Heat waves and agricultural production: in the race to reduce extreme heat, we must not forget the strengthening of agriculture


Heat waves increase the risk of crop failures and threaten food security for billions of people. Credit: Busani Bafana/IPS
  • Opinion by Esther Ngumbi (urbana, illinois, usa)
  • Inter Press Service

These climate-related events taking place in regions and areas never before hit send the message that no one is immune to climate change. All countries and citizens must act urgently to mitigate this existential threat.

Indeed, these historic catastrophes create an important moment for all of us, including policymakers at both the state and federal levels, to make bold reforms on numerous issues, including heat and agriculture.

As countries consider climate mitigation initiatives, they need to make agricultural crops more resilient to extreme heat, drought, insect herbivores and flooding, which are increasingly common. These crops include corn, rice, soybeans, wheat and tomatoes.

Just like humans, crops are sensitive to extreme heat. When temperatures rise, crops wither, their health deteriorates and normal development is impaired. Studies have shown that crops and crop varieties sensitive to heat stress are most affected.

Heat stress causes the deterioration of several important physiological processes of plants, including photosynthesis, respiration and transpiration. Furthermore, it causes the accumulation of toxic substances in plant cells, including phenolic compounds and reactive oxygen species.

The growth capacity of plants is affected and their life cycle is shortened. Ultimately, crop yields are reduced affecting food supply and agriculture, a key sector of the economies of many countries, including the US, UK, Spain, France and many African countries.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, agriculture and related industries in the U.S. contributed $1,055 trillion to U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) in 2020. In the UK, agriculture contributed about 0.5% to the economy in 2021.

In China, the agricultural sector contributes 8.9% to China’s GDP. In African and other emerging countries, agriculture can account for more than 25% of GDP, according to the World Bank.

Heat waves increase the risk of crop failures and threaten food security for billions of people.

Indeed, scientists around the world have gathered evidence of the crop and yield losses associated with heat waves and extreme temperatures. A 2017 study examining extensive published results found that temperature rise reduces global yields. Similarly, a 2018 study examining more than 82,000 yield data from 17 European countries found the same trend.

Crop failures and productivity losses due to extreme heat, drought and flooding occur in many countries. However, the magnitude of these crop failures varies greatly depending on the region and its wealth.

African countries, for example, suffer the most. A 2022 report prepared by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that intense heatwaves, frequent droughts and floods have reduced agricultural productivity in African countries by 34 percent.

Worryingly, crop-devouring pests such as the fall armyworm and locusts, which have proven to be serious pests, also thrive when temperatures are higher than normal. Because insects are poikilotherm (meaning their temperature varies with the environment), elevated temperatures are associated with increased metabolism and increased plant consumption, leading to greater damage.

In addition, insects such as the autumn armyworm can adapt their life history strategies, allowing them to further thrive in a wide range of stressful temperatures. In addition, recent models suggest that each additional degree of warming will increase crop losses for insects by 10-25 percent.

Obviously, as governments begin to strategize on how to mitigate heat waves, and other climate changes that have brought extremes, they should not forget about agriculture.

Strengthening agricultural resilience could include developing disaster preparedness and response plans, continuing to fund agricultural and other climate change research, and accelerating education and education about climate-smart practices.

Climate-smart practices that can reduce crop failures at extreme temperatures are diverse and include:

  1. Planting heat and drought tolerant crop varieties bred to improve their photosynthetic capabilities and more efficient water use when periods of stress occur
  2. Application of products such as silicone and silicone nanoparticles, and
  3. Using inoculants made from naturally occurring beneficial soil microbes that can provide tolerance to heat and drought, among other stressors.

Fortunately, scientific researchers around the world continue to improve our understanding of crop response to climate-related stress. We can learn from them.

In the race to mitigate climate change caused by heat waves, we must not forget to strengthen agriculture.

dr. Esther Ngumba is an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign and a Senior Food Security Fellow at the Aspen Institute, New Voices.

© Inter Press Service (2022) — All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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