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Adaptation option

Use of adapted crops and varieties (2019)

The use of adapted crops and varieties (including both herbaceous and tree crops) is suggested by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) among the climate-smart practices for risk reduction, soil and water conservation, and efficient water management. The use of adapted crops and varieties (either annual or perennial) helps to reduce the negative impacts of climate change on agricultural systems and at the same time to ensure stable agricultural production. Introducing new crops or varieties, or bringing back heritage crops, leads to diversification of agricultural production, with positive effects on biodiversity and ecosystem services, in particular if cultivated in association with conservation agriculture practices (including: minimum soil disturbance, permanent soil organic cover and crop species diversification). It also strengthens the ability of the agro-ecosystem to respond to biotic and abiotic stresses, and reduces the risk of total crop failure. Moreover, introducing the cultivation of adapted crops and varieties can improve soil carbon storage by accelerating atmospheric carbon sequestration. For instance, a switch from annual to perennial energy crops can lead to changes in farmer income and provide various ecosystem services, as provisioning energy, regulating water quality, ensuring carbon sequestration, and increasing the presence of pollinators.

In addition to the use of already existing genotypes, plant breeding can provide a portfolio of varieties of an extensive range of crops to adapt production systems to climate change. The development of new plant species and varieties commercially sustainable and resistant to different risks involve the preservation of multiple varieties, landraces, rare breeds and closely related wild relatives of domesticated species to maintain a genetic bank for use in the selection of novel traits that are resistant to various stresses.

As reported by FAO, the plant breeding efforts usually involve multi-locational trials and aim to develop crop varieties that are resistant to climate stressors (adaptation) and also more efficient in their use of resources to reduce their environmental impact (mitigation). The most commonly researched climate-related traits are resistance to drought, salinity and flooding. Different regions in Europe need crops adapted to different stressors: in some regions crops resilient to drought and/or extreme temperatures are needed, while in other regions the main stressors may be pests and diseases. Species and varieties bred to resist to these conditions could be the most efficient adaptation strategy to cope with climate change. High-throughput genotyping and phenotyping platforms are used to make the processes for developing crop varieties, including pre-breeding, more efficient.

Additional Details
Reference information

Adaptation Details



IPCC categories

Structural and physical: Ecosystem-based adaptation options, Structural and physical: Technological options

Stakeholder participation

The implementation of this adaptation measure requires a strong collaboration between multidisciplinary groups of key stakeholders that include farmers, small-and-medium size enterprises, farm advisory services (that provide farmers knowledge and skills to improve the applied agronomic techniques, crop productivity and farm income), breeders, researchers, and policy makers. Farmers and advisory services should be involved in projects and experiments to test the effectiveness of the use of adapted crops and varieties in order to acquire all the information and to gain experience on the effects of the cultivation of different crops, in terms of both economic and environmental benefits.

The skills and knowledge of policy makers, extension agents, agricultural entrepreneurs and farmers need to be enhanced and updated on a consistent basis, with a coordination mechanism that strengths organizational and institutional capacities. Farm advisory services play a pivotal role in providing access to and the sharing of good practices and technologies, improving capacity building and education, and enhancing farmers' capacities to implement them, reducing the perceived risks of failure that a shift to a new system carries. The creation of multi-stakeholders platforms for community-level, participatory variety breeding and evaluation could help in increasing local capacities to select and evaluate crop varieties.

Success and Limiting Factors

The implementation of this adaptation option, as for other climate-smart crop production measures, is easier if it is market-driven and fully integrated into markets. Therefore, a success factor is to develop local, regional, national and international markets for new crops or variety that play functional roles in food systems. Moreover, national and regional policies and regulations for crop varietal development and the harmonization of seed regulatory frameworks could help farmers to have timely access to reasonably priced quality seeds and planting materials of the most suitable crop varieties.

Developing and applying locally specific and effective climate change adaptation strategies for crop production requires the strengthening of scientific and technical capacities at many levels, the integration of research efforts, the collaboration between researchers and farm advisory services, and the provision of clear messages and instruments to policy makers and stakeholders.

For farmers in particular, gaining and sharing knowledge about changing climatic conditions and the sustained viability of adapted crop production practices are important when formulating strategies to cope with the limiting factors affecting their crop system, better allocate the resources and make reasoned investments in climate change adaptation. To guarantee the adoption of climate-smart practices, financial incentives have to be provided to enhance farmers' capacities or increase their access to soft loans to support initial investments in sustainable practices and technologies. This can help farmers to take advantage of measures that are socially and environmentally beneficial but have high upfront costs.

Costs and Benefits

The cost of implementing this measure mainly depends on the price of the seeds of the adapted crops or varieties and on the required investment costs (if any) on the farm (e.g. buying new type of machinery). Moreover, while the costs of introducing new annual crops are quite contained, the introduction of new tree species or varieties could involve higher investment costs, increasing consequently the risk for the farmers.

The main benefits of the introduction of new species and varieties are higher or stable crop yields and farmer incomes due to the better adaptability of the crops to the environment in which they are grown and the increased resilience of cropping systems to climate-related risks. Moreover, introducing a range of crop species and varieties leads to diversification of agricultural production that can generate positive effects on biodiversity, ecosystem services provision, and synergies with mitigation by improving the soil carbon storage. However, some of these co-benefits may require time to manifest themselves.

The implementation of the use of adapted crops and varieties should be supported by clear policies and procedures. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) of the European Union and the National and Regional Rural Programmes are among the major driving policy forces for the implementation of this measure. The Common Agricultural Policy through the “green direct payment” (or “greening”) (first pillar of the CAP) supports farmers who adopt or maintain farming practices (e.g. crop diversification) that help meet environmental and climate goals. Moreover, the second pillar of the CAP, the EU’s rural development policy, designed to support the rural areas, enables regional, national and local authorities to formulate their individual Rural Development Programmes and supports, among others, measures for sustainable management of natural resources and climate action, including the conservation agricultural practices. The second pillar programmes are co-financed by EU funds and regional or national funds.

Implementation Time

One year is needed to change cultivated varieties of annual crops and obtain the production, while for tree crops several years (decades) are necessary for the plants to reach the maturity and become profitable.

Life Time

Lifetime is related to the economic convenience of the cultivation of the selected crops and varieties.

Reference information

EEA (2019). Climate change adaptation in the agriculture sector in Europe. EEA Report No 4/2019.

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