Climate change will force some farmers to choose between lower crop yields and unstable production, according to a new Cornell and Washington State University study. This dilemma stems from risk exposure to water shortages and higher temperatures that will likely push crop yields down in areas that rely on irrigation water that includes seasonal snowpack. The decision then becomes whether farmers decide to continue with business as usual or create a more stable revenue model with more predictable, but lower-yielding crops.
The paper, “Water Rights Shape Crop Yield and Revenue Volatility Tradeoff for Adaptation in Snow Dependent Systems,” focused on the Yakima River Basin in Washington State. Snowmelt as part of the irrigation water mix “dictates the success of some of the largest producers of wheat, corn, potatoes, pears, cherries, grapes, apples and hops in the U.S. With proper snowfall and melt, total agricultural productivity in the basin can reach more than $4 billion a year.”
By using climate models and previous research, the scientists found that climate change will likely cause temperatures to rise, evaporation to increase, and snow fall to get variable, leading to fluctuations in irrigation water availability. To address these potential shortfalls in snow and irrigation water, the researchers posit that
the best outcomes for crop yield and revenue volatility must be through a simultaneous improvement in crop varieties – for example, by preserving agrobiodiversity – and in water systems, such as through improvements in water-governing institutions and infrastructure.
These tradeoffs, between changing climates, water availability and crop selection must all be part of a larger strategy of how to assess and address agricultural viability as the climate crisis makes the future more volatile.