A new study paints a scary reality: one where climate change pushes another Dust Bowl-like event to take over the Great Plains, throwing global food security into uncertainty.
Published in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems Friday, the study simulated what would occur to the global food network if the U.S. suffered a four-year decline in wheat production at the hands of high temperatures and low precipitation, such as what went down during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. The U.S. would have to reduce its wheat trade, which would cascade throughout the globe. The result? Wheat reserves around the world would decline by more than 75 million tons during these four years, per the study.
“When the U.S. must decrease exports or increase imports in order to meet domestic demands, all U.S. trade partners, in turn, face supply shortages that they must then address by accessing their wheat reserves or adjusting their trade,” co-author Alison Heslin, a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, wrote in an email to Earther. “This propagates the effects of the production shock throughout the world through wheat trade.”
The study made these findings by using wheat production, wheat reserves, and trade data per country from 2012 to 2016. The authors then introduce a decline in wheat production to simulate what happened during the Dust Bowl. They even went ahead and used the same proportion of production lost to stay in line with that event. From there, the simulation mimics what would likely happen in a real scenario: The U.S. taps into its reserves, adjusts trade flows, and other countries follow. The study, however, does not include any change in global prices, which would likely affect trade patterns.
“This propagates the production shock through the system and continues until all countries have met their wheat demand through changes in reserves, trade, and consumption,” Heslin said.
Wheat is integral to food security around the world. It’s used in cereals, bread, pasta, and all our favorite grain foods. Wheat is a staple in many international diets and contributes to more than 60 percent of the people’s daily caloric and protein needs, per the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. However, our global trading system has made many countries—such as Tajikistan and Armenia—dependent on imported wheat. The reliance on these imports makes a disaster thousands of miles away (such as a U.S. Dust Storm) hit hard at home. That’s especially true when the U.S. is the world’s third-largest wheat exporter.
“While global trade can serve to buffer shortages in supply in the short term, it also exposes countries to the consequences of production shocks elsewhere in the world,” Heslin told Earther. “In this way, we are vulnerable to the effects of climate change on agricultural production not only domestically, but in breadbasket regions throughout the world.”
The Great Plains of the U.S. are set to see some major changes by midcentury. All thanks to climate change, of course. Extreme heat and loss of rainfall are set to impact southern Great Plains states, such as Texas and Oklahoma. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s was characterized by these weather conditions plus high winds in Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico.
The native grasses in this region can typically withstand these hot, dry conditions because their roots run deep and hold water, as well as protect the soil from high winds. Prior to the last Dust Bowl, however, farmers had stripped large swaths of land of their native vegetation and replaced them with wheat and other crops. When farmers would leave the soil bare after harvest, the dirt would erode without anything to keep it from churning into giant clouds. That’s how the massive, terrifying dark dust storms that made this period so notorious would form.
Now, this study is predicting that the changing weather patterns caused by climate change may bring another disaster like this to the Great Plains. More sustainable agricultural practices, such as using cover-crops so that the soils stay healthy year-round and no-till farming so as to avoid disturbing the soil, can help prevent soil from eroding. However, these practices are not used widely throughout the agricultural industry.
“We need to kind of think about even doing further steps to design systems that are more resilient to those climate fluctuations,” Charles Rice, a professor of agronomy at Kansas State University who was not involved with the paper, told Earther. “But those severe droughts—those extreme events—are going to challenge our current and even future agricultural practices .”