In a summer like this, as we watch crop conditions wither in record-setting heat and dry conditions, we might wonder whether we’re seeing an anomaly or a preview of coming years. And if the climate is changing, how will it affect agricultural production? A new report from the USDA’s Economic Research (ERS) service examines those questions, evaluating how agricultural production could adapt to a range of climate scenarios.

Last week, we ran an article titled “Global Warming, in my backyard,” discussing recent weather trends in North America. Scientists generally are unsure whether this year’s wild weather can be attributed to global climate change, but they say the pattern – widespread drought, extended heat waves, violent storms  – fits projections of what global warming will look like.

The ERS report, titled “Agricultural Adaptation to a Changing Climate: Economic and Environmental Implications Vary by U.S. Region.” notes that climate models predict increases in average temperatures worldwide, with wide-ranging impacts on local temperature and rainfall. The impact of those changes on agriculture depends on their magnitude, and also on the agricultural sector’s “responsiveness to changing yield and productivity patterns, production costs, and resource availability.”

The four climate models researchers used to project climate change generate a range of potential effects, but in each of the scenarios, adaptations such as expanding and shifting crop acreage and wide adoption of drought-tolerant crop varieties would help mitigate impacts on agricultural production and crop prices, according to the report.

Key findings include:

  • National acreage changes when farmers adapt are relatively small across climate change scenarios (from 0.2 to 1.0 percent compared with the baseline), although acreage changes vary considerably by region. Crop acreage and planting patterns in the Corn Belt and Northern regions generally are less sensitive to climate change than in Southern regions.
  • Although scenarios predicting hotter, drier conditions lead to lower yields and higher prices for corn and soybeans, adaptation to climate change dampens the rise in prices for most commodities.
  • As the severity of climate-change scenarios increases, crop prices increase but national aggregate returns to crop production decline.
  • Aggregate impacts of climate change on net returns to crop farmers range from an estimated increase of $3.6 billion to a loss of $1.5 billion per year, under the four climate change scenarios. Spread and redistribution of agricultural pests could reduce these returns by $1.5 billion to $3.0 billion.
  • Regionally, crop sector impacts from climate change are likely to be greatest in the Corn Belt, with annual losses ranging from $1.1 billion to $4.1 billion across scenarios. Economic effects in other regions may be positive or negative, depending on how well crop rotation and tillage practices accommodate changes in temperature and precipitation and how market-mediated prices change for predominant regional crops.
  • Drought-tolerant varieties increase returns nationally and in regions that plant them, indicating that further development of drought-tolerant varieties could be beneficial under a wide range of adverse climate changes.
  • Climate change could slightly increase aggregate natural resource and environmental impacts from U.S. agricultural production, although local effects may be more significant. Cropland area is projected to expand 0.2-1.0 percent, while nitrogen fertilizer losses are projected to grow 1.4-5.0 percent. Rainfall-related soil erosion changes range from -0.9 to 1.2 percent above baseline levels.

Read a summary or the whole report from USDA/ERS.