Unchecked climate change could mean that the weather conditions hurting farmers this year will become increasingly common and result in higher costs for the federal government, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report.
The report, issued by the USDA’s Economic Research Service, found that if greenhouse gases are allowed to continue to increase, U.S. production of corn and soybeans—which are more susceptible to extreme heat during growing season—could decline as much as 80% in the next 60 years.
As a result, corn and soybean prices would skyrocket in that period, as would the cost of crop insurance. According to the study, the cost of crop insurance to the federal government could rise to $7.6 billion a year for corn and $3.3 billion for soybeans. By comparison, the USDA has spent roughly $300 million on insurance for the 2019 crop year as of July 15.
Federally subsidized crop insurance covers as much as 85% of a farmer’s acres against natural disasters or declines in commodity prices. The government subsidizes 62% of the insurance premium on average.
“We show in the report that the cost of the crop insurance program will increase with global warming,” said Andrew Crane-Droesch, a research economist with the ERS and one of the authors of the report.
Last year was the fourth-warmest year on record since 1880, according to a February report by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The hottest year was 2016, followed by 2017 and 2015, with 2014 as the fifth hottest on record.
Data from the Environmental Protection Agency show that gross U.S. greenhouse gas emissions rose 1.3% from 1990 to 2017. However, emissions shot up 3.4% in 2018, attributed to a surge in the economy. It was the largest jump in emissions since 2010.
The ERS study examined five climate models using three projections of emissions—one where there is no mitigation of emissions, another with some mitigation, and keeping them at their current level. Computer simulations were then run to play out the models with the different emission levels from 2060 to 2099.
Midwest farmers are being punished by adverse weather this year. Extremely wet weather this spring left many unable to fully plant their crops, and now summertime heat could kill a sizable portion of the plants that managed to sprout. The USDA is still determining how many acres will be left unplanted as a result of this year’s tough weather, but estimates place unplanted acres as high as 15 million for corn—well above the 2013 record of 3.6 million corn acres.
Grain prices have risen since weather problems during the planting season began to surface in May. Corn futures on the Chicago Board of Trade have risen 16% since May 1, while soybean futures are up 3%. According to Mr. Crane-Droesch, the models used by the ERS show that farmers are in for more difficult springs as climate change gets more severe.
Write to Kirk Maltais at Kirk.Maltais@wsj.com
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