The impacts of changing climate conditions on the world’s wheat, corn, soybean and rice production are likely to be seen sooner than previously estimated. And of those crops, only wheat is expected to see increases in yield. These are among the conclusions of a new paper in the journal Nature Food from an international research team led by Jonas Jägermeyr of NASA's Goddard Institute of Space Studies and Columbia University.

The paper uses improved crop and climate models to update estimates from 2014 and concludes “major shifts in global crop productivity due to climate change are projected to occur within the next 20 [years].” That’s decades sooner than previous estimates. The results show corn, soybeans and rice can expect warmer climates to bring reduced productivity in most regions where they are currently grown. Wheat, conversely, may see some improvements in yield, particularly at higher latitudes.

Reduced corn productivity could emerge at the global level in 2032. By the end of the 21st century, the estimates show at least 10% and as much as 74% of current corn-growing regions will see reductions in yield. Areas likely to see the impact the soonest are in Central Asia, the Middle East, southern Europe, the western U.S. and tropical South America.

Wheat could begin seeing increased yields within the next few years in some areas, and most will see the changes in the next two decades, according to the models. There are some places where wheat yields may decline by midcentury, including in South Asia, the southern U.S., Mexico and parts of South America.

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Globally, “soybean and rice productivity peak midcentury and decline towards the end of the century.”

Changes in management practices, crop varieties or crop type all could reduce the impacts, but using current and historical data in models for both climate and agricultural risk, the researchers found “current food production systems will soon face fundamentally changed risk profiles.”

The authors acknowledge that “large uncertainties remain,” but conclude nonetheless these new “projections spotlight the need for targeted food system adaptation and risk management across the main producer regions in the coming decades.”

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