Growing wheat in a warmer world

Global temperature data reported for January 2015 makes the month the second warmest January on record, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The warmest January on record was 2007 which included the warming effects of a Pacific Ocean El Niño warming event. There was no El Niño warming in January 2015. The five warmest Januarys ever recorded have all occurred since 2007.

All sectors of our economy will need to adapt to a changed global climate, perhaps sooner than later, according to many of the world’s climate scientists. No sector will need to find new ways to operate than agriculture.

Some in agriculture point to increased carbon dioxide as a boon to plant growth and to warmer weather bringing opportunities for new crops to the northern plains. Reality is likely to be far less rosy. Eventually, farmers will be faced with restrictions on the burning of carbon based fuels and higher input costs. Methane produced by decomposition of animal wastes will be scrutinized. New insect and weed pests will invade our fields. Plant and animal diseases will be spread to new places. Heat, violent weather events, erratic temperature swings and drought are also predicted for the future of food production.

A recently released study by Vara Prasad, professor of crop ecophysiology at Kansas State University recently published a study on the effects of climate change on wheat production worldwide. According to the models he and his colleagues studied in the field and in controlled environments, as our world warms, future wheat yields could be reduced by as much as a quarter of 2012-2013 production.

Dr. Prasad and colleagues found that the effects from climate change and its increasing temperatures on wheat will be more severe than once projected and are happening sooner than expected. “Extreme temperature doesn’t only mean heat; it also means cold,” Prasad said. “Simply looking at the average temperature doesn’t really show us anything because it’s the extremities that are more detrimental to crops. Plants can handle gradual changes because they have time to adapt, but an extreme heat wave or cold snap can kill a plant because that adjustment period is often nonexistent.” Add to temperature extremes, the timing of cold, wet springs, too warm summers and rising night time temperatures. Under these conditions, wheat plants struggle to produce heads and seeds. Studies by European scientists produced similar results for reduced wheat yields.

Research into wheat varieties adapted to growing in drought or wetter conditions are needed to sustain food production. No variety alone, however, will give farmers the tools needed to grow food in a warmer world.

Along with new varieties of wheat, farmers will need to develop new growing strategies  and new soil management practices. In the future farmers will need to learn to grow food on fields which are protected from heavy rains and strong winds. Bare earth will leave the soil vulnerable to both drought and deluge. Cultivation will need to be minimized. Perennial plants, cover crops and mulching will need to be expanded. Soil organic matter will need to be maximized to retain moisture in drought and keep the soil from washing away in heavy rains. Crop rotations will need to be longer and more varied to control pests and diseases. We are already struggling here on the Northern Plains with cold, wet springs, hot, dry summers and rainy falls. According to these researchers, those problems are only going to get worse.

Farming has never been easy. Global climate change is going to make growing food even more challenging. There will be no silver bullets, single seed variety, or technological fix which will solve the new problems farmers will face in the future.  Farmers should be among the most vocal advocates for making changes which might slow greenhouse gas emissions and the effects on our world’s climate. We have a lot to lose.

Copyright © 2015 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains

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