Farmers warned to get ready as climate change threatens crops

September 7, 2009 By Jay Price

Even if global temperatures rise slowly, climate change could slash the yields of some of the world's most important crops almost in half, according to a new study co-authored by an N.C. State University scientist.

The study, recently published online in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, looked at three frequently used scenarios for global warming. It found the average U.S. yields for corn, soybeans and cotton could plummet 30 percent to 46 percent by the end of the century under the slowest warming scenario, and 63 percent to 82 percent under the quickest.

"There are some caveats, but this is a real cause for concern," said Michael Roberts, an assistant professor of agricultural and resource economics at NCSU.

Roberts collaborated with Wolfram Schlenker of Columbia University on the study. They used massive amounts of data on and weather from 1950 to 2005 to look at yields from nearly every U.S. county. They focused on swings in temperature on individual days.

Many earlier studies examined temperature changes averaged over longer periods, such as a month or a growing season, Roberts said. That can mask the effects of extreme temperatures on crops.

"While crop yields depend on a variety of factors, is the best predictor of yields," Roberts said. "There hasn't been much research on what happens to crop yields over certain temperature thresholds, but this study shows that temperature extremes are not good."

Scientists are starting to look more closely at temperature spikes and dips because they can have outsized impact, said David Walter Wolfe, a Cornell University expert on the effects of climate change on crops who was not involved in the study.

A simple example, Wolfe said, is freezing. A study using the average of lows for several days might not even show below-freezing temperatures, and yet farmers may have suffered a catastrophe. At the other end of the temperature scale, one day of mid-90s temperatures can kill all the flowers on a crop of pepper plants.

There are a number of factors besides temperature that will affect crop yields, Roberts said. The growing atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, needed for photosynthesis, could offset some of the losses, he said. Also, major agricultural companies are working on new plant varieties that would be able to handle climate changes.

Predicting the effects of climate change is complicated. Carbon dioxide can spur weed growth, for example, and warmer winters allow some kinds of pests to move into new areas and help existing pests survive better. Also, is shifting precipitation patterns and in some places, Wolfe said, creating the sorts of extremes in rainfall that Roberts and Schlenker studied in temperature.

Wolfe said the effects shown in their study would inevitably be blunted if farmers shift to other crop varieties, change their planting times or change their crops altogether. Still, the study is one more tool to use in persuading farmers to prepare for change, he said.

Wolfe frequently speaks to farmers and said his message is always the same: They are the first generation of growers who can't count on historical climate information to help them plan things such as when to plant and what varieties to choose.

"They're no longer farming in a static environment," he said. "They can't rely on the calendar to tell them when to plant, they can't rely on the variety of seeds they have always used, and they can't rely on dealing with the same insect pests, because it's all a moving target now."

(c) 2009, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.).
Visit The News & Observer online at
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

Explore further: U.S. Crop Yields Could Wilt in Heat

Related Stories

U.S. Crop Yields Could Wilt in Heat

August 24, 2009

( -- Yields of three of the most important crops produced in the United States - corn, soybeans and cotton - are predicted to fall off a cliff if temperatures rise due to climate change.

Changing climate will challenge Northeast agriculture

July 11, 2007

Farmers will be the first to feel the heat from global warming as they grapple with new and aggressive crop pests, summer heat stress and other sobering challenges that could strain family farms to the limit, warns David ...

Global warming to boost Scots farmers

August 15, 2005

Climate change could be good news for Scottish farmers, according to ESRC funded research at the University of Stirling. Rising temperatures and increased CO2 levels could mean increased yields and a boost to local economies, ...

Recommended for you

The world needs to rethink the value of water

November 23, 2017

Research led by Oxford University highlights the accelerating pressure on measuring, monitoring and managing water locally and globally. A new four-part framework is proposed to value water for sustainable development to ...

'Lost' 99% of ocean microplastics to be identified with dye?

November 23, 2017

The smallest microplastics in our oceans – which go largely undetected and are potentially harmful – could be more effectively identified using an innovative and inexpensive new method, developed by researchers at the ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Sep 13, 2009
Ummm, the growing season this year has been shortened, not by so-called global warming, but by a cooling trend! I myself have been seeing migratory birds fly south at the end of last month when they normally do so in mid October. If that is not a sign of a cooling trend than who knows what is?

Warmer temperatures and more CO2 mean longer and doubled growing seasons in spite of pest issues.

Aside from this, more CO2 means the survival of all life on earth within the next billion years. If we do not at least double our CO2, the Sun will blast the oceans into space as it ramps up its fusion and increases its radiative output during that time.

Increasing CO2 now will help to prevent such a catastrophy in the future. Life adapts. That which does not adapt dies off. It has always been that way on earth. But, if the Sun blasts the oceans into space, nothing can adapt to that. Life required water and our climate is dependent upon that substance in liquid form.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.