Climate change and agriculture

Climate change and agriculture

Climate change and agriculture are interrelated processes, both of which take place on a global scale.[1] Global warming is projected to have significant impacts on conditions affecting agriculture, including temperature, carbon dioxide, glacial run-off, precipitation and the interaction of these elements.[2] These conditions determine the carrying capacity of the biosphere to produce enough food for the human population and domesticated animals. The overall effect of climate change on agriculture will depend on the balance of these effects. Assessment of the effects of global climate changes on agriculture might help to properly anticipate and adapt farming to maximize agricultural production.[2]

Greenhouse Gas by Sector.png

At the same time, agriculture has been shown to produce significant effects on climate change, primarily through the production and release of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, but also by altering the Earth's land cover, which can change its ability to absorb or reflect heat and light, thus contributing to radiative forcing. Land use change such as deforestation and desertification, together with use of fossil fuels, are the major anthropogenic sources of carbon dioxide; agriculture itself is the major contributor to increasing methane and nitrous oxide concentrations in Earth's atmosphere.[3]


Impact of climate change on agriculture

Despite technological advances, such as improved varieties, genetically modified organisms, and irrigation systems, weather is still a key factor in agricultural productivity, as well as soil properties and natural communities. The effect of climate on agriculture is related to variabilities in local climates rather than in global climate patterns. The Earth's average surface temperature has increased by 1.5°F {0.83°C} since 1880. Consequently, agronomists consider any assessment has to be individually consider each local area.

On the other hand, agricultural trade has grown in recent years, and now provides significant amounts of food, on a national level to major importing countries, as well as comfortable income to exporting ones. The international aspect of trade and security in terms of food implies the need to also consider the effects of climate change on a global scale.

A study published in Science suggests that, due to climate change, "southern Africa could lose more than 30% of its main crop, maize, by 2030. In South Asia losses of many regional staples, such as rice, millet and maize could top 10%".[4][5]

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has produced several reports that have assessed the scientific literature on climate change. The IPCC Third Assessment Report, published in 2001, concluded that the poorest countries would be hardest hit, with reductions in crop yields in most tropical and sub-tropical regions due to decreased water availability, and new or changed insect pest incidence. In Africa and Latin America many rainfed crops are near their maximum temperature tolerance, so that yields are likely to fall sharply for even small climate changes; falls in agricultural productivity of up to 30% over the 21st century are projected. Marine life and the fishing industry will also be severely affected in some places.

Climate change induced by increasing greenhouse gases is likely to affect crops differently from region to region. For example, average crop yield is expected to drop down to 50% in Pakistan according to the UKMO scenario whereas corn production in Europe is expected to grow up to 25% in optimum hydrologic conditions.

More favourable effects on yield tend to depend to a large extent on realization of the potentially beneficial effects of carbon dioxide on crop growth and increase of efficiency in water use. Decrease in potential yields is likely to be caused by shortening of the growing period, decrease in water availability and poor vernalization.

In the long run, the climatic change could affect agriculture in several ways :

  • productivity, in terms of quantity and quality of crops
  • agricultural practices, through changes of water use (irrigation) and agricultural inputs such as herbicides, insecticides and fertilizers
  • environmental effects, in particular in relation of frequency and intensity of soil drainage (leading to nitrogen leaching), soil erosion, reduction of crop diversity
  • rural space, through the loss and gain of cultivated lands, land speculation, land renunciation, and hydraulic amenities.
  • adaptation, organisms may become more or less competitive, as well as humans may develop urgency to develop more competitive organisms, such as flood resistant or salt resistant varieties of rice.

They are large uncertainties to uncover, particularly because there is lack of information on many specific local regions, and include the uncertainties on magnitude of climate change, the effects of technological changes on productivity, global food demands, and the numerous possibilities of adaptation.

Most agronomists believe that agricultural production will be mostly affected by the severity and pace of climate change, not so much by gradual trends in climate. If change is gradual, there may be enough time for biota adjustment. Rapid climate change, however, could harm agriculture in many countries, especially those that are already suffering from rather poor soil and climate conditions, because there is less time for optimum natural selection and adaption.

Observed impacts

So far, the effects of regional climate change on agriculture have been relatively limited.[6] Changes in crop phenology provide important evidence of the response to recent regional climate change.[7] Phenology is the study of natural phenomena that recur periodically, and how these phenomena relate to climate and seasonal changes.[8] A significant advance in phenology has been observed for agriculture and forestry in large parts of the Northern Hemisphere.[6]


As part of the IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report, Schneider et al. (2007) projected the potential future effects of climate change on agriculture.[9] With low to medium confidence, they concluded that for about a 1 to 3 °C global mean temperature increase (by 2100, relative to the 1990–2000 average level) there would be productivity decreases for some cereals in low latitudes, and productivity increases in high latitudes. In the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, "low confidence" means that a particular finding has about a 2 out of 10 chance of being correct, based on expert judgement. "Medium confidence" has about a 5 out of 10 chance of being correct.[10] Over the same time period, with medium confidence, global production potential was projected to:[9]

  • increase up to around 3 °C,
  • very likely decrease above about 3 °C.

Most of the studies on global agriculture assessed by Schneider et al. (2007) had not incorporated a number of critical factors, including changes in extreme events, or the spread of pests and diseases. Studies had also not considered the development of specific practices or technologies to aid adaptation.[11]

Food security

Climate change merely increases the urgency of reforming trade policies to ensure that global food security needs are met” [12] said C. Bellmann, ICTSD Programmes Director. A new ICTSD-IPC study by Jodie Keane [13] suggests that climate change could cause farm output in sub-Saharan Africa to decrease by 12 percent by 2080 - although in some African countries this figure could be as much as 60 percent, with agricultural exports declining by up to one fifth in others. Adapting to climate change could cost the agriculture sector $14bn globally a year, the study finds.

The IPCC Fourth Assessment Report also describes the impact of climate change on food security.[14] Easterling et al. (2007) looked at studies that made quantitative projections of climate change impacts on food security. It was noted that these projections were highly uncertain and had limitations. However, the assessed studies suggested a number of fairly robust findings. The first was that climate change would likely increase the number of people at risk of hunger compared with reference scenarios with no climate change. Projected climate change impacts depended strongly on future social and economic development. Additionally, the magnitude of climate change impacts was projected to be smaller compared to the impact of social and economic development. In 2006, the global estimate for the number of people undernourished was 820 million.[15] Under the SRES A1, B1, and B2 scenarios (see the SRES article for information on each scenario group), projections for the year 2080 showed a reduction in the number of people undernourished of about 560–700 million people, with a global total of undernourished people of 100–240 million in 2080. By contrast, the SRES A2 scenario showed only a small decrease in the risk of hunger from the 2006 level. The smaller reduction under A2 was attributed to the higher projected future population level in this scenario.

Easterling et al. (2007) concluded that sub-Saharan Africa would likely surpass Asia as the most food-insecure region.[14] This projection was largely independent of climate change and mostly the result of projected social and economic development. Easterling et al. (2007) pointed to the large potential benefits of climate change mitigation (i.e., reducing greenhouse gas emissions) on the agriculture sector. Easterling et al. (2007) suggested that these benefits might only become apparent in the second half of the 21st century.


  • Africa:
    • Africa's geography makes it particularly vulnerable to climate change, and seventy per cent of the population rely on rain-fed agriculture for their livelihoods. Tanzania's official report on climate change suggests that the areas that usually get two rainfalls in the year will probably get more, and those that get only one rainy season will get far less. The net result is expected to be that 33% less maize—the country's staple crop—will be grown.[16] Alongside other factors, regional climate change – in particular, reduced precipitation – is thought to have contributed to the conflict in Darfur.[17] The combination of decades of drought, desertification and overpopulation are among the causes of the conflict, because the Baggara Arab nomads searching for water have to take their livestock further south, to land mainly occupied by farming peoples.[18]
    • With high confidence, IPCC (2007:13) concluded that climate variability and change would severely compromise agricultural production and access to food.[19]
  • Asia: With medium confidence, IPCC (2007:13) projected that by the mid-21st century, in East and Southeast Asia, crop yields could increase up to 20%, while in Central and South Asia, yields could decrease by up to 30%. Taken together, the risk of hunger was projected to remain very high in several developing countries. More detailed analysis of rice yields by the International Rice Research Institute forecast 20% reduction in yields over the region per degree Celsius of temperature rise. Rice becomes sterile if exposed to temperatures above 35 degrees for more than one hour during flowering and consequently produces no grain.[citation needed]
  • Australia and New Zealand: Hennessy et al.. (2007:509) assessed the literature for this region.[20] They concluded that without further adaptation to climate change, projected impacts would likely be substantial: By 2030, production from agriculture and forestry was projected to decline over much of southern and eastern Australia, and over parts of eastern New Zealand; In New Zealand, initial benefits were projected close to major rivers and in western and southern areas. Hennessy et al.. (2007:509) placed high confidence in these projections.
  • Europe: With high confidence, IPCC (2007:14) projected that in Southern Europe, climate change would reduce crop productivity. In Central and Eastern Europe, forest productivity was expected to decline. In Northern Europe, the initial effect of climate change was projected to increase crop yields.
  • Latin America: With high confidence, IPCC (2007:14) projected that in drier areas of Latin America, productivity of some important crops would decrease and livestock productivity decline, with adverse consequences for food security. In temperate zones, soybean yields were projected to increase.
  • North America:
    • According to a paper by Deschenes and Greenstone (2006), predicted increases in temperature and precipitation will have virtually no effect on the most important crops in the US.[21]
    • With high confidence, IPCC (2007:14–15) projected that over the first few decades of this century, moderate climate change would increase aggregate yields of rain-fed agriculture by 5–20%, but with important variability among regions. Major challenges were projected for crops that are near the warm end of their suitable range or which depend on highly utilized water resources.
  • Polar regions (Arctic and Antarctic):
    • For the Guardian newspaper, Brown (2005) reported on how climate change had affected agriculture in Iceland. Rising temperatures had made the widespread sowing of barley possible, which had been untenable twenty years ago. Some of the warming was due to a local (possibly temporary) effect via ocean currents from the Caribbean, which had also affected fish stocks.[22]
    • Anisimov et al.. (2007:655) assessed the literature for this region.[23] With medium confidence, they concluded that the benefits of a less severe climate were dependent on local conditions. One of these benefits was judged to be increased agricultural and forestry opportunities.
  • Small islands: In a literature assessment, Mimura et al.. (2007:689) concluded, with high confidence, that subsistence and commercial agriculture would very likely be adversely affected by climate change.[24]

Shortage in grain production

Crops such as these sunflowers can be affected by severe drought conditions in Australia.[25]

Between 1996 and 2003, grain production has stabilized slightly over 1800 millions of tons. In 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2003, grain stocks have been dropping, resulting in a global grain harvest that was short of consumption by 93 millions of tons in 2003.[citation needed]

The Earth's average temperature has been rising since the late 1970s, with nine of the 10 warmest years on record occurring since 1995.[26] In 2002, India and the United States suffered sharp harvest reductions because of record temperatures and drought. In 2003 Europe suffered very low rainfall throughout spring and summer, and a record level of heat damaged most crops from the United Kingdom and France in the Western Europe through Ukraine in the East. Bread prices have been rising in several countries in the region. (see w:fr:canicule 2003).

Poverty impacts

Researchers at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) have investigated the potential impacts climate change could have on agriculture, and how this would affect attempts at alleviating poverty in the developing world.[27] They argued that the effects from moderate climate change are likely to be mixed for developing countries. However, the vulnerability of the poor in developing countries to short term impacts from climate change, notably the increased frequency and severity of adverse weather events is likely to have a negative impact. This, they say, should be taken into account when defining agricultural policy.[27]

Mitigation and Adaptation in Developing Countries

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has reported that agriculture is responsible for over a quarter of total global greenhouse gas emissions. [28] Given that agriculture’s share in global gross domestic product (GDP) is about 4 percent, these figures suggest that agriculture is highly Green House Gas intensive. Innovative agricultural practices and technologies can play a role in climate mitigation and adaptation. This adaptation and mitigation potential is nowhere more pronounced than in developing countries where agricultural productivity remains low; poverty, vulnerability and food insecurity remain high; and the direct effects of climate change are expected to be especially harsh. Creating the necessary agricultural technologies and harnessing them to enable developing countries to adapt their agricultural systems to changing climate will require innovations in policy and institutions as well. In this context, institutions and policies are important at multiple scales.

Travis Lybbert and Daniel Sumner [29] suggest six policy principles: (1) The best policy and institutional responses will enhance information flows, incentives and flexibility. (2) Policies and institutions that promote economic development and reduce poverty will often improve agricultural adaptation and may also pave the way for more effective climate change mitigation through agriculture. (3) Business as usual among the world’s poor is not adequate. (4) Existing technology options must be made more available and accessible without overlooking complementary capacity and investments. (5) Adaptation and mitigation in agriculture will require local responses, but effective policy responses must also reflect global impacts and inter-linkages. (6) Trade will play a critical role in both mitigation and adaptation, but will itself be shaped importantly by climate change.

Crop development models

Models for climate behavior are frequently inconclusive. In order to further study effects of global warming on agriculture, other types of models, such as crop development models, yield prediction, quantities of water or fertilizer consumed, can be used. Such models condense the knowledge accumulated of the climate, soil, and effects observed of the results of various agricultural practices. They thus could make it possible to test strategies of adaptation to modifications of the environment.

Because these models are necessarily simplifying natural conditions (often based on the assumption that weeds, disease and insect pests are controlled), it is not clear whether the results they give will have an in-field reality. However, some results are partly validated with an increasing number of experimental results.

Other models, such as insect and disease development models based on climate projections are also used (for example simulation of aphid reproduction or septoria (cereal fungal disease) development).

Scenarios are used in order to estimate climate changes effects on crop development and yield. Each scenario is defined as a set of meteorological variables, based on generally accepted projections. For example, many models are running simulations based on doubled carbon dioxide projections, temperatures raise ranging from 1 °C up to 5 °C, and with rainfall levels an increase or decrease of 20%. Other parameters may include humidity, wind, and solar activity. Scenarios of crop models are testing farm-level adaptation, such as sowing date shift, climate adapted species (vernalisation need, heat and cold resistance), irrigation and fertilizer adaptation, resistance to disease. Most developed models are about wheat, maize, rice and soybean.

Temperature potential effect on growing period

Duration of crop growth cycles are above all, related to temperature. An increase in temperature will speed up development. In the case of an annual crop, the duration between sowing and harvesting will shorten (for example, the duration in order to harvest corn could shorten between one and four weeks). The shortening of such a cycle could have an adverse effect on productivity because senescence would occur sooner.[citation needed]

Effect of elevated carbon dioxide on crops

Carbon dioxide is essential to plant growth. Rising CO2 concentration in the atmosphere can have both positive and negative consequences.

Increased CO2 is expected to have positive physiological effects by increasing the rate of photosynthesis. Currently, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 380 parts per million. In comparison, the amount of oxygen is 210,000 ppm. This means that often plants may be starved of carbon dioxide, due to the enzyme that fixes CO2, rubisco also fixes oxygen in the process of photorespiration. The effects of an increase in carbon dioxide would be higher on C3 crops (such as wheat) than on C4 crops (such as maize), because the former is more susceptible to carbon dioxide shortage. Studies have shown that increased CO2 leads to fewer stomata developing on plants[30] which leads to reduced water usage.[31] Under optimum conditions of temperature and humidity, the yield increase could reach 36%, if the levels of carbon dioxide are doubled.[citation needed]

Further, few studies have looked at the impact of elevated carbon dioxide concentrations on whole farming systems. Most models study the relationship between CO2 and productivity in isolation from other factors associated with climate change, such as an increased frequency of extreme weather events, seasonal shifts, and so on.

In 2005, the Royal Society in London concluded that the purported benefits of elevated carbon dioxide concentrations are “likely to be far lower than previously estimated” when factors such as increasing ground-level ozone are taken into account."[32]

Effect on quality

According to the IPCC's TAR, "The importance of climate change impacts on grain and forage quality emerges from new research. For rice, the amylose content of the grain—a major determinant of cooking quality—is increased under elevated CO2" (Conroy et al., 1994). Cooked rice grain from plants grown in high-CO2 environments would be firmer than that from today's plants. However, concentrations of iron and zinc, which are important for human nutrition, would be lower (Seneweera and Conroy, 1997). Moreover, the protein content of the grain decreases under combined increases of temperature and CO2 (Ziska et al., 1997)."[33] Studies using FACE have shown that increases in CO2 lead to decreased concentrations of micronutrients in crop plants.[34] This may have knock-on effects on other parts of ecosystems as herbivores will need to eat more food to gain the same amount of protein.[35]

Studies have shown that higher CO2 levels lead to reduced plant uptake of nitrogen (and a smaller number showing the same for trace elements such as zinc) resulting in crops with lower nutritional value.[36][37] This would primarily impact on populations in poorer countries less able to compensate by eating more food, more varied diets, or possibly taking supplements.

Reduced nitrogen content in grazing plants has also been shown to reduce animal productivity in sheep, which depend on microbes in their gut to digest plants, which in turn depend on nitrogen intake.[36]

Agricultural surfaces and climate changes

Climate change may increase the amount of arable land in high-latitude region by reduction of the amount of frozen lands. A 2005 study reports that temperature in Siberia has increased three degree Celsius in average since 1960 (much more than the rest of the world).[38] However, reports about the impact of global warming on Russian agriculture[39] indicate conflicting probable effects : while they expect a northward extension of farmable lands,[40] they also warn of possible productivity losses and increased risk of drought.[41]

Sea levels are expected to get up to one meter higher by 2100, though this projection is disputed. A rise in the sea level would result in an agricultural land loss, in particular in areas such as South East Asia. Erosion, submergence of shorelines, salinity of the water table due to the increased sea levels, could mainly affect agriculture through inundation of low-lying lands.

Low lying areas such as Bangladesh, India and Vietnam will experience major loss of rice crop if sea levels are expected to rise by the end of the century. Vietnam for example relies heavily on its southern tip, where the Mekong Delta lies, for rice planting. Any rise in sea level of no more than a meter will drown several km2. of rice paddies, rendering Vietnam incapable of producing its main staple and export of rice.[42]

Erosion and fertility

The warmer atmospheric temperatures observed over the past decades are expected to lead to a more vigorous hydrological cycle, including more extreme rainfall events. Erosion and soil degradation is more likely to occur. Soil fertility would also be affected by global warming. However, because the ratio of carbon to nitrogen is a constant, a doubling of carbon is likely to imply a higher storage of nitrogen in soils as nitrates, thus providing higher fertilizing elements for plants, providing better yields. The average needs for nitrogen could decrease, and give the opportunity of changing often costly fertilisation strategies.

Due to the extremes of climate that would result, the increase in precipitations would probably result in greater risks of erosion, whilst at the same time providing soil with better hydration, according to the intensity of the rain. The possible evolution of the organic matter in the soil is a highly contested issue: while the increase in the temperature would induce a greater rate in the production of minerals, lessening the soil organic matter content, the atmospheric CO2 concentration would tend to increase it.

Potential effects of global climate change on pests, diseases and weeds

A very important point to consider is that weeds would undergo the same acceleration of cycle as cultivated crops, and would also benefit from carbonaceous fertilization. Since most weeds are C3 plants, they are likely to compete even more than now against C4 crops such as corn. However, on the other hand, some results make it possible to think that weedkillers could gain in effectiveness with the temperature increase.[citation needed]

Global warming would cause an increase in rainfall in some areas, which would lead to an increase of atmospheric humidity and the duration of the wet seasons. Combined with higher temperatures, these could favor the development of fungal diseases. Similarly, because of higher temperatures and humidity, there could be an increased pressure from insects and disease vectors.

Glacier retreat and disappearance

The continued retreat of glaciers will have a number of different quantitative impacts. In areas that are heavily dependent on water runoff from glaciers that melt during the warmer summer months, a continuation of the current retreat will eventually deplete the glacial ice and substantially reduce or eliminate runoff. A reduction in runoff will affect the ability to irrigate crops and will reduce summer stream flows necessary to keep dams and reservoirs replenished.

Approximately 2.4 billion people live in the drainage basin of the Himalayan rivers.[43] India, China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar could experience floods followed by severe droughts in coming decades.[44] In India alone, the Ganges provides water for drinking and farming for more than 500 million people.[45][46] The west coast of North America, which gets much of its water from glaciers in mountain ranges such as the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada, also would be affected.[47]

Ozone and UV-B

Some scientists think agriculture could be affected by any decrease in stratospheric ozone, which could increase biologically dangerous ultraviolet radiation B. Excess ultraviolet radiation B can directly effect plant physiology and cause massive amounts of mutations, and indirectly through changed pollinator behavior, though such changes are simple to quantify.[48] However, it has not yet been ascertained whether an increase in greenhouse gases would decrease stratospheric ozone levels.

In addition, a possible effect of rising temperatures is significantly higher levels of ground-level ozone, which would substantially lower yields.[49]

ENSO effects on agriculture

ENSO (El Niño Southern Oscillation) will affect monsoon patterns more intensely in the future as climate change warms up the ocean's water. Crops that lie on the equatorial belt or under the tropical Walker circulation, such as rice, will be affected by varying monsoon patterns and more unpredictable weather. Scheduled planting and harvesting based on weather patterns will become less effective.

Areas such as Indonesia where the main crop consists of rice will be more vulnerable to the increased intensity of ENSO effects in the future of climate change. University of Washington professor, David Battisti, researched the effects of future ENSO patterns on the Indonesian rice agriculture using [IPCC]'s 2007 annual report[50] and 20 different logistical models mapping out climate factors such as wind pressure, sea-level, and humidity, and found that rice harvest will experience a decrease in yield. Bali and Java, which holds 55% of the rice yields in Indonesia, will be likely to experience 9–10% probably of delayed monsoon patterns, which prolongs the hungry season. Normal planting of rice crops begin in October and harevest by January. However, as climate change affects ENSO and consequently delays planting, harvesting will be late and in drier conditions, resulting in less potential yields.[51]

Impact of agriculture on climate change

The agricultural sector is a driving force in the gas emissions and land use effects thought to cause climate change. In addition to being a significant user of land and consumer of fossil fuel, agriculture contributes directly to greenhouse gas emissions through practices such as rice production and the raising of livestock;[52] according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the three main causes of the increase in greenhouse gases observed over the past 250 years have been fossil fuels, land use, and agriculture.[53]

Land use

Agriculture contributes to greenhouse gas increases through land use in four main ways:

Together, these agricultural processes comprise 54% of methane emissions, roughly 80% of nitrous oxide emissions, and virtually all carbon dioxide emissions tied to land use.[1]

The planet's major changes to land cover since 1750 have resulted from deforestation in temperate regions: when forests and woodlands are cleared to make room for fields and pastures, the albedo of the affected area increases, which can result in either warming or cooling effects, depending on local conditions.[54] Deforestation also affects regional carbon reuptake, which can result in increased concentrations of CO2, the dominant greenhouse gas.[55] Land-clearing methods such as slash and burn compound these effects by burning biomatter, which directly releases greenhouse gases and particulate matter such as soot into the air.


Livestock and livestock-related activities such as deforestation and increasingly fuel-intensive farming practices are responsible for over 18% of human-made greenhouse gas emissions, including:

Livestock activities also contribute disproportionately to land-use effects, since crops such as corn and alfalfa are cultivated in order to feed the animals.

Worldwide, livestock production occupies 70% of all land used for agriculture, or 30% of the land surface of the Earth.[57]

See also


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Further reading

  • Fischer G., Shah M. and van Velthuizen H. (2002) "Climate Change and Agricultural Vulnerability". International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. Report prepared under UN Institutional Contract Agreement 1113 for World Summit on Sustainable Development. Laxenburg, Austria

External links

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