Forecasting Crop Failures

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For about 10,000 years or so now farmers have been at the mercy of the weather. Too much or too little precipitation, too much heat or cold, too early or too late in the season and all hopes of making ends meet — or just filling bellies — can evaporate.

Nowadays you might think things are getting even worse for farmers, since climate change is pushing the weather to extremes far more often than in the past. But it turns out that the same climate science that is helping us understand how climate is changing holds the key to predicting and avoiding a lot of weather related crop losses.

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The tools already exist to predict and avoid weather related crop losses well in advance, say researchers who have found that better seasonal forecasts can help rice, wheat, maize and soybean crops.

The trick was to link an ensemble of seasonal climate forecasts with statistical crop models to assess how well the models reproduce crop failures for those major global crops, according to Toshichika Iizumi of Japan’s National Institute for Agro-Environmental Sciences, and colleagues.

They found that crop losses over 26 to 33 percent of the harvested area could have been predicted in advance if only climatic forecasts were sufficiently accurate. The most predictable crops were wheat and rice, the researchers reported in a paper on their work in a recent edition of the journal Nature Climate Change.

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A quarter to a third of harvest area might not seem like a lot, there’s enough predictability of crop failure to help monitor global food production and provide insights into potential price volatility. And that sort of foresight can help in the longer term process of adapting our food systems to the increasing extremes in climate that are predicted, and already being experienced as a result of climate change.

IMAGE: Cornfields are flooded in 2008 near Quincy, Illinois. The crops were ruined for the year by the flooding waters of the Mississippi River. Image courtesy of Robert Kaufmann/FEMA

 

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