Adapting North American wheat production to climatic challenges, 1839–2009


2011-01-11 PNAS, Alan L. Olmstead and Paul W. Rhode, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1008279108 PNAS January 11, 2011 vol. 108 no. 2 480-485

Wheat is the third most produced cereal crop

Wheat is the third most produced cereal crop. Image via Wikipedia

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects that temperatures in the major grain-growing areas of North America will rise by 3–4 °C by 2100. Such abrupt changes will create major challenges, significantly altering the area suitable for wheat. The historical record offers insight into the capability of agriculture to adapt to climatic challenges. Using a new county-level dataset on wheat production and climate norms, we show that during the 19th and 20th centuries North American grain farmers pushed wheat production into environments once considered too arid, too variable, and too harsh to cultivate. As summary measures, the median annual precipitation norm of the 2007 distribution of North American wheat production was one-half that of the 1839 distribution, and the median annual temperature norm was 3.7 °C lower. This shift, which occurred mostly before 1929, required new biological technologies. The Green Revolution associated with the pioneering work of Norman Borlaug represented an important advance in this longer process of biological innovation. However, well before the Green Revolution, generations of North American farmers overcame significant climatic challenges.

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