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Is the global distribution of crops optimised for climate?

Agriculture is a vital part of human development. However, global warming is impacting crop yields, and land conversion for food production is one of the most important drivers of nature loss. Smart planning, adaptation, and optimisation of agricultural practices are therefore crucial to ensuring a sustainable future for both people and the planet. 

Which crops are grown where depends on many environmental, historical, socio-economic, cultural and technological factors, including the areas of origin of crop species, climatic, topographic, and soil conditions, access to fertilizers and irrigation, and human migrations and trade. But to what extent are agricultural systems and crop distributions optimised around the world? 

A new study led by the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in France, with the participation of experts at UNEP-WCMC, has analysed the relationship between the global distribution of major food crops and the climate suitability of where they are grown to ensure good yields.  

The analysis focused on twelve of the most important global crops: maize, rice, barley, cassava, peanut, wheat, sunflower, sugar beet, soybean, sorghum, potato, and rapeseed. Combining a wide range of environmental, agricultural, and socio-economic data with a statistical modelling framework, they compared the distribution and yield of each of these crops across different climatic conditions.

Overall, crop distribution matches climate suitability for good crop yield across high-income world regions, although the relationship between the locations where each crop species is grown and the suitability of these locations to maximise their production is tremendously variable. Mismatches arise across large areas, especially in low-income regions. The analysis shows regions where climatic suitability is high for productivity, but small fractions of the land are cultivated. In these areas, the sustainable expansion of certain crops could result in an increase in their harvests at a global level. On the other hand, it also identifies cases where the number of hectares harvested is disproportionately large in relation to the climatic suitability of the site for that crop, and therefore changes in agricultural planning could result in increased and more sustainable production.  

The analysis found that rice, one of the most important crops globally - but also cassava and sorghum - are most intensively cultivated in areas that do not have the greatest harvest potential. This pattern may highlight strategies from low-income regions to continue producing staple crops under harsh climatic conditions. Other major crops, such as barley and peanut, have a better match with the productive potential of the areas where they are grown.  

“Our study shows that the global adjustment of crop distribution to climate is limited because multiple environmental, agricultural, socio-economic, and historical factors drive the choice of farmers to cultivate a particular crop. Therefore, a main challenge for the coming years will be to design efficient strategies to adapt agriculture to climate change while maintaining a vital space for nature.”

Samuel Pironon, UNEP-WCMC Modelling Scientist and study co-author.  

The study Matches and mismatches between the global distribution of major food crops and climate suitability also involved scientists from the University of Montpellier (France), Universidad Rey Juan Carlos (Spain), Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (UK), International Center for Tropical Agriculture (Colombia), San Diego Botanic Garden (USA), University of Colorado (USA), and University of British Columbia (Canada).

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