Metro

Climate change could curb crop yields by 2050, MIT study says

Orange, MA -- Farm School Student Erik Jacobs uses a tractor to cultivate a bed of tomato plants at the Farm School. Photo by Dina Rudick for the Boston Globe

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff/File

Climate change could deplete some US water basins and dramatically reduce crop yields in some areas by 2050, according to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

A study by a group of MIT scientists and economists is one of the first to examine how the warming climate could affect the availability and distribution of the water basins that farmers depend on for irrigation.

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If no action is taken to combat climate change, the team predicts that by 2050, numerous basins used to irrigate crops across the country will either start to experience shortages or see existing shortages “severely accentuated.’’

Elodie Blanc, the lead author on the study, said certain regions in the Southwest already are seeing a drop in the amount of water available for irrigation, and other regions could follow.

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“If we mitigate, this could prevent added stress associated with climate change and a severe decrease in runoff in the western United States,” Blanc said in a statement. “But it will be even worse in the future if we don’t do anything at all.”

Erwan Monier, a coauthor on the study, said researchers will now seek to examine the ways reduced crop yields could influence the country’s agricultural landscape. Under some scenarios, researchers actually project higher yields for irrigated crops such as wheat, soybean, and sorghum in the southern Plains, which is expected to receive more rainfall amid climate change.

But farmers could feel the impact in other areas.

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“In the real world, if you’re a farmer and year after year you’re losing yield, you might decide, ‘I’m done farming,’ or switch to another crop that doesn’t require as much water, or maybe you move somewhere else,” Monier said.

The information provided in the study could prompt farmers, and even people outside the agricultural sector, to adapt before they start experiencing water shortages and problems with irrigation.

“What we’re hoping is that there will be adaptation ahead of time so that the impact on the economy is as limited as possible,” Monier said. “We hope that people will realize that the way the world is at this moment is not going to be sustainable in the future.”

Alyssa Meyers can be reached at alyssa.meyers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ameyers_.
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