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New research explores the risk of simultaneous crop failures in multiple breadbasket regions

July 2017 - Met Office scientists have developed a novel approach to improve estimates of climate-related crop production shocks across the major producing regions of China and the United States, including the coincidence of events, leading to multiple breadbasket failures.

Crop production shocks due to extreme weather events have the potential to impact food security across the world, as well as in the country of production, such as China. However, despite a wide body of research investigating the relationship between the weather and crop yields, the risk of simultaneous production shocks across multiple regions has been little explored.

Chris Kent – lead author of the new paper – explains: “How and where we grow crops has changed considerably over time, as has the climate and the probability of extreme events. This means the number of observations we have that are relevant to the present day is reduced, which limits our ability to have useful estimates of the risk”.

To address this issue, the authors made use of multiple climate model simulations run on the new Met Office supercomputer, which were developed in Work Package 2 of the Climate Science for Service Partnership China (CSSP China) project. Adam Scaife (Head of Monthly to Decadal Prediction) explained the benefits of this approach: “Using very large numbers of computer simulations provides a better understanding of how climate might vary in the next few years, including the possibility of extreme events that have not yet even been seen.  In addition, our simulations are dynamically consistent across the globe and this allows a proper estimate of joint impacts in geographically remote regions”.

Using the seasonal temperature and rainfall conditions, the probability of adverse growing conditions for maize - a staple crop for millions of people - were then assessed within the 1400 climate simulations. The study focuses on maize production across China and the United States, which account for almost 60% of global production. Adverse growing conditions in these concentrated areas could have a considerable impact on global food security.

Figure: Water stress is a key driver of reduced maize yields

The study found that across many regions, the probability of severe water stress is higher than if estimated solely from observed historical data, and that the current climate is capable of producing adverse conditions not seen in the last 30 years. Therefore, adaptation plans and policies based solely on observed events from the recent past may considerably underestimate the true risk of climate-related maize shocks.

In addition, the probability of adverse conditions across both China and the United States simultaneously, is estimated to be as high as 6% per decade. Chris Kent adds: “This would be a scenario of multi-breadbasket failure in which impacts would be felt at the global scale. This is the first time we have been able to quantify the risk; it hasn’t been observed in the last 30 years, but the indications are that it is possible in the current climate”.

Kirsty Lewis - science manager of the Climate Security Team summarises: “This work addresses an important gap in our understanding of climate variability in global maize production shocks. It provides a foundation for evaluating resilience for a range of crops across the global food system, both in the present day and long term under a changing climate, as well as enabling the development of new risk based climate services”. Met Office scientists are currently working with partners in China to develop this new research into climate services relating to agricultural production and risk management.

The work was carried out under the CSSP China project, supported by the UK Government’s Newton Fund*, and has been published in Environmental Research Letters. Future work will explore how climate change might impact maize yields in China and the United States as well as looking at other major crops such as soybean, wheat and rice.


* The Newton Fund builds science and innovation partnerships with 16 partner countries to support their economic development and social welfare, and to develop their research and innovation capacity for long-term sustainable growth. It has a total UK Government investment of £735 million up until 2021, with matched resources from the partner countries. The Newton Fund is managed by the UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and delivered through 15 UK Delivery Partners, which include the Research Councils, the UK Academies, the British Council, Innovate UK and the Met Office. For further information visit the Newton Fund website and follow via Twitter: @Newton Fund

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