Pasta and climate change

It is impossible to visit with a North Dakota farmer without the conversation, at some point, turning to the weather. Our lives and livelihoods depend on the benevolence of the clouds and the thermometer. Rainfall in a good year is just barely adequate. We have friends from elsewhere in the world who laugh out loud when they learn that we measure rain in one-hundredths of an inch and adjust the temperature to account for the wind. We are justifiably obsessed with weather.

Recently “Newsweek” magazine ran an article by a Mark Hertsgaard, a journalist who has written about global climate change for more than 20 years. The article, titled “The End of Pasta,” looks at the drought of the last year and projections into the future. Hertsgaard concludes that as the weather changes, farmers will run out of places which are suited to grow durum wheat needed to make spaghetti and macaroni.

Hertsgaard quotes several North Dakota durum growers and points out that already the durum growing region has moved from eastern North Dakota to the West where it doesn’t get rained on at the wrong time. Several researchers from North Dakota State University and former Commissioner of Agriculture and National Farmers Union president, Roger Johnson, seem to support his conclusions.

Almost as disturbing as the picture Hertsgaard presents is the quote from North Dakota’s current Agriculture Commissioner, Doug Goehring:

‘…Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring says man-made climate change does not exist. Goehring says it does not bother him that the National Academy of Sciences, like its counterparts in every other industrial nation, has repeatedly affirmed otherwise. Goehring, a Republican, adds, “I think an agenda is being pushed.”’

I am surprised by Goehring’s remarks. On most subjects Commissioner Goehring insists that decisions be based on “sound science.” He has impressed me as an intelligent and forward-looking politician. In this case, his position seems to be more political than scientific. It would appear that he discounts the findings of scientists all over the world in favor of the belief that a nefarious “agenda” is being promoted by some radical group.

When we began farming in 1974, this was called the “Durum Triangle.” We and our neighbors regularly grew durum wheat and harvested a good quality crop most years. That is no longer the case. The rainfall patterns have changed and getting an unstained crop of high quality durum in the bin is a rare event. As the climate has changed, wheat has been replaced by corn and soybeans on growing numbers of acres. Part of the change has been the development of shorter seasoned varieties, but changing weather has also driven the trend.

Some researchers believe that increasing temperatures and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels will increase agricultural yields. Others believe that may be true only in the short term. As the weather changes and crops move to new growing regions, eventually diseases and insect pests will also move. There are other factors in crop production such as soil structures, fertility, water resources and topography which limit the number of places where any given crop will grow successfully. We are only just beginning to understand the many implications of shifting seasons and weather patterns will mean for future farmers.

Our public officials, farm organizations, commodity groups and university researchers must consider ways to adapt North Dakota’s agriculture to a warmer and perhaps drier future. Our long term economy is still dependent on farming and the world will always need food. What kinds of crops will grow here ten, twenty or fifty years from now? What new varieties will be needed to withstand too wet, too dry, too hot conditions? How will we deal with the many demands for water the future may bring? How will we till the soil and transport our crops if carbon emissions are capped or oil continues to rise in price? What kinds of practices will we need to follow to keep topsoil in place when torrential rains fall, and rivers flood more frequently. How will we increase our fields’ organic matter? How will warming weather affect the microbial life in the soil? How can we protect the beneficial insects which pollinate our crops and prey on insect pests?

There is too much at stake to attribute the concerns of climate scientists around the world to a conspiracy of unnamed forces “pushing” an undefined agenda.

Copyright © 2012 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains