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Climate change will start impacting global supply of corn and wheat as early as 2030, NASA study finds

Journalist and author Elizabeth Kolbert on "The Takeout"
Journalist and author Elizabeth Kolbert on "The Takeout" — 4/16/2021 45:58

Global crop supplies are facing a grim future because of climate change. New research from NASA shows that by the end of the century, the availability of corn, wheat, soybeans and rice are projected to look drastically different — and that the world will start feeling the implications as early as 2030.

The study, published Monday in the journal Nature Food, used advanced climate and agricultural models to analyze the future of global food production. Over the next decade, they found, the projected increases in temperature, changes in rainfall patterns and increased surface carbon dioxide concentrations will  change agriculture around the world. 

"Major shifts in global crop productivity due to climate change are projected to occur within the next 20 yr [years]," the study says, "several decades sooner than estimates based on previous projects." 

Among the most dire of their findings was that corn crop yields are projected to decline by 24% by the end of the century under a high greenhouse gas emissions scenario. This kind of decline, researchers said, could "have severe implications worldwide." 

Corn — the "most important global crop in terms of total production and food security," according to the study — will become more difficult to grow in the tropics, researchers found.

Lead author Jonas Jägermeyr said in a statement that such a decline is surprisingly large and negative. Central Asia, the Middle East, southern Europe, the western U.S. and tropical South America are expected to start seeing corn yield declines before 2040, the researchers found.

"We did not expect to see such a fundamental shift, as compared to crop yield projections from the previous generation of climate and crop models conducted in 2014," Jägermeyr said. "A 20% decrease from current production levels could have severe implications worldwide." 

Soybeans and rice are also projected to decrease in some areas, although the researchers' models have not yet agreed on the impact this will have globally. 

The anticipated climate changes, however, are expected to increase wheat crop yields, but not in every region of the world, and not forever. Along with the areas that typically grow wheat, including South Asia, the southern U.S., Mexico and parts of South America, other areas are expected to be able to produce the crop, at least for a while, including the northern U.S. and Canada, North China Plains and East Africa. 

But even those seeming advancements will reach a stopping point, as wheat crop yield is projected to level off around mid-century, researchers found. 

Researchers said that the projected scenarios suggest that "current food production systems will soon face fundamentally changed risk profiles." In the coming decades, researchers said, regions must adapt their food systems to prepare. 

"Even under optimistic climate change scenarios, where societies enact ambitious efforts to limit global temperature rise, global agriculture is facing a new climate reality," Jägermeyr said. "And with the interconnectedness of the global food system, impacts in even one region's breadbasket will be felt worldwide."

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