate the relevant costs and benefits in their analysis. In this framework, the potential impacts of climate change were evaluated, adaptation alternatives were studied, and projections of greenhouse gas emissions were analysed, along with the mitigation options for each country. A methodology inspired in the 2007 Stern Report on the Economics of Climate Change was used, with projections of changes in temperature and precipitation in the different regions of the countries based on climate models. The economic impacts were determined on the main sectors affected such as agriculture and food security, water resources, health and the impact on coastal zones, among others.

In the case of Central America, subsistence farmers account for 60% of the region's farmers. Projections in a very pessimistic scenario, with a greater increase in temperature, show a growing number of departments in which hectare yields decline, both in maize and in beans, two of the main crops in the subregional diet.

In the Plurinational State of Bolivia, the impact of changes in temperature and precipitation is likely to reduce rural incomes by an average of 20%. The Department of Potos¡, the country's poorest, will be the worst affected, with rural incomes falling by 34% (ECLAC/IDB, 2014).

The same study shows how traditional agriculture and agribusiness in the Plurinational State of Bolivia would be the worst affected sectors in 2100, in the scenarios of greatest temperature increase and least temperature increase.

In the case of Peru, the projections show that the impact of climate change on agriculture is likely to generate decreased production of several basic crops under all scenarios, especially those requiring more water such as rice, which would be most serious in the highest temperature rise scenario.

High Andean livestock activity is also important for food security. Projections show that the livestock-carrying capacity of the Puna ecoregion would be adversely affected by climate change, with effects manifesting themselves in variations in plant coverage and land use. The contribution of this zone to the national economy would decline considerably, and the food security of population groups that depend on this activity would be compromised. Up to late 2010, there were 6,609 recognised campesino (peasant) communities in Peru, characterised by their high level of poverty, working mainly in extensive livestock grazing. These campesino families account for roughly 69% of rural families and 30% of all families in the country. The results for the analysis of the three climate scenarios suggest a progressive reduction in ecosystem carrying capacity and a reduction in the available area of grazing lands.

A similar but more fluctuating trend is projected in Paraguay, with falling yields in the main family farming crops under the highest temperature increase scenario.

Consequences of changes in the annual distribution of precipitation

Owing to climate change, variations in the annual volume and distribution of precipitation are forecast, with intense rainfall set to increase by roughly 7% for every degree Celsius by which temperature rises (UNEP, 2012).

The increase in rainfall intensity has adverse consequences for agriculture, such as increased erosion, an increase in run-off with a loss of available water, and even damage to the crops themselves. In the plants' growth phase there are critical periods in which water availability is essential. Changes in the distribution of rains throughout the year could endanger the production of milpa (agroecosystem with simultaneous maize, bean and squash crops), which constitutes the base of the rural diet in Meso-America.

In the period spanning 1950 to 2000, in the Central American zones located by the Pacific Ocean there was a dry season and another rainy one, with the first peak in June and a decline in July and August (heatwave or Indian summer), and another peak in September and October, normally more intensive than the first. Under the highest temperature increase scenario, the bimodal pattern of precipitation is expected to accentuate in the next few decades, with increases in both high rainfall periods and reduction during the Indian summer period. Subsequently, the rains of the first period are expected to gradually decline, leaving a single annual peak between October and November.

As regards rainfall intensity, the precipitation records of the municipality of Ilopango in El Salvador show an increase in rainfall events lasting 10 consecutive days. Although there is no analysis with an extensive universe of rainfall records, the precipitation records in Ilopango make it possible to observe the trend projected in the climate change models (ECLAC, 2015b).

In 2014, Central America was hit by a major drought that affected the production of the first basic grain crop, particularly maize and beans. Lack of rainfall occurred precisely during the most critical phases of crop development (27 consecutive days in a total of 45 days without rain between July and August). Over 500,000 families in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua were registered as suffering from serious food insecurity as a result of the severe drought.

Fishing and aquaculture: unsustainable management of fisheries and effects of climate change

Latin America and the Caribbean is home to three of the world's major marine ecosystems: the most important is the Humboldt current system (Chile, Ecuador and Peru) which concentrates roughly 20% of total fish capture worldwide. The Patagonian platform (Argentina and Uruguay) and the southern Brazil platform are the other important ecosystems.

Fishery and aquaculture production in the region amounted to roughly 13.5 million tonnes in 2014 (8% of global production), of which 79% corresponded to captures and 21% to aquaculture. Ninety percent of this production occurs (in descending order) in Peru, Chile, Mexico, Brazil, Ecuador and Argentina. Paradoxically, the region is a net exporter and has the world's lowest per capita consumption, along with Africa (9.7 kg per person per year) - roughly half of the world average (FAO, 2014).

Worldwide, roughly 29% of fish stocks were being exploited at a biologically unsustainable level (overfished) in 2011. In the region, a number of species such as Argentina hake and Brazilian sardinella are considered overfished, while the status of Argentine squid is between fully exploited and overfished.

In terms of the repercussions of climate change on marine and aquatic ecosystems, there are still many gaps in the information. In the case of maritime fishing, changes in water temperature, ocean currents, acidification and other conditions affect fishery productivity. Temperate water species are migrating towards the poles.

The various factors stemming from climate change that could affect fishery and aquaculture production include the following:

*          Rising sea levels, retreat of glaciers, changes in rainfall patterns and the intensity and frequency of phenomena such as El Nino/La Nina. These factors will affect the stability of marine and continental resources in the regions affected. It will reduce areas devoted to aquaculture in coastal zones and will also require a change in fishing practices and the location of ports.

*          Ocean acidification. pH levels have declined from an average of around 8.2 in the pre-industrial era to roughly 8.1 today, and they could fall to 7.8 by 2100 (UNEP, 2012). Acidification affects coral reefs and species that are critical to ocean food webs, including several important human food sources such as crustaceans and molluscs.

Aquaculture and continental-shelf fishing, however, will be affected in some regions, by water stress and competition for water. Variations are also expected in the abundance of species used to produce food and meal. Aquaculture systems that have little or no reliance on inputs of fishmeal (such as bivalves and macro algae) are considered to have better chances of expansion than productive systems that depend on the products of fish capture.

In terms of food security, climate change will affect the availability of foods, the stability of supplies and access to foods of aquatic origin, owing to changes in livelihoods and in levels of capture or harvest possibilities.

There are models that forecast significant changes in capture potential between regions. In general, captures will increase in high latitudes and decline in the tropics, areas that are more socioeconomically vulnerable. This will have consequences for global food security, particularly communities in tropical areas that depend on fishing for food and income.

Changes in the distribution of captures will adversely affect the region's main fisheries, and fishing activity in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Peru.

Alternatives for increasing the capacity for recovery, adaptation and also the resilience of fishery resource ecosystems include the adoption of ecosystemic approaches in fishing and aquaculture, as proposed in the Sustainable Development Goals.

The occurrence of disasters

In Latin America and the Caribbean, there has recently been an increase in extreme weather events and the number of people affected. The number of storms occurring between 2000 and 2009 was 12 times the number in 1970-79, and floods quadrupled in the same period. The number of persons affected by extreme temperatures, forest fires, droughts, storms and flooding rose from 5 million in the 1970s to over 40 million in the 2000s, as a result of the growth of human settlements in the region's marginal urban zones and also the greater vulnerability of coastal zones to these events. The estimated costs of damage caused by these extreme weather events in the last 10 years exceed $40 billion (UNEP/ECLAC, 2010).

There is robust evidence of the relation that exists between climate change and potential extreme weather phenomena. The patterns of climate change projected for the end of this century in the region suggest that Central America and the Caribbean will experience more intense hurricanes, together with a reduction in precipitation and thus an increase in drought episodes. These events cause loss of life and also destroy property and livelihoods, and thus weaken the food and nutritional security of the most vulnerable population groups. The poorest inhabitants of rural zones are normally the most vulnerable to the disasters, because they occupy more marginal land and have few resources, so they are forced to engage in unsustainable productive activities in zones exposed to all types of climate threat. They also have a very low recovery capacity, partly owing to the heavy burden of poverty - a situation that is compounded by lack of climate risk preparedness.

Extreme weather events usually bring with them a short-term adverse effect on the population's well-being and a weak or hard-to-identify effect in the medium and long term. These effects depend, among other factors, on the severity and type of disaster, the sector of the economy, the structure and composition of the economy, and the per capita income level. Developing countries are worse hit than developed ones. Analysis of data obtained from 84 countries over 48 years shows that the worst droughts also undermine GDP growth (-1%) and agricultural growth (-2.2%) (Loayza et al., 2009). Floods can also subsequently generate increases in agricultural productivity.

The crop-farming sector regularly suffers more intensively from natural disasters, which suggests that some subregions, such as Central America and the Caribbean, are particularly sensitive to these phenomena. There are other effects associated with the occurrence of the disasters, such as reduced school attendance, which fosters malnutrition.

The agriculture sector was the worst affected by the two largest disasters suffered in the region - the 1997-98 El Nino episode and Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Estimates made by the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), of the impact of the two events on the different economic sectors of the affected countries, show that the greatest damage was caused by the 1997-98 El Nino, which affected several Andean countries and caused total damage estimated at $7.5 billion for the four countries analysed, of which $2.3 billion or 30.7% corresponded to damage in the crop-farming sector. In Central America, Hurricane Mitch caused total damage estimated at $5.4 billion, of which $2.7 billion or 50% directly affected the crop-farming sector.

Many of the region's countries are already lagging behind in terms of adapting to extreme events. Climate change is forcing them to boost their adaptation efforts, particularly in the crop-farming sector.                       

The above is extracted from Food and Nutrition Security and the Eradication of Hunger - CELAC 2025: Furthering Discussion and Regional Cooperation, which was prepared and published by the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) and the Latin American Integration Association (ALADI). c 2016 United Nations. Reprinted with the permission of the United Nations.


ECLAC (Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean) (2015a), The economics of climate change in Latin America and the Caribbean: Paradoxes and challenges of sustainable development (LC/G.2624), Santiago.

ECLAC (2015b), Cambio climatico en Centroamerica: impactos potenciales y opciones de politica publica (LC/MEX/L.1196), Santiago.

ECLAC/IDB (Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean/Inter-American Development Bank) (2014), La economia del cambio climatico en el Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia, Project Documents (LC/W.627), Santiago.

FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations) (2014), The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2014, Rome.

Loayza, N. et al. (2009), 'Natural disasters and growth: going beyond the averages', Policy Research Working Paper, No. 4980, Washington, D.C., World Bank.

Magrin, G.O. (2015), 'Adaptacion al cambio climatico en America Latina y el Caribe', Project Documents (LC/W.692), Santiago, Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).

UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) (2012), GEO5 Global Environment Outlook. Environment for the future we want, Nairobi.

UNEP/ECLAC (United Nations Environment Programme/Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean) (2010), Graficos vitales del cambio climatico para America Latina y el Caribe. Edicion especial para la CP16/CP-RP 6, Mexico, Bogota.

*Third World Resurgence No. 312/313, Aug/Sept 2016, pp 21-24