Does Climate Change Adaptation Improve Food Security? Evidence from West Africa


Rain-fed agriculture forms the mainstay of many West African economies, making the region particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change and weather variability.  As a result, there is growing emphasis being placed by both researchers and policymakers on climate-smart agriculture and climate change adaptation strategies to help protect the livelihoods and food security of farmers and rural households.

A recent article in Regional Environmental Change, however, finds that when it comes to climate change adaptation strategies, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Instead, the authors construct a typology of households that quantifies the effects of different adaptation strategies on household-level food security (defined here as food availability only), with the aim of better targeting interventions.

The study was conducted in 2012 among 600 households in Burkina Faso, Ghana, and Senegal; households were randomly selected from villages located in sites chosen by the CGIAR Climate Change, Agriculture, and Food Security (CCAFS) program based on criteria including poverty levels, vulnerability to climate change, key biophysical, climatic and agro-ecological gradients, and agricultural production systems. The authors looked at households’ food security levels and used two indicators to explain the differences in food security: general household characteristics and farm poverty, on the one hand, and adoption and intensity of use of six agricultural adaptation strategies, on the other. The six adaptation strategies studied were: planting of diverse crops, particularly vegetables; use of soil and water conservation; agroforestry; herding of small ruminants; use of improved crop varieties; and use of mineral fertilizers. All of these strategies can help households improve and protect their agricultural productivity and yields or generate additional sources of income to protect against financial risks associated with climate change.

The proportion of food-insecure households per site was 48 percent in Senegal, 18 percent in Ghana, and 55 percent in Burkina Faso. The sale of millet, sorghum, maize, cowpea, and groundnut formed the majority of households’ gross income at all sites, along with off-farm earnings. The study also found that cereals were sold by both food-secure and food-insecure households, despite cereal crops’ importance to household food security.

To construct the household typology, the authors used total land area per capita and market orientation – two key factors in explaining both food security and climate change adaptation strategies. Food self-sufficiency was used as a performance indicator for total land per capita, while total gross income from farm products per ha was used as an indicator for market orientation. The typology presents four distinct household groups:

  1. Type I: Subsistence farms. These households have low land per capita, low market orientation, focus on staple crops, and are not food self-sufficient. Only 30 percent of households in this group were found to be food-secure. Interestingly, these households tend to adopt more climate change adaptation strategies and engage in soil and water conservation practices more intensively than other household groups.
  2. Type II: Diversified farms. These households engage in crop diversification and intensification on small land areas and have relatively high market orientation and land productivity compared to Type I households. They cultivate larger areas of vegetables, use more mineral fertilizers, and use more soil and water conservation strategies than other household groups.  Forty percent of these households are food-secure.
  3. Type III: Extensive farms. These households have low market orientation and are focused on staple crop production; they have higher food self-sufficiency but lower cereal yields and lower land productivity than the other household groups. As a result, they rely more on off-farm income as a safety net. Fifty-five percent of these households are food-secure.
  4. Type IV: Intensified farms. These households produce diversified crops and livestock on relatively larger land areas and have high market orientation. They are mostly food self-sufficient, rely on various off-farm income sources, and practice overall climate change adaptation strategies more intensively than the other household groups. Specifically, they have more crop diversity and higher vegetable production, produce more small ruminants, and use more improved crop varieties. Fifty-nine percent of these households are food-secure.

The authors find that farm size and market orientation generally have a positive and linear relationship with land productivity and incomes. Climate change adaptation strategies, on the other hand, do not appear to explain the variation in households’ land productivity. For households with low market orientation (Types I and III), there does not seem to be a strong link between adaptation strategies and land productivity. For households with higher market orientation (Types II and IV), herding of small ruminants and production of diverse crops appear to contribute significantly to productivity.

In order to become food-secure, all household groups will need to increase their productivity. However, the study suggests that while Types II and IV households (those with higher market orientation) can achieve the needed productivity by increasing their adoption of adaptation strategies,  not even complete adoption of currently used climate change adaptation strategies will help Type I and III households (those with low market orientation) reach the level of productivity needed to ensure food security.

Thus, one of the paper’s key findings is that the adoption of climate change adaptation strategies can improve food security – but not necessarily for all households. 

This finding supports the suggestion that intensification of agricultural production, through increased market access, information, and rural agricultural extension services, should itself be viewed as an adaptation strategy to help farmers cope with climate change. Increasing smaller farmers’ access to capital, inputs, and information can help those households invest more in better management practices and more appropriate and effective adaptation strategies. This can help increase their land productivity and consequently their incomes, thus reducing their vulnerability to climate change shocks.

By: Sara Gustafson, IFPRI

Photo credit: Ollivier Girard for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR)