Study Finds With Global Warming More Insects Will Be Hungrier for Crops

Climate change will produce hungrier, more plentiful insects that destroy more of our food, says new research in Science by UVM’s Scott Merrill and colleagues. (Image: Keith Ewing and Frank Peairs / Colorado State University)
Climate change will produce hungrier, more plentiful insects that destroy more of our food, says new research in Science by UVM’s Scott Merrill and colleagues. (Image: Keith Ewing and Frank Peairs / Colorado State University)

Crop losses for critical food grains will increase substantially with global warming, as rising temperatures boost the metabolism and population growth of insect pests, new research says. Scott Merrill of the University of Vermont, a co-author of the study published in Science, said:

Researchers looked at how the insect pests that attack three staple crops — rice, maize, and wheat — would respond under a variety of climate scenarios. They found that rising global temperatures would lead to an increase in crop losses from insects, especially in temperate regions. Losses are projected to rise by 10-25 percent per degree of warming.

Just a 2-degree rise in global average temperature will result in total crop losses of approximately 213 million tons for the three grains, the researchers say.

Insects like it hotter — up to a point

The losses will come from an increase in insect metabolism, and from faster insect population growth rates. The link with metabolism is straightforward. Merrill, a researcher in UVM’s Dept. of Plant and Soil Science and Gund Institute for Environment, said:

The link with population growth, however, is more complex. Insects have an optimal temperature where their population grows best. If the temperature is too cold or too hot, the population will grow more slowly. That is why the losses will be greatest in temperate regions, but less severe in the tropics. Merrill, an ecologist who studies plant-crop interactions, added:

Key grain crops to take a hit

According to the study, wheat, which is typically grown in cool climates, will suffer the most, as increased temperatures will lead to greater insect metabolism, as well as increased pest populations and survival rates over the winter. Maize, which is grown in some areas where population rates will increase and others where they will decline, will face a more uneven future.

In rice, which is mostly grown in warm tropical environments, crop losses will actually stabilize if average temperatures rise above 3oC, as population growth drops, counteracting the effect of increased metabolism in the pests. Merrill said:

That means that the most substantial yield declines will happen in some of the world’s most productive agricultural regions. Merrill explained:

Curtis Deutsch of the University of Washington, who co-led the study with Joshua Tewksbury, said:

France, China, and the United States, which produce most of the world’s maize, are among the countries that are expected to experience the largest increases in crop losses from insect pests. France and China, as major producers of wheat and rice, respectively, are also expected to face large increases in losses of those grains as well. Merrill said:

Reduced yields in these three staple crops are a particular concern because so many people around the world rely on them. Together, they account for 42 percent of direct calories consumed by humans worldwide. Increased crop losses will result in a rise in food insecurity, especially in those parts of the world where it is already rife, and could lead to conflict.

As farmers adapt to a changing climate by shifting planting dates or switching to new cultivars, they will also have to find ways to deal with pests by introducing new crop rotations or using more pesticides. But not all of these strategies will be available to all farmers. Merrill added:

Provided by: University of Vermont [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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