Climate change in your favor?
May 27, 2012 11:45 AM   Subscribe

Does climate change ever work in farmers favor? If one region becomes inhospitable for growing a crop due to climate change (like coffee in Peru), does it mean another part of the world may become perfect for growing that crop that was previously not?

Not that global warming isn't a serious problem, but when I read articles about how coffee or chocolate production will be impossible in xx years because the climate of a certain region is changing, it makes me think that the climate in other regions must also be changing, and maybe in ten years you can grow coffee in an area that was previously impossible. Are there any examples of this, is there a name for it so I can find more information, etc? Whenever I read articles on the subject they are focused on either the plight of the farmers in a certain country or th plight of the corporations but not actually the global patterns in farming. Thanks !
posted by secretbenjamin to Science & Nature (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Climate change is almost universally negative for agriculture because it increases the variability and unpredictability of regional climates.

Sure, it may be warmer on average in Northern Canada, so it may be possible to grow more or better crops there some years. But improved farm yields aren't possible if every year is different. If the seasonal changes in temperature, the amount of rainfall, and the amount of sunshine can't be predicted, you're not going to be able to have successful agriculture.

Similarly, climate change increases the frequency of extreme weather events. Those are also very bad for agriculture.

So while you might find some isolated instances of temporarily improved conditions, it will be hard to take advantage of them and I don't think you'll find consistently improved conditions anywhere.
posted by alms at 12:23 PM on May 27, 2012 [4 favorites]

Some areas will definitely be better off in terms of productivity of some crops under some expected climate change. This will vary with the degree of climate change and the crops. The cost of making changes in what is grown, requirement for farmers to upskill, increased climate volatility impacts on productivity, possible reduction in crop diversity and yield, research to improve resilience, etc means that the overal cost-benefit is likely to be negative, but some people will get better off. The Stern Report on the economics of climate change and potential mitigation of climate change will be a good jumping off point and if you search it or google it with crops you will find some relevant information.
posted by biffa at 12:27 PM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Disclaimer: small sample size, anecdata. Don't know if there have been any studies about this yet.
Since about 2006, the weather patterns have changed a lot in parts of the Canadian Prairies (probably the northern US, too, but I don't know enough about that area). There has been a trend towards more extreme weather (i.e. downpours instead of showers; heatwaves and frosts instead of moderate temps) and a lot more rainfall. Areas that previously boasted the richest, most productive, dependable land (like southeastern Saskatchewan) have become unseedable/unproductive due to flooding and poor drainage. Ironically, these are the features that made that land so productive over the last 100 years, which have been historically dry.
Conversely, areas that have been historically poorer for grain farming have become more productive in the last few years because the extra rain helps them and their dry, well-draining lands (like southwestern Saskatchewan). This has also really changed the crops that the different areas can grow, with the southwest moving heavily away from mustard and lentils and into (very profitable) canola, which needs more water, and the southeast being forced into shorter season crops because their land takes so long (if at all) to dry out in the spring that they can't seed longer season crops.
We're definitely seeing a weather change here -- but it's producing colder, wetter weather so far rather than a warming trend, which tends to limit the variety of crops to choose from. Time will tell if this is actually climate change or just a solar cycle/El Nino thing, and whether we'll ever be able to try growing chickpeas on my farm again!
posted by bluebelle at 12:28 PM on May 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

One thing to consider also is that climate is not the only factor for growing a crop - the place with the new perfect temp may not have the appropriate soil (or any soil at all- imagine just barren rock with a miniscule layer of topsoil trying to support a field of wheat) or the correct geography - like it is not a flat plain which makes cultivation easier
posted by that possible maker of pork sausages at 12:31 PM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Remember that max/min temperature isn't the only thing that makes a place suitable for growing a given crop - average moisture, day length, soil type etc all play a role. So there's no guarantee that as temperature zones shift, these crops will find a new location that meets their combo of needs.

Also, one of the things about changing climate is that traditional knowledge about what works where is going out the window. So we are entering a period of uncertainty for farmers; they just don't know what they can count on to grow in their location.

People who are actively working on this include seed sellers for gardeners -- they are growing out many varieties every year, noting what works in their location and what plants are doing better or worse. That would be one place to look for up-to-date info, the blogs or catalogs of independent seed sellers.

Here are some related maps that might be of use, if you want to know what might grow newly in what area:

Updated 2012 USDA plant hardiness zone map, updated this year for the first time since 1990, gives a sense of the shift that has taken place in just 20 years.

Press release describing the new USDA zone map:
Compared to the 1990 version, zone boundaries in this edition of the map have shifted in many areas. The new map is generally one 5-degree Fahrenheit half-zone warmer than the previous map throughout much of the United States. This is mostly a result of using temperature data from a longer and more recent time period; the new map uses data measured at weather stations during the 30-year period 1976-2005. In contrast, the 1990 map was based on temperature data from only a 13-year period of 1974-1986.
Here's a Comparison between 1990 and 2012 USDA hardiness zone maps, showing where the zones have changed.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:33 PM on May 27, 2012 [4 favorites]

Climate change is making it possible to grow grapes for sparkling wine in England.
posted by saeculorum at 12:33 PM on May 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Climate change is making it possible to grow grapes for sparkling wine in England.

A similar effect is happening in the United States. According to the link here, Napa Valley grape production could be down as much as 50% by 2040, but the article says
"On the other hand, bad news for California could be good news for Oregon, as warmer temperatures actually expand the grape growing regions in some parts of the Northwest."
posted by notme at 12:46 PM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Does climate change ever work in farmers favor?

Well, there weren't a lot of farmers back then, but the end of the last ice age certainly changed a lot. 10,000 years ago most of the Sahara Desert was green. On the other hand, 10,000 years ago Alberta was covered with ice. Now, of course, the Sahara Desert is synonymous with "dead" and Alberta is one of the world's bread baskets.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:51 PM on May 27, 2012

One more link (quoting the IPCC) discussing the effects in North America:
Moderate climate change will likely increase yields of North American rain fed agriculture, but with smaller increases and more spatial variability than in earlier estimates. Most studies project likely climate-related yield increases of 5-20 percent over the first decades of the century, with the overall positive effects of climate persisting through much or all of the 21st century.
  • Food production is projected to benefit from a warmer climate, but there probably will be strong regional effects, with some areas in North America suffering significant loss of comparative advantage to other regions.
  • The U.S. Great Plains/Canadian Prairies are expected to be particularly vulnerable.
  • Crops that are currently near climate thresholds (e.g., wine grapes in California) are likely to suffer decreases in yields, quality, or both.
  • Climate change is expected to improve growing conditions for some crops that are limited by length of growing season and temperature. (e.g. fruit production in the Great Lakes region and eastern Canada).
posted by notme at 12:55 PM on May 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

Not just the climate, but also accessibility of water affects what can be grow. In the US the Ogallala aquifer is projected to run dry in 25 years, faster if extreme weather creates more dependence on the aquifer. Anywhere considering expanding agriculture will have to depend on how much water is available; if the choice is cities or farms, cities always win. And since the North is also where there are deposits of fossile fuels, they definitely win over farms or cities.

I live north of Toronto, I have seen vineyards expand ever northward in the past 20 years. There is an upper limit to that however, farms in Northern Ontario failed not because of climate (although it was a short growing season) or water (lots of that, fortunately), but because the soil over the Canadian Sheild is thin and poor. A book you might be interested in is "the world in 2050" by Lawrence Smith (2010).
posted by saucysault at 1:14 PM on May 27, 2012

Greenland Potatoes
posted by saucysault at 1:24 PM on May 27, 2012

Really, we don't know. So much of the expected weather from Anthropogenic climate chage is not known. It is based on climate models that are being used for results outside of the known parameters. This means the results are uncertain (although the best we can do right now). A longer growing season and more CO2 in the atmosphere are usually considered more favorable for agriculture in general. And warmer is usually wetter (outside of the dry belts at 30 deg lat north and south)which is also good. What might not be good is increased storm severity (although that this is certain is not at all clear) and soil changes due to climate change. So really (and this is the scariest part) we don't know what will happen. We are running an uncontrolled experiment on our life support system and it is probably going to be full of surprises.
posted by bartonlong at 1:27 PM on May 27, 2012

The other thing to think about is the issue of sunk costs. Many if not most areas of intensive agriculture in the world have currently been farmed for decades if not centuries. That means that we are intimately acquainted with the needs of a crop in any given landscape. We know how much water it gets, soil type, fertiliser required, seasonal variation so on and so forth.

If farmers need to shift their crops, they don't know any of that. Setting up a industrial-scale farming is intensive, long, and expensive, and making that shift will result in higher prices for food because modern farming reaps huge benefit from its efficiency, and availability. In the short term at least, much of that will be lost, as new farms are set up, trees have to grow to maturity, new pests etc make themselves known. And this is assuming that the land is even available; it could be national park, government-owned, currently residential (a big issue in many places; our most fertile lands are cities now), or just very marginal and unable to support large-scale farming.

So, certainly, there may be new places to grow coffee and such, but compared to the scale of human suffering & famine we will see if - for example - the glacial melt that ultimately feeds the Ganges dwindles, it will be very cold comfort indeed.
posted by smoke at 4:07 PM on May 27, 2012

I have read quite certainly in decent literature that Russian agriculture will benefit substantially from moderate improvements in their ability to grow wheat. As the Crimea has been called the breadbasket of europe, this isn't something to be sniffed at.

Now I just have to go and find the links...
posted by wilful at 5:31 PM on May 27, 2012

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