Crops Feel the Heat of Warming Climate

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Listen up, naysayers. Still think balmy temps will be good for the world food supply? Think again.

In the first study estimating how much global food production is already affected by climate change, researchers from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology report that warming since 1981 has caused annual losses of roughly $5 billion to the major cereal crops. This during a time when annual global temperatures increased by about 0.7 degrees Fahrenheit, with even larger changes observed in some regions.

From 1981-2002, fields of wheat, corn and barley throughout the world produced a combined 40 million metric tons of food less per year because of increasing temperatures caused by human activities. From Lawrence Livermore

“There is clearly a negative response of global yields to increased temperatures,” said David Lobell, a Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory researcher and lead author of the study that appears online March 16 in Environmental Research Letters. “Though the impacts are relatively small compared to the technological yield gains over the same period, the results demonstrate that negative impacts of climate trends on crop yields at the global scale are already occurring.”

“Most people tend to think of climate change as something that will impact the future, but this study shows that warming over the past two decades already has had real effects on global food supply,” said Christopher Field, co-author on the study and director of Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology.

Using global yield data from the Food and Agriculture Organization for 1961-2002, Lobell and Field compared average temperatures and precipitation with yields over the major growing regions. On average, they found, several food crops responded negatively to warmer temperatures. They then used these relationships to estimate the effect of observed warming trends.

“To do this, we assumed that farmers have not yet adapted to climate change, for example by selecting new crop varieties to deal with climate change,” Lobell said. “If they have been adapting – something that is very difficult to measure – then the effects of warming may have been lower.”

Most experts believe that adaptation would lag several years behind climate trends, because of the difficulty of distinguishing climate trends from natural variability. The importance of this study, the authors said, was that it demonstrates a clear and simple relationship at the global scale, with yields dropping by approximately 3-5 percent for a one-degree Fahrenheit increase. “A key to moving forward is how well cropping systems can adapt to a warmer world,” Lobell said. “Investments in this area could potentially save billions of dollars and millions of lives.”

So what happens if, as some predict, change comes too fast for even intelligent agriculture to keep up?

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You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

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