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La Niña’s Departure Seen Having Major Impacts on Global Food Production

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After three consecutive years, La Niña’s forecasted departure in coming weeks could have profound effects on food production in some of the world’s major breadbasket regions. 

An end to the global climate event could bring relief to some drought-stricken corn and soybean growing regions in South America and to the winter wheat belt of the US Great Plains, according to a Gro analysis of past La Niña and El Niño transitions. However, it could also close out successive years of bumper harvests of palm oil in Indonesia and wheat in Australia. 

The US Climate Prediction Center (CPC) forecasts an 82% chance that La Niña will exit between March and May, transitioning climate conditions to an “ENSO neutral” state. 

After that, the CPC currently forecasts a 51% chance that El Niño conditions will prevail beginning in the August-October period, a development that could further impact global food production. El Niño and La Niña trends are just one factor influencing local climate conditions and don’t ensure specific weather patterns. 

For some crops currently in the ground, La Niña’s departure will come too late. Argentina’s current corn and soybean crops have endured the worst drought in 20 years, stunting yields, as Gro wrote about here. And Gro Drought Index readings for the US winter wheat crop are close to a two-decade high, as shown in this display from Gro’s Climate Risk Navigator for Agriculture. US winter wheat crop yields have declined for four straight years.

However, Brazil’s second corn crop, which accounts for some 70% of Brazil’s total corn production, could get a boost from La Niña’s exit. The second crop, known as safrinha, is currently being planted in areas that have benefited from ample rainfall of late, and a neutral ENSO signal could reduce the chance of drought in the coming months.

Successive years of La Niña brought dry conditions for Brazil’s soybean crop, the biggest in the world. Drought levels in 2020, 2021, and 2022 were among the highest in the past 20 years, as shown by the Gro Drought Index weighted for Brazil’s soybean growing areas using Gro’s Climate Risk Navigator for Agriculture. That depressed Brazil’s soybean yields, mainly in the country’s south, and nationwide yields fell by double-digits in the 2022/23 crop year. 

A possible El Niño later this year could change Brazil’s precipitation patterns and affect soybean yields. The 2009 El Niño event brought normal-to-above-normal rainfall and Brazil soybean yields rose. But the 2015 El Niño resulted in heavy rain in the country’s southeast and dry conditions elsewhere, which depressed soybean yields for the 2016/17 season. 

La Niña’s passing could help US winter wheat crops during the 2023/24 year. Mostly ENSO neutral conditions in 2018 and 2019 brought above-normal precipitation to at least parts of the Great Plains. And 2015’s El Niño resulted in soil moisture levels that were normal or above normal, as shown in this Gro Climate Risk Navigator display

On the other hand, La Niña’s departure could result in lower crop yields in other parts of the world, including Indonesia and Malaysia, the top two palm oil producers. If drier conditions emerge under ENSO neutral or El Niño conditions, palm oil output would be at risk in 2024 after benefiting from multiple years of ample rainfall stemming from La Niña, as Gro wrote about here

Indonesia and Malaysia saw palm oil yields fall sharply in 2015/16 in the wake of the 2015 El Niño, as shown in this Gro display. Even mostly ENSO neutral conditions in 2019 brought drought to the two countries’ palm growing regions. 

Australia’s wheat crop also has benefited from La Niña-induced rainfall in recent years, with production rising each year since 2020/21. Although Australia should harvest another bumper crop this year, excessive rainfall is expected to reduce grain quality and decrease how much milling wheat is available versus animal feed grain, as Gro wrote about here

Past episodes of El Niño brought drier conditions to Australia’s wheat fields, but the impact on crops was mixed. Wheat yields fell following 2009’s El Niño but were little changed in the wake of the 2015 event.

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