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11.2: Food Production in a Changing Climate

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    48651
  • In Module 9.1, we explored the causes of global climate change, the ways that our food systems contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and how climate variables are expected to change in different parts of the US. In this unit, we’ll consider the expected impacts of global climate change on food production.

    Farmers have always had to struggle against the vagaries of the weather in their efforts to produce food for a growing population. Floods, droughts, heat waves, hailstorms, late frosts, and windstorms have plagued farmers for centuries. However, with increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere trapping more heat energy, farmers will face more extreme weather events, greater variability and more extreme temperatures. Unpredictable and varied weather can lead to a domino effect through the entire food system, creating shortages and food price spikes. Farmers are developing strategies for resilience in the face of a changing climate, such as, more efficient irrigation, better soil health, and planting more resilient crop varieties.

    Climate change can have both direct and indirect impacts on agricultural food production. Direct effects stem directly from changes in temperature, precipitation, and CO2 concentrations. For example, as temperatures increase in crop water demands and stresses on livestock increase. Changes in the maximum number of consecutive dry days can affect crop productivity. Increases in precipitation can increase soil erosion. Increased incidence of extreme weather events can also have direct impacts on agriculture, in the form of floods, droughts, hail and high winds.

    Indirect effects of climate change include changes in weed, disease, and insect populations and distributions, which will have impacts on costs of managing pests and may increase crop losses. Increased incidence of wildfire can favor survival on invasive species. Some weeds respond well to increasing CO2 concentrations and may put greater pressure on crops.

    In summary, a 2015 report on Climate Change, Global Food Security, and the U.S. Food System states that by 2050, global climate change may result in decreased crop yields, increased land area in crop production, higher food prices, and slightly reduced food production and consumption, compared to model results for 2015 with no climate change (Brown et al. 2015).

    Global Effects of Climate Change

    Human influences will continue to alter Earth’s climate throughout the 21st century. Current scientific understanding, supported by a large body of observational and modeling results, indicates that continued changes in atmospheric composition will result in further increases in global average temperature, changes in precipitation patterns, rising sea level, changes in weather extremes, and continued declines in snow cover, land ice, and sea ice extent, among other effects that will affect U.S. and global agricultural systems.

    While climate change effects vary among regions, among annual and perennial crops, and across livestock types, all production systems will be affected to some degree by climate change. Temperature increases coupled with more variable precipitation will reduce crop productivity and increase stress on livestock production systems. Extreme climate conditions, including dry spells, sustained droughts, and heat waves will increasingly affect agricultural productivity and profitability. Climate change also exacerbates indirect biotic stresses on agricultural plants and animals. Changing pressures associated with weeds, diseases, and insect pests, together with potential changes in timing and coincidence of pollinator lifecycles, will affect growth and yields. When occurring in combination, climate change-driven effects may not simply be additive, but can also amplify the effects of other stresses on agroecosystems.

    From Expert Stakeholder Workshop for the USDA Technical Report on Global Climate Change, Food Security, and the U.S. Food System
    Brown, M., P. Backlund, R. Hauser, J. Jadin, A. Murray, P. Robinson, and M. Walsh
    June 25-27, 2013, Reston, VA,

    Brown, M.E., J.M. Antle, P. Backlund, E.R. Carr, W.E. Easterling, M.K. Walsh, C. Ammann, W. Attavanich, C.B. Barrett, M.F. Bellemare, V. Dancheck, C. Funk, K. Grace, J.S.I. Ingram, H. Jiang, H. Maletta, T. Mata, A. Murray, M. Ngugi, D. Ojima, B. O’Neill, and C. Tebaldi. 2015. Climate Change, Global Food Security, and the U.S. Food System. 146 pages.