Predicting the Future of Food

How one tool is impacting financial markets by predicting future climate impacts on the world’s most essential crops

The Collider
Nov 14, 2019 · 6 min read
Photo by user Pixels on Pixabay.

By Mickey Snowdon, Communications Liaison for The Collider

Consider that over 80 percent of the calories we consume come from just 10 foods: corn, rice, wheat, soybeans, palm oil, sugarcane, barley, rapeseed (canola oil), cassava, and sorghum. Corn and soy alone contributed over 90 billion dollars to the US economy in 2017.

Changes in our Earth’s climate due to global warming are altering the ability of regions to produce these key crops. This can be seen as both a positive and a negative, as crop yields in some regions are increasing while they are decreasing in others. Senior scientist at the University of Minnesota Deepak Ray found in his recent study that overall, “climate change is reducing consumable food calories by around 1% yearly for the top 10 global crops.”

Monitoring the impacts of climate events on global crop supply is becoming increasingly important, which is why Collider member and Prescient Weather’s CEO Dr. Jan Dutton created CropProphet.

The CropProphet yield forecasting tool provides the most accurate, up-to-date, and multi-perspective weather-based crop yields possible to enable risk management and speculation within agricultural trading markets. CropProphet’s target markets include hedge funds and other trading organizations, grain buyers and sellers, seed companies, agricultural risk management providers, and even crop producers.

CropProphet is a “big data” analytics tool that forecasts yields and production for some of the world’s most consumed crops — specifically corn, soy, and winter wheat. The tool uses a model created from 40-plus years of end-of-season yield and production data on these crops combined with daily crop-season weather data at the county level for the same time period provided by the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (USDA NASS).

Changes in climate are making the CropProphet model more relevant every day; each year, Dutton says, increased drought and flooding across the world is impacting yields and production of the world’s most important crops.

Agriculturalists, governments, non-governmental organizations, and businesses closely monitor global supply and demand for the most widely traded and consumed crops. Crop prices can be affected internationally by expected supply, which is largely determined by weather conditions in a given region.

An example of this interconnectivity is Argentina and Brazil, which are both significant crop producers. These countries are critical at a global level because they are located in the Southern Hemisphere, and therefore their growing season is opposite that of the US. Dutton explains that a weather-induced disruption to their normal crop production cycle can significantly alter the price of corn and soybeans in the US and the rest of the Northern Hemisphere.

This is a major reason why CropProphet’s projections are in high demand. “Crop buyers globally want to know what the weather’s impact on crop yields in the Southern Hemisphere will be because they know it will influence their purchase price,” Dutton says. “It helps them manage risk.” CropProphet can help crop buyers understand the optimal correlation between weather and crop yields with their daily updated yield forecasts.

A popular study conducted by Butler et al. in 2009 found that warmer temperatures have actually increased the number of growing days for corn since 1981, and — correspondingly — crop yields. However, the article finds that this is due largely to changes farmers have made in their planting schedules and seed varieties in an effort to adapt to a longer growing season.

“Crops such as corn are incredibly weather-dependent,” Dutton says. “We can help companies manage the risks associated with year-to-year changes in climate by providing a more complete picture.”

Part of this picture is understanding the climate trends allowing corn yields to consistently increase over the past five years in the Midwest. In a recent study conducted by Dartmouth, researchers discovered a global warming “hole” conveniently centered over the Midwest’s Corn Belt, protecting it from increasingly extreme global temperatures over the past decade (globally, 2018 was the fourth hottest year ever recorded). Cooler temperatures compounded by increased precipitation and earlier planting dates in the Corn Belt have allowed the corn to mature over a longer period of time, contributing to higher yields.

Thanks to the Warming Hole, corn yields have increased by ten percent over the past five years, which has translated to a 1.5 billion dollar revenue gain each year.

Note the direct correlation between cooler temperatures and increased corn production in the Midwestern Corn Belt. Image courtesy of Environmental Research Letters.

To be clear, the Warming Hole is an anomaly caused by regional climate processes. Climate hasn’t always favored corn; in fact, Butler and his colleagues explain that the outlier years in their study — 1988 and 2012 — were two of the most severe drought years the US has experienced in recent history, and serve as warnings to what future growing conditions might be like in America.

The Dartmouth study’s researchers predict that it’s simply a matter of time until the Warming Hole vanishes, at which point the Midwest will experience the full brunt of climate change, just like other regions.

Dutton explains that these climatic changes will most likely include rising temperatures, increased droughts, more severe storms, extreme precipitation events, and flooding — which are all interrelated. The change in precipitation, he says, is due to the amount of water vapor in the air, which is exponentially increased by higher air temperatures. As a result, the impacts may make it exceedingly difficult or even impossible for farmers to plant their crops, even in an area as fertile as the Corn Belt.

According to a report by the National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI), this past May was the second wettest on record in the contiguous US.

May 2019 precipitation accumulation as a percentage of normal precipitation in the US. The greener regions represent abnormally wet conditions while the redder regions represent abnormally dry conditions.

CropProphet’s 2019 corn and soybean forecast revealed that heavy precipitation caused significant planting delays (shown below), negatively impacting yields across the country.

2019 “Corn Planted Progress,” as reported by the USDA NASS. The red line indicates 2019’s percentage of corn actually planted, while the green regions indicate the normal percentage planted.

While it’s difficult to identify a single reason for the changes in crop season weather that occur each year, climate change projections indicate this year-to-year variability is likely to become more extreme. Increasing conditions such as the 2012 drought and the 2019 early crop-season rainfall will only cause greater variability in the production of the world’s key crops.

“This problem is not going away,” Dutton says. “CropProphet is positioning itself to provide real-time updates on the impact of variable and anomalous conditions on the world’s most important crops for years to come.”


Potential Applications for CropProphet

Changing weather and climate conditions are impacting growing regions across the world. Areas that were once ideal for one crop may now be better suited for a different crop. This is forcing countries — particularly developing countries — to not only evaluate their current practices, but also consider what crops they should grow in the future.

It may behoove countries to start growing the crop that their region’s future climate will be most suited for, and Dutton says that CropProphet could be used to help make those critical decisions.

The Collider Blog

Where climate stories are told.

The Collider

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A nonprofit member network providing climate solutions. | Based in Asheville, NC | TheCollider.org

The Collider Blog

Where climate stories are told.

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