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Climate change forces farming innovation

Published on 21 October, 2006, Last updated at 10:24 GMT


Gary Larsen, a 63-year-old grandfather who raises corn and soybeans is among the growing number of farmers concerned with the potential effects of global warming. "We don't know how the world could actually turn out, but doing absolutely nothing and sticking your head in the sand is not an option," said Larsen, who lives near Elk Horn, Iowa.

He has adopted environmentally friendly farming methods and even recently bought a hybrid car.

Hybrids aren't replacing one-ton pickups in mid-America, but many in the agriculture industry are reacting to the potential effects of global warming, developing new technology and farming methods to brace for the possibility of widespread drought and crop-pounding storms.

In the past century, the Earth's surface temperature has risen by about 1 degree Fahrenheit and could climb another 5 to 10 degrees over the next century, according to government officials. The Environmental Protection Agency has blamed human activities for most of the warming over the last 50 years, including the buildup of greenhouse gases that trap heat.

"It's dire in the sense that this problem is already with us, and it's hard to see how it can go away," said Kevin E. Trenberth, head of climate analysis at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. "There are no global concerted efforts to really address the problem."

Trenberth said farmers have quickly learned to manage the effects of hot, dry weather and soil-eroding storms.

"They see the trends and they adapt their practices," he said.

The industry has been especially aggressive in breeding and developing crops that more efficiently use soil moisture and nutrients. Such crops can ward off disease and pests that stress plants trying to cope with increased temperatures.

William Niebur, vice president of DuPont Crop Genetics Research and Development, said there is evidence of climate change, including the migration of successful corn production north 100 miles over the past three decades.

"We believe climate change and climate evolution is real," said Niebur, whose company is developing pest-resistant and drought-tolerant crops.

"It's really a holistic approach, understanding that the ecosystem is changing and that we need to equip that ... plant to be able to deal with that more harsh, stressful environment," he said.

The results of the emerging technology are aiding crop production, said Jon Doggett, vice president of public policy for the National Corn Growers Association.

"You are seeing good corn yields under conditions that would have probably been a crop disaster 20 years ago," he said.

Others in the industry are using improved soil management methods to reduce greenhouse gases. That includes no-till farming, where farmers plant crops without using machines to plow or turn over the soil. That method cuts down on energy use and traps organic material that breaks down to fertilize the soil. The method also keeps carbon in the ground instead of releasing it to build up in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

In addition to aiding the environment, such energy conservation also helps farmers' bottom line.

Farmers also are planting crops that require less fertilizer and herbicide applications, using alternative fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel, capturing methane gas released from livestock operations for energy production, and harnessing wind power.

And many are beginning to sort out water supply problems as warm, dry areas expand. That includes examining water rights before shortages happen, and studying dwindling mountain snowpacks that supply many farmers with water from spring melting. Faced with fiercer storms that cause rain to hit the ground and run off rather than be absorbed, researchers are exploring ways to capture the precipitation.

Although the livestock industry may not have to worry as much about a degree or two temperature change, any decrease in crop production could have an impact on the industry, said Paul Sundberg, vice president of science and technology with the National Pork Board.

"Feed costs are 80 percent or better for the cost of production," he said.

Francis Thicke, an organic dairy farmer from Fairfield, Iowa, who has a Ph.D. in soil fertility, said he provides his 130 animals with grassy areas to forage for food. That cuts down on fuel needs because he's not growing as much grain for feed, and it allows carbon to remain in the soil because there's no need for tilling.

Thicke said politicians should end subsidies to farmers who grow crops such as corn and soybeans that rob the soil of nutrients and require lots of energy.

"Our whole farming system really contributes a lot to global warming, and it could be made to be much more sustainable," he said.

Larsen, the western Iowa farmer, hopes that more can be done to protect against the effects of global warming.

"This is about my children and my grandchildren's generation," he said.


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