Coughlan de Perez, along with her collaborators, ran climate models in the Midwest and Northeastern China and compared their results to the physiological tolerances known for winter wheat that is grown there.
The high temperatures of spring can slow down the growth of wheat and cause enzymes to be broken down in the plant.
Climate models show that heatwaves that were predicted to hit the Midwest only once every 100 years in 1981 are now more likely to occur every six years. In Northeastern China a heat wave that occurs once every 100 years is expected to occur every 16.
Crop failures can be caused by extreme heat.
Coughlan de Perez stated that “if we have heat waves that are bigger and more intense than anything we’ve ever seen before, it can be devastating to wheat crops”. She said that the temperature in these two important agricultural regions has never been as high or as damaging as climate models predict.
She said that places that haven’t experienced a recent extreme event or natural disaster are likely not preparing for one.
Weston Anderson is an assistant researcher at the University of Maryland, and NASA, who is specialized in climate impacts on food safety. He said that as the world warms, the risks to important crops will increase.
Anderson, who wasn’t involved in the research, said that the new research provides “a solid and logical way to evaluate threats to the food system outside of the range of historical records.”
Coughlan De Perez, a climate model researcher at the University of Michigan, said that although the models did not show a connection between heat waves in the Midwest and Northeastern China it is possible for such events to overlap.
This would lead to a collapse in wheat production and a rise in prices. China will produce about 17% the world’s grain in 2022. According to Department of Agriculture, the U.S. produced 6% of the world’s wheat, with most of it coming from the Midwest.
In many countries, wheat imports are essential for nutrition. This reality was made especially evident during the Russian invasion in Ukraine at the beginning of last year. The disruption to wheat exports by both countries caused a significant drop in their respective production. Together, the countries were responsible for about one-third of all global wheat exports. The prices soared and sparked fears of imminent starvation and hunger in the Middle East and Africa, which depend on these wheat supplies. However, the worst effects of the wheat shortage were avoided when the warring countries agreed to a deal allowing Ukraine to export.
This is not the first study to warn of climate change’s impact on our food supply. The latest U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report , which is its sixth of this kind, predicts that hunger risks will increase with time. Climate change will have a variety of impacts on staple crops such as rice, wheat and soybeans. The report also predicts that the risk of crop failures at the same time will increase.
Anderson states that other recent research suggests certain levels global warming may actually increase global wheat yields. Climate change may shift where wheat is grown and carbon dioxide increases could boost photosynthesis. The same studies also suggest that bust years will become more common.
Other research indicates that the efforts of some wheat breeders to improve their wheat may not keep up with how quickly the climate is heating.
Anderson stated that “we should consider these types of threats, and the possibility extreme climate events could lead to more frequent shocks globally. This is true even for crops like these where we expect to see average yields increasing.”