Adapting North American agriculture to climate change in review

William E. Easterling

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113 Scopus citations


The adaptability of North American agriculture to climate change is assessed through a review of current literature. A baseline of North American agriculture without climate change suggests that farming faces serious challenges in the future (e.g. declining domestic demand, loss of comparative advantage, rising environmental costs). Climate change adjustments at the farm-level and in government policy, including international trade policy, are inventoried from the literature. The adaptive potential of agriculture is demonstrated historically with situations that are analogous to climate change, including the translocation of crops across natural climate gradients, the rapid introduction of new crops such as soybeans in the US and canola in Canada, and resource substitutions prompted by changes in prices of production inputs. A wide selection of modeling studies is reviewed which, in net, suggests several agronomic and economic adaptation strategies that are available to agriculture. Agronomic strategies include changes in crop varieties and species, timing of operations, and land management including irrigation. Economic strategies include investment in new technologies, infrastructure and labor, and shifts in international trade. Overall, such agronomic strategies were found to offset either partially or completely the loss of productivity caused by climate change. Economic adaptations were found to render the agricultural costs of climate change small by comparison with the overall expansion of agricultural production. New avenues of adaptive research are recommended including the formalization of the incorporation of adaptation strategies into modeling, linkage of adaptation to the terrestrial carbon cycle, anticipation of future technologies, attention to scaling from in situ modeling to the landscape scale, expansion of data sets and the measurement and modeling of unpriced costs. The final assessment is that climate change should not pose an insurmountable obstacle to North American agriculture. The portfolio of assets needed to adapt is large in terms of land, water, energy, genetic diversity, physical infrastructure and human resources, research capacity and information systems, and political institutions and world trade - the research reviewed here gives ample evidence of the ability of agriculture to utilize such assets. In conclusion, the apparent efficiency with which North American agriculture may adapt to climate changes provides little inducement for diverting agricultural adaptation resources to efforts to slow or halt the climate changes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-53
Number of pages53
JournalAgricultural and Forest Meteorology
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1996

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Forestry
  • Agronomy and Crop Science
  • Atmospheric Science


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