U.S. corn yields are increasingly vulnerable to hot, dry weather
But in drought conditions, densely planted corn can suffer higher stress and produce lower yields. In contrast, soybeans have not been planted more densely in recent decades and show no signs of increased sensitivity to drought, the report noted.
Drought conditions are expected to become even more challenging as temperatures continue to rise throughout the 21st century, the researchers said.
Lobell said, "Recent yield progress is overall a good news story. But because farm yields are improving fastest in favorable weather, the stakes for having such weather are rising. In other words, the negative impacts of hot and dry weather are rising at the same time that climate change is expected to bring more such weather."
Lobell's team examined an unprecedented amount of detailed field data from more than 1 million USDA crop insurance records between 1995 and 2012.
"The idea was pretty simple," he said. "We determined which conditions really matter for corn and soy yields, and then tracked how farmers were doing at different levels of these conditions over time. But to do that well, you really need a lot of data, and this dataset was a beauty."
Lobell said he hopes that the research can help inform researchers and policymakers so they can make better decisions.
"I think it's exciting that data like this now exist to see what's actually happening in fields. By taking advantage of this data, we can learn a lot fairly quickly," he said. "Of course, our hope is to improve the situation. But these results challenge the idea that U.S. agriculture will just easily adapt to climate changes because we invest a lot and are really high-tech."
Lobell and colleagues are also looking at ways crops may perform better under increasingly hot conditions. "But I wouldn't expect any miracles," he said. "It will take targeted efforts, and even then gains could be modest. There's only so much a plant can do when it is hot and dry."
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