Got Science? Podcast | Episode 60 Farmers and Crops on a Collision Course with Climate Change

June 4, 2019

A conversation with Dr. Marcia DeLonge about the wide-ranging impacts of global warming on our agriculture system.

In this episode Marcia talks about:

  • Climate change and farms
  • Soil health
  • How farmers can adapt to severe changes in climate

Timing and cues:

  • Opener (0:00-0:31)
  • Intro (0:31-2:33)
  • Interview part 1 (2:33-14:30)
  • Break (14:30-15:07)
  • Interview part 2 (15:07-23:33)
  • Science FTW Throw (23:33-23:53)
  • Science FTW (23:53-27:37)
  • Outro (27:37-28:40)

Related content:

Full Transcript

Colleen: Marcia, thanks for joining me on the podcast.

Marcia: Thanks for having me.

Colleen: I wanna talk about climate change and farms. So, how is climate change affecting farms and food production?

Marcia: So there's actually two big ways that climate change is affecting the farms and food systems. So one is these gradual changes that are just happening right in front of us every day, day after day, that are making slow but really impactful changes to farms. And the other one is the increased frequency of extreme events that we're seeing. So maybe I'll just start and talk about some of the gradual effects.

Colleen: Great.

Marcia: So one big thing that's happening is that growing seasons are shifting. Plants take cues from the environment and that means that as the climate is changing, some plants just aren't gonna be comfortable growing where they used to grow. It's hot out there and that heat is just one thing that makes it really hard for crops and also for animals and animal agriculture to survive. And things that make it really hard for crops and livestock to grow don't necessarily make it hard on pests to grow. So we're actually seeing a situation in which the things that we want to grow are having a harder time, but the things that we don't want to grow are having an even easier time.

And another thing that's happening is that pollinators are totally out of sync with the cropping systems. So we need pollinators in order to have the fruits and vegetables that we wanna have on our plates every day. And if they're starting to grow at different times and the pollinators that they need to survive are coming out at opposite times, then this can create a huge problem for our food supply.

Colleen: Is that already happening?

Marcia: It is already happening. All of these things are already happening, and farmers are already facing the devastating challenge of having to deal with a changing climate. growing seasons are shifting, pollinators are out of sync with those growing seasons, also water supplies are just gradually becoming depleted and that would be one of the really important things that farmers would use to cope with a changing climate, they would wanna be able to irrigate when temperatures are really high. But if water is also in decline, then that's obviously gonna be a problem. For farms on the coast, sea level rise is part of the problem. Sea level rise means that soils are actually being washed away from farms, and saltwater intrudes from the coasts into farms. And so now we have crops that are being blasted not just with a lot water but with a lot of sea water which is salty which means that the crops growing on those farms aren't gonna be very happy.

Colleen: So, Marcia, I'm thinking of back in high school when in ecology class where you have the circle of life and everything is dependent on the next thing in the circle. And I'm imagining this circle for farmers where everything is just out of whack.

Marcia: Yeah. I think the problem for farmers is that one thing changes, and they have a series of catastrophic events that really set them back for just the first year but then also for years in the future. So, for example, I mentioned that extreme events are a huge problem. So it's not just these gradual changes that are happening with climate, but it's the fact that we're seeing increased events of flooding, and droughts, and fires and so on. So, for example, we have extreme rainfall for farmers, that means that the soil that is the most precious resource that they have is washed off of their land at an alarming rate. And they really need that soil in order to have resilience for future extreme events in future years. When the water takes away the soil, it also takes away anything that they've purchased and put on that land to help their crops grow. So all of the fertilizers that they've purchased or the pesticides to help them keep weeds in check, that rain that's taking away their soil is also taking all of those materials away. That's an expense and for farmers operating at the margins, that's a huge problem for their bottom line.

Then this water with their soil, and their fertilizers, and their pesticides makes its way downstream. That impacts local water quality and then it also goes way down the line all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, for example, for farmers in the Midwest and causes huge problems with increasing dead zones and that means fish kills and algal blooms that disrupts fisheries. So now you're impacting another piece of the food system. And just remember that way back in the beginning when we were talking about the farmers losing their soils, now that farmer is gonna be more vulnerable to that whole cycle being triggered next time around.

Colleen: So, give me some examples of extreme weather events that have just happened.

Marcia: So we just saw this, for example, with flooding all the way from the Midwest the recent bomb cyclones there with the flooding there that really truly devastated a lot of farmers and ranchers in that area and also earlier in the flooding in Puerto Rico where, again, farmers were also in the mix of folks who were suffering from that extreme event. These kinds of events are gonna continue to come so whatever we can do to get farmers best prepared to be able to bounce back, we should do.

Colleen: How do farmers or farms deal with the consequences of either one, the steady growing climate change or the extreme events?

Marcia: I think there's a variety of different ways that farmers can deal with these things, and farmers are used to unpredictable circumstances. And farmers are used to challenges with what they do. I think the issue here is how many more challenges can we ask farmers to deal with year after year after year?

Colleen: So, when we're talking about farmers, what size farms? Are we talking about the gigantic farm, or a medium-sized farm, or a small farm? What size farm are we talking about?

Marcia: The farms that we have across the United States today are more and more these very, very large commodity crop farms. So these are farms that are growing things like corn, and soybeans, and cotton, and wheat. And we know that these are the kinds of crops that are gonna be affected by climate change. So that just means that a huge percentage of the land that we have in farming we know is gonna be suffering from a lot of these effects. Now there are also other farms, and they don't get a free pass either. In fact, in many cases, I think it's gonna be much harder for smaller and medium-sized farms. So these are the kinds of farms that are already feeling threatened just from other circumstances happening in the United States, so we have trade wars, and we have increasing consolidation in farming and all of these other pressures that have made it really hard to be a small or medium-sized farm in the United States. Those farms don't also always have the same kind of safety nets available from our federal policy or even from other support systems that they might hope to get some help with when disaster would strike.

Colleen: So you mentioned earlier that as the climate changes and a crop in one area a farmer is no longer able to grow that crop, how easy is it for a farmer to switch and grow something that now will work in that warmer area?

Marcia: This is part of the problem that we're facing is that we have a farming system today where farmers have really invested in growing one thing really, really well and at a very large scale and that means investing in the equipment to grow that which can be very expensive, having a lot of land tied up in that one crop, having the training and knowledge to grow that crop. So these are farmers that if you then say, "Oh, just stop growing that thing that you've been growing forever, and you have all of this investment in equipment and training to do," and we ask them to do something different. We have to realize that that's a really big ask. There are opportunities for farmers to be making changes to what they're doing and to build more resilience into their system, but it's not necessarily gonna be easy. And we're gonna need to be thinking about how we support farmers in making some of these changes, and look ahead.

Colleen: So, do you have any examples of farms that have been able to be sort of more flexible?

Marcia: Yeah. Fortunately, there's examples of this all across the country, but some of our favorite examples come from Iowa. So Iowa is known as part of the Corn Belt. There's a lot of corn and soybeans grown in Iowa. And the question is how can we start to pull some diversity back into this farming system and to do it in a way that can really help farmers prepare for climate change and grapple with some of those other challenges that we mentioned, so water pollution, and erosion and so on?

So researchers from Iowa State University have actually found out that you can take your corn and soybean field, and you can actually add in a small grain like oats or something like alfalfa into a rotation. So now instead of growing just two crops corn one year and soy the next, maybe you have corn one year, soybean the next, and then oats and so on. It's actually amazing how much some of these little tweaks to farming systems can create a big improvement for farmers, for soil health, for adapting to changes in climate, and that's just one example. Another great example is farmers in the same area in corn and soybeans have figured out that you can put prairie strips just in 10% of the field. And prairie used to be the dominant landscape within Iowa.

Colleen: What are prairie strips?

Marcia: So prairie strips are beautiful, tall grasses with very, very deep roots that support a lot of wildlife and pollinators, we were talking about pollinators. Something that doesn't look like the corn and soybeans but also doesn't take up that much space and can really help to reduce the loss of fertilizers from those fields, and water, and soil loss from those fields while still keeping farmers in a really good place in terms of their bottom lines.


Colleen: The deep roots in that prairie strip made me think about deep roots and kind of holding the soil. Let's talk soil for a minute. What are some ways that farmers can protect their soil?

Marcia: Farmers can protect their soil by keeping it covered year-round. Just like you would put a blanket over something you want to protect, we wanna be thinking about the ways to cover up soils and keep them safe from wind and from water and so on. So this is through things like cover cropping that just means covering the soil during the time of year when that main crop that is bringing in the profits isn't growing or just planting crops that cover the ground year-round so that's a perennial crop just means that that crop has cover above and below ground year-round. The other thing that soil can do is again, it's those roots. It's those deep roots going into the ground. They hold the structure together, and they create a nice environment for the biology down there too because soils are a really rich living environment when we manage them to be that way, and that's when they perform best.

Another example comes from Montana where they've had a lot of problems with drought. And one of the crops that's actually really, really good at thriving during drought is lentils. And lentils have been really helpful for farmers in Montana because they are able to thrive in these really challenging conditions. They're also a creative food that's very healthy and we like, and they also provide nitrogen. So they're also a crop that can help with reducing costs for farmers, one of those big costs which is fertilizer.

Colleen: So, did they just swap that in rather than planting something else that was struggling?

Marcia: Ah, great question. So again, this is about thinking of ways to tweak the system that exists so people were growing a lot of wheat. There was still wheat growing, but now we were looking at mixing into a, we call it a rotation, pulling lentils in so for part of that rotation you're growing lentils. The cool thing about farmers who were planting lentils and growing lentils during the drought in Montana is that they were actually much more successful farms during that time so whereas other farms were clearly very parched and weren't able to survive very well during the drought just by having some lentils on the field during some of the years, these farms were in a much more resilient place. They were able to survive through a really difficult time.

Colleen: So farmers are needing to be more creative and flexible, try to build in some flexibility as their own safety net.

Marcia: Farmers who are able to be more creative and think about ways to diversify their operation in really smart ways that help build their soil health and also keep their profits up, those are the farmers that I think are going to be in the best position to deal with these climate impacts that keep coming and coming every year.

Colleen: So it's great if a farmer can build in this flexibility and build a different crop. But are there challenges when it comes to selling that crop?

Marcia: Absolutely. The farming system that we have today which is really focused on just a handful of commodity crops, that's what farmers are used to. They know that if they grow corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, or so on, that they have a market, they're ready to go. And that's a really important thing as a farmer especially if you're operating on a margin or you're struggling from year to year. So, if we want farmers to grow new crops or if we wanna be able to support farmers to grow the kinds of crops that science is showing more and more will really help farmers be more resilient to climate change, then we need to figure out what are the markets that we can create? What can the rest of us do to make sure that when they grow that crop that helps their farm and helps us, that they are able to make a profit from that crop?

Colleen: So, how are the actual people working on the farms going to be affected by climate change?

Marcia: This is something we really need to be thinking about. As temperature levels are rising, it's not just crops that are gonna be suffering. There are people actually working on these fields who are going to be really at risk thanks to these changes in temperature. So as people are out there on the fields and temperatures are rising, this means heat stress, this means heat exhaustion, heat stroke, heart attacks. We're talking about real consequences for real people who are out there working to get food that comes to our tables every day.

Colleen: So, are there solutions? What types of strategies can a farmer use?

Marcia: This is the kind of thing where there needs to be a greater awareness of how severe the changes in climate are, how severe the conditions are so that the people that are working out in the fields aren't out during the worst times. This is about making sure that we don't have people on the fields during the times when their health is most at risk. And this is why it's so critical that we don't just think about the short-term Band-Aid solutions, but we really work towards turning this problem around.

Colleen: So, how can we help communities and farmers make this shift and prepare for extreme weather and a changing climate?

Marica: So the first thing that we can do to help farming communities deal with these increasing impacts from climate change is get the practices that we know work in their hands. So that means practices like cover cropping, no-till, crop rotations, planting perennials, and so on. So it's making sure that these farmers know about these tools, that we continue to improve these practices through research, and development, and experimentation to make sure that they're optimized for all the different areas across the country that need them. And we need to make sure that the farmers who are using these practices are successful. So do they have the markets that they need? Do they have the safety nets that they need? Are they supported? So that's the first thing that we can do.

The second thing that we can do to help farming communities is just think about how can we help the communities? The actual communities, because rural communities, farming communities, for the last few decades have been really facing poverty, unemployment, depopulation. So these are communities that are already experiencing a lot of stress. When we think about the disasters that these farms are inevitably gonna face, the short-term gradual changes that are making farming more and more difficult every year and these extreme events that can come wipe out their productivity unexpectedly and at any year, these are communities that we need to make sure have support to be able to bounce back from a disaster. So that can mean infrastructure for communication, transportation. It can mean just making sure that water supplies are available, just the basics. Can we make sure that these communities have the basic things they need to be able to cope with the disaster when it inevitably comes?

And then the last thing, and perhaps this is obvious, but we have got to get a grip on stopping climate change. All of these other solutions will really help farmers adapt over the next few years. All of these solutions can help communities and farmers cope with the impacts that they're facing but unless we turn climate change around, these are all just short-term solutions.

Colleen: So do the benefits of improving our farming practices extend beyond the farm?

Marcia: Thankfully, yes. This is one of the best things about the practices that we know work for helping build resilience to climate change. These are the same practices that we need farmers to be adopting for so many reasons. So these are the same practices that we wanna see farmers being able to adopt for their own benefit, to improve their own bottom line, to improve the productivity of their lands. These are the kinds of practices that will help with water quality so improving the quality of drinking water downstream from farms nearby and far, how do we get a grip on the problems with dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico? It's through these same practices. So these are really win-win opportunities for us. It is a shift from the farming system that we have today. There's so much good that can come from it, so it's really in all of our best interest to try to figure out how do we make farms that are using these kind of practices thrive, and how do we invest in rural communities so that they're well equipped to deal with the challenges that are coming their way no matter what?

Colleen: Well, Marcia, thank you for joining me on the podcast. It's been great talking to you.

Marcia: It's been great to be here. Thank you.

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Science FTW: Cynthia DeRocco
Editing and music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald