The effect of climate change on international agriculture

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Climate change occurs as a direct result of global warming. Here’s a quick refresher on the subject: as atmospheric CO2 levels increase, less radiation from the sun leaves the atmosphere. We feel this increase in radiation as heat. Differences in hot and cold air cause wind, which carries precipitation in the form of clouds. 

Historically, wind flowed in a distinct and consistent trajectory that allowed farmers and ranchers to more or less predict weather patterns season after season, and they could plan their cropping accordingly. For example, in certain regions, farmers knew when the first frost would usually occur, and were careful to harvest all of their crops before then for maximum yields.

But, with hotter air in the atmosphere, the wind moves in a way we’re not used to. Areas that used to get regular rainfall are now dry, and dry areas are now flooding. Frost dates are no longer predictable either. Agricultural businesses must think ahead and adapt to the threats of climate change instead of reacting to disasters after they occur.

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Common ways climate change affects agriculture businesses

Climate change impacts food production by:

  • decreasing the average rainfall in an area, which leads to drought or water shortages;
  • increasing rainfall in an area, which leads to water-logged soil;
  • making the growing season hotter, which stunts the growth of numerous non-tropical crops and leads to fatal heat stress in livestock; and
  • causing crop failure due to increasingly common extreme weather events, such as wildfires, floods, and unseasonably cold weather.

Climate change also affects the presence of weeds, pests, and pathogens, as well as the ability of farmers and ranchers to tend to their crops or livestock. For example, land cannot be tilled if it’s underwater or water-logged. Many pesticide and herbicide products cannot be applied during extreme temperatures or strong winds. Animals are susceptible to heat stress and may perish before harvest. Mowing and curing hay has to occur during a stretch of sunny weather, or nutrients will leach from the hay and result in a difficult-to-digest forage. 

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Examples of how climate change has affected international agriculture

As extreme weather events have become almost commonplace, the following examples of how climate change affects agriculture are no longer conjecture. Instead, they represent the reality facing agriculture businesses around the world:

  1. In the southwest region of the U.S., recurrent droughts have strained the local water supply and caused irrigation water to be rationed. With less water to support plant growth and development, the number of acres devoted to crops has decreased in this region. 
  2. A 2015 study evaluating data from Italian cattle farms found that cows older than 24 months were significantly more likely to die of heat stress than younger cows when exposed to temperatures of at least 90 degrees Fahrenheit for three consecutive days. Heat stress tolerance varies from species to species and breed to breed, with goats, sheep, and cattle breeds originating from the tropics proving to be more heat-tolerant in general. 
  3. Vineyards around the world have noticed a difference in wine quality, which researchers have traced back to rising temperatures that affect the grapes’ chemistry. Vineyards have also been impacted by rising sea levels reducing available land, as well as an increase in pests and insect-borne diseases due to warmer weather. 
  4. A rare winter storm hit Texas in February 2021. South Texans in particular had no infrastructure in place for freezing temperatures, as this area normally gets less than a third of an inch of snow per year. As a result, ranchers didn’t have items like heated water troughs or cold flow improver to keep their diesel tractors running. The storm also caused a disruption of power, which made it difficult to heat hatcheries and barns, resulting in animal death. 
  5. Extreme flooding in southern China in 2020 wiped out millions of acres of farmland reportedly the size of West Virginia. The disaster caused about $21 billion in damages. Because China is the world’s leading food producer, floods like this have the potential to cause serious food instability around the world.
  6. Australia experienced devastating bushfires between 2019 and 2020, which burned more than 2.45 million hectares of agricultural land. Climate change has been implicated in a 30% increased risk of bushfires: extreme heat and severe drought created the perfect conditions for fires to start and spread rapidly. 
  7. Unseasonably late snow in the UK in Spring 2018 caused the deaths of thousands of sheep. Dairy farmers were also forced to throw away vast quantities of Milk as a breakdown of logistics made it impossible to transport the product.

How agriculture businesses can adapt to climate change

Because climate change is an ongoing threat and not projected to reverse or slow down any time in the near future, agriculture businesses must mitigate the risks of climate change with contingency plans. Possible solutions include:

  • Choosing crop varieties that display a greater tolerance toward heat, drought, and/or intermittent flooding
  • Investing in irrigation infrastructure, even if droughts are not currently an issue
  • Adding organic matter to soil to increase water retention and reduce erosion
  • Transitioning from traditional agriculture to indoor hydroponic facilities
  • Generating power on-site with renewable resources to ensure all buildings remain climate-controlled despite mainline power outages
  • Diversiying plants grown and livestock raised just in case one variety is extra sensitive to extreme temperatures
  • Adopting farming methods and cultures from other regions of the world, for example the expansion of viniculture in the UK
  • Supporting investment in new Agritech and plant science
  • Investing in smaller farms and ranches spread across diverse regions and avoid large properties that could be wiped out with a single weather event
  • Transitioning to an agroforest model to use less land more efficiently
  • Developing emergency infrastructure for animals in the event of extreme weather, such as floating chicken coops or a “high and dry” mound for livestock to stand during a flood

The number-one thing agricultural businesses can do to adapt to climate change is to prepare for all foreseeable scenarios. As the saying goes, “Prepare for the worst, hope for the best.”  Extreme weather events can develop very quickly. Learn how to respond to a climate emergency and how to prepare in advance to protect your investments, if possible.