Perhaps the biggest danger to future generations of our planet is our failure to address the drought and extreme weather in order to sustain agriculture.
Climate change could speed up Earth’s climate cycles, leading to increased disruptions on food production and shifting the pattern of seasonal flooding. Climate change will likely cause an increase in extreme weather, such as extreme heat waves and rainfall deluges, which will have an effect on crops. More than 70 percent of the world’s population depends on agriculture for their survival, and the cost of climate change, including drought, global warming and sea level rise, could amount to more than $10 trillion, according to a 2009 report by the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Boffins have begun to decipher the ways in which climate change could affect farming and the way crops are grown. One such groundbreaking study, carried out by a team of researchers at the University of California, Davis, has found that repopulating farmlands could dramatically slow the pace of global climate change. The study, which involved plant samples from 60 of the world’s most studied areas, could pave the way for the world to reverse some of the most extreme effects of climate change.
The researchers — together with others at various universities in France, Great Britain, Germany, Israel, Italy, and Sweden — found that there are effectively two kinds of farming land: legible and non-legible. Legible farms are distinguishable from non-legible farms by the shape of their soil, as plants, with roots, go in and out of the soil. Non-legible farms have no sign of plants, which is why they are not classified.
Non-legible farms are used mainly in countries with less arable land — especially in eastern Europe, the Middle East, and south-east Asia. Non-legible soils are particularly susceptible to heat waves, as all plants on non-legible soils end up eventually succumbing to heat. In addition, non-legible farms have the added consequence of waterlogging, which occurs in regions where rainfall amounts are the lowest. As a result, water in waterlogged fields comes in contact with the soil, and eventually eats away at it and forms a mud layer under the soil.
Legible farms, on the other hand, are cultivated in temperate regions and very frequently have “hypoxia,” or lack of water. “Animals living on legible soils have moved underground because their previous hydration was reduced,” said researcher Moira Niven. This tells the story of how hypoxia tends to have more of an effect on crop production. In parts of Russia, for example, hypoxia is such a significant problem that it has severely reduced sugar cane production.
The researchers began to seriously consider the implications of hypoxia on crop production after looking at a NASA satellite data in which researchers could differentiate between the severity of hypoxia and the onset of a major drought. They confirmed that even the presence of hypoxia could significantly affect the rate of decline of crops during the onset of a drought. After examining the data from 32 different farming countries, including Italy, Argentina, China, Australia, Poland, and Brazil, the researchers found that non-legible soils, on average, exhibited a 40 percent decrease in yield, while harvest rates fell by over a third in drought-stricken areas. By contrast, in coastal countries with long history of farming, the study found that farmers maintained crop yields, when compared to farms with long histories of farming.
The study, published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters, found that repopulating farms with legible soils could help to dramatically speed up climate change’s transition away from the hypoxic environment and towards the hospitable wetter environment where crops are grown.
“This has profound implications, because farmers do not easily anticipate climate changes and do not invest in greenhouses or other forms of infrastructure in order to make farming more sustainable,” said Emily Sacks, another researcher on the project. “Farmers rely on rainfall — they are not aware of carbon in the soil.”
As we begin to decipher climate change’s effects, it could be our food production systems that could set the pace for the next century.