Climate change can reduce crop yields and thereby threaten food security. The current measures used to adapt to climate change involve avoiding crops yield decrease, however, the limitations of such measures due to water and other resources scarcity have not been well understood. Here, we quantify how the sensitivity of maize to water availability has increased because of the shift toward longer-maturing varieties during last three decades in the Chinese Maize Belt (CMB). We report that modern, longer-maturing varieties have extended the growing period by an average of 8 days and have significantly offset the negative impacts of climate change on yield. However, the sensitivity of maize production to water has increased: maize yield across the CMB was 5% lower with rainfed than with irrigated maize in the 1980s and was 10% lower (and even >20% lower in some areas) in the 2000s because of both warming and the increased requirement for water by the longer-maturing varieties. Of the maize area in China, 40% now fails to receive the precipitation required to attain the full yield potential. Opportunities for water saving in maize systems exist, but water scarcity in China remains a serious problem.
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