Date: 19th Jan 2024
Article By: Samuel Shay, GTS

South America possesses some of the world’s most productive agricultural land and makes an important contribution to global food security. However, the region also faces significant climate change impacts that threaten farm productivity and food availability. Tackling this dual challenge requires strengthened regional cooperation and climate-smart approaches to maintain food security amidst a changing climate.


Building Resilience to Climate Impacts


South America has observed rising temperatures, increased frequency of extreme weather events, and changing precipitation patterns in recent decades. This expose crops to heat and water stress, enables expansion of pests and diseases, and heightens farm risks from floods or droughts. For example, higher temperatures and altered rain timing in coffee-growing regions can severely reduce bean yields. Corn and soybeans also face significant climate sensitivity, with just a few days of extreme heat during flowering drastically cutting output.


Strengthening climate resilience requires research collaboration to develop crop varieties and animal breeds adapted to future conditions. This involves exchanges of genetic material and testing to identify drought-tolerant, heat-resistant and disease-suppressing traits. Efforts are underway to breed more climate-ready corn, wheat, rice, potatoes and livestock with support from CGIAR centers and universities across the region. Scaling these innovations relies on cooperation mechanisms like sectoral adaptation agreements and increased climate finance flows under the Paris Agreement and from development banks.


Low-Emission Agriculture


As well as adapting production, South American countries need coordinated action to curb agricultural emissions from sources like deforestation, soil disturbances, livestock and rice cultivation. For example, forest conservation programs such as those implemented under REDD+ in Peru and Ecuador offer results-based payments to producers who protect standing forests. Combined with strengthened enforcement, these financial incentives encourage sustainable intensification on existing farms rather than agricultural expansion into carbon-rich forests and grasslands.


Additionally, “producers of the future” initiatives in Argentina and Brazil promote low-carbon practices like no-tillage, nitrogen fixing cover crops, silvopastoral systems and biogas generation. These reduce soil emissions while sequestering carbon and harnessing circular bioeconomy opportunities. Integrating climate mitigation into rural development programs and decarbonization roadmaps can help scale climate-smart agriculture across the region.


Facilitating Climate-Resilient Trade


Trade integration helps South American countries pool climate risks and resources. For example, the MERCOSUR trade bloc better aligns standards, reduces tariffs within the region and could establish mechanisms to coordinate strategic food reserves. This reduces trade costs and stabilizes food availability during climate shocks.


Expanding agricultural trade and investment relationships with Asian markets also provides outlets for South America’s competitive advantages in soy, beef, seafood and wine. However, adapting product value chains and distribution infrastructure is necessary to manage climate impacts on transportation networks, shipping routes and processing facilities. Governments can support logistics resilience by subsidizing climate proofing of roads, ports and storage.


Meanwhile, cooperation on sustainability standards and labeling helps exporters demonstrate climate responsiveness amid shifting consumer preferences. Harmonizing carbon footprint measurement, ecosystem service valuation and biodiversity impact metrics better incorporates environmental performance into trade policy. This transparency around sustainability can maintain overseas demand and profitability for South America’s exports even as climate change threatens comparative advantages.


Social Protection and Farmer Support


The agricultural sector across South America is extremely vulnerable, both economically and in terms of food security, to climate disruptions. Extreme weather events and droughts can devastate smallholder producers who lack safety nets, entrenching poverty and hunger.


Countries must strengthen agricultural insurance coverage, income stabilization funds and budget contingencies that can quickly direct support to affected farming communities. Additionally, governments should expand rural payments for ecosystem services that reward farmers for protecting forests, watersheds and biodiversity. These programs help buffer farmer incomes from climate volatility while meeting conservation goals.


Technical assistance is also essential to help agricultural producers and rural cooperatives identify appropriate adaptation strategies, access climate financing, and implement resilient practices matched to local contexts. Prioritizing women farmers and indigenous communities in adaptation initiatives also helps address uneven climate vulnerability. Ultimately, inclusive agricultural policies that protect livelihoods and human rights can increase ecosystem and community resilience alongside food production systems.


Through research collaboration, emissions reductions, trade integration, and farmer support programs, South American countries can jointly build climate-resilient food systems. Regional cooperation and policy coordination around shared climate risks are essential to prepare the agricultural sector for intensifying impacts. Investing today in climate-smart agriculture and cooperative adaptation initiatives will allow South America to sustain its vital role in feeding national populations and global markets even as the climate changes.