Climate change: Farmers can adapt

by Gary Wilson, Hancock County

As we go through another winter, it seems like everyone talks and jokes about global warming. But agriculture will have to adapt to climate change, and a new study published in “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” suggests that things may not be that bleak.

Over the past 150 years, North American wheat varieties have spread into areas with even wider temperature and precipitation variations than will arise over the next century, the study says.

The North American temperature rise is expected to be between 5 and 7 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, and crops will have to adapt.

“As global change takes place, adaptation will help solve some of the problems that are created. Scientists and farmers are not going to roll over and not do anything,” economist Alan Olmstead of the University of California, Davis, told Discovery News.

He carried out the study with economist Paul Rhode of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

“When we look at how great the adaptations were in the past, it gives us a sense of what might be achieved in the future,” Discovery News quoted Olmstead as saying.

Studying a country-by-country record of wheat production in North America for 1839 to 2007, researchers discovered that the median annual temperature norm for areas of wheat production was 3.7 degrees Celsius colder than in 1839, with average precipitation getting halved.

Eastern Ohio was the geographic center of wheat production in 1839, but by 2007 it was west-central South Dakota.

Farmers in the United States managed to grow 26 times more wheat in 2009, while in Canada, there was a 270 times increase.

Wheat actually moved farther west and north, digging roots into regions of drier and colder climates, a researcher said.

Obviously, settlers preferred to grow wheat varieties that grew in those areas and were in sync with climate conditions there.

In 1839, there was no mature research going on in agriculture and, as a result, nobody knew wheat could be grown in Edmonton or South Dakota. Wheat cultivation picked up only when a Turkish variety of wheat was brought to Kansas in 1873.

This winter wheat was brought in by German Mennonites from the steppes of Russia and proved to be a success when compared to spring wheat, though the former could not withstand the harshest conditions.

In the future, North American climatic conditions are projected to be wetter and warmer, and farmers should get enough time to breed varieties that can withstand varying conditions, for example, a sudden change in climate to cold.

Places like Sub-Saharan Africa will experience the harshest weather conditions, the researcher said, adding that things will be difficult for farmers there as they have to face drier conditions.

The researchers used wheat as an example in this case, but other crops can have the same expansion mode as wheat varieties.

So, the question is, was the wheat acreage increase due entirely to global warming? Probably not, as genetic improvement was also significant, but both can take some credit.

Wilson is area leader, Maumee Valley, extension educator, agriculture and natural resources, for The Ohio State University Extension service in Findlay. He can be reached at 419-422-3851 or via e-mail at wilson.26@cfaes.osu.edu.

Wilson can be heard with Vaun Wickerham weekdays at 6:35 a.m. on WFIN, at 5:43 a.m. on WKXA-FM, and at 5:28 a.m. on 106.3 The Fox.

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