Basic Information

In today's global food market, only three varieties of cereal grains—maize, wheat, and rice— account for about 90% of the world's grain production1 and nearly half of all food calories consumed each year.2 These staple grains feed billions of people daily. Yet to grow productively, they rely on specific environmental conditions. By limiting food-crop biodiversity to just three varieties of grain, the world's food supply is at risk as temperatures warm and extreme weather events, such as heat waves, intense storms, and droughts, threaten to wipe out entire harvests. Returning to indigenous farming methods and encouraging local food production could mitigate these risks to the world’s food supply while increasing food-crop biodiversity, meaning consumers have access to a greater variety of produce with a smaller environmental impact.3

Agriculture is highly sensitive to weather events (daily atmospheric conditions, including temperature and precipitation). Even small environmental changes can have serious consequences for crop productivity, especially in areas where plants are already near their temperature thresholds. Yet, while the effects of climate change will almost certainly touch all regions of the world, not everyone will share equally in its hardships.

In seasonally dry, low-latitude areas where most of the world's poor live, small temperature increases can devastate annual crop and pasture yields.4 Research suggests that agricultural productivity in Pakistan could decrease by 8%-10% by 2040, a country where 58% of the population is already food insecure.5 A recent study of South Africa predicts that annual crop revenues could drop as much as 47% by 2100, with small scale farmers most severely affected.6 Developing nations are the most limited in their ability to adapt to rapid changes in climate as well as extreme weather events such as droughts, intense storms, and heat waves

In parts of North America and Siberia, however, farmers are hailing climate change as "good news" for crop productivity.7 The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports that temperature increases and higher levels of atmospheric CO2 will likely increase crop and pasture yields to a moderate degree, at least in the short-term in those regions. Weather changes could extend the growing season, and cropland will likely expand northward as the climate warms. Yet, as the CO2 threshold of plants is exceeded and temperatures continue to rise, productivity may begin to slow.8

Despite these mixed assessments of crop impacts, rising temperatures could create serious general problems for the world's agricultural sector. One ominous threat of climate change lies in extreme weather events. Drought conditions often lead to wildfires, and intense storms can cause devastating floods. Rising sea levels in coastal areas will make the soil and groundwater more alkaline, further stressing crops that are already struggling.9

Further, as winters and springs become warmer, insects can live longer and expand the range in which they live.10 Pest infestations create stresses on trees and crops, causing direct damage, increasing the susceptibility of plants to disease, and creating conditions that allow invasive species to thrive and indigenous "weeds" to expand. Some studies show that many types of weeds can adapt readily to climate shifts.11 This ability could enhance their ability to outcompete crops for resources like minerals and moisture, diminishing yields. However, despite their negative impacts on agriculture, weeds sequester carbon and provide ground cover, reducing erosion and improving soil health. Allowing weeds to grow alongside certain crops can improve plant health and provide nutrients in a more natural manner when compared to artificial fertilizers.

Along with temperature change, crops are most affected by changes in precipitation. Changing global weather patterns could make some areas wetter, while throwing other areas into drought conditions.12 Farmers could be forced to abandon traditional crops to cultivate heat and drought tolerant varieties. In other areas, farmers are forced to cultivate species able to withstand flood conditions. Genetically Modified crops, commonly known as GMOs, are being utilized to reduce agricultural emissions, and to maintain crop yields as temperature and weather changes.13

While GMOs hold the potential to grow climate resilient crops, there are a variety of concerns associated with their production and consumption. GMOs are patented under “novel inventions” in the United States. The patent is given to GMOs to entice investors and to ensure exclusivity of the plant.14 While the patents benefit companies producing GMOs, farmers growing GMOs are subject to pay licensing fees and must give the company they bought the seeds from the right to inspect their farm at will to ensure that the crops are being grown in a manner the company sees fit. These patents also make it difficult to research GMOs, as researchers must have a license, ultimately restricting the research available on GMOs.15 The lack of accessibility on independent, unbiased research concerning GMOs could result in unintended future environmental or health consequences. Preliminary studies conducted on the effects of GMOs on human health have identified potential risks of allergic reactions, antibiotic resistance, cancer, and other health conditions.16

As climate changes and farmers seek crop varieties that are more resistant to weather extremes, returning to Indigenous varieties may be the key to not only harvest resilience, but also to regaining food sovereignty. In Leupp, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation, Ch’ishie Farms utilizes indigenous crop varieties, hoop houses, and farming methods that differ from traditional monocropping to harvest fresh produce in the high desert. Ch’ishie Farms demonstrates what is possible when indigenous crops and growing methods are utilized, and how locally growing food can increase the resiliency of a community by providing healthy food options to Diné people in and around Leupp.17 Combatting food deserts and re-introducing nutritious, fresh food into communities around the globe can start with growing it together.

Food sovereignty can increase climate resilience. By giving growing power back to farmers, fishers, and indigenous peoples, major shifts in the current agricultural system would occur. These shifts would emphasize environmental stewardship, equitable distribution of resources, fair labor practices, and land ownership.18 Emissions associated with agriculture would decrease, along with water and pesticide use, and soil health would be improved. Emphasizing the importance of food sovereignty is essential for ensuring that agricultural practices are beneficial to the planet.

Overall, crops depend on "weather" rather than "climate." Scientists agree that climate change can cause extreme daily variations, which could have profound consequences for the world's food supply. The impacts of climate change on food production will depend not only on environmental conditions but on farmers' ability and willingness to utilize new technologies and farming methods and cultivate different crops to adapt to shifting crop ranges and to meet the world's changing food demands.19 Small subsistence farmers with the poorest ability to adapt are most vulnerable to the growing impacts of climate change, facing threats to both their livelihoods and the cultural ties they have to the earth through agriculture.

  1. Food and Agriculture Organizations of the United Nations. 2022. “World Food Situation.” Food and Agriculture Organizations of the United Nations. Available online from [accessed December 12, 2022].

  2. Roser, M., Ritchie, H., Rosado, P. (2013). “Food Supply.“ Our World in Data. Available online from [accessed December 12, 2022].

  3. Role Institute. (2023). “Biodiversity.” Rodale Institute. Available online from [accessed June 6, 2023].

  4. Agnolucci, P., Rapti, C., Alexander, P., De Lipsis, V., Holland, R., Eigenbrod, F., & Ekins, P. (September 2020). “Impacts of rising temperatures and farm management practices on global yields of 18 crops.” Nature Food. 1, 562–571. Available online from [accessed December 12, 2022].

  5. Ramay, S. (June 2022). “Climate change killing agriculture.” The Express Tribune Pakistan. Available online from [accessed December 12, 2022].

  6. Munang, R., Andrews, J. (2014). “Despite climate change, Africa can feed Africa.” United Nations Africa Renewal. Available online from [accessed December 12, 2022].

  7. Kiselev, S., Romashkin, R., Nelson, G., Mason-D’Croz, D., & Palazzo, A. (October 2013). “Russia’s Food Security and Climate Change: Looking into the Future.” Economics. Volume 1. Available online from [accessed December 12, 2022].

  8. Ibid.

  9. Peterson, T.C. et al. (2008). “Why weather and climate extremes matter in weather and climate extremes in changing climate.” Regions of focus: North America, Hawaii, Caribbean, and U.S. Pacific Islands. T.R. Karl, G.A. Meehl, C.D. Miller, S.J. Hassol, A.M. Waple, and W.L. Murray (eds.). A Report by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program and the Subcommittee on Global Change Research: Washington, DC. [accessed December 12, 2022]

  10. Bradshaw, C., Leroy, B., Bellard, C., Roiz, D., Albert, C., Fournier, A., Barbet-Massin, M., Salles, J., Simard, F., & Courchamp, F. (October 2016). “Massive yet grossly underestimated global costs of invasive insects”. Nature Communications. Available online from [accessed December 12, 2022].

  11. Ramesh, K., Matloob, A., Aslam, F., Florentine, S., & Chauhan, B. (February 2017). “Weeds in a Changing Climate: Vulnerabilities, Consequences, and Implications for Future Weed Management.” Frontiers in Plant Science. Available online from [accessed December 12, 2022].

  12. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “Impacts of 1.5ºC global warming on natural and human systems.” IPCC. Available online from [accessed December 12, 2022].

  13. Kovak, E., Blaustein-Rejto, D., & Qaim, M. (July 2022). “Genetically modified crops support climate mitigation.” Trends in Plant Science. V. 27, p 627-629 Available online from [accessed December 12, 2022].

  14. Upcounsel. (N.D.). “GMO Patents: Everything You Need to Know.” Upcounsel. Available on line from [accessed June 6, 2023].

  15. Farm Aid. (March 2016). “GMOs – Top 5 Concerns for Family Farmers.” Farm Aid. Available online from [accessed June 6, 2023].

  16. Center for Food Safety. (N.D.). GE Food and Your Health. Center for Food Safety. Available online from [accessed June 6, 2023].

  17. Ch’ishie Farms. (N.D). Ch’ishie Farms. Available online from [accessed June 6, 2023].

  18. Salerno, C. (July 2021). “Food Sovereignty Can Advance Racial Equity and Climate Resilience.” Urban Institute. Available online from [accessed December 12, 2022].

  19. Riensche, B., & Vir Jakhar, A. (September 2019). “Here’s how we can use agriculture to fight climate change.” World Economic Forum. Available online from [accessed December 12, 2022].