How a crop modeling collaboration with IRB Brasil Re could help bridge the protection gap and build a more resilient agricultural base for the future in Brazil

Brazil is currently the world’s second largest corn exporter, and is set to overtake the U.S. as the globe’s biggest soybean exporter, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) predicting a record Brazilian soybean crop of 115 million metric tons in its outlook for 2018.

Yet this agricultural powerhouse — responsible for around a quarter of Brazil’s GDP — remains largely underinsured, according to Victor Roldán, vice president and head of Caribbean and Latin America at RMS. A situation that must be addressed given the importance of the sector for the country’s economy and growing weather extremes farmers must contend with under climate change conditions.

The effects of climate change over the next 25 years could lead to further heavy crop losses

“Natural perils are identified as the industry’s main risk,” he says. “Major droughts or excess of rain have been big drivers of losses for the sector, and their frequency and severity shall increase under future climate change conditions. During 2014 to 2017, El Niño affected Brazil with some of the largest droughts in some areas of the country and excess of rain in others.

“There is a need to structure more effective and attractive insurance products to protect the farmers,” he continues. “For this we need better analytics, a better understanding of the perils, exposure and vulnerability.”

Worst drought in 80 years

The worst drought in 80 years reached its height in 2015, with farmers in Sao Paulo losing up to a third of their crops due to the dry weather. Production of soy shrank by 17 percent between 2013 and 2014 while around a fifth of the state’s citrus crops died. Meanwhile, heavy rain and flash floods in the south of the country also detrimentally impacted agricultural output.

The effects of climate change over the next 25 years could lead to further heavy crop losses, according to a study carried out by Brazil’s Secretariat of Strategic Issues (SAE). It found that some of the country’s main crops could suffer a serious decline in the areas already under cultivation, anticipating a decline of up to 39 percent in the soybean crop. This could translate into significant financial losses, since the soybean crop currently brings in around US$20 billion in export earnings annually.

IRB Brasil Re has been the leader in the agricultural reinsurance sector of the country for decades and has more than 70 years of agricultural claims data. Today agricultural risks represent its second-largest business line after property. However, insurance penetration remains low in the agricultural sector, and IRB has been seeking ways in which to encourage take-up among farmers.

The 2015 drought was a turning point, explains Roldán. “As the largest reinsurance player in Brazil, IRB needed to address in a more systematic way the recorded 16.3 percent increase in claims. The increase was due to the drought in the Midwestern region, which adversely affected corn, soybean and coffee crops and, separately an increase in the historical average rainfall level in the Southern region, which caused damage to the crops.”

Building a probabilistic crop model

A better crop-weather modeling approach and risk analytics of crop perils will help the market to better understand their risks and drive growth in crop insurance penetration. IRB is partnering with RMS to develop the first fully probabilistic hybrid crop model for the agricultural insurance sector in Brazil, which it is planning to roll out to its cedants. The model will assess crop risks linked with weather drivers, such as drought, excess rainfall, temperature variation, hail events, strong wind and other natural hazards that impact crop yield variability. The model will be suited for different crop insurance products such as named perils (hail, frost, etc.), Multiple-Peril Crop Insurance (MPCI) and revenue covers, and will also include livestock and forestry.

“Major droughts or excess of rain have been big drivers of losses for the sector, but also climate change is a worrying trend” — Victor Roldán, RMS

“Weather-driven impacts on crop production are complex perils to model given the natural variability in space and time, the localized nature of the hazards and the complex vulnerability response depending on the intensity, but also on the timing of occurrence,” explains Olivier Bode, manager, global agricultural risk at RMS.

“For instance, plant vulnerability not only depends on the intensity of the stress but also on the timing of the occurrence, and the crop phenology or growth stage, which in turn depends on the planting date and the selected variety along with the local weather and soil conditions,” he continues. “Thus, exposure information is critical as you need to know which variety the farmer is selecting and its corresponding planting date to make sure you’re representing correctly the impacts that might occur during a growing season. The hybrid crop model developed by RMS for IRB has explicit modules that account for variety specific responses and dynamic representation of crop growth stages.”

The model will rely on more than historical data. “That’s the major advantage of using a probabilistic crop-weather modeling approach,” says Bode. “Typically, insurers are looking at historical yield data to compute actuarial losses and they don’t go beyond that. A probabilistic framework allows insurers to go beyond the short historical yield record, adding value by coupling longer weather time series with crop models. They also allow you to capture future possible events that are not recorded in past weather data, for example, drought events that might span over several years, flood occurrences extending over larger or new areas as well as climate change related impacts. This allows you to calculate exceedance probability losses at different return periods for each crop and for specific scenarios.”

There is also significant potential to roll out the model to other geographies in the future, with Colombia currently looking like the obvious next step and opportunity. “The El Niño weather phenomenon affects all of Latin America; it decreases rains by more than 60 percent during the rainy seasons in many countries,” explains Roldán. “Like Brazil, Colombia is a very biologically diverse country and features a variety of ecosystems. Currently, most of the country has under-utilized agricultural land.”

Colombia is already a key player worldwide in two products: coffee and cut flowers. But the country signed a number of free trade agreements that will give its producers more access to foreign markets. “So, the expansion of agribusiness insurance is urgently needed in Colombia,” says Roldán.