Warming Climate Brings 'Existential Challenges' to Agriculture

The warming climate means we should expect more floods, more droughts and a decline in some important crop nutrients, but good soil management practices may mitigate some of the worst effects.

So said two scientists at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center’s final Ag Tech Professional Forum for 2019, capping a year of forums examining how climate change affects agriculture.

Robert Beach, Ph.D.
Robert Beach, Ph.D.

Robert Beach, Ph.D., senior economist and fellow at RTI International, discussed research that shows a decline in levels of zinc, iron, and protein in many food crops due to increased CO2 levels.

Rising CO2 levels may slow or reverse nutritional gains across all regions, but the effect is worse in many developing countries in North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia.

Beach noted that two billion people are already deficient in one or more of these nutrients. Falling levels of protein in rice, he added, have resulted in “major implications for food security.”

In addition, rising CO2 levels affect both the quality and quantity of food, although there are wide variations across geographies, crop types and climate models.

Beach did offer some hope that increasingly sophisticated agricultural practices may mitigate some of the effects of climate change.

Healthy Soil Important To Human Health

Cristine L.S. Morgan, Ph.D., chief scientific officer with the Soil Health Institute based in Morrisville, stressed the importance of good soil management to human, plant and animal health. 

Healthy soil is important to food security, human health, water security, biodiversity, energy security, and climate change adaptation.

Cristine Morgan
Cristine Morgan, Ph.D.

“We get many antibiotics from the soil and may find others,” she said. Soil is a living organism, she noted, “with more microbes in a handful than there are humans on earth. Many more.”

Exposure to soil even helps reduce the risk of auto-immune diseases in children. Research has shown there is even a difference in risk for children on the ground floor vs. the tenth of an apartment building.

Rising temperatures due to climate change means we’ll be seeing more droughts and more floods, Morgan said. But healthy soil can mitigate some of the agricultural damage. Healthy soil retains more clean water and increases drought resistance.

“Springs are getting wetter and summers more intensely drier,” Morgan said. But good soil structure created by best soil management practices increases its water-holding capacity and keeps the water cleaner. And, healthy soil, she said, “stays in place.”

Many good soil management practices such as no-till fields and crop cover strategies are well known, but part of the Soil Health Institute’s mission remains education and training, making the business case for good soil management, and providing evidence-based information to policy makers.

Currently the Institute is involved with what Morgan called an “unprecedented” research project across North America, Canada and Mexico, looking at different soils in each area. It is working to identify effective indicators to quantify changes in soil health due to management. It offers farmers a decision-support tool and spreadsheets showing costs per acre and net profitability change from using good soil management practices.

Good soil management is “an existential challenge today,” Morgan concluded.

She recommends watching the “Living Soil” documentary for more insights into that challenge.

Allan Maurer, NCBiotech Writer
Thu, 12/12/2019 - 16:13