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An Impending El Niño Foreshadows a New Shake-up for Global Food Production

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Chances of an El Niño global climate event occurring this year have grown swiftly, potentially impacting food production from the Americas to Africa and southern Asia. 

The US Climate Prediction Center (CPC) currently gives El Niño a 62% chance of developing between May and July this year. For the period from July to September, there is an 80% chance of El Niño setting in — a big jump from the 56% probability that the CPC predicted last month. 

An El Niño event would follow a rare, three consecutive years of La Niña, which has many of the opposite effects to El Niño on agricultural crop growing conditions. Currently, the CPC says the globe’s climate is in a period of ENSO Neutral, meaning an absence of either La Niña or El Niño. 

El Niño affects food production differently around the world. In the US, previous El Niño years have been linked with some of the most successful US corn and soybean crops, as favorable summer growing conditions prevailed in the Corn Belt. 

In 2015, when the last major El Niño event occurred, the Midwest had above-normal rainfall in the June-August growing period that boosted corn yields, as shown by this Gro display. Other years that saw above-average yields can be seen in Gro’s US Farmer Profitability and Crop Budgets app

By contrast, the past three years of La Niña have subjected large areas of the US Corn Belt, especially in Western states, to drought conditions, damaging crop yields and curtailing production, as Gro wrote about here

South America’s corn and soybeans, hurt by years of La Niña-induced drought, also could benefit from a transition to El Niño, which tends to bring greater precipitation in Argentina and southern Brazil in late spring and early summer. Argentina this year is projected to have its smallest soybean crop in nearly a quarter century due to drought. 

For Southeast Asia, crucial for global exports of palm, rice, and sugar, El Niño typically results in significant climate-related problems. India and Thailand often experience deficient rainfall and higher temperatures that can damage sugar production. And drier conditions in Indonesia and Malaysia tend to reduce palm oil production. Since palm production typically lags a change in prevailing climate conditions by six to nine months, a transition to El Niño could weigh on yields in 2024 and beyond, as Gro highlighted here

Cocoa production in West Africa could suffer under El Niño, which is linked to dry weather in the region. Gro’s Climate Risk Navigator for Agriculture currently shows accumulated precipitation is well above average in cocoa growing areas of Ivory Coast and Ghana. However, a switch to drier conditions ahead of the main cocoa crop, which is harvested from October to March, could hurt yields. 

South Africa also tends to see drier weather during El Niño years. Corn production in the country, which serves as a breadbasket for southern Africa, dropped in 2015 and 2016, during the previous major El Niño event. 

Australia, which begins planting wheat next month, could see an end to a series of three consecutive bumper crops, as El Niño usually brings drier weather to wheat growing regions especially in the country’s east. 


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