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The Evolution of Heat Tolerance of Corn: Implications for Climate Change

By Michael J. Roberts and Wolfram Schlenker


We present new evidence on the relationship between weather and corn yields in Indiana between 1901 and 2005, extending earlier results for corn from 1950-2005. Indiana, a major corn-producing state has the best coverage of daily weather records for the early half of the 20th century. The effects of precipitation and extreme heat are shown to evolve over time as new seed varieties, supplemental irrigation systems and management practices are introduced. In particular, we find the detrimental effects of either too much or too little precipitation seems to have steadily diminished over time. In contrast, the evolution of tolerance to extreme heat is highly nonlinear, growing with the adoption of double-cross hybrid corn in the 1940’s, peaking around 1960, and then declined sharply as single-cross hybrids came online. Corn in Indiana is most sensitive to extreme temperatures at the end of our sample. Since climate change models predict an increase in extreme temperatures, the big question is whether the next breeding cycles can increase both average yields and heat tolerance simultaneously as in the period 1940-1960, or whether an continued increase in average yields can only be achieved at the expense of more sensitivity to extreme heat as in the period from 1960 onwards. Finally, we discuss these impacts in relation to possible distortionary effects of current agricultural subsidies in the United States

Year: 2013
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