As the effects of climate change continue to set in around the world, several threats to our daily lives and the way we do business have emerged in its wake. While impacts such as extreme weather events, regional droughts and rising sea levels frequently draw the most attention, there is another important and potentially devastating consequence to consider. As many pests are more prevalent in warmer climates, rising global temperatures exacerbate the risk they pose to both public health and food production.
A warmer overall climate accelerates insect population growth in a number of ways. Warmer global temperatures expand the habitats that support many types of insects. This is causing bug populations to spread poleward, both further north and further south than they’ve appeared historically. Longer summers allow insect populations to breed for a larger portion of year, allowing them to add more generations and multiply in greater numbers during each seasonal cycle. Higher temperatures also increase survival rates among these pests, as the natural predators that limit their numbers in their native habitat lag behind when they spread to a new habitat, allowing the population to grow without nature’s built-in safeguards on population growth. One example of a pest that has benefited from rising temperatures is the Asian Tiger Mosquito, which mainly affects humans by spreading diseases such as dengue virus, but can also harbor diseases affecting livestock that are part of the food supply chain. Although this pest is native to Southeast Asia, it is rapidly spreading throughout the world and is now found throughout the Asian continent, Australia, Europe, South America, parts of Africa and in North America, where they’re now present in 32 U.S. states.
The rising threat of pests accompanying climate change impacts the global food supply in some very direct ways. Some insects increase in size in warmer temperatures, and larger insects eat more food. This means that, in addition to existing in greater numbers, insect populations can have a more devastating effect on the crops they consume. In addition to the greater threat of insect pests, rodents multiply in greater numbers during warmer weather, posing a larger threat to both crops in the field and stored products in manufacturing and shipping facilities throughout the supply chain.
There are numerous examples of how these pests are negatively impacting crops, including the coffee berry borer, which is native to Africa but has spread to virtually every coffee-growing region in the world, including Hawaii, and now causes more than $500 million in damages to coffee plants each year. This beetle becomes 8.5% more infectious for every 1.80 F increase in temperature, meaning this problem will only get worse as the climate warms. The kudzu bug is a major problem for farmers throughout the Southeastern United States, where it feeds on soybeans and other legumes. The kudzu bug impacts soybean yield in a way resembles the stress placed on crops during a drought. This pest is suspected to originate in Asia, but it’s been on the rise in the United States since 2009, causing insecticide use on soybean crops to quadruple over the 10-year period from 2004–2014.
As climate change drives global temperatures higher and higher, its impact on pest populations means greater risks for both public health and industries that make up the global food supply chain. It also means a greater need for companies in these industries to know the specific risks pests pose to their products and to work closely with a pest management partner to develop a plan for mitigating those risks, identifying potential problems before they escalate and treating any outbreak quickly and effectively, before it can cause a major loss of product and impact the company’s bottom line.