How Scientists Are Helping Farm Crops Adapt to Climate Change

01 November 2018

Rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide—a spur to policymakers worldwide to plan for climate change—are also prompting agricultural scientists to prepare for impacts on the food we grow and eat.

A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that elevated levels of carbon dioxide, or CO2, can contribute to greater yields and water-use efficiency in many crops. But it’s not all good news, as some crops lose their nutrient value as CO2 levels increase.

Read more:

The CO2 Building Block
Soybeans: The Resilient C3 Crop
Corn: The Dominant C4 Crop
Rice: Choosing the Best Cultivar
What's in Store

This graph illustrates carbon dioxide emissions (measured in gigagrams) since 1960 from five continents: North America, South America, Europe, Asia, and Africa.

The CO2 Building Block

Carbon dioxide is an important component of photosynthesis, the process by which plants convert sunlight into chemical energy. The vast majority of carbon sequestration in plants of commercial interest occurs through one of two photosynthetic pathways, known as C3 and C4. Which of these pathways a plant uses will help determine how it is affected by greater concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere. And even within the same species, carbon sequestration can vary by plant variety and geography.

C3 plants tend to thrive in places with moderate sunlight intensity and temperature and they are highly dependent on ambient CO2 concentrations for growth. In general, C3 plants, which include crops such as soybeans, wheat, rice, potatoes, barley, rye, and cotton, are relatively inefficient photosynthesizers. As a result, they have the most to gain in yield from higher levels of carbon dioxide, but at the same time can have lower nutrient content. About 85 percent of plant species perform photosynthesis using the C3 pathway.

C4 plants thrive in warmer environments, and are planted more frequently in hot and dry environments. Although these plants make up only 3 percent of flowering species, they account for a significant portion of global crop production. Corn, sorghum, millet, and sugar cane are among the C4 crops that are integral to global food security. These plants, which are more efficient at fixing carbon from the atmosphere in photosynthesis, are less affected by rising CO2 levels than their C3 counterparts.

Agricultural scientists at research centers around the world, including Wagenigen University in the Netherlands and The C4 Rice Project, funded by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are working to marry the greater efficiency of C4 plants with the higher yield potential of C3 plants to ensure sufficient and nutritious food supplies in anticipation of climatic changes.

In this Insight article, we will touch on some examples of major C3 and C4 plants that figure prominently in modern agriculture, and how they are expected to adapt to rising global CO2 levels. Gro Intelligence subscribers can keep abreast of changes in yield for major crops and geospatially derived environmental data, including precipitation patterns, evapotranspiration anomalies, and land-surface temperatures, to track commodities across the globe.

Soybeans: The Resilient C3 Crop

The boost in crop productivity at greater concentrations of CO2, dubbed the CO2 fertilization effect, comes with a caveat. Not all C3 plants respond to elevated CO2 in the same way, and food quality seems to be sacrificed as quantity increases. Studies suggest that, while yields increase, nutritional value generally decreases, and the magnitude of the effect varies by crop. For instance, soybeans and other leguminous crops fare better than other C3 plants due to their ability to sequester nitrogen. Under elevated CO2, legumes actually fix more nitrogen and therefore perform a self-fertilization that buffers against reductions in protein content.

The chart on the left illustrates the average soybean yield reported by each country in 2018. The chart on the right shows production quantity of soybeans in tonnes from the four largest soybean-producing countries globally.

For non-leguminous plants such as rice and wheat, the protein-reducing effect of elevated CO2 can be somewhat alleviated if there is adequate soil nitrogen. Greater investment in nitrogen-based fertilizers may be required in regions that struggle with soil fertility to prevent significant protein loss from non-leguminous C3 crops, which may prove financially problematic in places like Africa where fertilizer is already expensive.

Unfortunately, zinc and iron content in soybeans as well as other legumes and non-leguminous C3 plants tend to decrease when grown under elevated CO2, and the mechanism behind these observations isn’t currently understood. It’s possible that breeding or engineering soybeans and other important C3 crops for increased iron and zinc content can address this issue, but the trade-offs associated with cost and resistance to pests and disease are unclear and may jeopardize food security if introduced on a commercial scale prematurely.

Corn: The Dominant C4 Crop

Photosynthesis in C4 plants is fundamentally different than in C3 plants. The chemical reactions that drive photosynthesis in C4 plants are sectioned off in a separate cellular environment where CO2 levels are regulated. This physiological adaptation ensures CO2 levels are never low enough for photorespiration to occur. (In photorespiration, a plant will use up energy and emit CO2, essentially the opposite of photosynthesis.) Because of this, C4 plant growth is less affected by rising CO2 levels than is C3 plant growth.

The chart on the left illustrates the average corn yield reported by each country in 2018. The chart on the right shows production quantity of corn in tonnes from the four largest corn-producing countries globally.

In studies on corn, yields only noticeably increased under drought conditions because elevated CO2 increases water-use efficiency. This may come as welcome news for corn-growing regions that experience periods of low rainfall. In the future, corn and other C4 plants may require less water, which could further reduce cost of production by lessening the need for irrigation infrastructure.

C4 crop yields are not expected to increase as dramatically as C3 yields under elevated CO2 levels but they may suffer slight reductions in nutritional value. Interestingly, in a study on various C4 plants, corn was the only crop to show nutrient decline. On the other hand, C4 crops like sorghum were virtually unaffected. In the future, differences in crop vulnerability to nutrient decline may shift priorities in planting intentions across different geographies.

Rice: Choosing the Best Cultivar

Current scientific evidence suggests that the nutrient-depleting effect of elevated CO2 varies by species, variety, and cultivar. Studies on rice show that iron and zinc content decrease in some cultivars but actually increase marginally in others. This nutrient-fluctuation trend also appears to hold true across most C3 plants.

The chart on the left illustrates the average rice yield reported by each country in 2018. The chart on the right shows production quantity of rice in tonnes from the four largest rice-producing countries globally.

Unclear effects on nutrient content is alarming from a public health standpoint, as 60 percent of the global population depends on rice and other C3 plants for dietary iron and zinc requirements.The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 2 billion people currently suffer from iron and zinc deficiencies, which translates to an annual loss of 63 million life-years. Scientists are seeking ways to combat crop-nutrient imbalance in future scenarios.

Rice is a staple food for nearly 3 billion people worldwide. The goal of The C4 Rice Project is to introduce C4 traits into rice, a C3 plant. By genetically altering certain types of rice, photosynthetic efficiency could increase by up to 50 percent and cultivation should require less nitrogen-based fertilizer. In theory, this development could reduce cost of production while increasing rice yields and nutrient content. The success of this program may set a precedent for engineering other crops (like soybeans, mentioned above) to meet yield demand and dietary requirements.

What's in Store

In the coming decades, some regions will experience greater growing pains than others, particularly those that depend primarily on C3 plants to feed their populations. Places like India, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East that rely on grains such as rice and wheat are in greater jeopardy of nutrient deficiency, for example. However, South America and Western Africa, regions that primarily consume crops such as corn, millet, and sorghum, will not feel the nutrient-reducing effects of elevated CO2 as strongly.

The magnitude of the effects of carbon fertilization on yield will also vary by geography and irrigation capacity. In places with longer growing seasons like North America and Europe, yields will increase more significantly. By the same token, arid locations like Africa with a greater reliance on rainfed irrigation will benefit from higher yields due to increased water-use efficiency that comes with elevated CO2 conditions.

Of course, the world of agriculture is subject to volatility in the form of socio-economic, logistical, and climatic factors. Elevated CO2 levels are expected to generate a range of environmental challenges, but this situation may also provide unique opportunities to capitalize on the potential of new and evolving agricultural technologies. The Gro Intelligence data platform and yield models help users stay ahead of the curve with the latest developments on crop conditions around the globe.

Global agriculture data at your fingertips

Want to learn more?

Request a demo


Receive our research in your inbox


Thank you for subscribing to our newsletter!

Contact sales
Gro Intelligence Privacy Policy

This Privacy Policy describes the policies and procedures of Gro Intelligence, Inc. (“we”, “our” or “us”) on the collection, use and disclosure of your information on (the “Site”) and the services, features, content or applications we offer (collectively with the Site, the “Services”). We receive information about you from your use of the Services generally. When you use the Services, you are consenting to the collection, transfer, manipulation, storage, disclosure and other uses of your information as described in this Privacy Policy.

What Does This Privacy Policy Cover?

This Privacy Policy covers the treatment of personally identifiable information (“Personal Information”) gathered when you are using or accessing the Services. This Privacy Policy also covers our treatment of any Personal Information that our business partners share with us or that we share with our business partners.

This Privacy Policy does not apply to the practices of third parties that we do not own or control, including but not limited to any third party websites, services and applications (“Third Party Services”) that you elect to access through the Service or to individuals that we do not manage or employ. While we attempt to facilitate access only to those Third Party Services that share our respect for your privacy, we cannot take responsibility for the content or privacy policies of those Third Party Services. We encourage you to carefully review the privacy policies of any Third Party Services you access.

What Information Do We Collect?

The information we gather enables us to personalize, improve and continue to operate the Services. We collect the following types of information from our users.

IP Address Information and Other Information Collected Automatically:

· We automatically receive and record information from your web browser when you interact with the Services, including your IP address and cookie information. This information is used for fighting spam/malware and also to facilitate collection of data concerning your interaction with the Services (e.g., what links you have clicked on).

· Generally, the Services automatically collect usage information, such as the number and frequency of visitors to the Site. We may use this data in aggregate form, that is, as a statistical measure, but not in a manner that would identify you personally. This type of aggregate data enables us and third parties authorized by us to figure out how often individuals use parts of the Services so that we can analyze and improve them.

Information Collected Using Cookies:

· Cookies are pieces of text that may be provided to your computer through your web browser when you access a website. Your browser stores cookies in a manner associated with each website you visit. We use cookies to enable our servers to recognize your web browser and tell us how and when you visit the Site and otherwise use the Services through the Internet.

· Our cookies do not, by themselves, contain Personal Information, and we do not combine the general information collected through cookies with other Personal Information to tell us who you are. As noted, however, we do use cookies to identify that your web browser has accessed aspects of the Services.

· Most browsers have an option for turning off the cookie feature, which will prevent your browser from accepting new cookies, as well as (depending on the sophistication of your browser software) allowing you to decide on acceptance of each new cookie in a variety of ways.

· This Privacy Policy covers our use of cookies only and does not cover the use of cookies by third parties. We do not control when or how third parties place cookies on your computer. For example, third party websites to which a link points may set cookies on your computer.

Aggregate Information:

We collect statistical information about how users collectively use the Services (“Aggregate Information”). Some of this information may be derived from Personal Information. This statistical information is not Personal Information and cannot be tied back to you or your web browser.

How, and With Whom, Is My Information Shared?

IP Address Information:

While we collect and store IP address information, that information is not made public. We do at times, however, share this information with our partners, service providers and other persons with whom we conduct business, and as otherwise specified in this Privacy Policy.

Information You Elect to Share:

You may access other Third Party Services through the Services, for example by clicking on links to those Third Party Services from within the Site. We are not responsible for the privacy policies and/or practices of these Third Party Services, and you are responsible for reading and understanding those Third Party Services’ privacy policies. This Privacy Policy only governs information collected on the Services.

Aggregate Information:

We share Aggregate Information with our partners, service providers and other persons with whom we conduct business. We share this type of statistical data so that our partners can understand how and how often people use our Services and their services or websites, which facilitates improving both their services and how our Services interface with them. In addition, these third parties may share with us non-private, aggregated or otherwise non Personal Information about you that they have independently developed or acquired.

Information Shared with Our Agents:

We employ and contract with people and other entities that perform certain tasks on our behalf and who are under our control (our “Agents”). We may need to share Personal Information with our Agents in order to provide products or services to you. Unless we tell you differently, our Agents do not have any right to use Personal Information or other information we share with them beyond what is necessary to assist us. You hereby consent to our sharing of Personal Information with our Agents.

Information Disclosed Pursuant to Business Transfers:

In some cases, we may choose to buy or sell assets. In these types of transactions, user information is typically one of the transferred business assets. Moreover, if we, or substantially all of our assets, were acquired, or if we go out of business or enter bankruptcy, user information would be one of the assets that is transferred or acquired by a third party. You acknowledge that such transfers may occur, and that any acquirer of us or our assets may continue to use your Personal Information as set forth in this policy.

Information Disclosed for Our Protection and the Protection of Others:

We also reserve the right to access, read, preserve, and disclose any information as we reasonably believe is necessary to (i) satisfy any applicable law, regulation, legal process or governmental request, (ii) enforce this Privacy Policy and our Terms of Service, including investigation of potential violations hereof, (iii) detect, prevent, or otherwise address fraud, security or technical issues, (iv) respond to user support requests, or (v) protect our rights, property or safety, our users and the public. This includes exchanging information with other companies and organizations for fraud protection and spam/malware prevention.

Information We Share With Your Consent:

Except as set forth above, you will be notified when your Personal Information may be shared with third parties, and will be able to prevent the sharing of this information.

Is Information About Me Secure?

We store all of our information, including your IP address information, using industry-standard techniques. We do not guarantee or warrant that such techniques will prevent unauthorized access to information about you that we store, Personal Information or otherwise.

What Information of Mine Can I Access?

You can access and delete cookies through your web browser settings.

California Privacy Rights: Under California Civil Code sections 1798.83-1798.84, California residents are entitled to ask us for a notice identifying the categories of personal customer information which we share with our affiliates and/or third parties for marketing purposes, and providing contact information for such affiliates and/or third parties. If you are a California resident and would like a copy of this notice, please submit a written request to the following address: 12 E 49th Street, 11th Floor, New York, NY 10017

What Happens When There Are Changes to this Privacy Policy?

We may amend this Privacy Policy from time to time. Use of information we collect now is subject to the Privacy Policy in effect at the time such information is used. If we make changes in the way we collect or use information, we will notify you by posting an announcement on the Services or sending you an email. A user is bound by any changes to the Privacy Policy when he or she uses the Services after such changes have been first posted.

What If I Have Questions or Concerns?

If you have any questions or concerns regarding privacy using the Services, please send us a detailed message to We will make every effort to resolve your concerns.

Effective Date: March 11, 2014


Gro Intelligence Terms of Service

Please read these Terms of Service (collectively with Gro Intelligence’s Privacy Policy, the “Terms of Service”) fully and carefully before using (the “Site”) and the services, features, content or applications offered by Gro Intelligence, Inc. (“we”, “us” or “our”) (together with the Site, the “Services”). These Terms of Service set forth the legally binding terms and conditions for your use of the Site and the Services.

1. Acceptance of Terms of Service.

a. By using the Services in any manner, including but not limited to visiting or browsing the Site, you agree to these Terms of Service and all other operating rules, policies and procedures that may be published from time to time on the Site by us, each of which is incorporated by reference and each of which may be updated from time to time without notice to you.

2. Content.

a. Definition. For purposes of these Terms of Service, the term “Content” includes, without limitation, information, data, text, photographs, videos, audio clips, written posts and comments, software, scripts, graphics, and interactive features generated, provided, or otherwise made available on or through the Services.

b. Notices and Restrictions. The Services may contain Content specifically provided by us or our partners and such Content is protected by copyrights, trademarks, service marks, patents, trade secrets or other proprietary rights and laws. You shall abide by and maintain all copyright notices, information, and restrictions contained in any Content accessed through the Services. Unless otherwise indicated, these Terms of Service and all Content provided by us are copyright © 2018 Gro Intelligence, Inc. All rights reserved.

c. Use License. Subject to these Terms of Service, we grant each user of the Services a worldwide, non-exclusive, non-sublicensable and non-transferable license to use (i.e., to download and display locally) Content solely for purposes of using the Services. Use, reproduction, modification, distribution or storage of any Content for other than purposes of using the Services is expressly prohibited without prior written permission from us. You shall not sell, license, rent, or otherwise use or exploit any Content for commercial use or in any way that violates any third party right.

d. Availability of Content. We do not guarantee that any Content will be made available on the Site or through the Services. We reserve the right to, but do not have any obligation to, (i) remove, edit or modify any Content in our sole discretion, at any time, without notice to you and for any reason (including, but not limited to, upon receipt of claims or allegations from third parties or authorities relating to such Content or if we are concerned that you may have violated these Terms of Service), or for no reason at all and (ii) to remove or block any Content from the Services.

3. Rules of Conduct.

a. As a condition of use, you represent, warrant and covenant not to use the Services for any purpose that is prohibited by these Terms of Service or applicable laws, rules and regulations applicable to you. You are responsible for all of your activity in connection with the Services.

b. You shall not (directly or indirectly):

i. take any action that imposes or may impose (as determined by us in our sole discretion) an unreasonable or disproportionately large load on our (or our third party providers’) infrastructure;

ii. interfere or attempt to interfere with the proper working of the Services or any activities conducted on the Services;

iii. bypass, circumvent or attempt to bypass or circumvent any measures we may use to prevent or restrict access to the Services (or other accounts, computer systems or networks connected to the Services);

iv. use manual or automated software, devices, or other processes to “crawl” or “spider” any page of the Site;

v. harvest or scrape any Content from the Services;

vi. otherwise take any action in violation of our guidelines and policies;

vii. decipher, decompile, disassemble, reverse engineer or otherwise attempt to derive any source code or underlying ideas or algorithms of any part of the Services (including without limitation any application), except to the limited extent applicable laws specifically prohibit such restriction;

viii. modify, translate, or otherwise create derivative works of any part of the Services; or

ix. copy, rent, lease, distribute, or otherwise transfer any of the rights that you receive hereunder.

c. We also reserve the right to access, read, preserve, and disclose any information as we reasonably believe is necessary to:

i. satisfy any applicable law, regulation, legal process or governmental request;

ii. enforce these Terms of Service, including investigation of potential violations hereof;

iii. detect, prevent, or otherwise address fraud, security or technical issues;

iv. respond to user support requests; or

v. protect the rights, property or safety of us, our users and the public.

4. Third Party Services. The Services may permit you to link to other websites, services or resources on the Internet, and other websites, services or resources may contain links to the Services. When you access third party resources on the Internet, you do so at your own risk. These other resources are not under our control, and you acknowledge that we are not responsible or liable for the content, functions, accuracy, legality, appropriateness or any other aspect of such websites or resources. The inclusion of any such link does not imply our endorsement or any association between us and their operators. You further acknowledge and agree that we shall not be responsible or liable, directly or indirectly, for any damage or loss caused or alleged to be caused by or in connection with the use of or reliance on any such content, goods or services available on or through any such website or resource.

5. Termination. We may terminate your access to all or any part of the Services at any time, with or without cause, with or without notice, effective immediately. All provisions of these Terms of Service which by their nature should survive termination shall survive termination, including, without limitation, ownership provisions, warranty disclaimers, indemnity and limitations of liability.

6. Warranty Disclaimer.

a. You release us from all liability for you having acquired or not acquired Content through the Services. We make no representations concerning any Content contained in or accessed through the Services, and we will not be responsible or liable for the accuracy, copyright compliance, or legality of material or Content contained in or accessed through the Services.



8. Governing Law and Jurisdiction. These Terms of Service shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of the State of New York, including its conflicts of law rules, and the United States of America. You agree that any dispute arising from or relating to the subject matter of these Terms of Service shall be governed by the exclusive jurisdiction and venue of the state and Federal courts of New York County, New York.

9. Miscellaneous.

a. Modification. We reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to modify or replace any of these Terms of Service, or change, suspend, or discontinue the Services at any time. Your continued use of the Services following notification of any changes to these Terms of Service constitutes acceptance of those changes.

b. Entire Agreement and Severability. These Terms of Service are the entire agreement between you and us with respect to the Services, including use of the Site, and supersede all prior or contemporaneous communications and proposals (whether oral, written or electronic) between you and us with respect to the Services. If any provision of these Terms of Service is found to be unenforceable or invalid, that provision will be limited or eliminated to the minimum extent necessary so that these Terms of Service will otherwise remain in full force and effect and enforceable. The failure of either party to exercise in any respect any right provided for herein shall not be deemed a waiver of any further rights hereunder

c. Force Majeure. We shall not be liable for any failure to perform our obligations hereunder where such failure results from any cause beyond our reasonable control, including, without limitation, mechanical, electronic or communications failure or degradation.

d. Assignment. These Terms of Service are personal to you, and are not assignable, transferable or sublicensable by you except with our prior written consent. We may assign, transfer or delegate any of our rights and obligations hereunder without consent.

e. Agency. No agency, partnership, joint venture, or employment relationship is created as a result of these Terms of Service and neither party has any authority of any kind to bind the other in any respect.

f. Notices. Unless otherwise specified in these Term of Service, all notices under these Terms of Service will be in writing and will be deemed to have been duly given when received, if personally delivered or sent by certified or registered mail, return receipt requested; when receipt is electronically confirmed, if transmitted by facsimile or e-mail; or the day after it is sent, if sent for next day delivery by recognized overnight delivery service. Electronic notices should be sent to

g. No Waiver. Our failure to enforce any part of these Terms of Service shall not constitute a waiver of our right to later enforce that or any other part of these Terms of Service. Waiver of compliance in any particular instance does not mean that we will waive compliance in the future. In order for any waiver of compliance with these Terms of Service to be binding, we must provide you with written notice of such waiver through one of our authorized representatives.

h. Headings. The section and paragraph headings in these Terms of Service are for convenience only and shall not affect their interpretation.

Contact. You may contact us at the following address: 12 E 49th Street, 11th Floor, New York, NY 10017.