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New research provides wake-up call for climate change in the Midwest

A new study shows that farmers in the Midwest region could begin losing nearly half their profits every four years should temperatures increase by just 1 degree Celsius.

Many researchers have been focused on the implications of climate change for farmers growing individual field crops, but Ariel Ortiz-Bobea, Cornell University Assistant Professor of Applied Economics and Management, wanted to understand what climate change is doing to agricultural productivity on the whole. What he found is less than encouraging for the future of U.S. agriculture.

He and his research team found that the Midwest is among those regions most vulnerable to the extreme weather patterns associated with climate change—largely because of the region’s increasing reliance on rain-fed crops such as corn and soybeans in addition to oilseed crops.

“Most of the agriculture in the Midwest is corn and soybeans. And that’s even more true today than it was 40 years ago,” said Ortiz-Bobea. “They’re basically putting all their eggs in one basket, and that basket is getting more sensitive.”

More specifically, what they found—by compiling 50 years’ worth of climate data and state-level data on agricultural inputs such as seeds and fertilizer—were two distinct episodes of increased climate sensitivity. The first, in the 1960s and 1970s, saw a 2 degree Celsius increase in temperature that resulted in an 11 percent drop in agriculture productivity. Even more frightening, another 2 degree increase after 1983 resulted in a 29 percent productivity drop.

Right now, these devastating conditions are rare—but these researchers are saying that another increase of even just 1 degree Celsius would more than quadruple their frequency. That could bring it to roughly once every four years.

“Losing almost half your profit every four years? That’s a big loss,” said Ortiz-Bobea.

The solution is not exactly clear or easy. But the authors do point out in the study, which is published in Science Advances, “that reducing vulnerability to climate change should consider the role of policies in inducing regional specialization.” Perhaps another policy goal for the industry to come together on?

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