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How to Cope With Climate Change

His tired eyes told the story of a long day. The European agricultural company executive had pitched the benefits of plant biotechnology to U.S. and European journalists at a European media event that I attended. The U.S. journalists were easily convinced. The Europeans? Not so much. 

He wasn’t bitter. A late-night conversation, though, revealed his befuddlement about how an otherwise progressive continent like Europe could reject the sound science behind genetic modification of crops.  

“Will they change their minds?” I asked. 

“That ship,” he wearily replied, “has already sailed.”

Climate Change Is Real
I think of that beautiful Belgian day back in 2008 whenever climate change is debated. As with genetic crop modification, there’s little debate in the scientific world regarding man-made climate change. Groups as diverse as the American Society of Agronomy to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) all acknowledge the reality of man-made climate change.

As many of you wrestle with bankers, landlords, and input suppliers over the 2016 growing season, though, climate change likely ranks low on your list.

“It’s not surprising that farmers are skeptical,” says Mike Lohuis, Monsanto’s agricultural environmental strategy lead. “On a global perspective, you can see it in  the warming of the oceans and average global temperatures. Climate change, though, is not uniform. If you farm in Iowa and look at maxiumum Iowa summertime temperatures, they really have not changed much.”  

Climate change is subtle and occurs over time. Back in the 1970s, southern Manitoba was traditional small grains country. Now, parts of the area mimic Iowa.  

“We are now growing soybeans and corn farther north due to a longer growing season,” says Lohuis.

That’s good. Downsides exist, though. Even though Iowa temperatures have changed little, rainfall patterns have. 

Jerry Hatfield, director of the USDA-ARS National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment at Ames, Iowa, examined central Iowa spring precipitation over two time frames. Workable field days in April through mid-May decreased 3.5 days from 1995 to 2010 compared with a 1979-to-1994 time frame. This can raise havoc with spring fieldwork schedules and stress seed emergence and new seedlings. 

“Greenhouse gas emissions are real,” says Lohuis. “They are happening faster than ever in the history of the planet, and those emissions are man made. The global economy has recognized that these emissions are a problem and that climate change is occurring.”

Good News
Granted, inputs like fuel and fertilizer saddle agriculture with greenhouse gas emissions. The good news is that agriculture has the potential to sequester more greenhouse gasses than it emits.

“For years, soil scientists have been looking at how carbon accumulates or is lost in soil,” says Lohuis. 

Models soil scientists have built reveal that soils with good crop potential can team with practices like cover crops and reduced tillage to create carbon sinks. These can sequester atmospheric greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide that fuel climate change. 

“We became excited that farmers could be part of the solution and not just another source of emissions,” he says. 

Last year, Monsanto set a goal to mitigate climate change in its seed and crop production operations and become carbon neutral by 2021. 

“We hope to have pilot programs to provide incentives for farmers to adopt practices like cover crops and reduced tillage,” says Lohuis. “Precision agriculture might be another one. We have to figure out where the biggest benefits will be and which ones farmers are willing to adopt.”

Climate change doesn’t have to pinch your pocketbook by curtailing crop yields. High crop production sucks much carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and into plants. 

The resulting biomass ultimately creates more soil carbon that fuels higher organic matter levels. This, in turn, raises water infiltration rates that can help plants better endure drought. 

“If we do see longer droughts from climate change, soils with more carbon will be more resilient,” says Lohuis. “It may even drive up the value of your land if your soil is in better condition than other soils.”

Board the Ship
Ignoring climate change puts agriculture in a dicey freedom-to-operate position. Agriculture now emits 13% of global greenhouse gas emissions. 

“If agriculture doesn’t do something and other industries do, agriculture will be the largest greenhouse gas emitter on the planet,” says Lohuis. 

Ignoring this – particularly when there are economical ways to mitigate it – could further place farmers in regulatory crosshairs. 

Unlike transgenic technology and the European Union, this ship is still boarding. It will be up to the agricultural industry to join it before it sets sail. 

“We can’t do this without farmers,” says Lohuis. 

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