The climate crisis is already effecting the output of the world’s agricultural systems, with productivity much lower, new research has found.
Advances in technology, fertilizer use and global trade have allowed food production to keep pace with a booming global population since the 1960s, albeit with gross inequities that still leave millions of people suffering from malnutrition.
But rising temperatures in this time have acted as a handbrake to farming productivity of crops and livestock, according to the new research, published in Nature Climate Change.
Productivity has actually slumped by 21% since 1961, compared to if the world hadn’t been subjected to human-induced heating.
“The impact already is larger than I thought it would be,” said Ariel Ortiz-Bobea, an economist at Cornell University who led the research. “It was a big surprise to me. The worry I have is that research and development in agriculture takes decades to translate into higher productivity. The projected temperature increase is so fast I don’t know if we are going to keep pace with that.”
The intensification of farming to boost output has in itself caused major environmental damage, through the deforestation of grazing land, loss of valuable topsoil, pollution from pesticides and the release of vast amounts of greenhouse gases that contribute to global heating.
“Ultimately we want to increase productivity in a changing climate but a bad way to do that is by increasing inputs such as land and water,” said Ortiz-Bobea. “If we were more productive we could produce more with less of an environmental footprint.”
“The regions that this paper highlights as experiencing the largest reductions in agricultural productivity – Central America and the Sahel – contain some of the least food secure countries in the world, which is a real concern,” he said. “It means that populations that were already food insecure are shouldering the heaviest burden of climate change, and highlights the importance of doing all that we can to improve agricultural production in these vulnerable regions immediately.”
In 2019, scientists who analyzed the top 10 global crops that provide the majority of our food calories found that climate change is reducing the worldwide production of staples such as rice and wheat. Again, less affluent countries are suffering worst from this situation.