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Climate change 101

Gil Gullickson 05/03/2012 @ 3:28pm Crops Technology Editor for Successful Farming magazine/Agriculture.com

Think climate change is a massive Al Gore-led conspiracy designed to limit how you farm?

Maybe. There's a powerful case to be made, though, that man-made climate change is occurring. Worldwide, over 100 scientific societies say man-made climate change is happening. This includes 97% to 98% of scientists actively publishing climate research in scientific journals.

“There is a tsunami of scientific agreement that man-made climate change is occurring,” says Paul Vincelli, University of Kentucky Extension plant pathologist.

Farmers and farm groups generally are leery of man-made climate-change reports, due to fear of any legislation that may restrict fuel use or the way they farm.

“For now, cap and trade is dead politically,” says Mike Boehlje, Purdue University agricultural economist. “But the fundamental issue of concerns over global warming has not gone away. Our perspective is it may be in remission for a while, due to issues like balancing the budget.”

Regardless of climate-change politics, now is a good time to ready your farm in case the studies are true.

The good news

Bear in mind that if man-made climate change is occurring, you'll see it over a period of time. After all, it took since the mid-1800s for atmospheric carbon dioxide levels to rise from 280 parts per million (ppm) to the current 392 ppm. In some ways, this increase is good news.

“When you increase carbon dioxide, crops grow better,” says Nick Harmon, director of sustainability for Bayer CropScience. “Crops, in general, will have a reduced number of stomata. Stomata are the mode of gas exchange in plants. They are also the way plants lose water.”

Rising temperatures provide some good news for those of you in Northern areas. Longer growing seasons will generally occur. For example, farmers in Iceland have been able to grow barley for the first time in recent years, says Harmon.

This will help farmers in the northern Plains grow more winter wheat. Traditionally, farmers in states like Minnesota and North Dakota have been caught in a wheat tug-of-war. Historically, winters have been too brutal for winter wheat to survive winters like those in North Dakota. Meanwhile, spring wheat risked cooking in hot summers during kernel formation.

Milder winter temperatures will expand winter wheat production that's already occurring in these areas, notes Harmon.

The bad news

Unfortunately, diseases and insects also thrive under higher temperatures and carbon dioxide levels. Forest insects are already shifting northward in the United States.

“The western pine beetle is moving northward in California, and bark beetles are moving into Alaska,” says Harmon. “These insects are hard to manage.”

This scenario will likely apply to agricultural insects. Warmer temperatures will lead to increased fecundity (egg-laying),” says Harmon. “Insects better survive winter and have earlier flight times, which enable more than one generation per year to survive.”

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