May 22, 2015

El Nino weather impacting Nebraska crops and the world


In agriculture, we all know that Mother Nature is one of the key factors in determining a successful or unfortunate year. Thankfully in Nebraska this spring, we have received ample moisture, thanks to El Nino.

Recently, the National Climate Prediction Center has raised the probability of an El Niño in the Northern Hemisphere lasting through this summer to 90 percent, and added that there is an even greater than 80 percent probability it will last through all of 2015.

While this “rainy” season is among us here in the bread basket of the world, the El Nino is not positive for some around the world.

The probability is raising the chance of heavy rain in the southern United States as well as South America, but it is adding scorching heat in Asia that could devastate crops of thirsty food staples like rice.

A new paper recently published in journal Nature Communications confirms the link between the natural climate fluctuation known as the El Niño Southern Oscillation and food harvests of wheat, rice, corn and soybeans that provide nearly 60 per cent of all calories consumed by humans on the planet.

El Niño years were found to have a tendency for negative impacts on crop yields in 22 to 24 percent of growing regions, especially in Asia. At the same time, El Niño tended to have a positive impact on crop yields in 30 to 36 per cent of harvested regions, especially North America. The study estimates the global average negative impact of an El Niño on total crop harvests is between a 0.8 and 4 percent decrease for wheat, rice, corn and soybeans.

These numbers may not seem large to some, but five years of El Niño in the 1950s led to massive famine in China. In the late 1950s, food supplies dropped by 30 percent and immense starvation prevailed in China. It has been 18 years since the world was hit with a strong El Niño, so very few countries are equipped for its considerable impact. However, we have more available technology and information than we did 65 years ago. With China and virtually all of Asia now confirmed global traders, there should be plenty of wheat, rice, corn and soybeans in storage to initially prevent any type of famine. But we could see the price of food increase.

Recently, Reuters reported that a strong El Nino last appeared in 2009-2010 and resulted in significant spikes in sugar, cocoa and wheat prices. If a strong El Niño does develop the likely U.S. impacts include wetter conditions across the southern U.S., from California through Texas to Florida, which could bring relief to the drought-stricken areas.

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