U.S. corn yields are increasingly vulnerable to hot, dry weather
U.S. corn yields are growing more sensitive to heat and drought, according to research by environmental scientist David Lobell. Farmers are faced with difficult tradeoffs in adapting to a changing climate in which unfavorable weather will become more common.
Corn yields in the central United States have become more sensitive to drought conditions in the past two decades, according to Stanford research.
The study, which appears in the journal Science, was led by Stanford's David Lobell, associate professor of environmental Earth system science and associate director of the Center on Food Security and the Environment. "The Corn Belt is phenomenally productive," Lobell said, referring to the region of Midwestern states where much of the country's corn is grown. "But in the past two decades we saw very small yield gains in non-irrigated corn under the hottest conditions. This suggests farmers may be pushing the limits of what's possible under these conditions."
He predicted that at current levels of temperature sensitivity, crops could lose 15 percent of their yield within 50 years, or as much as 30 percent if crops continue the trend of becoming more sensitive over time.
As Lobell explained, the quest to maximize crop yields has been a driving force behind agricultural research as the world's population grows and climate change puts pressure on global food production. One big challenge for climate science is whether crops can adapt to climate change by becoming less sensitive to hotter and drier weather.
"The data clearly indicate that drought stress for corn and soy comes partly from low rain, but even more so from hot and dry air. Plants have to trade water to get carbon from the air to grow, and the terms of that trade become much less favorable when it's hot," said Lobell, also the lead author for a chapter in the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report, which details a consensus view on the current state and fate of the world's climate.
The United States produces 40 percent of the world's corn, mostly in Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana. As more than 80 percent of U.S. agricultural land relies on natural rainfall rather than irrigation, corn farmers in these regions depend on precipitation, air temperature and humidity for optimal plant growth.
According to the research, over the last few decades, corn in the United States has been modified with new traits, like more effective roots that better access water and built-in pest resistance to protect against soil insects. These traits allow farmers to plant seeds closer together in a field, and have helped farmers steadily raise yields in typical years.
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