Model vs. experiment to predict crop losses—Response

Our Report draws attention to a complex but understudied issue: How will climate warming alter losses of major food crops to insect pests? Because empirical evidence on plant-insect-climate interactions is scarce and geographically localized, we developed a physiologically based model that incorporates strong and well-established effects of temperature on metabolic rates and on population growth rates. We acknowledged that other factors are involved, but the ones we analyzed are general, robust, and global (13).

Parmesan and colleagues argue that our model is overly simplistic and that any general model is premature. They are concerned that our model does not incorporate admittedly idiosyncratic and geographically localized aspects of plant-insect interactions. Some local effects, such as evidence that warmer winters will harm some insects but not others, were in fact evaluated in our sensitivity analyses and shown to be minor (see the Report's Supplementary Materials). Other phenomena, such as plant defenses that benefit some insects and threaten others, are relevant but are neither global nor directional. Furthermore, because Parmesan et al. present no evidence that such idiosyncratic and localized interactions will outweigh the cardinal and universally strong impacts of temperature on populations and on metabolic rates (13), their conclusion is subjective.

We agree with Parmesan and colleagues that the question of future crop losses is important and needs further study, that targeted experimental data are needed (as we wrote in our Report), and that our estimates are likely to be conservative (as we concluded, but for reasons different from theirs). However, we strongly disagree with their recommendation to give research priority to gathering localized experimental data. That strategy will only induce a substantial time lag before future crop losses can be addressed.

We draw a lesson from models projecting future climates. Those models lack the “complexity and idiosyncratic nature” of many climate processes, but by building from a few robust principles, they successfully capture the essence of climate patterns and trends (4). Similarly, we hold that the most expeditious and effective way to anticipate crop losses is to develop well-evidenced ecological models and use them to help guide targeted experimental approaches, which can subsequently guide revised ecological models. Experiments and models should be complementary, not sequential.