Climate change has been holding back food production for decades, with a new study showing that about 21% of growth for agricultural output was lost since the 1960s.
That’s equal to losing the last seven years of productivity growth, according to research led by Cornell University and published in the journal Nature Climate Change. The study was funded by a unit of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The revelation comes as the United Nations’ World Food Programme warns of a “looming catastrophe” with about 34 million people globally on the brink of famine. The group has cited climate change as a major factor contributing to the sharp increase in hunger around the world. Food inflation is also on the rise as farmers deal with the impact of extreme weather at a time of robust demand.
This is the first study to look at how climate change has historically affected agricultural production on a global scale, using econometrics and climate models to figure out how much of the sector’s total productivity has been affected, across crops and livestock.
The loss of productivity comes even as billions have been poured into improving agricultural production through the development of new seeds, sophisticated farm machinery and other technological advances.
“Even though globally agriculture is more productive, that greater productivity on average doesn’t translate into more climate resilience,” said Ariel Ortiz-Bobea, an author of the paper and associate professor at Cornell’s Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management.
The damages to productivity growth aren’t evenly spread across regions. Warmer areas — especially those in the tropics — are more detrimentally affected. Ortiz-Bobea said that coincides with many countries where agriculture makes up a bigger share of the economy.
He was also warned that current research into improving production may not enough consider the pace of climate change.
“I worry that we’re breeding or preparing ourselves for the climate we’re in now, not what is coming up in the next couple of decades.”