Climate Change Food & Agriculture

Agriculture & Climate

According to Princeton Student Climate Initiative (PSCI), nearly one quarter of climate change is due to our food system. At the same time, conventional agriculture is uniquely vulnerable to the effects of climate change, including extreme weather, supply chain disruption, and new pests and diseases. Add to this, the puzzle of how higher temperatures and different weather patterns impact plant health and growth. The following articles explore these issues, starting with a peek at the fight between proponents of high-tech agriculture and agro-ecological or regenerative agriculture.

Image above is from a 2020 article by Audrey Watson on how our food system contributes to climate change and how we can eat more sustainably.

U.S.-led AIM for Climate Project Promotes “False Solutions”

Leading up to last year’s climate talks in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, an international coalition of climate and food sustainability leaders warned against “false solutions” being promoted at the COP27 climate conference by AIM for Climate—”a multi-billion dollar initiative by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to promote agritech (biotechnology, nanotechnology, robotics, AI) as a primary solution to the climate crisis.”

“Agritech and the industrial agribusiness model it furthers are not a solution to the climate crisis but rather a significant part of the problem,” said Andrew Kimbrell, co-founder of the International Coalition on Climate and Agriculture and executive director of Center for Food Safety. “Farmers around the world are already using innovative ecological farming techniques that sequester carbon, and these proven practices should be scaled up and shared instead of giving millions of dollars to chemical corporations to create false solutions that harm people and nature.”

Formed at COP26 in 2021, AIM for Climate now has more than 200 corporate partnerships, including with Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), BASF, Bayer, The Biotechnology Innovation Organization, CropLife International, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Syngenta, and the World Economic Forum.

“AIM’s attempt to make agritech the center of climate action subverts the growing awareness of agribusiness’ major culpability for the climate crisis, and it must be strongly opposed,” said Debbie Barker, ICCA International Coordinator. “The efforts of AIM and its partners to impose dangerous technologies on the world’s farming communities present an existential threat to what is really needed—transitioning away from industrial agriculture and toward ecological farming.”

In contrast to the corporate-led, tech-driven AIM for Climate project, the ICCA promotes a BROAD approach—Biodiverse, Regenerative, Organic, Appropriate Scale, and Democratic—that incorporates ecological farming including organic, agroecology, biodynamic and other proven sustainable practices that work with nature rather than destroying it.

Michigan State University researchers may have found a link between climate change and plant nutrition. Credit: Hermann Schachner via Wikimedia Commons (plant cells) / Mike Erskine via Unsplash (arid land)

Climate change & plant nutrition

A new study from researchers at Michigan State University underscores that we still have much to learn regarding how plants will function—and how nutritious they will be—as more carbon enters our atmosphere. That same influx of carbon is helping drive climate change, meaning this new work, published in the journal Nature Plants, may be revealing an unexpected way this global phenomenon is reshaping nature and our lives.

“What we’re seeing is that there’s a link between climate change and nutrition,” said Berkley Walker, an assistant professor in the Department of Plant Biology whose research team authored the new report. “This is something we didn’t know we’d be looking into when we started.” Although elevated levels of carbon dioxide can be good for photosynthesis, Walker and his lab also showed that increasing CO2 levels can tinker with other metabolic processes in plants. These lesser-known processes could have implications for other functions like protein production.

It’s too early to say for certain whether plants face a low-protein future, Walker said. But the new research brings up surprising questions about how plants will make and metabolize amino acids—which are protein building blocks—with more carbon dioxide around.

Credit: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain

Higher levels of CO2 causing less nutritious crops

For years, scientists have seen enhanced photosynthesis as one of the only possible bright sides of increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2)—since plants use carbon dioxide for photosynthesis, it is anticipated that higher levels of the gas will lead to more productive plants. In a review published in Trends in Plant Science, scientists from Institute for Plant Science of Montpellier in France explain why this effect may be less than expected because elevated levels of CO2 make it difficult for plants to obtain minerals necessary to grow and provide nutritious food.

Maize is one major world crop affected by abiotic stresses including extreme heat and drought exacerbated by climate change. Credit: CABI

Heat and drought significant for food security

Heat and drought are the utmost limiting abiotic factors that pose a major threat to food security and agricultural production, and are exacerbated by “extreme and rapid” climate change, according to a new paper in CABI Reviews. The team of international scientists suggests that it is critical to understand the biochemical, ecological and physiological responses of plants to the stresses of heat and drought in order for more practical solutions and management. They state that plant responses to these challenges may be divided into three categories: phenological, physiological and biochemical.

The scientists, referring to a study examining data from research published between 1980 and 2015, state that drought has reduced wheat and maize yields by up to 40% around the world. They also highlight that projections suggest that for every degree Celsius rise in temperature, this would result in a 6% loss in global wheat yields.

From article by Hannah Ritchie in Our World in Data.

Global food system emissions could stop us reaching climate change targets

To have any hope of meeting the central goal of the Paris Agreement, which is to limit global warming to 2°C or less, our carbon emissions must be reduced considerably, including those coming from agriculture. Clark et al. show that even if fossil fuel emissions were eliminated immediately, emissions from the global food system alone would make it impossible to limit warming to 1.5°C and difficult even to realize the 2°C target. Thus, major changes in how food is produced are needed if we want to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Fruit and vegetable shelves at an Asda in east London. Photo from article in The Guardian UK. Photograph by Yui Mok/PA.

There has been a flurry of articles out of the UK recently about food rationing, especially of fresh vegetables. Growing up in Scotland in the 1960s, before the EU and before the widespread use of refrigerated trucks, our winter veggies consisted of potatoes, turnips and cabbage – lots and lots of cabbage.

Why UK supermarkets are rationing food

Calls for the government to provide better support to UK food producers have intensified recently as supermarkets have been forced to ration sales of some fresh produce. Weather-related disruption has caused supply shortages of vegetables from places including Spain and North Africa. Former Sainsbury’s chief executive Justin King has partly blamed the government’s decision not to subsidise producers’ spiking energy costs this winter under its plan to help businesses affected by the cost of living crisis. The National Farmers’ Union has also called on the government to “back British food production in order to secure a homegrown supply of sustainable food or risk seeing more empty shelves in the nation’s supermarkets”.

Understanding the UK’s complex food supply chains can help explain why this is happening and also provides ideas about how to prevent such shortages in the future. These ideas include:

  • Diversifying sources of imported food
  • Increasing support for domestic food production
  • Improving food supply infrastructure and logistics (Just-in-time food delivery makes us particularly vulnerable to supply chain shocks.)
  • Preventing food waste

Other articles on this topic include:

According to the International Potato Center, based in Peru, there are more than 4,000 varieties of edible potato, most of them found in the South American Andes.

Drought and frost batter vital potato crops in Bolivia

(This article originally appeared in Agence France-Presse)

Dozens of furrows lie barren in a dusty field on the Bolivian highlands. It should be replete with potato plants ready for harvest, but a deadly combination of drought and frost proved too much for the crop. Cristobal Pongo, one of many peasants of the Aymara Indigenous group who devote their lives to potato farming in this region highly susceptible to climate change, looks dejectedly upon the dismal scene. “The potato is our life. We harvest, we sell… It is our livelihood… (it pays) for our children’s education,” the 64-year-old told AFP as he knelt in his field about 4,000 meters (13,100 feet) above sea level. This year, Pongo will have nothing to sell at the market in Calamarca, some 70 kilometers south of the capital La Paz. He does not know what he will do.

Pongo’s crop is not the only one affected by bad weather during the growth season. And the resulting shortage has seen the price of potatoes shoot up sevenfold to almost $2 per kilogram (2.2 pounds) in some markets. Experts say seasonal rains that came too late and untimely frost are likely the outcome of a changing climate. “The highlands, and… the whole region of Bolivia, are vulnerable to (climate) change,” said Luis Blacutt, an atmospheric physics expert at the Higher University of San Andres in La Paz. “These changes are manifesting now. There is a very, very acute rain deficit,” he told AFP.

Pongo now has to wait until the end of October to replant his crop, having given up on having any useful harvest this time around. If no rain has fallen by then, he will have to wait even longer as the soil needs to be moist for potatoes to germinate. But if he waits too long, the winter frosts that come ever earlier could once again destroy the fruits of his labor.

In the face of such uncertainty, Pongo and some neighbors have started using greenhouses erected with the support of a local NGO, Cipca, which comes to the aid of peasant farmers. Greenhouse production is limited to much smaller areas, meaning growers might produce enough for their own use, but not enough to sell.

Indigenous Knowledge Trees & Forests

2023 February Indigenous Plant Wisdom

Image from BC Greenhouse Builders.

An Indigenous reservation has a novel way to grow food – below the earth’s surface

A fascinating article by Hallie Golden highlights how members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe in South Dakota are improving food security and community resilience in the face of climate change. Underground greenhouses, called walipini are helping the people to take back control of their nutrition and ease farming amid the climate crisis, which has seen floods, high winds and hailstorms destroy outdoor crops and regular greenhouses. See also, this earlier article from the BBC about similar technologies being used in Bolivia: Farming underground in a fight against climate change.

A new study led by SMU suggests “cultural burning” could potentially weaken the role of climate in triggering today’s wildfires. Credit: Chris Guiterman

For 400 years, Indigenous tribes buffered climate’s impact on wildfires in the American Southwest

Adding to a growing body of evidence, new research from Southern Methodist University suggests bringing “good fire” back to the U.S. and other wildfire fire-prone areas, as Native Americans once did, could potentially blunt the role of climate in triggering today’s wildfires. The age-old Native American tradition of “cultural burning” appears to have previously weakened—though not entirely eliminated—the link between climate conditions and fire activity for roughly 400 years in the southwestern United States. Studying a network of 4,824 fire-scarred trees in Arizona and New Mexico, where the Apache, Navajo and Jemez tribes lived, SMU fire anthropologist Christopher Roos and other researchers found that the typical climate-fire pattern from 1500 to 1900 reflected one to three years of above-average rainfall—allowing vegetation to grow—followed by a fire-fueling year of significant drought. But the pattern was broken when Native American tribes performed traditional burning practices, according to the group’s study published in Science Advances.

See also:

Credit: Unsplash/CC0 Public Domain

Forests in protected Indigenous lands are healthier, scientists find

Over the last two centuries, human actions have resulted in rising temperatures, a massive carbon imbalance, and tremendous biodiversity loss. However, there are cases in which human stewardship seems to help remediate this damage. Researchers publishing in the journal Current Biology examined tropical forests across Asia, Africa and the Americas and found that the forests located on protected Indigenous lands were the healthiest, highest functioning, most diverse, and most ecologically resilient. Understanding how Indigenous management leads to better outcomes is key to a more equitable approach to conservation. Sze hopes that she and her colleagues can continue to understand how Indigenous land rights and management fit into our conservation policy. “My research is very much inspired by what decolonial climate movements are trying to achieve, in trying to have Indigenous communities and local communities have more autonomy over these spaces,” she says.

Arborist Steve Houser examines the California Crossing tree, a pecan with a bent trunk that points to a low-water crossing in Dallas. Photo by: Michael Amador.

If These Trees Could Talk

No historical marker indicates that this particular pecan tree near the grounds of the Texas National Guard Armory in northwest Dallas is special—just the fact that its trunk grows along the ground for about 25 feet before turning upward. Sometimes natural forces, such as ice storms, can bend trees into strange shapes like this. But for this pecan, its shape is no accident. Steve Houser, a local arborist and founding member of the Texas Historic Tree Coalition, traces his fingers over scars on the tree’s trunk, signs indicating humans may have lashed down the trunk with yucca rope some 150 years ago, when it was a flexible sapling. The bent tree, known as the California Crossing marker tree, points to a low-water crossing on the Elm Fork of the Trinity River, offering valuable information to those who would have recognized it as a marker tree. “The typical settler would go right by,” says Houser, chairman of the coalition’s Indian Marker Tree Committee. “A Comanche would see it and follow it. Trees told them where to go to.” He has been studying marker trees for more than 20 years and last year released a book on the topic, Comanche Marker Trees of Texas, co-authored with Jimmy W. Arterberry, the Comanche Nation tribal administrator, and Linda Pelon, a Waco anthropologist. With the extra publicity of the book, members of the public have come forward with many more posibilities. Houser now has a list of 176 potential marker trees. The article goes on to note that marker trees must be at least 150 years old, are usually long-lived native species, like bur oaks or pecans, and may be scarred where they were deliberately altered or tied down. The presence of arrowheads near the trees can help to bolster the case.


More on Breaking Glass

Back on January 14, my post on Eye Candy, Oddities and Miscellany included a piece on the 2022 Wheelwright Prize lecture by Aleksandra Jaeschke. I subsequently received a very gracious email from Aleksandra including two photos of her work.

At the Poznan Palm House (Poland). Photo by Aleksandra Jaeschke.

Aleksandra also provided a link to her presentation on YouTube.

The second image she sent is eerie and highlights her project’s theme of seeking strategies for a more equitable “greenhouse ruralism”.

A greenhouse in the Netherlands. Photo by Aleksandra Jaeschke.

Thank you, Aleksandra for sharing your work!