Rice is one of the world’s most widely consumed staple foods. Rice yields depend on numerous factors, such as agricultural practices, but they also depend on the temperature at which the crop is grown. Previous studies have shown that temperatures above rice’s optimum physiological temperature can reduce crop yield. As a result, the International Food Policy Research Institute has stated that the effects of rising temperatures from climate change would likely reduce rice yield by 10 percent by 2050. This could have dramatic impacts across the world, as hunger and malnutrition are already significant problems. Various studies on physiological mechanisms, through which rice plants respond and adapt to climate change, have left a lot of uncertainty, as they’ve used different methods to develop crop models. To address this, an international team of scientists has explored how rising temperatures affect the sensitivity of rice yields using a new compilation of data from 83 field warming experiments at 13 sites across the globe. The team also evaluated three modeling approaches (statistical models, local crop models, and global gridded crop models) to understand one of the sources of uncertainty.
The team ran five crop models with daily weather outputs set at carbon dioxide emissions at the present day value, excluding relevant benefits from carbon dioxide fertilization in the future, meaning carbon would continue to accumulate in the atmosphere throughout the century. This procedure enabled the team to isolate the influence of climate warming on rice yield. The climate models predicted an increase in the mean air temperature of 3.3 to 5.0 Kelvin over rice-growing areas during growing season. The median value of the climate-induced rice yield change that resulted was -27 percent. That’s a dramatic decrease compared to today, and it would put global food security in significant danger. But the drop ranged from 6.6 percent to 42.4 percent, primarily due to the significant uncertainty inherent in climate predictions. This range encompasses everything from an utter disaster to problems that could be compensated for by improved agricultural practices. The team also determined the sensitivity of the rice yield to warming by the end of the 21st century. The long-term sensitivity essentially indicates how much the yield will change per degree of temperature change (in this case, degrees Kelvin) above present-day values.
The International Food Policy Research Institute has its own analysis, which projects a reduction of 4.2 to 6.4 percent for each Kelvin of temperature change. This investigation suggests that future yield problems may be more significant than we’d been expecting. If that’s right, the equally significant measures are likely required to prevent severe rice yield losses. Preventative measures such as genetic improvements that produce rice strains that are more tolerant of heat should be seriously considered to mitigate the risk inherent in the more extreme numbers seen here.