El Niño Predicted to Create Winners and Losers in Global Agriculture

By Alexa Jay and Jim Hansen 

El Niño’s impacts are far-reaching, influencing rainfall and temperature patterns across the globe. In agriculture, these impacts are felt primarily through the cycle’s effect on precipitation, particularly in the developing world where 80% of farmland is rainfed. But not all impacts are bad — while some areas may suffer from drought, others enjoy above average rainfall and good harvests.

How does El Niño affect agriculture?

El Niño hits many key agricultural areas across the world. For example, increased risk of drought during El Nino years can reduce yields of rainfed crops in northeastern Brazil; in the southern summer in southern Africa; and in the latter half of the year in eastern and northern Australia and southeast Asia including parts of the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam.  Some connection has been observed between drought in the West African Sahel, a belt of highly drought-prone farm and pastoral land tracing the bottom of the Sahara desert, and El Niño conditions. In some years, El Niño can delay or diminish the Indian summer monsoon, putting the livelihoods of hundreds of millions at risk. With the knowledge that the season may be much drier than usual, a farmer could implement water-saving measures, or shift planting to a wetter hillside.

But the impact of El Nino is not always negative. For example, increased rainfall tends to increase yields of rainfed annual crops in the cereal belt of northeastern Argentina, southern Brazil and Uruguay; in parts of East Africa during the October-December “short rains” season; and in Tamil Nadu state in the far south of India during the “rabi” or winter monsoon season. If conditions look favourable, a farmer could invest in higher-yielding seeds or plant a larger area.

The CCAFS blog has the full story on how El Niño may benefit or adversely impact farmers in different regions of the globe.