• How Does Climate Change Affect Food Production?

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How Does Climate Change Affect Food Production?

Apr 30 2021

Climate change has already been having a significant impact upon food production, according to a new study from the University of Maryland in the USA. For the first time, researchers have incorporated meteorological patterns into their calculations on food production and found that despite scientific and technological breakthroughs, overall crop yields are 21% lower than they would have been had the climate remained the same as it was in the 1960s.

That’s concerning news for a world in which the global population is only expected to increase and the problems posed by global warming and extreme weather events are only expected to become more pronounced. What’s more, the fact that certain forms of farming (such as dairy and livestock) contribute significant amounts of methane to the atmosphere means that as we strive to produce enough food for everyone, we could enter a self-perpetuating downward spiral of climate change.

A fifth less food

The study, led by Professor Robert Chambers, is the first of its kind to attempt to quantify how big an impact on agricultural output climate change has had over a prolonged period. “Agricultural productivity measurement hasn't historically incorporated weather data, but we want to see the trends for these inputs that are out of the farmer's control,” Professor Chambers explained. “We used the model in this paper to estimate what total factor productivity patterns would have looked like in the absence of climate change. Our study suggests climate and weather-related factors have already had a large impact on agricultural productivity.”

In fact, the research demonstrated that while some select countries – such as Canada and Russia – had benefited from rising temperatures in terms of their annual yields, they were very much the exception rather than the rule. In most places, the drop-off in production was quite stark, with some regions of Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America recording a reduction of up to 34% in their productivity levels. The global average was barely more encouraging, at 21%.

Science and technology papering over the cracks

That substantial deficit has gone largely unnoticed until now, thanks to the efforts of the scientific community. Advances in food production, such as the development of hybrid strains like dwarf wheat, have helped to fortify crops against the detrimental effects of climate change. Meanwhile, the widespread adoption of fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides (as well as the transition to automation and machinery-based agriculture) have also helped to paint a rosier picture.

Nonetheless, the effects of climate change have still served to undo seven years of productivity growth, according to the study. As resources such as land and water become scarcer in the years ahead, it will take more comprehensive monitoring of abstraction in agriculture, alongside other novel technologies like vertical farming and precision agriculture, to ensure that famine and food poverty do not threaten the survival of many peoples. As Professor Chambers notes, “Some people think about climate change as a distant problem, something that should concern primarily future generations. But this overlooks the fact that humans have already changed the climate.”

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