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We Need To Eat – The One Thing That Won’t Change With Climate Change

By: Joe Baustian

The impacts of climate change on our planet will be widespread and vary from region to region and ecosystem to ecosystem. When we think of these changes and how they will affect us, we typically think of rising seas and higher temperatures. Indeed those changes will be tremendous, but perhaps the impacts with the most widespread consequences for humans will be in agriculture. Unfortunately, these changes are some of the most difficult to prepare for and predict.

In higher latitudes, a warming climate may lead to a longer growing season and therefore higher crop yields. However, a longer growing season also means crops will use more water, and if the warmer temperatures aren’t accompanied by an increase in rainfall, the longer growing season will do little good. This is a very real concern in areas, such as the Great Plains, where agriculture relies heavily on irrigation and decades of ground water extraction has caused regional aquifer levels to drop. (Aquifers are large underground storage areas used for agriculture, energy, and human consumption).

Map highlights dramatic drop in aquifer levels of  the High Plains in a 10 year period.  How do we tackle less water available and increasing temperatures?
Image courtesy of the Kansas Department of Agriculture.

Farmers have been attempting to combat water shortages through a variety of means including no-till farming, erosion control, rebuilding soil organic matter, and changes to irrigation techniques. This fight has been taken to the next level by researchers at The Land Institute who are working to breed new varieties of plants that maintain the high yields of current agricultural crops, but provide the same benefits to soil as natural ecosystems.

Root system of perennial wheat grass (right) vs. annual wheat grass (left).
Image courtesy of The Land Institute.

The main goal of the The Land Institute is to take the annual grains, legumes, and oil seed crops we grow as food today and make them into perennial crops. Perennial crops differ from annuals, in one important way—they don’t require yearly replanting. Perennials store energy underground in roots and rhizomes over the winter so that they can re-sprout in the spring. This means farmers don’t need to plow and till their fields as often, which reduces soil erosion.

This solution has many benefits, especially if you grow these perennial crops together instead of the typical monocultures of annuals we have today. Perennial cropping systems reduce the use of fertilizer, pesticide, herbicide, and fossil fuel. Furthermore, the larger root system of perennials makes them more resilient. Additionally, they reduce soil erosion and even sequester carbon in the soil.

To meet demand and continue growing food despite rising temperatures, we need a multi-faceted approach. Full-scale perrenialization of agriculture is still many years away, but researchers at The Land Institute and their collaborators are working diligently to make agriculture more sustainable in a changing world.

 

Resources: 
Zabarenko, Deborah. Drop in U.S. underground water levels has accelerated -USGS. May 20, 2013
Climate Change and Agriculture in the United States: Effects and Adaptation. US Department of Agriculture.

1 Comment »

  1. Interesting research. One tricky part is harvesting; automated methods for many annual crops often destroy the plant. It will be exciting to see what they are able to develop.

    Comment by Sam B — June 19, 2013 @ 2:33 am

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