Feed the Future
This project is part of the U.S. Government's global hunger and food security initiative.

MEAS Brief # 3: Adaptation under the "New Normal" of Climate Change: The Future for Agricultural Extension and Advisory Services

Brent Simpson and Gaye Burpee
USAID Modernizing Extension and Advisory Services (MEAS) project
Catholic Relief Services
Michigan State University
Date Published: 
May 7, 2014


Adapting to climate change is the most serious challenge facing our species. The scale is global, trajectory of onset uncertain and impacts potentially catastrophic (IPCC, 2013). As further evidence emerges and as the scramble to adapt to the “new normal” intensifies, persistent problems, past failures and new challenges have the potential to converge in a perfect storm. In response, all involved in agricultural adaptation will need to elevate the level and quality of their efforts.

Extension and advisory service (EAS) providers have a key role to play as a critical link between farming populations and sources of new information and tools, so that practices can be appropriately adapted.

This brief outlines the challenge of adapting to climate change, identifies past and present points of EAS engagement, and proposes future responses, with a focus on the constraints and conditions of smallholder farmers in the tropics, and the natural resource base upon which agriculture depends. 


The “New Normal” – the central biophysical forces

Before they can prepare for and respond to global climate change, EAS providers must first understand the nature of climate change, the associated challenges and potential impacts. The rapid 20–25% downturn in precipitation across the West African Sahel that happened around 1970 and lasted through the 1990s provided a glimpse of what the future may hold. Global climate change, however, is unlikely to produce such a sudden change.

Climate change is a gradual process that will continue well into the next century with impacts felt over the next millennium. Climate change is also non-linear and highly complex, with layers of feedback loops and unknown “tipping-points” that, when exceeded, offer no retreat. Moreover, changes will continue on multiple fronts – air temperature and amounts and patterns of precipitation, as well as other weather features. Climate change should also be understood as permanent; there will be no return to prior conditions over the course of individual human lifetimes (IPCC, 2013).

Climate change will exert increasing pressure on a complex web of relationships among social, environmental, economic and food systems. This will affect our ability to meet other major challenges, especially feeding the world’s growing population, which is expected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050 (UNDESA, 2013). The environmental impacts of meeting rising food demand will intensify as global warming and associated climate changes accelerate the degradation of vulnerable, overburdened environments. In response EAS providers must be able to assess the vulnerability and resilience of human populations and natural resource systems in order to prioritize the allocation of resources, using a systems approach. EAS providers will be challenged to contend with the effects of two dimensions of climate change: (1) climate change trends and (2) weather disruption.

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This is the brief version of the MEAS Discussion Paper # 3 with the same title, which is also available on Agrilinks.