Following last year’s United Nations climate conference in Glasgow UK, there is growing acceptance in government and the private sector that we need to better understand the effects of anthropogenic climate change (ACC) on agricultural productivity across the world. Thankfully, we are not starting from scratch, with a wide range of published, peer-reviewed papers having documented past/present/future impacts of ACC on the agricultural sector. In this Director’s report, I highlight the findings of three such papers. The first two look back in time, focusing on the impact of past changes in climate on food production systems. The third looks to the future – and asks how shifts in the geographic distribution and management of crops could help mitigate against the negative effects of ACC.
Using time-series data obtained by satellites orbiting the Earth, a recent paper published in the international journal Nature Food provides a snapshot of where and when agricultural productivity has changed over the past two decades. Their analysis revealed that from 2003 to 2019: global total annual net primary production (i.e. a measure of plant growth) of crops increased by 25%; the amount of land being used for crop production increased 9% globally; and, the rate of conversion of natural vegetation to croplands has accelerated, particularly in Africa. Thus, while research and changes in management practices are helping increase how much food can be produced in a given amount of land, satellite data is also showing where and when natural lands are being lost. Such data will be crucial in the years ahead as policy makers and industry strive to sustainably increase global and regional agricultural productivity.
The second paper that looks to our recent past is a paper from Nature Climate Change. In this case, the authors used agricultural data from the United States Department of Agriculture and econometric and global climate models to calculate how ACC has affected agricultural productivity growth over the last 60 years. Importantly, they did not simply look at agricultural output; rather, they assessed how climate change had affected the ratio of agricultural outputs (combining crops and livestock) to inputs (e.g. labour, land, physical capital and materials). Their analysis suggests that while total agricultural output has indeed increased since 1961, global productivity growth measured as the ratio of outputs to inputs decreased by 21%. This decline is equivalent to losing 7 years of productivity growth. Of particular concern was the fact that ACC-mediated declines in productivity growth were most acute in warm regions such as Africa and Latin America.
The third paper – published in Global Change Biology – looks at how future changes in climate are likely to affect the distribution of global “breadbaskets” and “rice bowls” – the geographical areas where most of our cereal crops are grown. Over 80% of global cereals and soybeans, and around half of total global calories, are produced in just 3% of the globe’s ice-free land; the response of these regions to future warming will be crucial for global food security in the decades ahead. Using several models to simulate how crops would respond to a range of climate scenarios and adaptation strategies, the authors showed that productivity in the northern hemisphere could be maintained if “breadbaskets” and “rice bowls” were allowed to move poleward by 600 km by the end of century, and if new cultivars and planting dates were used. While this would not increase overall food production in Europe, Asia and North America, it would at least ameliorate some of the negative effects of ACC on agricultural output. Moreover, while there are likely to be limits to the extent to which productivity of Australia’s “breadbaskets” and “rice bowls” can be maintained through geographic shifts, it is likely that shifts in when and where we grow crops will help mitigate the effects of ACC on our agricultural output.
Such papers provide just a snap shot of the deep work being done to understand past and future ACC-mediated changes in the agriculture sector. They also point to some of the ways in which we can manage the sector to maintain global food production.
On a different topic, I wanted to advertise an exciting opportunity at the Australian Plant Phenomics Facility (APPF). The APPF is committed to facilitating world-class plant phenomics research and offers excellent opportunities for students to investigate their plant science questions with the support of the highly skilled APPF team. The next application round of the APPF Postgraduate Internship Awards (PIA) will open in March. You can start planning your application here.
I also wanted to outline a new initiative from CEAT exploring the future of agriculture. In the first half of 2022, CEAT is initiating a new body of work based on systems focus with the support of Policy Partners and the Institute of Water Futures on the nexus between water, drought, resilience, and ag innovation. CEAT sees the role of innovation as critical to meeting the emergent and enmeshed challenges facing Australian Agriculture. This work will stimulate broad and challenging conversations across a range of stakeholders about those critical challenges and what that necessitates for strategic partnership between public, civil and private sectors at the national level. Keep an eye out for announcements about this initiative, which you can read more about here.
Finally, I would like to express my thanks to Shikha Sud, who will be leaving CEAT later this month to take up an exciting new role in the Australian Federal Police. Over the past two years, Shikha has done a great job leading our Marketing and Communications team, overseeing huge growth in our social media profile and web presence, as well as ensuring the success of CEAT events such as the H2O Hack events held in 2020 and 2021. I wish Shikha well for the future.
Best wishes and all the best for 2022.
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Owen Atkin, Director, CEAT.