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The world’s breadbaskets will be 4.5 times more likely to face crop yield failure by 2030, says a new report. And the outlook gets even more dire after that.
“Though global food production has increased, food security has yet to be achieved as global hunger has been on the rise since 2014, with one in every nine people experiencing undernourishment as of 2017,” write the authors of the study, as just published in the journal Environmental Research Letters. That means it is more important than ever to understand how global heating will affect the world’s crop-growing regions.
Four staple crops—wheat, maize, rice, and soybeans—make up a full two-thirds of the world’s food calories. And, the authors write, “at least 72% of global production of each of the four staple crops occurs in five countries,” specifically China, the U.S., India, Brazil, and Argentina.
In a global first, the researchers modelled the likelihood of crop failures in response to changes in temperature, precipitation, and atmospheric CO2 concentrations in these regions. They projected a probability “as much as 4.5 times higher by 2030 and up to 25 times higher by 2050 across global breadbaskets.”
Critical to the projections was the researchers’ use of the Water Scarcity Index, “a relative global percentile ranking system based on 10 hydrological indicators,” including patterns of variability in the water supply, historical drought risk, and future supply and demand.
Using this and other data, the researchers projected that rice and maize failures—events that are “extremely unlikely” today in the global breadbasket regions—will occur at least every other year by 2050. The global soybean outlook is even bleaker, “with an 81% chance of occurring in any given year by mid-century.”
The authors add that “this is nearly seven times more likely than in the present.”
Wheat is a particular concern, as 65% of this staple is produced in regions of high water scarcity. Without irrigation, wheat crop failures could be seen every year by 2050, making wheat the most vulnerable of the four staple crops.
“Water scarcity in breadbaskets will only become worse with shifting precipitation patterns due to climate change and potential irrigation intensification to close yield gaps,” notes the study, adding that the threat of water scarcity looms particular large over American, Indian, and Chinese breadbaskets.
To help minimize the risk, the authors call for more efficient irrigation techniques, such as drip irrigation. “Development of low-cost, high-efficiency irrigation techniques will be a crucial and rewarding challenge in order to reduce economic barriers for small-scale farmers around the world,” they write.
And while “the breadbasket shifts in North America follow the narrative expected with climate change—northward expansion of arable land”—this will by no means guarantee that Canada, as a northern country, becomes a breadbasket kingpin. For one thing, the authors note, “emerging high-yielding croplands in Canada [will be] just as volatile year-to-year as the existing breadbaskets in the U.S.”
Worse, “while there is certainly emergence of new agricultural land determined primarily by climate, the amount of yield [in Canada] ranks at the 30th percentile at best, but often lower.” Citing earlier studies, the authors observe that “boreal soil types like podzol are typically unfavourable for crop-growing due to low fertility.”
Addressing the tricky subject of whether CO2 fertilization—a process by which increased levels of carbon in the atmosphere work to spur plant growth—will serve to strengthen breadbaskets, the authors cite several studies factoring in CO2 fertilization that still show lower overall crop yields, along with an increased likelihood of lower nutritional quality. They did find “failure probability” to be “much higher across all crops and all breadbaskets in simulations without CO2 fertilization compared to with CO2 fertilization”. But they suggest that with the uncertainty surrounding the actual impact of CO2 fertilization on yield, CO2 might be better understood “as a proxy for what is possible given agricultural technology, use of GMOs, or other human intervention,” and “results without CO2 fertilization are more realistic for the near-term focus of this study.”
While the authors do touch on adaptation measures, like breeding heat-tolerant crops, they stress the urgent need for “drastic reduction of CO2 emissions” to help counter the increasing risk of breadbasket failures.
“The consequence of global breadbasket failures mirrors an overarching theme of the climate crisis—the most vulnerable populations will be hit the hardest,” the authors note. Citing a 2016 study, they point out that a 10% decline in maize, rice, or wheat yield in the world’s breadbaskets would leave millions already living in poverty with a reduced calorie supply.
“With such an event expected to occur at least every other year by mid-century, international governance organizations need to prepare for global breadbasket failures now, and in such a way that centres on the people who will be most adversely impacted,” they write.