A looming El Niño — an ocean-atmosphere phenomenon that shifts temperatures and changes rainfall patterns — could lead to declines in U.S. agricultural production.

Why it matters: Any decrease in agricultural production could further spike food costs and exacerbate the state of food insecurity across the country.

The latest: Forecasts suggest the coming El Niño is likely to start between this summer and fall, layering onto effects from human-caused climate change that will effectively usher in sweeping changes to weather patterns.

Typically the climate cycle results in a wetter, cooler southeastern U.S., while regions like the Central Plains could be drier and possibly warmer, according to Virginia Tech professor Zachary Easton, who researches agricultural ecosystems, food production and climate change.
He notes that when you add naturally occurring events like El Niño to a warming climate, there are “going to be consequences in your production system,” citing how past El Niño events drove “big disruptions” in American crop production….

…The intrigue: In some cases, El Niño can make things harder for plants, but conversely it can also be beneficial for growing seasons, according to Amir Jina, a climate researcher at the University of Chicago.

A 2014 study in the journal Nature Communications looked at the ENSO effects on global yields for four major crops: Maize, rice, wheat and soybean.
In the case of soybeans, global yields actually improved under El Niño, while maize, rice and wheat saw yield declines under both El Niño and La Niña.

Meanwhile: El Niño’s highly variable impacts on food supply will be outsized for countries relying heavily on subsistence agriculture, an added concern for already drought-stricken regions across Africa and Central America.

Yes, but: Even for developed nations like the U.S., the potential food security impacts of El Niño would still be felt “across the board” when compounded with high food costs and climate impacts, which the U.S. government should be paying close attention to, according to Jina.

“Coping with this level of variability means … there’s still this human cost,” says Jina. “What happens to the farmer who has to go bankrupt this year, because it’s just this extra shock of vulnerability that they weren’t expecting?”

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