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Climate Change may Alter Land Use to Meet Global Demand for Food Production

Credit: University of Birmingham

A group of scientists led by the University of Birmingham have warned that global crop yields may fall in the areas currently used to produce the world’s three main cereal crops if no significant improvements are made in technology, and this may force the production to shift to other areas.

As the global population is expected to reach nine billion in the next 30 years, the food production will need to be increased worldwide. A new study carried out by scientists led by the University of Birmingham reveals that most of the land currently used for producing maize, rice, and wheat are particularly vulnerable to the consequences of climate change.

As a result, a major drop in productivity may take place in these areas by 2050 and potentially increase the productivity of several previously-unused areas, revealing a major move in the global map of food production.

The study uses a novel method to combine the standard climate change models and maximum land productivity data to foresee how the potential cropland productivity is likely to change in the next 50 - 100 years due to climate change. The study results are published in Nature Communications.

The study results reveal that:

  • Croplands in tropical areas, including South America, Eastern US and the Sub-Saharan Africa, are on the verge of experiencing the most severe reductions in their potential to produce these crops
  • Croplands in temperate areas, including central Canada and western and central Russia, are on the verge of experiencing an increase in yield potential, bringing about many new opportunities for agriculture
  • Almost half of all maize grown in the world (43%), and a third of all rice and wheat (37% and 33% respectively), is produced in areas that are vulnerable to the consequences of climate change

Although the consequences of climate change are generally likely to be greatest in the poorest areas, the new study suggests that they may equally affect developed countries.

Usually, the efforts made to increase food production concentrate on closing the yield gap, for example, reducing the difference between what could possibly be cultivated on an available area of land and what is really harvested. As highly-developed countries retain a very small yield gap, the negative consequences of climate change on potential yield are probably felt most extremely in these areas.

Our model shows that on many areas of land currently used to grow crops, the potential to improve yields is greatly decreased as a result of the effects of climate change. But it raises an interesting opportunity for some countries in temperate areas, where the suitability of climate to grow these major crops is likely to increase over the same time period.

Dr Tom Pugh, Lead Researcher, University of Birmingham

The social, political and cultural effects of these key changes to the global cropland distribution would be great, as the current productive regions turn into net importers and vice versa.

Of course, climate is just one factor when looking at the future of global agricultural practices,’ adds Pugh.

‘Local factors such as soil quality and water availability also have a very important effect on crop yields in real terms. But production of the world’s three major cereal crops needs to keep up with demand, and if we can’t do that by making our existing land more efficient, then the only other option is to increase the amount of land that we use.’

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