OUTLOOK IN FOCUS: Climate change and agriculture

Published on: Nov 15, 2013

IF there is one factor that every farmer talks about and has absolutely no control over, it is the weather. The vagaries of Mother Nature have the potential to turn bin-busting crops into record disappointments (see the drought of 2012, for example), and rain and snowfall can be quite troublesome (see floods and an unseasonably early blizzard in 2013, also).

Perhaps more troubling for agriculture moving forward, one of the industry’s most-respected climatologists thinks the U.S. could be entering a period of relatively volatile weather patterns, based on historic trends.

Elwynn Taylor, a professor at Iowa State University, says that the U.S. sees a cycle of calm weather patterns, when crop yields are largely stable along a trend line, followed by a period of more volatile weather, when crop yields are much less stable relative to trend.

“Over the past century, we’ve had four periods of stable corn yields, each lasting roughly 18 years,” Taylor explained. Each of those periods is followed by a much longer period – 25 years – when corn yields were much more volatile.

Taylor pointed out that from 2004-2009, the U.S. saw six consecutive years of above-trend corn yields, something that had never happened before.

“During that period, we had 6 consecutive years of crop failure for oil or wheat crops in the Northwest and Western Canada,” he said. “Then, 6 years of El Nino ended, and we went through 3 years of below-trend yields due to La Nina, and we’re back to trend this year.”

While improved seed genetics and technologies were credited with those 6 years of yield gains, Taylor said that yield were instead the result of favorable weather conditions and typical yield trends.

“We've now moved back into a meteorological period when annual yields will be more volatile than during much of the past decade,” he concluded. “At the same time, after 40 years of a relatively mild winter weather trend, it appears the trend is turning back toward less mild again.”

Listen to climatologist Elwynn Taylor discuss the outlook for climate change in 2014 and beyond as it relates to agriculture and food production in a special Outlook edition of the Feedstuffs In Focus podcast.

The Nov. 11 edition features Feedstuffs’ annual special Outlook report and the podcast series will focus on a different piece of the outlook puzzle each day this week: