COP26: We need to understand how climate change is impacting vital crops
By Emeritus Professor Denis Murphy
The likely negative impacts of climate change are now very well documented in the scientific literature and are increasingly accepted by the general public.
Climate change threatens the sustainability of crop production via factors such as fluctuating temperatures (mostly but not always upwards), combined with erratic rainfall and disease patterns.
While these effects are well understood in temperate regions,
the likely impacts of climate change on tropical crops remain less well known.
In a landmark article published in October 2021, we reviewed
the research that has started to address the climate change impacts for one of
the major important tropical crops, namely oil palm.
Oil palm, Elaeis guineensis, is by far the most
important global edible oil crop, supplying about 40% of all traded vegetable
oil. Palm oils are key dietary components consumed daily by more than three
billion people, mostly in Asia.
Palm kernel oil also has a wide range of important non-food
uses, such as in cleansing and sanitising products that include vital
anti-viral products used to combat the spread of covid-19. There are currently
no realistic alternative crops to oil palm that are able to supply the huge
amounts of edible and healthcare products with such a low footprint in terms of
Oil palm crops are also crucial to the economies of many
countries, especially Indonesia and Malaysia, from which large quantities of
its products are exported in the form of oil, meal and other derivatives.
More widely, oil palm is now cultivated in plantations
across the humid tropics of Asia, Africa and the Americas, from where its
products are exported to global markets. The major importing regions,
collectively responsible for about 60% of total palm oil imports, are the
Indian subcontinent (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh), the EU, and China.
Oil palm crop production faces many future challenges,
including emerging threats from climate change and pests and diseases. The
inevitability of climate change requires more effective international
collaboration for its reduction. New breeding and management approaches are
providing the promise of improvements, such as much higher yielding varieties,
improved oil profiles, enhanced disease resistance, and greater climatic
Climate change effects on natural systems also require robust
predictive models able to generate data enabling policymakers to mitigate
consequential changes in diversity and ecosystem function. For example, mapping
of plant disease distributions can influence biosecurity planning by specifying
areas that qualify for eradication or containment. The CLIMEX model used by us has
been developed for current and future species distribution where knowledge
about climate change effects on species distributions is essential in
mitigating negative impacts.
For our modelling studies we used oil palm climatic impact
data to create scenarios for oil palm mortality by postulating that large
degrees of unsuitable and marginal climates in particular were likely to cause
high amounts of mortality.
We then used simulation modelling to determine suitable
climate scenarios for growing oil palm to estimate how climate suitability for
crop growth would change the estimated mortality rate from unsuitable climatic
One of the most important future climate-related threats is
the emergence of new pests and diseases and/or the movement of existing
diseases from one part of the world to another. One of the most important
disease threats is due to basal stem rot, which is caused by the virulent
fungal pathogen, Ganoderma boninense. Here, our modelling predicted that
climate change would cause 30-100% crop losses due to this disease.
Evidence is now growing of the likely future impacts of
anthropogenic climatic changes on the oil palm industry at a global level.
Most climatic threats identified to date involve periods of
elevated temperature and reduced rainfall, both of which cause stresses that
impact on crop performance, and yield. In some cases these effects are already
being observed during our field work in the tropics but in other cases we still
need more data.
Immediate priorities should therefore include further
research to understand climatic effects on oil palm in the many regions of the
tropics where the crop is now grown. This improved understanding can then be
used to implement mitigation strategies in order to minimise adverse effects.
The research would also have applications to the many other
crops, especially perennials, that are grown in the tropics and play such vital
roles in food security.
Further reading: Oil palm in the 2020s and beyond: challenges and solutions
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