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New study predicts major threat to global food production: 'It's not only crops and livestock that are affected'

"The agricultural workers who plant, till, and harvest much of the food we need will also suffer."

"The agricultural workers who plant, till, and harvest much of the food we need will also suffer."

Photo Credit: iStock

Agricultural productivity is expected to drop significantly by the end of the century as farmers face hotter conditions.

What happened?

According to a new study, agricultural labor productivity could drop below 40% of full work capacity by the end of the century in key food production regions such as Pakistan and India as rising global temperatures affect farmers' physical abilities to work. 

The researchers expect other important regions in Southeast and South Asia, West and Central Africa, and northern South America to drop to 70%.

The team made the predictions using data from more than 700 heat stress trials, which involved observing people working in a range of conditions. Maximum work capacity achievable by workers in a cool climate was used as the benchmark (100%).

Why is the study concerning?

"Assessments consistently conclude that climate change will reduce crop yields, making food security challenges worse," the study's lead author, Gerald Nelson, told Phys.org.

"But it's not only crops and livestock that are affected," he continued. "The agricultural workers who plant, till, and harvest much of the food we need will also suffer due to heat exposure, reducing their ability to undertake work in the field."

Many agricultural workers are already struggling with heat. The study estimated that half the world's cropland farmers worked below 86% capacity from 1991 to 2010.

Besides increased heat, drought also endangers the future of agriculture. In fact, experts warn that ongoing drought conditions across many parts of the world currently threaten food security.

Worsening weather, such as more frequent heat waves, extended droughts, increased flooding, and stronger hurricanes, are all side effects of a warming world. While severe weather has always occurred, scientists say climate change supercharges these events, making them more powerful and dangerous to our communities.

What's being done to help people adapt to a warming world?

The study suggests implementing adaptive measures for workers: shifting to nighttime or shade work could increase worker productivity by 5% to 10%. Another option is to move toward using more agricultural machinery in areas such as Sub-Saharan Africa that still rely heavily on manual labor.

Meanwhile, scientists are working on new ways to help plants better tolerate heat and drought. For instance, researchers have developed a way to create "heat-resistant" plants. Plus, a team in Japan says that soaking plants in ethanol could help protect them from a drought.

Heat doesn't just affect agricultural workers, and some cities are stepping up to protect citizens. For instance, reflective or super white paints are being used to help lower temperatures. 

You can protect yourself during extreme heat by drinking water even if you're not feeling thirsty, avoiding strenuous exercise, staying indoors, or finding a local cooling center if you don't have a working air conditioner.

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