Climate Change, A Blessing For Northern Agriculture?
Well, it’s complicated
I know, the title sounds odd. Usually, when we talk about climate change, the best case scenario looks like an imminent apocalypse, ready to wipe us off from the planet. Although we certainly should be very much concerned about the worrying effects of climate change, truth is that different areas of the world will be hit in very different ways, and some will actually benefit from it (at least in the early stages). Ok, maybe “will benefit from it” is a too confident statement, but climate scientists are generally in agreement that the northern latitudes (above 45°) will be impacted differently from the southern ones. Given that these predictions come from the analysis of climate models’ simulations, we can’t be 100% sure that this is what will happen, but the hints point in that direction.
What does agriculture have to do with it? Well, if we know what the future climate of a certain area will look like, we can also “foresee” what the crops’ growing conditions are likely to be. Clearly, the environmental conditions alone, despite being crucial, are not the only aspects to consider. In relation to the climate crisis, equally important social and economic features of an agricultural system, should also be taken into consideration before defining its failure or success.
However, the environmental conditions still play a major role, and they will be a good indicator of what growing crops a few decades from now will look like.
Climate change will bring in some advantages…
Being that agriculture is a sector that is directly affected by climate and weather changes, the new environmental conditions which will set in in the northern latitudes under climate change, seem likely to trigger joy rather than despair in the farmers working in (now) colder regions.
In fact, studies have shown that under climate change, the northern latitudes will consistently have warmer winter months as opposed to southern latitudes, where the temperature increase will rather occur in the summer months (exacerbating the conditions of already fragile farming systems, mainly because of more intense and prolonged droughts). In addition, according to climate scientists, droughts will likely not affect the northern latitudes, as the winter months will become even rainier.
Warmer and rainy winters will lead to three major (positive) consequences:
- Longer cropping season
- Possibility to introduce new crops, whose cultivation is now feasible climate-wise
- Potential increase in yield
You will now see why a, let’s say Norwegian farmer, seems to find himself in a much better “farming position” 10–20 years from now, as compared to, for example, a Greek one.
…but it won’t be too much of a blessing
So, under climate change, the scenario which is forming seems to be the following: on the one hand we have the northern farmer, who can rely on a much longer cropping season and a higher yield potential, and is also expanding his production, maybe by introducing crops which no one would expect to see growing so much up north (maybe Danish wine or Finnish olive oil will become the new normal). On the other hand, there is the southern farmer, who will have a hard time coping with the combination of heat waves and droughts which will be roasting his crops halfway through the growing season.
Looks like the future of agriculture is mostly linked to northern latitudes, as the ideal environmental conditions will set up there. However, we have to keep in mind that new climatic conditions are also linked to a new vulnerability level for these cropping systems.
In fact, a longer cropping season and a higher yield potential are not the only elements that come along with warmer conditions and higher moisture: diseases and pests are taking the stage too.
So, if northern farmers will be spared the drought and heat waves, they will likely be severely hit by the spreading of crop pests and diseases which will follow the crops’ expansion to the north. The combination of a warm and moist weather, will in fact become an ideal environment for the build-up of plant pathogens.
How do we know? Because it is already happening
The spreading of new pests under the effects of climate change is something we are already experiencing in the Mediterranean basin. Particularly striking is the case of Halyomorpha halys, also called brown marmorated stink bug, which is originally from China and South Korea, but made its way into the fields of southern Europe due to the increasingly suitable climatic conditions for its development. In fact, the milder temperatures in autumn and throughout the winter, make it now possible even here for pest overwintering as an adult (in terms of stage of development). Feeding on a wide array of crops, this stink bug is a serious threat to agriculture, to the extent that it caused in the sole region of Emilia-Romagna (Italy), damages for 112 million euros in 2020.
The moral of the story is that the setting up of more favorable climatic conditions further north won’t probably be a blessing for agriculture. Current evidence in hotspots of climate change, like the Mediterranean basin, suggests that pests and diseases will likely spread like wildfire, with the risk of making the chemical inputs the sole effective pest control method. Sustainable pest control solutions are still valid, but in order for them to represent a viable alternative to chemical-based methods and be equally effective, we cannot wait for the situation to get out of control.
So, next time you hear that climate change might favor agriculture, you won’t have an excuse to behave environmentally irresponsibly.