For the InstructorThese student materials complement the Future of Food Instructor Materials. If you would like your students to have access to the student materials, we suggest you either point them at the Student Version which omits the framing pages with information designed for faculty (and this box). Or you can download these pages in several formats that you can include in your course website or local Learning Managment System. Learn more about using, modifying, and sharing InTeGrate teaching materials.
Direct Effects of Climate Change on Crops
Plants, whether crops or native plant species have adapted to flourish within a range of optimal temperatures for germination, growth, and reproduction. For example, plants at the poles or in alpine regions are adapted to short summers and long, cold winters, and so thrive within a certain range of colder temperatures. Temperature plays an important role in the different biological processes that are critical to plant development. The optimum temperature varies for germination, growth, and reproduction varies and those optimum temperatures needed to occur at certain times in the plant's life cycle, or the plant's growth and development may be impaired.
Let's consider corn as an example. In order for a corn seed to germinate, the soil temperature needs to be a minimum of 50oF. Corn seed typically will not germinate if the soil is colder than about 50oF. The minimum air temperature for vegetative growth (i.e., the growth of stem, leaves, and branches) is about 46oF, but the optimum range of temperatures for vegetative growth of corn is 77-90oF. At temperatures outside of the optimal range, growth tends to decline rapidly. Many plants can withstand short periods of temperatures outside of the optimal range, but extended periods of high temperatures above the optimal range can reduce the quality and yield of annual crops and tree fruits. Optimal reproduction of corn occurs between 64 and 72oF, and reproduction begins to fail at temperatures above 95oF. Reproductive failure for most crops begins around 95oF.
Water availability is a critical factor in agricultural production. We saw in Module 4 how increased temperature leads to increased transpiration rates. High rates of transpiration can also exhaust soil water supplies resulting in drought stress. Plants respond to drought stress through a variety of mechanisms, such as wilting their leaves, but the net result of prolonged drought stress is usually reduced productivity and yield. Water deficit during certain stages of a plant's growth can result in defects, such as tougher leaves in kales, chards, and mustards. Another example, blossom end rot in tomatoes and watermelon, is caused by water stress and results in fruit that is unmarketable (Figure 9.2.4 and for more photos of blossom end rot on different vegetables, visit Blossom end rot causes and cures in garden vegetables).
In addition to water stress and impacts on plant productivity and yield, increased temperatures can have other effects on crops. High temperatures and direct sunlight can sunburn developing fruits and vegetables. Intense heat can even scald or cook fruits and vegetables while still on the plant.
A warming climate is expected to have negative impacts on crop yields. Negative impacts are already being seen in a few crops in different parts of the world. Figure 9.2.5 shows estimated impacts of climate trends on crop yields from 1980-2008, with declines exceeding 5% for corn, wheat, and soy in some parts of the world. Projections under different emissions scenarios for California's Central Valley show that wheat, cotton, and sunflower have the largest declines in yields, while rice and tomatoes are much less affected (Figure 9.2.6). Notice that there are two lines on the graphs in Figure 9.2.6 projecting crop yields into the future. The red line corresponds to temperature increases associated with a higher carbon dioxide emissions scenario. We saw in Module 9.1 that the more CO2 we emit, the more heat energy is trapped in the lower atmosphere, and therefore the warmer the temperatures. For some crops, those higher temperatures are associated with great impacts on the crop's yield.
Why are some crops affected more by observed and projected temperature increases than others? It depends on the crop, the climate in the region where the crop is being grown, and the amount of temperature increase. Consider the Activate your learning questions below to explore this more deeply.
Why do some crops see a positive yield change with increasing temperatures, such as alfalfa in Figure 9.2.6? Generally, warmer temperatures mean increased crop productivity, as long as those temperatures remain within the optimal range for that crop. If a crop is being grown in a climate that has typical temperatures at the cooler end of the plant's optimal range, than a bit of warming could increase the crop's productivity. If the temperatures increase above the optimal range or exceed the temperature that leads to reproductive failure, then crop yields will decline.
Credit: Nelson, 2014
Credit: National Climate Assessment, 2014.
Activate your learning
Inspect Figure 9.2.5 above. Which crops' yields have already been most affected by climate change, and which crops the least?
What are some possible reasons for the difference in yield impact between corn, wheat, and rice that you see in Figure 9.2.5?
Consider the graph for Wheat in Figure 9.2.5. What is the % yield impact in Russia and United States? What could cause differences in yield impact between regions?