Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Farmers and Changing Climates

Global Warming: Farmers Will Need to Adapt to Changing Climates—But They've Done So in the Past

December 27, 2010 - Of all the projected impacts of climate change, the scariest one in a world is the effect warming could have on our ability to feed ourselves. Scientists have looked at the impact of major heat waves in the past, and have found that such abnormally hot weather tends to hurt agriculture, with maize productivity levels falling by more than 30% in Italy during the blistering summer of 2003. A study from last year predicted that there was more than a 90% chance that average growing-season temperatures by the end of the century would be hotter than the most extreme levels seen in the past—and that such hot weather could wilt out crops. Given that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is projecting that temperatures in major grain-growing regions of North America could increase by 3 to 4 C by the end of the century, that's a scary thought.

But while unchecked global warming is likely to alter the climate at a rate faster than anything we've experienced in recorded history, it's important to remember that we have one big advantage on our side: human ingenuity. As a new paper published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) shows, farmers in North America have proven able to grow crops in climates that were initially considered too harsh and too dry. ( Read the PDF here, no need to download. ) Thanks to mechanization, improving infrastructure and plant breeding—before the age of genomics—farmers managed to turn the Plains state of the Midwest from the Great American Desert to the Great American Breadbasket. The paper shows that climate, while a vital factor in agriculture, is far from the only one, and provides a little hope for a hotter future. {continued}

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