November 24, 2009 / 3:03 PM / 10 years ago

Warming means rain but no crop boost for NE China

BEIJING (Reuters) - Climate change is likely to bring more rain to China’s northeastern bread basket, but too late in the year to benefit crops, seriously threatening a major region for wheat, corn and rice, a report said on Tuesday.

Climate change-driven water scarcity in the country’s northeast could lop up to 12 percent off forecast average crop yields. Droughts are exacerbated by limited irrigation in an area that has historically had fairly reliable water supplies but is already losing millions of tonnes of potential grain production a year from shortages.

The report, “From bread basket to dust bowl” highlights how complicated the impact of climate change may be in many areas, and also the threats it poses to China’s food supplies.

Many models of warming driven by greenhouse gases suggest northeast China may get more rain and a longer growing season.

But this report, prepared with leading Chinese experts on climate change and farming, suggests such changes may not bring bigger yields — at least, not without major spending to counter shifting and increasingly erratic rain patterns.

“In Northeast China, where the climate can only support one harvest per year, crops are sown in spring, thus spring-time precipitation is critical,” the report, drawn up by consultants McKinsey Climate Change using government data, said.

“The suggestion that climate change could increase average annual precipitation in Northeast China ought not to be mistaken for climate change relieving drought...Climate change will still lead to increased drought because it decreases the critical springtime precipitation,” it added.

Heavier rains that fall in summer will do little for crops. Neighboring north China will fare better, with a slight increase in useable downpours because that area supports two plantings a year.

But global warming is also likely to bring an increase in “extreme events” — in the northeast, droughts — that will also cut into farmers’ average yields over several years.

The potential slide in harvests is worrisome for a country that prides itself on food self-sufficiency, and is already losing crop productivity to drought. By 2030 the North and the Northeast together are expected to provide over a quarter of China’s grain, more than Brazil’s entire output, it added.


Investment in areas such as high-tech irrigation, soil management and seed technology could cut the losses by half. McKinsey estimates the price tag for the two northern bread basket areas at 5 billion yuan ($732.3 million) a year over two decades, but says much of this could come from businesses.

The report also suggested agricultural insurance to protect farmers in years when drought was too fierce to salvage crops.

“Two-thirds of these possible solutions have attractive returns, and one would hope that the private sector could be leveraged,” said report author Martin Joerss, who used data from China’s Academy of Agricultural Sciences.

Urbanization will cut the number of affected farmers, and expected legislation to allow land transfers should also allow the creation of larger farms which have capital to spend on more expensive equipment.

However the report also warns some adaptation could potentially be undermined by longer-term events beyond the scope of their report — particularly the forecast shrinkage of China’s rivers if glaciers retreat.

Editing by Keiron Henderson

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