This post was co-written by Louis Preonas, a former postdoctoral scholar at EPIC who is now an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Summer is the center of the growing season for many American crops. But as already warm summers start to heat up with climate change, what impact could this have on crops? As one example, without policy changes, two of the most important crops in the United States—corn and wheat— could see yield declines upwards of 80% in the Midwest.
Modern agriculture is big business, so it only makes sense that sophisticated farmers would find ways to adapt to a changing climate. It’s no surprise they’re already turning to water as one form of adaptation. Both field research and crop models find that irrigation dampens the damaging effects of temperature on crop yields. But what happens when the farmer’s source of water is tapped out? They look for it elsewhere. This could become a major problem as their adaptation to climate change only exacerbates another major impact from climate change—water scarcity.
As climate change continues to increase the frequency and severity of droughts, we’re studying what farmers are doing to maintain their livelihoods during these periods of water scarcity. We’re also thinking hard about the important role policy can play in protecting all of us from the negative impacts of drought. California is an ideal setting for studying agriculture, as it generates more than 13% of the country’s total crop value—more than $50 billion in 2016. California farmers produce more than 400 different commodities, including two-thirds of all American fruits and nuts. Most of this production takes place on 9 million acres of “prime” irrigated farmland in the Central Valley.
Another feature that makes California a good lab to study climate change is that the state has recently experienced a series of droughts, with the most recent lasting from 2011 to 2017. For many farmers, this has caused severe curtailment of their water supplies. As the climate continues to warm, this might become the new normal.