Why Is Resilience Important in Agriculture and Crop Improvement?

The Resilience in Agriculture course was developed by ILCI’s cross-cutting themes team at Cultural Practice, LLC. Sarah Eissler is the lead content developer and Dee Rubin is the cross-cutting themes training coordinator. 

Course outline

This work was funded in whole by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) under Agreement #7200AA19RFA00010 as part of the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Crop Improvement. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed here are those of the authors alone.


Welcome to the next session of a training program on resilience, which is one of four cross-cutting themes in the Innovation Lab Crop Improvement (ILCI) programming alongside gender, youth, and nutrition. In this module we will be addressing the importance addressing and incorporating concepts of resilience in agriculture.

Why is resilience important?

In this session, we aim to explore why resilience is an important concept to consider for agriculture and crop improvement.

Session 1 Review

Before we get started, let’s take a minute to review what we learned in Session 1. Click on each number to learn more.

  1. There are many ways that development organizations define resilience. We focus on USAID’s definition, which is the ability of people, households, communities, countries, and systems to mitigate, adapt to and recover from shocks and stresses in a manner that reduces chronic vulnerability and facilitates inclusive growth.
  2. We also learned that shocks and stressors are different from problems, and require absorptive, adaptive, and transformative capacities to mitigate, respond to, and recover from.
  3. It’s important to remember that people, households, communities, and systems experience shocks and stresses differently and employ different resilience capacities as their optimal response.

Strengthening Resilience in Agriculture

First, let’s look at few sources of resilience to examine how resilience is built. Sources of resilience can be context specific sometimes, but research has shown that the following are important sources of resilience that transcend contexts. Sources of resilience cut across multiple sectors. Building resilience thus requires a multi-sectoral and multilevel approach.

Human Capital – Investments in health, nutrition, and education are essential for reducing the intergenerational transmission of poverty, enabling future generations to benefit from diversified livelihood opportunities, increasing economic growth, and leading healthier lives.

Livelihood Diversification – Livelihood diversification is about using strategies and building assets that intentionally reduce risk. Diversifying activities alone does not necessarily reduce risk if those activities are exposed to similar risks. Examples of livelihood diversification include agroforestry schemes, diversifying and investing in assets to complement other livelihood activities, or generating multiple sources of income, both off- and on-farm.

Financial Services and Inclusion – Access to financial services and inclusion in the form of savings, credit, insurance, and remittances are important sources of resilience. Digital financial services can help to lower transaction costs, for example.  For another example, having insurance policies can help farmers in times of need when a shock event affects a harvest.

Market Access – Having access to markets, such as agricultural markets to sell products or other service or labor markets to seek employment, is an important source of resilience for individuals and households. For example, having access to various markets would enable members of a household to earn incomes from different types of jobs and thus diversify their livelihood risk. Access to markets can also provide access to better risk-reducing information.

Social Capital – There are three types of social capital – bonding, bridging, and linking social capital. These are the ability to lean on your social networks for support to mitigate risk and respond to shocks or stressors. For example, households’ ability to rely on others during times of need has been a powerful predictor of household resilience.

Natural Resource Management – The sustainability of natural resources is paramount to community and household resilience. Conservation agriculture and other approaches that aim to improve the sustainability of natural resources have been shown to strengthen to resilience. However, these require long term investments. Other examples include watershed protection, promoting sustainable management practices, and restoring degraded lands and water resources.

Social Protection and Safety Nets – The existence of social protection and safety nets are important sources of resilience to help individuals and households withstand the effect of a shock or stress event. For example, formal safety nets, such as unemployment, would enable an individual who has lost their income to withstand the effect of a shock event. 

Empowerment – Empowerment is the expansion of people’s ability to make strategic life choices, particularly in contexts where this ability has been denied to them – as defined by Kabeer in 2001. Women’s empowerment and gender equality have been important predictors of whether households can withstand a shock or stress event and remain (or escape) from poverty.

Aspirations and Confidence – Individuals’ aspirations or confidence in themselves to make and act upon decisions that can improve their lives or reduce risk are important indicators of individual resilience. Research has shown that individuals with high confidence levels, aspirations, self-efficacy, or perceived control are less likely to adopt negative coping strategies following a shock, thus increasing their resilience. 

Importance of Resilience in Agriculture

Now that we have covered the key terms, concepts, and a framework for understanding resilience, and learned about the different sources of resilience, we should ask: Why is the concept of resilience important in agriculture and specifically, crop improvement?

It is estimated that by 2050, global food production needs to increase by 50 to 60 percent in order to feed the growing global population. More than 2.5 billion people’s livelihoods across the world depend on agriculture; and they produce more than half of the world’s food supply and agricultural products. And approximately 795 million people are under and malnourished, meaning they are not getting adequate food and nutrients to lead healthy lives.

These producers, processors, traders, herders, and more are among the most at-risk populations to immediate and long-term shocks and stressors, including the effects of climate change, natural disasters, market fluctuations, the onslaught of pests and diseases, and so forth. Disasters can not only ruin agricultural cropping fields, but they can also destroy harvests, equipment, food storage, livestock, seeds, supplies, and infrastructure. Agricultural livelihoods are among the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. 

Building resilience in agriculture is centered around equipping and empowering farmers and value chain actors to absorb and recover from the different shocks and stressors that threaten their agricultural production and livelihood, ultimately reducing their vulnerability to future shocks and stressors. And building resilience in agriculture also empowers farmers and value chain actors to mitigate agriculture’s contribution to climate change. Click on the flashing information icon to access additional reports to read further on this topic.

Climate Change

Climate change is an ongoing and persistent disturbance that affects small-scale agricultural production and food systems around the world. As shown in the slide and the illustrative reports, shocks and stressors attributed to climate change currently and will continue to negatively affect agricultural productivity and food systems, as well as shift agricultural landscapes. Such effects include but are not limited to unpredictable timing and levels of rainfall and mean temperatures, and increasingly devastating droughts, floods, snowmelt, and desertification. Second order effects, such as extreme weather events or changes in pests and disease patterns, also introduce high levels of uncertainty for agricultural producers and other value chain actors.

In some instances, the effects of climate change can positively impact agriculture. For example, one study found that due to effects of climate change, certain agricultural areas of West Virginia experienced wetter and longer growing seasons that were favorable for optimal growth of a variety of crops.  The effects of climate change are complex. There are limited global assessments of their impact on agricultural and food systems because of the multitudes of uncertainty introduced by climate change and its second order effects.

Crop Focus: Wheat


Climate change is predicted to have drastic effects on major crops important for livelihoods, poverty reduction, and global food security.

As currently shown on this this “summary” tab, we will look at our first example: wheat. Wheat is an extremely important staple crop that provides approximately 20% of all calories consumed worldwide. It is the largest rain-fed crop in terms of harvested area and experts predict an approximate 43% increase in demand for wheat production, as well as other cereals, due to increasing population pressures and wheat’s introduction into new markets. 

However, climate change projection models predict that due to prolonged and severe droughts, up to 60% of current agricultural land dedicated to wheat production will face severe water shortages. Low productivity and vulnerability of wheat production across the globe is attributable to erratic rainfall patterns and higher temperatures during the growing season, in addition to various pests and diseases.

If measures aren’t taken to address these challenges, build resilience towards, and mitigate the impacts of climate change, reduced wheat yields will translate into lower wheat crop availability and rising food prices over the next 20 to 50 years.

These effects would most impact those living in low-income, under-nourished and/ or wheat-consuming areas, like sub-Saharan Africa and southeast Asia, and the millions of livelihoods that rely on wheat production.

Wheat is just one of the many crops and livelihoods vulnerable to climate change.

Let’s look at some examples of adaptive measures employed to do just that, noting that these are only a few examples of many. We will look at ‘Crop Improvement’ and ‘Expanding Irrigation’ – click on each tab on the left of your screen to learn more.

Crop Improvement

The predictions for future wheat production indicate severe challenges that could have devastating effects on the world’s most poor and vulnerable livelihoods. So, we should ask, what can be done to help mitigate these risks and adapt to these impacts?

Crop improvement is one way to purposefully select and breed traits in crops that favor increased resilience to adverse impacts. For wheat specifically, breeding and adopting heat-tolerant cultivars is an important strategy. Here we look at one study of wheat cultivars in South Africa that looks at the effects of heat on 17 different wheat cultivars in South Africa. The authors found that heat tolerance is an extremely important, but often overlooked, trait for wheat in South Africa. It is needed to adapt to rising temperatures due to climate change and to continue meeting food security needs. The authors recommend that wheat breeding programs in South Africa should focus on combining heat tolerant cultivars with…higher yielding cultivars [to] provide wheat producers an avenue to reduce the effects of global climate change. Be sure to click on the flashing green icon to read the article in full. Then, click on the expanding irrigation tab on the left side of your screen to learn more.

Expanding Irrigation

Now let’s look at expanding irrigation. Expanding irrigation infrastructure and increasing the use of irrigation technologies are other adaptive measures that can enable wheat producers to adapt to adverse impacts of climate change. One study examined country-specific adaptive pathways to maintain wheat production in response to climate change. The study found that expanding irrigation infrastructure and use were indeed important adaptive measures. The authors indicate that the timing and intensity of these adaptive measures varied by country because of the different levels of exposure and sensitivity to climate effects experienced by each country. This example again highlights how resilience is not experienced in the same way between units – in this case a country – as each country has different types of capacities, resources, and exposures to climate effects to adapt their wheat production. Be sure to click on the flashing green icon to read the article in full.

Climate-Smart Agriculture

Climate smart – or climate resilient – agriculture – or CSA for short – is an approach that helps to build resilience in agriculture in the face of negative effects of climate change. USAID uses FAO’s definition of CSA, defined as agriculture that sustainably increases productivity, resilience (adaptation), reduces and/or removes greenhouse gasses (mitigation), and enhances achievement of national food security and development goals.

 It relies on and integrates three main pillars:

  1. To sustainably increase agricultural productivity and incomes;
  2. To adapt and build resilience to climate change; and
  3. To reduce and/or remove greenhouse gas emissions, where appropriate.

Resilience programming in agriculture views these three dimensions of climate smart agriculture as key components to reduce risk and increase asset accumulation to build rural resilience to absorb and adapt to various climate-related shocks and stressors through multiple mechanisms. 

CSA in Action

Let’s watch a brief video put together by Farming First to address climate smart agriculture in action. 

Adaptive Approaches

Climate-smart and resilient agriculture consistent of many different approaches, strategies, and practices tailored to best suit the needs of the adverse effect. Let’s look at a few examples of climate-resilient approaches that work well. These types of approaches cover the first two objectives of Climate Smart Agriculture – which are to sustainably increase incomes and to adapt and build resilience to climate change.

Remembering from Session 1, through these kinds of approaches, farmers and other value chain actors employ adaptive capacity to reduce the negative impact of a potential shock or stress.

Crop and livelihood diversification is one way to reduce and mitigate the potential for negative impact on a plot of productive land or within a household.

Other best practices include integrated pest management, biodiversity management, water and land management, and crop and genetic resource improvement.

Crop improvement is another important tool to build resilience to the effects of climate change, as we saw in the previous example about heat-tolerant wheat varieties. Overall, the research shows that the most frequently used tool to improve agricultural resilience to climate change is through changing or diversifying crop varieties.

Mitigation Strategies

Additional approaches are used to support the third objective of Climate Smart Agriculture, which is to reduce and/or remove greenhouse gas emissions in order to mitigate agriculture’s impact on climate change. Such approaches include using cover crops on existing plots, integrating agroforestry management schemes to diversify production on existing productive land, using integrated land, water and nutrient management strategies to maximize production and reduce CO2 emissions, and rainwater harvesting and irrigation. This is not an exhaustive list, but actions and steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture are important to building resilience. 

Let’s Review

Now that we’ve discussed why resilience is an important concept for agriculture, let’s review what we’ve learned. For each of the following statements, indicate True or False.


Climate-smart or climate-resilient agriculture aims to sustainably increases productivity, resilience (adaptation), reduces and/or removes GHGs (mitigation), and enhances achievement of national food security and development goals.


Crop improvement is a strategy to mitigate risk and adapt to potential negative effects of climate change.

Cross-cutting Themes

Now, let’s look at how to consider cross-cutting themes when thinking about resilience in agriculture. The next few slides will look at gender, nutrition, and youth.

Gender and Resilience

Researchers are increasingly exploring the concepts of gender and resilience. When resilience is considered at a level beyond the household, women and complicated intra-household gender dynamics are often excluded from consideration but remain very important components of resilience. Men and women experience different levels of power, influence, and agency to negotiate responses to shocks and stressors within the household and communities, and the subsequent impacts from those responses. Due to social norms and socio-cultural barriers, women do not often have the same access to resources and assets as well as decision-making power or influence than do men. Consequently, women then have less ability to respond to shocks and stressors via absorptive and adaptive strategies and measures. For example, women often do not have the same access to high levels of credit as do men and therefore may not always rely on credit as an option to respond to or mitigate the risks of a potential adverse event.

When thinking about gender and resilience and the ways these concepts intersect, it’s important to consider a few aspects of women’s empowerment. We use Kabeer’s definition of women’s empowerment as the “expansion of people’s ability to make strategic life choices, particularly in contexts where this ability has been denied to them” (Kabeer 2001, 1).

We also acknowledge that for women, and particularly poorer women and men, time is an extremely important resource that is often very scarce. With regard to resilience programming, we need to continuously think about time as a resource and individuals’ access to  and availability of time. And second, we present that improving women’s empowerment is considered an importance source of resilience and should be strengthened to improve resilience across systems, countries, communities and households.

Three Pathways

Now, let’s look at Mercy Corps’ BRIDGE program. As we discuss the program, you can click on the icons below to read about each pathway.

Mercy Corp’s BRIGE Program is entirely focused on the intersection of gender and resilience and identifying the ways in which improving women’s empowerment can contribute to increased resilience at the individual, household, and community levels to respond to climate-induced shocks and stressors. The program considers three main pathways to improve women’s empowerment in resilience programming. First, the focus is on women’s equitable participation in household decision-making. The second pathway is women’s meaningful participation in community groups, and the third pathway is women’s access to market linkages. All three of these pathways link to women’s empowerment such that they are improving women’s ability to make strategic life choices and act upon them – for example, so that women have the ability and influence to choose to participate in community groups and actually benefit from that participation.

Nutrition and Resilience

Addressing climate change and agriculture through climate-smart and climate-resilient agricultural approaches are inextricably linked to nutrition, particularly for ensuring decreasing rates of mal and under nutrition among vulnerable populations and ensuring food security for all. Click on each icon below to learn more about climate change, nutritional status, and nutritional quality.

Climate change

Climate change and its negative effects on agricultural productivity are likely to increase rates of malnutrition through several pathways. First, rural farmers, households and livelihoods that are reliant on agricultural value chains will have less food to consume and or less income to purchase quality foods if yields are negatively impacted by climate change. Second, rural and urban households will become more food insecure if productivity decreases and food prices then increase.

Nutritional Status

Nutritional statuses and diets are also important components of nutrition that are likely to be impacted by climate change. Nutrition is driven by diets, health status, socio-economic status, care practices, and water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) environments. Women play a key role in household diets and maintaining household nutritional diversity, linking the importance of women’s empowerment, nutrition and food security when considering resilience in agriculture.

Nutritional Quality

Additionally, it’s important to consider the nutritional quality of improved crops and foods beyond production and how that may diminish – or increase – along the value chain. Are crops with resilient qualities also nutritious, or do there exist tradeoffs for improving the resilience of crops to the effects of climate change?

Youth and Resilience


Now let’s look at the intersection of youth and resilience.

Youth are considered those between 15-30 years of age. They represent a large demographic worldwide, but particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where they are in need of employment in both rural and urban areas. Agriculture is a sector that can provide jobs at the needed scale and that can also help to reduce poverty and improve food security. However, many youth, especially those with few skills, frequently lack interest to engage in farm work, as it is often viewed as labor-intensive and not a lucrative form of employment. This challenge is coupled by youth’s general limited access to necessary resources, such as financial services or land, that further limits their ability to respond to shocks or stressors and increases their livelihood risk when engaged in agriculture.  Youth who have more education and additional skills in computing, science, or business often show greater interest in forming agriculturally oriented enterprises. We are going to look at research conducted by the International Food Policy Research Institute – click on the “case study” tab to learn more.

Case Study

The authors did focus group discussions and interviews with youth in Nigeria in order to understand their aspirations and challenges in the agricultural sector and better understand youth’s resilience in agriculture. Their findings shed light on important nuances to consider.

They found that while youth in agriculture face similar constraints experienced by other groups – such as lack of finance, farm inputs, and modern equipment – they experience additional and higher constraints related to lack of capital, technical experience, and social capital to rely on for responding to shocks and stressors. Young women particularly had less access to information and irrigation and were less likely to benefit from cooperative participation compared to young men.

However, compared to non-youth farmers, youth farmers had more opportunities and sources of resilience in terms of physical health, their ability to migrate, and easier access to information from the internet that facilitated capacity building to respond to shocks and stress events. These findings highlight the ways in which youth in agriculture may be advantaged and disadvantaged and shed light on the gender dynamics of youth in agriculture as well when thinking about access to important resources that are necessary to reduce risk, strengthen resilience, and respond to shock and stress events.

Cross-Cutting Considerations

Now that we’ve looked at each of the cross-cutting themes and resilience, let’s consider some key questions to help us think more deeply about what it means to address cross-cutting themes and resilience for crop improvement, specifically. Click on each circle below to learn more. As you listen to each section, think about what other questions you would ask.


For gender, we could ask what are the household gender dynamics around decision-making for adopting an improved variety, including additional assumed risk, potential expenses, and/or trade-offs associated with a new variety?


For nutrition, we could ask what are the nutritional benefits of an improved variety? Does it address an acute need? What are nutritional tradeoffs of an improved variety?


For youth, we could ask what opportunities could be developed to engage youth in crop breeding or adopting new seed varietals?

Questions for Reflection

Let’s expand upon that in this activity for reflection. Here are some questions to reflect on your own work and think about what you’ve learned so far in this course. Please take some time to think about the answers to these questions related to your current work.


Let’s review what we have learned in Session 2. Click on each icon to review what we have learned.


First, we have learned that there are many different approaches to building resilience, which requires a multi-sectoral and integrated response.

Building resilience in agriculture is centered around equipping and empowering farmers and value chain actors to absorb and recover from the different shocks and stressors that threaten their agricultural production and livelihood, ultimately reducing their vulnerability to future shocks and stressors. And to empower farmers and value chain actors to mitigate agriculture’s contribution to climate change.


The effects of climate change on agriculture are complex. The agricultural sector specifically must build resilience to respond to potential negative impacts of climate change.


Climate smart agriculture is one such approach that aims to sustainably increase productivity and resilience (adaptation), reduce and/or remove GHGs (mitigation), and enhance achievements of national food security and development goals.


Cross-cutting themes are important to consider when thinking about resilience:

Men and women have different access to important resources, opportunities, and assets – which affects their level of exposure to and their ability to build absorptive, adaptive, and transformative capacities to respond to shocks and stressors.

Nutrition is essential for ensuring food security; approaches to building resilience in agriculture must also ensure that they are improving or maintaining the nutritional quality and status of crops for health consumption.

Finally, youth represent a large demographic and are the future leaders in agriculture. However, a lack of access to important sources of resilience can hinder their success, while also acknowledging that youth experience certain advantages to build resilience, such as their health and mobility.

Next Steps

Thank you for your participation in the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Crop Improvement’s second training session on Resilience. Use the buttons here to navigate to session three, return to the Innovation Lab’s website, or return to the Innovation Lab’s learning hub.