Crop Data Suggests Climate Change Is Not Driving the Migration Surge

Weak U.S. laws, not weak crops, are driving the border crisis

By Matthew Sussis on April 29, 2019

Why have soaring numbers of Central American families been traveling to the U.S. border in recent years? According to the narrative presented by high-immigration activists who want looser and looser asylum standards, these migrants are fleeing deteriorating conditions in their home countries. One of the most commonly cited examples of these conditions is the claim that migrants are fleeing for their physical safety from gang violence. I debunked that last month by demonstrating that there is no statistical relationship between homicide rates in Central America and illegal border crossings.

Now, activists have begun trotting out a new argument in favor of open borders: Central American migrants are fleeing climate change. A recent article in The Guardian said that people are leaving Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala because those nations have been "deeply affected by environmental degradation" that has damaged soil quality and crops. Another article this month, from The New Yorker, said climate change is "fueling" the border crisis because "farmers are abandoning their lands" due to weak crops.

Crop yields, however, tell a different story. I analyzed annual yield data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and looked at how the production of the top crops in each Northern Triangle country has changed since 2000.

In all three countries, major crop production has risen in recent years. If climate change were truly adversely affecting farmers, one would expect that crop production would already be down — or at least stagnant.

El Salvador

El Salvador's most valuable agricultural exports include corn (maize), beans, sorghum, coffee, and sugarcane.

Production of corn, beans, and sugarcane have all risen since 2000. For example, in 2000 El Salvador produced 5.14 million metric tons of sugarcane. By 2010, that figure was relatively unchanged, but it soared in the past decade — reaching 7.16 million metric tons by 2017. The eastern region surrounding the Bay of Jiquilisco in particular has seen an explosion in production, despite highly opaque central planning and minimal supply chain coordination. Beans experienced similar gains, reaching over 100,000 annual metric tons of production as some coffee farmers have turned to beans, which are more profitable.

Coffee, rice, and sorghum production has declined, however. Coffee production in particular dropped sharply in the past seven years, partially due to increased competition from other coffee exporters and partially due to political volatility associated with the coffee industry in El Salvador, whereas sorghum declines have been more slow and steady. Rice has always been a smaller product for El Salvador, and although it declined in the early 2000s, rice production has been relatively steady since 2011.


Figure 1. Pct. Change, Top Crop Production in El Salvador, 2000-2017



Source: United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, FAO Statbook.

 


Table 1. El Salvador Production (metric tons)


Year Corn Beans (Dry) Sorghum Coffee Sugarcane Rice
2000 582,676 68,163 148,942 114,087 5,140,322 47,204
2001 571,471 74,934 150,529 112,201 4,877,241 37,720
2002 644,363 82,648 140,763 91,513 4,528,167 29,098
2003 627,980 83,484 140,963 81,157 4,531,531 22,515
2004 648,045 84,300 147,631 83,088 5,280,400 26,519
2005 727,607 65,110 141,384 87,963 4,404,850 25,984
2006 742,067 90,742 164,007 85,350 4,878,039 31,011
2007 699,416 71,181 129,120 96,355 4,956,477 31,540
2008 868,259 95,255 134,230 97,727 5,249,939 35,218
2009 785,965 80,110 163,698 76,591 5,736,063 40,188
2010 768,113 71,294 166,009 112,636 5,126,693 34,479
2011 756,352 64,835 141,997 82,095 5,832,008 25,589
2012 925,839 107,811 136,575 89,489 6,487,423 28,325
2013 866,701 117,807 140,770 32,864 7,162,995 36,254
2014 819,311 120,795 140,808 41,965 6,782,795 41,838
2015 710,444 96,291 105,245 35,682 6,578,486 38,782
2016 923,472 120,649 121,873 38,636 7,202,141 27,617
2017 904,000 111,948 96,000 39,460 7,155,699 26,000

Source: United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, FAO Statbook.

Guatemala

Guatemala has seen more consistent production growth among its top crops, such as coffee, bananas, palm oil, sugar, corn, rice, and beans.

Of those crops, only coffee and rice declined, and the coffee declines were very slight, with production relatively unchanged in the past decade, due to increased global competition. Rice fell sharply in the early 2000s, but production has steadily climbed back since, reaching nearly pre-2000 levels of 33,000 metric tons.

The other major crops all saw very consistent, steady production growth since 2000. Production of palm oil in particular has been a bright spot, tripling between 2000 and 2010, and then doubling between 2010 and 2017 to over two million metric tons annually today. Palm oil has various uses for food processing and has experienced a sharp rise in global demand. While the majority is still farmed in Asia, production has become increasingly global, to the benefit of Latin American countries, including Guatemala.

Likewise, Guatemala's banana exports have risen by over 1.5 million metric tons in the latest decades, reaching a record high 3.89 million metric tons in 2017. While Guatemalan banana production still lags Brazil and Ecuador, the fruit plays a key role in Guatemala's economy, accounting for 13 percent of all exports (and rising).


Figure 2. Pct. Change, Top Crop Production in Guatemala, 2000-2017



Source: United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, FAO Statbook.

 


Table 2. Guatemala Production (metric tons)


Year Coffee Bananas Palm Oil Sugar Corn Rice Beans (Dry)
2000 312,060 955,000 320,000 16,552,400 1,053,550 45,223 40,600
2001 261,097 1,602,306 400,000 16,934,900 1,224,268 28,939 34,665
2002 255,091 1,762,537 400,000 17,489,900 1,241,723 19,219 38,230
2003 244,200 1,719,165 420,000 17,400,000 1,260,452 19,754 45,428
2004 250,279 1,894,918 420,000 20,000,000 1,280,668 22,004 72,685
2005 248,277 2,057,604 540,000 18,007,620 1,375,986 24,952 78,556
2006 240,331 1,945,049 800,000 17,631,588 1,489,606 22,407 79,814
2007 248,614 2,292,460 880,000 20,312,464 1,598,432 21,682 118,812
2008 254,914 2,297,704 840,000 20,311,940 1,721,610 23,972 136,285
2009 247,503 2,678,159 880,000 21,525,684 1,625,811 28,703 97,845
2010 248,355 2,560,574 940,000 22,313,828 1,638,249 29,624 100,990
2011 265,401 2,880,466 1,260,000 20,586,052 1,675,235 30,404 103,926
2012 272,432 2,978,324 1,440,000 24,289,900 1,723,465 31,135 104,625
2013 248,668 3,307,038 1,480,000 26,913,622 1,795,160 32,246 107,211
2014 227,653 3,424,926 1,500,000 33,239,196 1,815,281 33,616 103,716
2015 225,653 3,796,115 1,973,305 33,869,277 1,853,900 32,826 103,716
2016 236,145 3,775,150 2,085,098 33,533,403 1,899,318 33,747 100,152
2017 245,441 3,887,439 2,031,743 33,758,389 1,917,395 33,000 90,128

Source: United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, FAO Statbook.

Honduras

Like Guatemala, Honduras is a major producer of coffee, bananas, and palm oil, although it also produces large numbers of melons and coconuts, and has a growing number of rice paddies.

Honduran coconut production declined in the early 2000s (from approximately 21,000 to 16,000 metric tons between 2000 and 2005) and has leveled off since, but other agricultural products have been more successful. Honduran coconuts, like in the Caribbean, have suffered from a range of diseases such as lethal yellowing, which have taken their toll on production.

Also like in Guatemala, Honduran palm oil has exploded in popularity, with production quadrupling since 2000 on rising global demand and geographical production shifts.

Very little rice was produced in Honduras in 2000 (about 7,000 metric tons), but by 2017 that number had soared to 59,000 metric tons, driven primarily by small farmers. While still a relatively small part of Honduras' total crop yield, the growth in production has been impressive nonetheless.

Honduras' other major success story has been the rise in melon production. In 2010, Honduras produced 207,000 metric tons of melons, a figure that reached 320,000 in 2017. The majority of those melons are exported to the United States and Europe where demand has been robust.


Figure 3. Pct. Change, Top Crop Production in Honduras, 2000-2017



Source: United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, FAO Statbook.

 


Table 3. Honduras Production (metric tons)


Year Coffee Bananas Melons Palm Oil Coconuts Rice Beans (Dry)
2000 193,309 469,000 88,717 618,600 20,739 7,262 84,980
2001 205,545 515,844 129,000 668,794 20,950 11,172 59,229
2002 172,727 659,324 178,000 797,410 16,047 8,781 87,919
2003 175,284 735,174 214,000 929,752 16,027 26,736 69,950
2004 185,090 811,232 228,000 951,142 16,006 22,409 78,750
2005 190,640 887,072 213,000 972,394 15,986 21,077 86,406
2006 213,636 612,511 223,000 1,420,414 16,500 25,973 60,731
2007 236,302 690,479 204,622 1,427,552 16,500 46,661 68,315
2008 240,948 690,503 216,899 1,432,287 13,900 49,544 66,996
2009 231,288 718,597 229,912 1,578,952 14,500 44,883 70,633
2010 244,335 856,270 206,799 1,768,216 14,760 42,186 83,577
2011 284,347 830,322 326,563 1,866,912 14,800 49,224 88,681
2012 343,403 879,522 288,272 1,988,723 14,830 53,755 91,195
2013 280,697 745,717 296,553 1,929,412 14,836 49,643 103,841
2014 282,071 730,788 309,793 1,927,757 14,580 51,574 105,807
2015 331,157 745,736 303,850 1,947,200 14,398 53,797 111,404
2016 362,366 718,478 312,669 2,045,700 14,272 56,160 116,707
2017 475,042 686,765 320,456 2,403,300 14,019 58,912 121,959

Source: United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, FAO Statbook.

Conclusion

In all three Northern Triangle countries, the majority of the top agricultural products have seen production growth in recent years — in some cases tripling or quadrupling in size. Given the successful crop yields in Latin America, it is hard to imagine that climate change is a major factor driving migration flows. Even with regard to areas with declining production, such as coconuts in Honduras or Coffee in El Salvador, the primary explanatory factors appear to have little to do with climate change.

A much better explanation for the migration surge is not push factors but pull factors — namely our own asylum loopholes such as the Flores Settlement that encourage Latin American families to make the dangerous trek to our southern border where they can then make bogus asylum claims and be allowed entry into the country with minimal chance of removal. Put simply, Central American migrants are by-and-large not coming to America because of life-threatening climate catastrophes. Rather, they're showing up because they know we'll let them stay.