Climate Change Forecasts Can Predict Crop Failures: New Tool for Farmers

First Posted: Jul 23, 2013 08:29 AM EDT

There may be a new tool for farmers. Scientists have discovered that climate data can help predict some crop failures several months before harvest. This could have huge implications for the future of farming and could allow for better preparations in the future.

Understanding what causes crop failure is crucial to estimating yield and, potentially, mitigating losses from bad years. In order to examine the reliability and timelines of crop failure forecasts, the researchers created and tested a new crop model. They incorporated temperature and precipitation forecasts and satellite observations from 1983 to 2006. They then examined how well the data predicted the crop yield or crop failure that had actually occurred at the end of each season. In all, the researchers studied four crops--corn, soybeans, wheat and rice.

So how did this model do? It worked the best with wheat and rice. In fact, crop failures in regions of some major wheat and rice exporters, such as Australia and Uruguay, could be predicted several months in advance. The model was also able to predict minor changes in crop yield in addition to devastating crop failures.

"The impact of climate extremes--the kind of events that have a large impact on global production--is more predictable than smaller variations in climate, but even variations of five percent in yield were correctly simulated in the study for many parts of the globe," said Andy Challinor, co-author of the new study, in a news release.

The new findings could allow farmers in poor countries to receive better harvests in years with good growing conditions and build resiliency for the other years. During a predicted good year, farmers could invest in technologies to take advantage of the weather. In addition, the research reveals that despite modern technology, climate still plays a massive role in how well crops do over a season.

"We can make a new framework that would allow much great exploitation of satellite data and climate prediction models," said Molly Brown, one of the researchers, in a news release. "If you knew you were going to have a good year, you could plan, you could give out loans, you could do other things to boost food production to be prepared for bad years."

The findings are published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

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