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How rising global temperatures and extreme weather will change farming

By Brenda Bouw July 28, 2016

More severe — and prolonged — droughts and intense flooding in growing regions around the world could forever change how farmers raise crops and animals. A growing body of research is now linking climate change to extreme weather events.

If global temperatures continue to rise, “that can have a pretty large impact on the types of crops we grow, where we grow them and add a lot of uncertainty,” said Tony Nugteren, assistant vice president and global crop analysis leader at Cargill.

Role of climate change in extreme weather events

A recent report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine finds that it is possible to estimate the influence of climate change on some types of extreme events.
The committee behind the report says more research is needed to better understand extreme events and their impact. Initial findings show that long-term warming is “linked to more evaporation that can both exacerbate droughts and increase atmospheric moisture available to storms, leading to more severe heavy rainfall and snowfall.”

“An increasingly common question after an extreme weather event is whether climate change ‘caused’ that event to occur,” David Titley, committee chair and a professor of practice in meteorology and founding director of the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk at the Pennsylvania State University, said in releasing the study earlier this year.

“While that question remains difficult to answer given all the factors that affect an individual weather event, we can now say more about how climate change has affected the intensity or likelihood of some events.”

This so-called “extreme event attribution” is an emerging science that is helping researchers understand the impact of climate change on the environment.

The study can help farmers, governments and other stakeholders plan for extreme weather events and warmer temperatures in general, said Phil Mote, director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute and a member of the report committee.

Planning for an uncertain future

Higher temperatures may benefit some crops, such as those in colder climates like Canada, by increasing productivity. However, others may take a hit in a hotter climate. Cattle, for example, are less productive when it’s warmer, leading some farmers to install air conditioning in their barns to maintain productivity.

“There is a long list of things, some of which are helped and some of which are hurt by what’s happening to the climate,” Mote said.

Cargill has a vested interest in understanding how climate change and extreme weather events can affect agriculture.

“It’s a slow process,” Nugteren said. “It’s kind of like looking in the mirror every day and trying to determine if you’re aging. If you’re looking every day, it’s hard to see. If you’re looking every 10 or 20 years, it’s easier to see the changes.”

North Dakota, for example, used to be drier. Today, thanks to increased rainfall over time, the state is more like Iowa in its ability to produce crops such as grains, soybean and wheat.

Then there’s California, where drought is a growing problem that’s hurting productivity.

Some of the major crops affected by climate change include corn, which is among the most sensitive. Wheat is the most drought-tolerant crop, but at harvest times it can be affected by heavier rains.

Palm oil, canola and any crops that flower are also susceptible to warmer temperatures, especially drought, according to Nugteren.

To help cope with the broad impacts of climate change, farmers may have to reassess their planting locations and time periods. The problem will be predictability of growing seasons, whether they are shorter or longer, or temperatures fluctuate too much from averages.

“As the world warms, a lot of adaptation will be required; where we are growing, the types of crops we are growing and genetics will play a role as well,” Nugteren said.

Taking the long view

For these reasons, the agriculture sector needs to view climate change through a long-term business lens.

“Without adaptation, some Midwestern and Southern counties could see a decline in yields of more than 10 percent over the next five to 25 years should they continue to sow corn, wheat, soy and cotton, with a 1-in-20 chance of yield losses of these crops of more than 20 percent,” according to the initial report from the Risky Business Project, an independent assessment of the economic risks of climate change in the United States.

The needs of the global population — which is projected to reach 8.5 billion by 2030 from 7.3 billion today, per the United Nations — will mean countries will have to work together to reduce production and trade barriers.

“If indeed we are getting more extreme weather around the world, it is critically important to our food system that we have [flexibility] where crops are grown,” Nugteren said.

“Our hope is that the weather doesn’t get extreme, and that we get this under control, but we have to be prepared for what the adaptation needs to be in order for us to have a sustainable food system.”

Brenda Bouw is a freelance writer and editor with more than 20 years of experience in print, broadcast, digital and social media.

This article first appeared on CargillVoice on Forbes.