The world faces a small but substantially increased risk over the next two decades of a major slowdown in the growth of global crop yields because of climate change, new research finds.
The authors, from Stanford University and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), say the odds of a major production slowdown of wheat and corn even with a warming climate are not very high. But the risk is about 20 times more significant than it would be without global warming, and it may require planning by organizations that are affected by international food availability and price.
"Climate change has substantially increased the prospect that crop production will fail to keep up with rising demand in the next 20 years," said NCAR scientist Claudia Tebaldi, a co-author of the study.
Stanford professor David Lobell said he wanted to study the potential impact of climate change on agriculture in the next two decades because of questions he has received from stakeholders and decision makers in governments and the private sector.
"I'm often asked whether climate change will threaten food supply, as if it's a simple yes or no answer," Lobell said. "The truth is that over a 10- or 20-year period, it depends largely on how fast the Earth warms, and we can't predict the pace of warming very precisely. So the best we can do is try to determine the odds."
Lobell and Tebaldi used computer models of global climate, as well as data about weather and crops, to calculate the chances that climatic trends would have a negative effect of 10 percent on yields of corn and wheat in the next 20 years. This would have a major impact on food supply. Yields would continue to increase but the slowdown would effectively cut the projected rate of increase by about half at the same time that demand is projected to grow sharply.
They found that the likelihood of natural climate shifts causing such a slowdown over the next 20 years is only 1 in 200. But when the authors accounted for human-induced global warming, they found that the odds jumped to 1 in 10 for corn and 1 in 20 for wheat.