ATLANTA — New research from Emory University projects that the current region of the U.S. known for its cornfields and referred to as the "Corn Belt" will largely be unsuitable for growing it anymore by the end of the century.
It also finds many parts of the South where cotton is currently suitable for cultivation will no longer be so.
The paper, "Shifting cultivation geographies in the Central and Eastern US," by Emory Department of Environmental Sciences researcher Emily Burchfield concludes "biophysical shifts alone are likely to drive the northern shift of current cultivation geographies - with much of the Midwestern US becoming unsuitable to the cultivation of corn by 2100."
Burchfield's paper also explores the economic and political interventions that could mitigate some of the shift and the environmental limits those efforts might have.
“Climate change is happening, and it will continue to shift U.S. cultivation geographies strongly north,” Burchfield told Emory's eScienceCommons. “It’s not enough to simply depend on technological innovations to save the day. Now is the time to envision big shifts in what and how we grow our food to create more sustainable and resilient forms of agriculture.”
Her paper notes that climate change is projected over the coming decades to have severe effects on U.S. agricultural productivity, but that "even small differences in our assumptions about the pace and direction of future technological and political-economic change can significantly alter projected agricultural futures."
In her research, Burchfield developed models to project crop geographies for six major U.S. commodity crops: corn, cotton, alfalfa, wheat and soy. She tested whether those models could accurately predict recent agricultural trends based on environmental conditions - which they could - and then whether they could predict recent agricultural trends while also accounting for "agricultural technology, political-economic incentives, and farm circumstances." In this regard, they performed even better.
Projecting outward, the models foresee a drastic shift in where crops are grown.
Under a moderate emissions scenario, "future climate conditions... will significantly reshape biophysical suitability across the Central and Eastern U.S., causing a near collapse of corn cultivation in the Midwestern U.S. by 2100. Soy, alfalfa, and wheat cultivation shift strongly northward by the end of the century. The area across the southern U.S. cultivated with cotton strongly contracts, and hay cultivation expands into the Central U.S."
Burchfield acknowledged that "these projections may be pessimistic because they don’t account for all of the ways that technology may help farmers adapt and rise to the challenge,” but that "relying on technology alone is a really risky way to approach the problem,” and, "if we continue to push against biophysical realities, we will eventually reach ecological collapse.”
Her biggest takeaway from the research is that U.S. agriculture stakeholders will need to diversify beyond the commodity crops that currently dominate farm production.
"Agricultural adaptation to climate change in the Central and Eastern U.S. will be necessary and inevitable," her paper notes. "The time to start the transition is now."