Climate, Agriculture and the Challenges Ahead


Climate change is real. It may seem far away – a problem you can’t see or touch or feel every day. But it is happening — and it is global. To get an idea about what’s at stake — just look at your plate. Food is profoundly affected by climate change — from how it’s produced to what we can grow in the first place. Climate change will hit our food production system in four ways: through temperature, water, extreme weather and carbon dioxide. Most of us will feel temperature first — so will crops. Production of staples like corn, soybeans and cotton are projected to increase at first, then decrease sharply as the average growing season temperature keeps getting warmer. For corn alone, it could mean a decrease of 3% in yield – or more than 300 million bushels. That’s enough corn to feed 40 million people. It’s not just crops. Livestock will suffer in the heat, too. Heat related stress will mean fewer animal pregnancies, less milk production, longer times for livestock to reach market weight.

Does anyone benefit from the heat? Yes — pests. The ones that live on our livestock. That means more diseases spread by insects. It’s already happened in Northern Europe. As the region has warmed, “Bluetongue Virus” has moved north, killing more of these animals. Widespread disease could hit crops like corn, too — as heat-loving earworms spread north to the upper Midwest and heat-tolerant viruses like rusts and tobacco mosaic finish off weakened plants. Disease and heat will be even bigger problems as climate change affects water. A dry climate means less production and more pests. Water has a complicated relationship with crops. It’s all about the right amount at the right time. Too much early on for corn stunts growth; too little later on does the same.

Irrigation systems keep the balance, but their sources may dry up as droughts increase. In the Mississippi Delta region, this could put 75% of the rice crop at risk. This rice will also confront another water problem: saltier water — as sea levels rise. Droughts could be brought on by more erratic rainfall — part of the pattern of increasingly extreme weather events. And when extreme weather brings violent downpours, there’s another issue: soil erosion and runoff increase. All these pieces of the climate puzzle – floods, droughts and heat waves – can affect crops and livestock at key moments in their development — turning even a productive season into a disaster. We’re already seeing a rise in extreme weather events. 2011 was the most disastrous year on record, with 16 extreme weather incidents that cost over one billion dollars. 2012 was a close second and severe storms continue to cost us billions.

All of these changes circle back to the key driver of climate change: increased carbon dioxide, which has its own direct effect on agriculture. Carbon dioxide helps plants grow. More of it could actually help crops get bigger. But CO2 helps weeds and invasive species grow even more. Crops that survive the weeds could be compromised, with less nutritional value. Wheat, for example, could have protein levels drop by more than 10%. This is complicated business because everything’s connected. It all boils down to this: Climate change could leave us with less food. And the food we end up with could be less nutritious. There are steps that can be taken to mitigate and adapt to these changes,. They’re the key to our food – and our future . What will be on your plate?.