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'Clouds' of small insects devastate pantry-favorite crop around the world: 'It's just terrible'

"Many are going to reduce their hectares of corn to zero."

"Many are going to reduce their hectares of corn to zero."

Photo Credit: iStock

Rising temperatures are affecting corn production, and the solution is not within immediate reach.

What's happening?

In Argentina, which exports the third-most corn in the world, the industry is suffering from a leafhopper explosion. The insects can destroy the crop via a stunt disease that damages the cobs and kernels of the corn.

Reuters reported that the four-millimeter pests are thriving with fewer days of frost and climbing minimum temperatures. Farmers are switching to soy, which is unaffected by the leafhopper.

"Many are going to reduce their hectares of corn to zero," producer Anibal Cordoba said.

"You normally found leafhoppers in the bud of the plants if you looked. But this year you go to the field and you find clouds of leafhopper. It's just crazy."

Farmers in northern parts of the country have adapted to the leafhopper, but after the warmest year on record and 12 consecutive months of unprecedented marks, its populations are 10 times greater than usual — and the bugs have traveled 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) south of their historical range.

In west central Córdoba, the main corn region of Argentina, the estimated loss is up to $1.1 billion, according to Reuters

Why is corn production important?

Corn is a critical crop, so any threat to it is a threat to humankind. It is used to make cereal, bread, and beer, as well as diapers, soap, and biodegradable cups.

Rosario grains exchange head of agricultural estimates Cristian Russo said production is down from more than 60 million tons to 50.5 million tons.

"We all suspect that it still could get much worse than what we're seeing," he said. "It's a big blow to corn."

From 1963 to 2013, cold nights in Argentina dropped from 15 per year to eight. Such conditions do damage plants but also kill bugs such as the leafhopper, which cannot survive if the temperature is under four degrees Celsius (39 degrees Fahrenheit). National Agricultural Technology Institute entomologist Fernando Flores said fewer frosts in the previous winter was a key cause of larger insect populations.

What's being done about vulnerable crops?

In the United States, biotech conglomerate Bayer is trying to combat extreme weather by engineering "short corn," which can withstand high winds with its smaller stature and be planted more densely, increasing yields.

Scientists are working to make rice, another globally important crop, more salt-resistant so it can withstand seawater intrusion, another issue exacerbated by rising temperatures.

As for the Argentine corn, the government is trying to help mitigate the damage, in part by approving pesticide use, Reuters reported.

"This is a real, real problem," agronomist consultant Michael Cordonnier said. "Going forward, they will be able to solve this a few years down the road by getting hybrids that are more tolerant to corn stunt disease and registering more insecticides for this specific problem.

"But for the time being it's just terrible."

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