New Crops for a New Climate

Climate change is definitely a hot-button issue at the moment.  But whether we believe it  or not, there are definitely some funky things going on with the weather across the world. That might not concern us too much right now, since we can drive on to the grocery store and buy whatever we want, but what about when the time comes when we can no longer do that?

We all know that farmers’ frenemy is the weather. Bad weather can ruin their whole crop, while perfect weather can make for an optimum crop. A change in the climate, however, could make it even more difficult for our world’s farmers to keep up with the demand for food.

Agricultural scientists have been working on crops that will survive and thrive in changing weather. Potatoes have come out as the go-to crop when times get tough. David Fleisher, an agricultural engineer at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, did an experiment to test potato growth under conditions of limited irrigation and increased atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Their research found that potato plants will produce even more potatoes if they are planted earlier in the year when there is more sunlight.  If they have adequate water during pre-tuber development, when the plant is growing leaves but has not yet started potato formation. Plants grown under these conditions have smaller leaf area, but more potatoes.


Potato growing research. Photo source

“We found that, except for the most severe droughts, tuber yields under elevated CO2 levels exceed tuber yields under current CO2 levels,” Fleisher says. “This could be in part because plant water-use efficiency can increase under elevated CO2 levels.”

He emphasized that this project was a chamber study in a controlled atmosphere, and not a field study, but the results suggest that potato farmers could adapt to changing atmospheric CO2 levels by ensuring that potato plants are adequately irrigated during crucial pre-tuber development stages. He also thinks data from the study might be used to test crop models and other tools used to assess drought management strategies under elevated CO2 conditions.

Not only are scientists working to develop crops that will grow under new circumstances, the changing weather is also giving farmers in some regions the opportunity to grow things they would not normally be able to grow.

For example, farmers in Canada are taking advantage of a tiny rise in average temperatures to grow crops that require warmer weather. Warmer-weather crops like grapes and peaches are being planted in greater numbers in Canada. In other areas of the country, corn and soybeans, which require longer periods of warmer weather, are being planted where they previously would not have thrived.


Canadian peaches. Photo source

These climate changes may not be permanent, and they do vary year-by-year. The unpredictable weather is forcing farmers to be more risk adverse and to adapt more quickly to changes in the weather.

“One thing that we did see was that there are still risks for late spring frosts that can affect plants, and some plant species are more susceptible to that than others. Making use of that type of knowledge by planting certain species or hybrids that are more hearty to later frosts would be a big thing as far as risk management,” says Dan McKenney, a researcher at the Canadian Forest Service’s Great Lakes Forestry Center.

Despite this good news, Paul Bullock, a professor at the University of Manitoba, remains fearful as to what climate change could bring next for farmers.

“I’m not sure we’re ready to handle the variability that seems to be coming with some of the changes,” he said. “Variability is what kills us in agriculture. When one year is this way and the next year it’s totally the opposite, how do you adapt to that? That’s extremely difficult to do.”

So the next time you hear climate change discussed on the news, think and hope for the world’s farmers, who are facing an increasingly volatile and hostile environment, and must adapt quickly and effectively, for the sake of the world’s hungry people!

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