Climate change could mean more bugs and bad things for the world’s crops

A new study published in the journal Science suggests that as the world warms due to human-caused climate change, more and more bugs will populate the globe.

And while that seems like nothing more than a disgusting inconvenience, a world with more bugs could mean bad things for human food supplies around the world.

A team of scientists led by Curtis Deutsche and Joshua Tewskbury examined how insects would affect three of the most important crops: rice, maize, and wheat.

They found that any increase in global temperature could lead to insect-driven losses of 10 to 25 percent, especially in places used to more moderate temperatures. A 2 degree Celsius rise in temperature could lead to 213 million ton loss in the three crops measured.

“When the temperature increases, the insects’ metabolism increases so they have to eat more,” co-author Steve Merrill said in a statement. The relationship between insect metabolism and crop loss is direct and “robust across all species,” Deutsche said in an email. That’s why they were able to see such a strong correlation.

Summer wheat grows in a field right before the harvest season.

Summer wheat grows in a field right before the harvest season.

However, from region to region, the way that heat will affect crops and insects will vary. For example, wheat grows best in cooler temperatures, so if the temperature rises, the wheat will face both a less favorable climate for growth and a higher insect population.

The impact on maize, however, will depend since the crop does well in different environments.

In more tropical climates, insects are already in their best environment for growth, so a rise in temperature would actually slow their metabolism down causing them to eat less, Merril explained. The same goes for rice as well since it’s grown in a tropical climate.

If you follow this scenario to its logical conclusion, the world’s crops could be in serious trouble.

The article estimates that rice, maize, and wheat account for 42 percent of the calories consumed by people worldwide. And if there is a shortage of something that feeds a good portion of the world, that’s when conflict and starvation become a concern, especially in countries that already have high levels of food insecurity.

“Countries with high losses to insects already are likely to feel the pinch more strongly,” Deutsche explained. A 50 percent increase in pest consumption is going to be a much bigger deal to country that’s already losing 20 percent of their crop to pests, versus a country only losing 5 percent.

“This unfortunately has a strong overlap with the same countries that have high food insecurity, like African nations,” he said.