How Does Climate Change Affect Agriculture?

By Mark Chandler

March 30, 2023

Last Updated: March 31, 2023

Climate change is an ever-present reality. Everyone on the planet feels the effects, but especially people in low-income countries and those who depend on specific climate conditions and natural resources to survive: the world’s smallholder farmers.

Farmers are already experiencing the effects of climate change, as extreme weather and less-predictable seasons transform pastures and croplands around the world. Climate change affects agriculture and those who rely on it by weakening environmental health, undermining production, wiping out crops, killing off livestock, making it more difficult to earn a living and extending the amount of time families must go without food.

Ensuring farming households have the tools they need to protect their livelihoods — and the environment — is key to our work at Heifer International.

Read on to learn more about how climate change affects agriculture and how Heifer's "Caring for the Earth" approach to program development supports farmers in adapting to and mitigating the threats of the growing climate crisis.

The Link Between Climate Change and Agriculture

Climate change and agriculture are intimately linked by deviations in weather patterns and temperatures. The world is warming faster than ever before, with a direct impact on agricultural production and the people who make their living from it.

The last two decades saw the hottest temperatures since the 1800s, with the 10 warmest years in recorded history. Temperatures have risen by 1.1 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels as a result of global emissions.

A man waters his garden in Senegal.
Ismaila Gning waters his crops by hand in northern Senegal, where frequent drought conditions have made farming less reliable. Photo by Sylvain Cherkaoui/Heifer International.

Fossil fuels are the biggest contributor to climate change, responsible for over three-quarters of all global emissions. Burning oil, coal and gas releases large quantities of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and other greenhouse gases. When these gases are emitted into the atmosphere, they trap heat close to the Earth’s surface, a consequence known as the greenhouse effect. Too many greenhouse gases result in global warming that causes climate change, which can also be thought of as shifts in Earth’s weather patterns over time.

In the past few decades, the world has seen and felt the consequences, with smallholder farmers — those who rear livestock or raise crops on a limited scale, on up to 10 hectares, or 25 acres, of land — on the front lines of this change.

A woman feeds a flock of chickens while a man watches in India.
Sabitri Naik, left, and Upendranath Naik, right, feed the chickens at their home in Odisha, India. Many smallholder farmers are experiencing the worst of climate change but have the fewest resources to cope with its effects. Photo by Pranab K. Aich/Heifer International.

Farmers need healthy land and reliable weather patterns to maintain their livelihoods. But climate change is causing temperatures to rise and growing seasons to shift. There are more intense periods of rainfall, often followed by flooding, and longer dry spells, leading to prolonged drought. Natural disasters are becoming more frequent and severe. Ice caps are melting and sea level rise is accelerating, jeopardizing coastal habitats and fishing communities and leading to even more dangerous hurricanes and typhoons.  

Agriculture itself, while necessary to feed the world’s growing population, has its own environmental impact and is also responsible for a share of the greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change. However, people in lesser developed countries, where many smallholder farmers earn their living, have historically contributed the least to climate change yet are immensely affected by its impacts.

In short, the effect of climate change on agriculture is enormous — with outsize consequences for small-scale farmers.

How Climate Change Affects Agriculture

Extreme weather and shifting seasons are a direct threat to farmers’ livelihoods and well-being in multiple ways.

Heightened Food Insecurity

As dry seasons get longer and water becomes scarcer, farmers aren’t able to grow or raise the food they rely on to earn an income and feed their families. In the Horn of Africa, for example, farmers have experienced five failed rainy seasons in a row, and over 80 million people in the region are estimated to be food insecure as a result of climate change.

Meanwhile, rising temperatures can also lead to spoilage and contamination, compromising the quality of goods. As disruptions to food production increase, the 1 in 3 people who already don’t have enough to eat will suffer most.

Land Degradation and Water Scarcity

A close-up of a hand planting a seedling.
Climate change drastically affects the quality of the land required to grow crops and pasture. Photo by Sylvain Cherkaoui/Heifer International.

Changes in rainfall patterns, deforestation and overgrazing have detrimental and often irreparable effects on agriculture. Farmers are struggling to keep their animals healthy in drier, more extreme conditions. Lack of water and warmer temperatures make it harder for crops to grow, and soil is drying to dust. Land is gradually becoming less productive and more vulnerable to future shocks like drought, and competition and conflict over resources is increasing as farmers fight for claim to arable land and access to clean water.

Reduced Yield

Farmers are reporting record-breaking losses. It’s predicted global food yields could decline by as much as 30% by 2050 if farmers aren’t able to adapt to the effects of climate change. These disruptions are not just a challenge for farmers — climate change affects the entire agriculture sector, leading to higher food prices and decreased availability of food worldwide.

Increased Poverty

Climate change has a direct impact on farmers’ livelihoods: When crops and livestock are lost, so is income. Farmers in the world’s most vulnerable regions often already live at the edge of poverty, and the risk is growing as climate change accelerates. It's estimated that 43 million people in Africa alone could be pushed into poverty by 2030 as crop yields continue to decline.

Migration and Displacement

A group of people work with shovels on the forest floor in Guatemala.
Heifer applies a Caring for the Earth approach in its global programs. Above, members of a Heifer-trained disaster reduction team work in a Chisec forest in Guatemala, which is highly vulnerable to natural disasters that threaten agricultural communities. Photo by Daniel Lopez/Heifer International.

Climate change also affects agriculture by destroying farms or making environmental conditions so challenging that farming is no longer an option. Every year, a growing number of farming families are forced to leave their farms and fields in search of new work. In 2021, extreme weather uprooted more than 23 million people globally. 

Additionally, in the world’s most vulnerable countries, conflict and competition over natural resources are increasing as climate change intensifies. When conflict breaks out, damage and destruction breaks up communities, drives farmers from their homes and increases the likelihood of unemployment.

The Future for Climate Change and Agriculture

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, global warming must be limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius to avoid catastrophic-level drought, crop failures and other impacts on human, animal and planetary health — but new research predicts the world will reach this threshold within the next 12 years without an immediate and significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. By the end of the century, climate scientists warn the planet could warm by more than 4 degrees Celsius and sea levels could rise by more than a meter.

Even the rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius is not considered safe, but every additional tenth of a degree of warming can make a difference for human and animal health — and for farmers’ ability to continue producing sufficient food.

A woman pours glasses of milk for two boys in Tanzania.
Rebecka Enock Mwangurube pours milk from her dairy cows for two of her six children in southwestern Tanzania. When climate change makes it more difficult to raise crops and animals, those who rely on their own farms for nutrition are especially at risk of food shortages. Photo by Moshi J. Lukindo/Heifer International.

While heat intensifies and climate change accelerates, smallholder farming families will face even greater obstacles and challenging working conditions. It will mean scarcer natural resources, higher chance of crop failure and livestock loss, greater threat of food insecurity, and millions of lives and livelihoods at risk. The stakes are higher than ever before, making it imperative we address the climate crisis and implement climate-smart solutions.

Reducing How Climate Change Affects Agriculture

As the world confronts the triple challenge of needing to produce more healthy food, with less ecological impact, in an increasingly difficult growing environment, engaging farmers is our first line of defense. With the right tools and training, farmers can earn a sustainable living income in agriculture — and be at the forefront of protecting our planet.

Heifer is using the Caring for the Earth lens across our global programs, looking at how we can increase the stability of the communities we work with, the farmlands that support them and their livestock — actively analyzing how we can improve the resilience of these essential systems given the urgency and need.

We are integrating climate-smart practices, taking time to understand smallholder farmers’ unique challenges and help them adopt new methods and technologies that build resilience and protect precious natural resources, like soil and water.

A woman examines grass in a pasture in Honduras.
Keyla Aparicio inspects her pasture in Honduras, where Heifer works with livestock farmers to utilize rotational grazing, a method of land management that regenerates grasslands and helps farmers reduce their environmental impact. Photo by Phillip Davis/Heifer International.

Our Caring for the Earth programmatic approach enables farmers to remain on their land, adapt to climate threats and increase their productivity and income, at the same time promoting regenerative land management practices that mitigate the effects of climate change. Alongside local farmers and their communities, we work to restore soil nutrients, retain needed moisture in fields and devise strategies to minimize waste and keep soil, rivers and lakes uncontaminated.

Additionally, we help livestock farmers manage the size of their flocks and herds. By improving breed quality and raising healthier animals, farmers are able to reduce the strain on vital local resources and protect their land for future generations, while earning better prices for their animals and outputs.

We also know there is much more to be done to address the challenges related to climate change and agriculture, and we are striving to find more innovative solutions and new ways to partner with farmers to build resilience and regenerate a healthy planet for all.

Together, we’re working toward a sustainable future, helping smallholder farmers build income-generating farms while protecting and restoring the environment and ensuring long-term, resilient food production for the world.