Farm implications of a changing climate
Regardless of whether or not you believe man has a role in climate change, recent weather changes have caused some dramatic changes in the agricultural landscape and, consequently, both production capability and the sustainability of current production practices. A new study out this week outlines just how much a changing climate could affect agriculture and suggests a few ways production systems could change to accommodate any changes Mother Nature throws at the industry.
The new study, led by USDA Agricultural Research Service lab director and plant physiologist in Ames, Iowa, Jerry Hatfield, shows that it's not just rising temperatures, but secondary climate outcomes like more frequent precipitation extremes and changes in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere available for plant respiration that could profoundly affect crop production down the road, especially in those crops most susceptible to damage from those conditions.
"Crops grown on soils with a limiting soil water-holding capacity are likely to experience an increased risk of drought and potential crop failure as a result of temperature-induced increases in crop water demand, even with improved water-use efficiencies. Conversely, declining trends of near-surface winds over the last several decades and projections for future declines of winds may decrease evapotranspiration of cropping regions," Hatfield says. "Crops and forage plants will continue to be subjected to increasing temperatures, increasing CO2, and more variable water availability caused by changing precipitation patterns. These factors interact in their effect on plant growth and yield."
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One critical area by which all crops could see major changes in potential output is in the effects of warmer temperatures during pollination, something that caused a lot of problems for the corn crop in some areas last summer. When temperatures reach the upper end of the window for optimal pollination, the reproductive systems of plants that eventually yield fruit or grain are hampered. And, that can lead to a wide range of negative effects on crop yield.
"Pollination is one of the most sensitive stages to temperatures, and exposure to high temperatures during this period can greatly reduce crop yields and increase the risk of total crop failure," Hatfield says. "Plants exposed to warm nighttime temperatures during grain, fiber, or fruit production also experience lower productivity and reduced quality."