Smart adaptation to climate change in agriculture: A recipe from Milan

I returned from a ten day stay in Milan where I attended both the International Conference of Agricultural Economists (ICAE) triennial meeting as well as a workshop on climate smart agriculture sponsored by FAO.[1] Milan is known as the “city that works” in Italy, and indeed I marveled at its modernized public transportation, cleanliness, and elegance. Of course, it also has its share of magnificent older buildings, churches, and neighborhoods that are a must see when visiting Italy.Of course, it also has its share of magnificent older buildings, churches, and neighborhoods that are a must see when visiting Italy.


The ICAE conference was held on the campus of the University of Milan—a converted hospital that was built in the 15th century. It is the best venue of the best-run conference I have attended in many years. The FAO workshop took place in a palace that was built by a rich merchant in the 18th century, was the home of the Austrian queen, then sold to Napoleonic government in 19th century, and is now owned by the Italian government. It has a marvelous mirror room and a great yard for lunches and other outdoor activities. The workshop focused on a line of ongoing research on how climate change considerations should affect agricultural investments and policies in developing countries in the near future (the next 15-20 years). It emphasized identifying effective strategies for adaptation to (rather than mitigation of) climate change, and assessing their impacts.

milan campous at night







It is predicted by the IPCC and other notable groups that the main short term effect of climate change is the increased likelihood of extreme weather events (droughts, typhons, etc.). In the longer run (after 2040), climate change may lead to rising water levels and significant “migration of weather” (e.g. the weather in San Francisco in the future may be similar to the current weather of Los Angeles). The main forms of adaptation to long run changes includeinnovation and adoption of alternative agricultural practices and economic activities or migration away from locations where farming and livelihood become unfeasible to new locations . The main proposed forms of adaptation to the short term increases in the likelihood of extreme weather events are adoption of more climate resilient crop varieties and management practices and introduction of crop insurance and input subsidies. Based on this background and the discussion in the workshop, I developed my own conclusions on the design of effective adaptation strategies for the near future.

First, agricultural investment activities in the near future should address both long and short term challenges of climate change. While weather migration and rising water levels may be outcomes in the distant future, designing investments to protect against rising water levels and the development of institutions and arrangements that will foster migration requires significant lead time.

Second, agriculture is evolving regardless of climate change, and investment and adaptation strategies should be forward looking and aim to address emerging agricultural realities, not the realties of the past. Smallholders across the world are becoming less autarkic and are engaging more frequently in trade, as more and more of them own cell phones and even bicycles. They sell to supermarkets and hold jobs outside of the farm. Thus, the introduction of production practices that will increase average productivity and earnings that contribute tofinancial resilience can be an important component of adaptation strategies. Further expansion of agricultural trade networks, transportation and communication channels, and access to credit markets that will allow farmers to save and borrow at reasonable rates will also be valuable in addressing crisis situations.

roof doumo

Third, the emphasis on the introduction of resilient farming and other practices that will help to withstand weather shocks has its limits. Climate resilient strategies are very desirable if they are not very costly in terms of average yield or income.  Moreover, resilient strategies have their limitations, as they may not be able to withstand the worst-case scenarios (severe drought or flooding). The build up of agricultural resilience should be accompanied by construction of modern roads and building up local storage as a safety measures for extreme situations. That suggests that research on adaptation should quantify the cost of resilience strategies, which will allow parties to determine which ones to use, where, and to what extent. Research should also be conducted on the feasibility and financial viability of insurance schemes as a mechanism to address increases in the likelihood of extreme events, and its use limited to situations where it is economically viable.

Fourth, the objective of agricultural development strategies should be that farmers will thrive, not merely survive. Thus, assuring food security is a threshold, but agricultural and development strategies should aim higher. While assuring a competitive farm sector consisting of many smallholders is a valuable objective, we need to realize that sometimes farms may be too small to succeed (the opposite of too big to fail). Policy-makers should not aim to prop up small farms at any cost, and natural processes of migration away from farming and consolidation resulting in fewer, but stronger, small farmers may be welcome and will enhance their ability to withstand the challenge of climate change.

Fifth, farmers in developing countries are continuously engaged in global supply chains, which are vulnerable to extreme weather and other impacts of climate change, and private sector firms are engaged in adaptation activities of their own. Coordination and planning of climate change policies should be synergistic with activities of the private sector, and emphasize public sector efforts  to complement rather than compete with the private sector.

Our workshop in Milan helped us to develop priorities for future research efforts. The beauty of Milan and its historical heritage are inspiring, but to be effective, we need to go out to the field, solidify our analysis, and verify and update our initial conclusions.

Imilna univeristy


[1] A special thanks to my partners Leslie Lipper, Nancy Mccarthy, Solomon Asfaw, and Giacomo Branca who organized the workshop.

On the origins of the Beahrs ELP

The Beahrs Environmental Leadership Program [ELP] is celebrating its 15th anniversary. Every summer, we bring about 40 up-and-coming leaders from mostly developing countries to a 3 week intensive training and exchange program. We cover topics such as environmental policy, conflict resolution, management of climate change, impact assessment, and the participants also take tours of California. The program emphasizes peer-to-peer learning and has already established an alumni network of close to 600 members. I have been co-director of the ELP since its inception, and people frequently ask me “how did it start?,” and I think it has an interesting story.


The idea for a program like the ELP originated from my cousin, Ora Slor, who visited Berkeley 25 years ago with her husband, a visiting professor at UCSF, and I told her that I was working on environmental economics and sustainability. She said that it sounded interesting…but wondered what it was all about. She had some free time, and asked if she could study it. I told her that she could audit classes on natural resource management, environmental policy, and the basics of forestry and sustainable agriculture.

She made a comment that if someone could package these classes into a 2-3 week program, she was sure many would pay to participate. I thought it was a brilliant idea and, of course, that it should start at Berkeley! (You have to realize that among Israelis, like Ora and me, there is a saying that “if you must live in the diaspora, it should be in Berkeley” (not Stanford or New York City).

group photo

About five years later, our College engaged in an effort to build an agricultural university in Russia. The basic idea was to convert a biological research institute that specialized in biological weaponry into a full-fledged university for agriculture. I travelled there with Dick Beahrs and others, and we spoke about what was needed. But it was clear that some faculty needed a crash course on social sciences and the environment, so I suggested this three-week course idea. People bought into it, including some funding agencies, and we interviewed 30 potential participants that seemed incredibly excited, bright and enthusiastic.

I returned to Berkeley and began recruiting faculty to speak about various topics, and soon realized that most were excited to volunteer to give lectures and contribute to the effort. Like everything else that involves Russia, things didn’t work perfectly and instead of 30 people, we only had 9. Some we hadn’t met before (later on I learned that some of their resumes included a stint in the KGB), but altogether the course was a success, the students grasped the technical material well, and we even went to a baseball game (while they didn’t understand the game so well, they enjoyed the refreshments). The quality of the lectures was outstanding, and it was clear that when it comes to geography and natural sciences, the Russians grasp everything well; but when it came to economics they needed some applied training.

So I went to College Ave. and spoke with several shop owners, asking them to speak on how they ran their business, and the students loved it. I remember how impressed I was to learn that the liquor store near us developed a strategy of providing cheap sandwiches to attract people to the store, and these same people bought expensive wine while waiting for their food.

The next year, I decided to repeat the course and placed an ad in the Economist magazine. We received 150 inquiries, and with the help of a grad student, we were able to get 10 to come to Berkeley. Then when we tried it for a third time, we were overwhelmed with the work and decided that to continue this effort, the big challenge was to establish a permanent staff to run it: helping with visas, selection of students, etc. The good thing about Berkeley is that we have enough great faculty that we were able to provide new and innovative content for the program each year.

In the meantime, I developed what was called the Center for Sustainable Resource Development program. The program focuses on payment for ecosystem services and climate change, and one of our participants was none other than Dick Beahrs. Dick was always saying that Berkeley did not do enough to engage with the rest of the world. I also realized that many practitioners in the environmental field could benefit from the extra knowledge and skills that Berkeley had. Dick one day asked me ‘what would you do with a one million dollar gift?’ I suggested developing an environmental leadership program with an alumni network and small grant initiatives as well as satellite centers… and he delivered.

We were very fortunate to have a lot of support, because Berkeley is known to produce self-inflicted hurdles. At the time the College of Natural Resources dean was Gordon Rausser, who was incredibly supportive, as wereother faculty like Vince Resh, Andy Gutiérrez, Alain deJanvry, Jeff Romm and Jerry Siebert. Chancellor Berdahl participated in our opening ceremony and his remarks to the participants, “we will learn from you at least as much as you will learn from us,” were prophetic.

The journey that led to the establihment of the ELP would not have been possible without the assistance of our staff. Emery Roe, who was my partner in the pre-ELP days when we brought the Russians to Berkeley, took them to the baseball game and recruited the best faculty to give lectures and drink vodka. Robin Marsh, who was instrumental during the early days of the ELP, helped to build the foundation of the program, establish the certificate, recruit faculty, help with the curriculum, etc. Lesley Corral, who was our first program administrator, was a wonderful artist and designed our t-shirts, and provided warmth and welcome to our participants, dealing with very complex matters. Elna Brockhurst helped to solidify the program and her international experience was an immense asset to the ELP. Sarah Sawyer and Andy Lyons were graduate students that brought new ideas and dynamism to the curriculum and helped to connect the program to Berkeley. Anita Ponce, who is leaving us now to go across the pond to UCSF, was our model administrator, related seamlessly to the students, improved every aspect of the program, and balanced the books. Now the ELP is part of the College’s International & Executive Programs, headed by Mio Katayama-Owens.

Fifteen years is when you really take off and begin life as a budding adult. I believe that the ELP will grow and have a long and prosperous future. We are fortunate that after 15 years the ELP is as vigorous as ever. I am now looking forward to our 25th anniversary.

ELP at the beach ELP group photo

Ravello: Experiencing and contemplating bioeconomy

I returned this week from Ravello, Italy where I participated in the 19th International Consortium for Applied Bioeconomy Research (ICABR)conference. Ravello is one of the “100 places you must see before you die”. Located atop Amalfi Bay and near Naples, it is a village full of colorful gardens, magnificent palacios, great restaurants, and a modern conference center where our meeting was held.

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The conference focused on the bio-economy, the environment, and development. There were many interesting presentations during our meetings, but I want to concentrate on the remarkable keynote speakers we had: Sir Partha Dasgupta, Dr. Chris Patermann, Professor Guiseppe Novelli and professor Matin Qaim.

Sir Partha Dasgupta is one of the important economists of the post World War II era. He is the leading thinker on environment and development, and started a journal with this title. He is alarmed by current rates of environmental degradation—in particular, we extract 30% more biomass (living matter) than is regenerated by nature. This rate of extraction is not sustainable. He suggests that the excessive depletion is resulting from externalities—the unintended consequences felt by others as a result of the actions taken by individuals and organizations. These externalities may result from over consumption in the developed world and high rate of population growth in developing countries. Sir Partha suggests a mix of remedies including collective action and moral persuasion that will lead to eliminating the excess depletion of biomass.

Technological improvement must also contribute to the immense effort required to eliminate depletion of biomass, especially when we realize that we must also pursue strategies that enable developing countries to grow. We need industries that will increase the rate of biomass regeneration and reduce the rate of its extraction, and bioeconomy can make major contributions to this end. The term bioeconomy has many definitions. My working understanding is that bioeconomy includes the segments of the economy that rely on biological processes to produce industrial products.

According to another keynote speaker, Dr. Chris Patermann, who for many years, was in charge of the environmental research program of the European Commission, and is considered the “Father of Bioeconomy in Europe”, the knowledge based bioeconomy will replace chemical processes with more environmentally friendly biological technologies—and will provide improved solutions to medical problems, climate change, depletion of raw materials, and environmental resources. According to Dr. Patermann, the bioeconomy is producing 9% of the EU’s GNP, but it is in its infancy and the EU needs to invest significantly in research and development and incentives for investments that would further build this sector. The EU bioeconomy policy is influenced by political considerations. The definition of bioeconomy in Europe does not include agriculture, which is surprising. Many of the future products of the bioeconomy will be farmed, including fuels and industrial oils. Genetic modification and gene editing have been major enabling tools for the bioeconomy. Unfortunately, banning their use in the EU will reduce the effectiveness of the bioeconomy there. As usual European politics have prevented countries from taking full advantage of a new capability created by human knowledge.

Professor Giuseppe Novelli, President of University of Rome Tor Vergata also gave a compelling keynote presentation in which he explained the significance and potential of new biological knowledge. According to Professor Novelli, a noted biologist, the new tools used for molecular biology discovery of DNA provide a basis for transition from ad-hoc to systematic methods of development of solutions to problems of living systems. According to Professor Novelli, genetic mapping and new genetic tools (GMOs, gene editing, and gene silencing) increase the precision of solutions for medical and agricultural problems. The greater precision of the molecular tools allows us to achieve our goals with fewer undesirable side effects. Furthermore, as our knowledge improves, we are witnessing something akin to Moore’s Law, where the cost of biotechnology research processes declines significantly over time. Professor Novelli doesn’t see the rationale for the much heavier regulatory burden placed on agricultural biotechnology compared to medical biotechnology. He suggests that sound, but lighter, regulation of agricultural biotechnology can significantly enhance human welfare.

Professor Matin Qaim’s presentation provided an overview of the performance of biotechnology thus far. The results of a recent study suggest that GMO varieties increase yields, reduce pesticide use, and increase farmer profitability in corn, soybeans, and cotton. The benefits were greater in developing versus developed countries; in India, much of the benefits of adoption of GM cotton have accrued for the poor, subsistence farmers. There is evidence that adoption of GMO seeds reduced diseases and saved lives of farm workers. Finally, the use of GMO varieties didn’t reduce crop biodiversity over time as measured by number of distinct varieties.

The debate over the future of GMOs and biofuels are only part of the many emerging applications of biotechnology. We learned, for example, that improved geographic information systems and monitoring technologies would allow for better utilization of biological controls that address plant diseases and invasive species. There a growing number of applications that use algae to produce food and fuel simultaneously, as well as, attempts to use various organic methods to produce natural gas. Finally, while the conference emphasized the potential of the new bioeconomy, we enjoy, during our stay in Italy, pleasure of the old bioeconomy: great wines, cured meats (prosciutto), fine cheeses…and wonderful bio-resources (vistas) of Ravello and Capri.

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