168 – Telling farmers how to adapt to climate change

Given the prominence of climate change and the political and technical difficulty of stopping it, governments feel that they need policy programs for climate change adaptation in agriculture. In Australia, these programs include a strong emphasis on giving farmers information. This is likely to be a waste of time.

Both academic writings and government documents emphasise various forms of information provision to farmers as being a key response required for agriculture to adapt successfully to climate change. For example, in its submission to a parliamentary inquiry on the subject, the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry said:

“The Australian Government’s response to climate change adaptation in agriculture is therefore to focus on providing fundamental information and knowledge, and the decision support tools that will allow farmers and rural industries to manage the risks of climate change.”

Looking at a range of academic papers, suggested policy responses include:

  1. Collect information about climate change (e.g. data bases of weather information, analysis of trends in weather, regional predictions of climate change).
  2. Communicate the information to stakeholders in agriculture.
  3. Evaluate and extend the benefits and costs of farm-level adaptation strategies.
  4. Extension to encourage adoption of new technologies (e.g. water-saving technologies for irrigators).
  5. Enhance landholders skills and capacities (e.g. to deal with uncertainty, to manage reduced water availabilities).
  6. Help agribusinesses identify where changes may be needed to their longer-term strategies.
  7. Provide technical support during transitions to new systems that are more adapted to the emerging climate.

There are other responses mentioned as well, of course, but I’m going to focus on these strategies that depend on providing information to farmers.

The economics of information is a well-established field which provides the theory necessary to estimate the value of information. Put simply, the value of information provided to a farmer depends on the answers to three questions.

  1. What would the farmer do without the additional information?
  2. What would the farmer do differently with the additional information?
  3. What difference does this make to payoffs?

In essence, my argument is that (1) farmers will adapt appropriately to whatever climate change does occur even in the absence of a government program providing advice about it; (2) such advice would often prompt little if any further change in behaviour; so (3) the benefits to farmers of providing this sort of information will be minimal.

1.    What would the farmer do without the additional information?

Farmers adapt rapidly and well to a whole range of changes, including year-to-year weather fluctuations. A big part of any adaptation to climate change will occur almost without farmers realising it. As they have always done, they will respond to the weather conditions they face. If drought becomes more common, they will have to respond to drought more commonly, but they will still do it in similar ways as they were doing it before climate change became an issue. Even decisions with longer term consequences (e.g. about infrastructure or land purchase) would eventually be influenced by climate change once it was clear that it had occurred. Farmers’ readiness to respond may be influenced to some degree by general awareness of climate change, obtained from the media, which would occur irrespective of any farm-specific extension program.

2.    What would the farmer do differently with the additional information?

By “additional” information, I mean agriculture-specific locally targeted advice, above and beyond the sort of general information provided in the media. There are at least four reasons why farmers won’t do much differently in response to additional information about climate change and adaptation.

(a) because there is so much uncertainty in climate predictions. We are uncertain about all of the elements that we would need to know to be able to predict climate change accurately, including: the future level of economic activity, future energy technologies, future policies to abate emissions of greenhouse gases (each of which influences future emissions of greenhouse gases), the relationship between greenhouse gases and global climate, and the effects of global climate change on local climate (which is what mainly concerns farmers). With existing climate models, rainfall is even more uncertain than temperatures. If governments are giving advice about farming strategies, a further set of uncertainties becomes relevant, including future market prices, farming technologies, and the requirements of local climate policy. The value of information is related to the level of confidence one has in the information, but realistically, farmers cannot have much confidence in any particular prediction or recommendation for their location. They might respond to the information and find that it’s made no difference, or even made their situation worse.

(b) because climate change is predicted to occur slowly over the coming century. If this is correct, then there will be time for farmers to adapt as it occurs. There would be nothing to be gained by jumping in and adapting before the climate change had actually occurred. Indeed, given the high uncertainties outlined above, and that adapting pre-emptively would involve costs that cannot be recovered, there are clear benefits to farmers in waiting to see how climate does change before responding. Having so waited, any predictions that were made earlier have no value, no matter how accurate they were.

It is possible that there may be a step change in climate (as there appears to have been in Western Australia in the mid 1970s). Even then, however, pre-emptive adaptation makes no sense, because there is no way to predict when such a step change will occur. A farmer might make a change to management but then have to wait 80 years for the step change to occur, needlessly incurring costs over those 80 years.

(c) because farmers rightly doubt governments’ abilities to provide wise advice on their farm management strategies. One thing I’ve learnt in 25 years of building and running complex farm-level models is that it’s very hard to give advice to farmers that is better than their own decisions. The level of information one needs about the specific farm is much too high for most outsiders to give worthwhile advice about what the farmer should do. You need to be as well-connected and well-informed as a farm business consultant. Without that, the best you can hope for is to provide ideas for farmers to consider. Particularly dangerous is advice from scientists that does not factor in economic considerations.

(d) because there are limited relevant options that aren’t already adopted. In broadacre farming, for example, the sorts of practices that have been identified as appropriate for adapting to climate change include zero tillage, stubble retention, early sowing and enhanced weed control (Howden et al. 2007; Stokes and Howden 2010). However, these are already things that are accepted elements of good farming practice. Zero tillage is adopted by 80 to 90 per cent of broadacre farmers in Australia, and all cropping farmers are obsessed with weed control, so there is almost no scope for farmers to adapt by further adopting these practices.

There may be exceptions in the case of decisions that have long-term consequences, particularly if those decisions cannot easily be deferred until later. Decisions about where to purchase new land could be one example, although even here the issue of uncertainty of predictions looms large.

3.    What difference does this make to payoffs?

For the great majority of decisions that farm managers have to make (year-to-year management decisions of all types), the above factors mean that the value of providing information to farmers about climate change and adaptation strategies is likely to be very low. Even though farmers may well respond to climate change by altering their management, they are unlikely to alter their management in response to information about climate change or how best to adapt to it.

Even if they do respond, depending on the nature of the change, the impact on their profits may be little. I’ve previously outlined the issue of flat payoff functions, which are common in agriculture, and mean that management changes within a broad range around the optimum make little difference to profits (Pannell, 2006).

Rather than providing information to farmers about their adaptation to climate change, the limited resources available for agricultural research and extension would be much better spent on development of new agricultural technologies that are more productive. Some of that effort should be devoted to developing technologies that may be better adapted to predicted climate.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further reading

Howden, S.M., Soussana, J.F., Tubiello, F.N., Chhetri, N., Dunlop, M., and Meinke, H.M. (2007). Adapting agriculture to climate change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104, 19691-19696.

Pannell, D.J. (2006). Flat-earth economics: The far-reaching consequences of flat payoff functions in economic decision making, Review of Agricultural Economics 28(4), 553-566. Final published paper at journal web site here. Prepublication version here (44K). Powerpoint file (315K), or see Pannell Discussion 88.

Pannell, D.J. (2010). Policy for climate change adaptation in agriculture, Paper presented at the 54th Annual Conference of the Australian Agricultural and Resource Economics Society, Adelaide, 10-12 February 2010. Here

Stokes, C.J. and Howden, S.M. (2008). An overview of climate change adaptation in Australian primary industries – impacts, options and priorities, CSIRO, Canberra.


  • Shannon Hamence
    19 February, 2015 - 5:43 pm | link

    Thank you for the thought provoking article,

    I must admit that at first I was angered by the sluggish response you suggest for producers but it makes sense if you think that money can be spent more effectively elsewhere and that in turn encourages the greater spread of up-to-date farming practices that offer the greatest yields at the lowest impact. However in regards to the “preemptive adaptation makes no sense” argument in your article, I don’t know of any practices or technologies in use that don’t offer both an immediate as well as long term benefit. What preemptive actions have you seen implemented that weren’t in the producers best interest in the long term?



    • 21 February, 2015 - 7:45 am | link

      If all the practices that would help farmers adapt to climate change are already fully adopted, then we don’t have a problem and there is no point in even discussing adaptation. If they are not fully adopted, then there is a conversation to be had about whether they are worth adopting. My point is that in that conversation, anticipation of future climate change should play little or no role. If the practices are worth adopting, it will be because they are worth adopting under current conditions. As conditions evolve through time, farmers’ decisions about what they do will change accordingly, but any point they will (and should) consider the then-current climate, rather than guess what climate might do next.

      • Eric NEWMAN
        8 March, 2015 - 11:29 pm | link

        Thank you for this document. It is important to make available some good tools that farmers can easily use. Providing just some informations to farmers would reduce their effort to cultivate more areas as they afraid about some climate change elements for which farmers do not really have any controle. The situation is very drastique in under development country where the food secury is a major problem. In additional to the best agricultural pratices on which they trained, it is important to support the smallholders by providing an insurrance or security fund that would be used the crop season is not favourable for the production.


  • Hezron
    28 February, 2015 - 8:03 pm | link

    That is right. I am happy about how simple it is to come to right conclusions.
    However, it appears that in many countries especially African countries this mass education thing is over stressed. I remember to have been taught such thinking in secondary education. It seems there are many teachers who in total darkness about the subject.

  • Anita Davidson
    27 June, 2016 - 10:25 am | link

    Lovely. I think this article makes a lot of sense.

    😀 “…some of that effort should be devoted to developing technologies that may be better adapted to predicted climate.”

    And it’s very true what you have in that paragraph – 2c.

    Thumbs up.

  • Cuthbert
    25 August, 2016 - 2:05 am | link

    Thank you Dr. Pannel for the insights in this piece. In Sub-saharan Africa, it appears governemnts and development agencies are more interested in sprading information on climate change rather than developing suitable technologies that enhance farmer adaptation. my concern with the article is that the predictable elements of climate change are not in isolation and influence and are influenced by the less predictable elements such as rainfall. wouldn’t it still be fruitless if efforts are made at developing technologies that may be better adapted to predicted climate now when the occurence will be in the future? Farmers, like you said may not be willing to incur costs on these technologies in the present until the change ocures.

    16 June, 2018 - 5:09 pm | link

    What you have mentioned here is very interesting. I fully agree that farmers know better on how to deal with climate change and they have been doing that for centuries. Still farmers do benefit to some extent on climate change information, especially in rainfed agricultural areas where information on onset of monsoon, precipitation, heat conditions etc. is crucial for farmers while taking decisions on the right time for crop sowing, fertigation etc.

    Nevertheless, more efforts at developing technologies for climate mitigation measures will go a long way and governments should make sincere efforts in that direction

    • 19 June, 2018 - 12:18 pm | link

      Thanks Jacqueline. I agree that farmers value information about climate and weather very highly, but that is predominantly for relatively short-term predictions of weather.

  • Bill
    5 February, 2019 - 5:09 pm | link

    Great article. Admit I was totally surprised but enjoyed reading this.
    On your last line about investing in CC technology, I have 2 questions: (1) what are some common examples of these technologies and (2) what about crop insurance etc….

    • 19 March, 2019 - 6:34 am | link

      (1) e.g. crop breeding to create varieties that are better suited to predicted climatic conditions.
      (2) In its current form crop insurance addresses year-to-year variation, not climate change. I’m not aware of any policy to protect farmers against climate change. I’d be really surprised if such policies were ever offered.

  • Khushi
    28 June, 2019 - 5:43 pm | link

    Article is indeed amazing,

    Being a Public Health Nutritionist we often advice people to opt for diversity in their diet, however the diversification in dietary habits can not be achieved without diversification in agriculture. India is 3rd largest producer of tobacco, land utilized in tobacco cultivation is larger in some parts of India.

    Is it because of this climate change factor ? because if farmer is unable to produce something nutritious and healthy they will start tobacco cultivation because its their business and they have to produce something to earn a living

    If it is so, how can one control this situation and add more diversification in agriculture.

    Also, i need your perspective on dietary diversification , what do you think is it viable concept ?

  • Keerthi Lakshmy
    30 July, 2020 - 4:27 pm | link

    Thank you sir for this article… it is really a relevant topic and i enjoyed reading this… its very important to let farmers to know about new techniques to handle the climate change….

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