Your Reading List

In World’s Breadbasket, Climate Change Feeds Some Worry

It can t happen here, can it? The United States, the breadbasket and supplier of last resort for a hungry world, has been such an amazing food producer in the last half-century that most Americans take for granted annual bounteous harvests of grain, meat, dairy, fruits, vegetables and other crops.

When horrific images of drought or famine in Africa, Asia or other regions land in American media, America is usually first in line with food aid shipments, air drops, and other rescue efforts from its seemingly endless stores.

But climate change fears are sounding some warning bells.

Some scientists and agronomists are becoming increasingly concerned about the real effects they see now on growing conditions in the Midwest, the vast black-soiled region long the core region of the U.S. agricultural miracle.

They also say that not only skeptical farmers but also government authorities are trying to quietly adapt, from equipment to planting to research.

We ve become insensitive to climate with air conditioning, irrigation and better practices, said Eugene Takle, professor of agricultural meteorology and director of the Climate Science Program at Iowa State University. Well, I think we need to rethink that. Just how vulnerable are we?

Takle and others say the future is now.

It s not the long-term climate trends, Takle says, It s the variability. It s the extreme events that have brought the vulnerability of agriculture to climate into the forefront.

Jerry Hatfield, laboratory director at the National Soil Tilth Laboratory in Ames, Iowa, has worked with other scientists in research for the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He says climate change is occurring right now, as is adaptation to it, in the U.S. farm belt.

We don t have to think about 2030 or 2050, in the recent memories we ve had a lot more variability in our weather, Hatfield said. This increasing variability of weather, which is associated with our changing climate scenarios, is going to continue to increase the variability in production.

That s what concerns a lot of us, Hatfield said.

FARMERS ADJUSTING

The IPCC, which has been attacked by climate change skeptics, concluded in 2007 that increased frequency of heat stress, droughts and floods are creating the possibility for surprises, with impacts that are larger, and occurring earlier, than predicted using changes in mean variables alone.

Despite the attacks by skeptics, IPCC s conclusions have been accepted as valid by institutions like the U.S. National Academies of Sciences.

In June 2009, the science academies of the G8 countries, plus Brazil, China, India, Mexico, and South Africa, demanded action to address global climate change that is happening even faster than previously estimated.

Takle said Midwest farmers are already adapting.

Farmers say they don t believe in climate change, but you look at how they spend money and are adapting, he said.

Takle pointed to bigger machinery to allow faster and denser seeding amid rainier springs in the Midwest. Frosts are trending later so crops are kept in fields longer to dry.

But many of the changes are more subtle and hidden than the weather events that grab the headlines, like the massive wildfires, flooding and tornadoes that have hit agricultural areas of the Midwest, Plains and Southwest this year.

Takle said measurable trends of more humidity, for example, have led to higher night-time summer temperatures in the Corn Belt and likely trimmed corn yields in recent years. Corn likes hot days but cool nights.

In Iowa, dew point temperatures have risen 3-1/2 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 35-40 years, equating to 13 per cent more moisture in the air during the summertime, he said.

It s very important that we recognize the vulnerability, Takle said. We have situations like in Texas. Huge reservoirs have just vanished. You can t do a work around.

———

Farmerssaytheydon tbelievein climatechange,butyoulookathowthey spendmoneyandareadapting.

EUGENE TAKLE, I OWA STATE

About the author

Comments

explore

Stories from our other publications