Climate change could transform the agricultural landscape in Central America, with key crops such as beans and export-quality coffee losing suitability, and potentially dire impacts on farmers and rural livelihoods, according to a CIAT study.

The findings add to the mounting evidence that rising temperatures and longer, more intense dry seasons will severely affect agriculture in one of Latin America’s poorest regions, unless measures are taken to prepare and adapt.

“Climate change could redraw the agricultural map of Central America,” said CIAT climate scientist Peter Läderach, one of the authors of the study published in Climatic Change.

“What will be key is how well prepared the farmers across the region are for the changes to come, their ability to adapt, and how soon they can act. Our study is the most thorough assessment yet of the likely impacts in Central America and the vulnerability of local populations.”

The researchers used crop and climate models to assess the likely impact of climate change by 2050 in 1,000 municipalities across Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. They found that the effects will vary widely, requiring nuanced responses from policymakers.

But on average, the results showed that beans, coffee – the region’s most valuable export crop – and banana will suffer the greatest decreases in suitability. The most severe changes are expected in municipalities in the Dry Corridor, a drought-prone area spanning the four countries, and home to approximately 10 million people.

Meanwhile, maize, cassava, upland rice, and sorghum are expected to respond positively to climate change in all the countries studied. But the authors warned that, while some areas may become more suitable for these crops, some are protected areas such as forests or important water catchment areas.

They also stressed that even though some crops will gain in suitability, farmers might still struggle to make the transition. “If farmers have to switch crops, that’s a major decision that can require significant financial outlay and risk,” said study leader Claudia Bouroncle, of Costa Rica’s Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE). “Many won’t have the means to make the change.”

To address this, the scientists also assessed the vulnerability of farming communities in each municipality and their “adaptive capacity,” or ability to respond to the situation. They hope the findings will help policymakers prioritize their investments in climate change adaptation. The team also hopes their approach can be refined and applied in other climate change-prone parts of the world.