>>DR. BOBBY COATS: It’s a great pleasure
for us to be with you. I am Bobby Coats, a professor in the department of agriculture
economics and agribusiness in the University of Arkansas system’s division of agriculture.
In today’s webinar, Dr. Lewis Ziska, physiologist with USDA’s agricultural research service
in Beltsville, Maryland, will be discussing climate change, CO2 and food security challenges
and solutions. Dr. Lewis Ziska was project leader for global change in the Philippines.
Since joining USDA, he’s published over 100 peer reviewed research articles related to
climate change, rising carbon dioxide, agriculture and food security, weeds, and weed management,
invasive species, plant biology and public health.
Now, Dr. Lewis Ziska, plant physiologist with USDA’s agricultural research service in Beltsville,
Maryland on climate change, CO2 and food security, challenges and solutions. Lewis, we look forward
to your presentation.>>DR. LEWIS ZISKA: Thank you very much, Dr.
Coats. Thank you all for coming today. I know it’s early. I hope you have that second cup
of coffee nearby. I want to talk about some of the interactions
from sort of a 20,000 foot point of view in regard to climate change, carbon dioxide and
food security. If you don’t understand and know who this gentleman is, I would suggest
to you that about half of you listening to this lecture right now or watching this lecture
right now are only able to do so because of this gentleman. I’ll talk a little bit about
his contribution in a few minutes. I want to emphasize to all of you something that
is very basic and very simple. Civilization does not occur without agriculture. We would
have no artists. We would have no lawyers. We would your no politicians. We would have
no dentists. We would have nothing. Like our civilization without agriculture. It depends
on a small percentage of individuals who can grow enough food for the rest of us, otherwise
we revert back to a hunter/gatherer society. Now, there are many different definitions
of food security, but I’d like to sort of give you my own. First, it must be an adequate
supply. Secondly, it must be safe, and third, it must meet your dietary needs. So, we focus
a great deal in agriculture on production and understandably so. You can’t have food
security if you don’t have food. But other issues such as the safety of the food and
the nutrition of the food are also important and, in my opinion, don’t get the attention
that they deserve. Now, if that isn’t the case, if food security is not part of your
culture or your society, then the consequences can be dire, and they have been dire throughout
the 20th century. It’s very difficult if you have never been
hungry to understand what that feels like. And there have been times when hunger has
been so prevalent that cannibalism has, in fact, occurred. It’s not something we think
about, but it is something that has been an endemic part of civilization since its inception.
What I’ve done here in this slide is just to illustrate some of those famines that occurred
during the 20th century. The last large famine occurred in China in the late 1950s and early
1960s. If you, in fact, sum up all of the individuals that died from famine during the
20th century, you would come up with a number around 60 million. To put that number in context,
approximately 55 million people died during World War II. So, famine, food security are
incredibly important aspects in the context of agriculture.
Back in the 1960s and ’70s, following the end of the Second World War, it was clear
that populations were still going up and there was a concern that the ability of the earth
to provide food for those populations was going to be challenged. We looked at or I
didn’t, per se but others looked at what was called the carrying capacity. That is the
number of individuals that can be fed from the resources that the earth provides. This
was occurring back in the 1960s. And you can see that line is being threatened by the increase
in population. Back then, we didn’t have social media, but we had books and movies and television.
So, movies such as Soylent green, TV shows like star trek, this is episode 16, season
three of the mark of Gideon. Yeah, I am a trekky, sorry about that. All of these things
are part and parcel of the concern regarding whether or not population explosion was in
fact going to cause a pandemic. But today, today there are over 7.6 billion
people in the world. So, this did not come to pass. Why is that? What happened? Well,
when you look and compare food security, a couple of basic concepts you need to understand,
the world runs on cereals. There may be hundreds of thousands of different plant species, but
15 of those cereals supply the bulk of human food. Three of them supply more than 50%.
Those three are rice, wheat, and corn. We call them the big three. And when the pandemic
was threatening, well, the obvious thing to do would be to add more water to more fertilizer
to these cereals. And we did so, and the result was a reduction in yield. What? Well, that
occurred because what happened was the grains would get bigger and the plants would fall
over. And then this gentleman whose picture I showed
you at the beginning of the seminar. His name is Norman Borlaug. He came up with something
very interesting. He looked at cereals. This is actually one cereal, all the different
shapes. This is rice. He said, you know, that shape on the right, that semi dwarf shape,
it has a low enough center of gravity so that when I provide additional water and additional
nutrients, it doesn’t fall over. And so, I can get an increase in yield. In fact, the
increase in yield was almost double overnight. So that previously countries like India that
had been met importers of things on cereals became net exporters, all of the span of a
few years. This was called the green revolution. It what he was able to do is by looking at
this, to exploit the structural diversity, the morphology of these different plant species
and do so in a way that enhanced the conversion of water and energy into food, but it comes
at a cost as you might imagine. These smaller lines don’t occur in nature.
They don’t occur in nature because they’re small. They get out-shaded by competitors.
So, you need chemicals. You need chemicals to control the taller weeds or to control
the insects. So, there is a cost that has to be associated with this. In spite of that,
the fact that there are as many people as there are currently is all due to this one
gentleman and his efforts. So, you can look at this and say, okay, well, hey, the green
revolution solved all our problems, this is not something we need to worry about anymore.
It didn’t really solve them, but it put them on hiatus. Let me try and explain.
I’ve gone to the food and agricultural organization, the FAO, and I’ve looked at the ten year averages
in population and the ten year averages in cereal production. I included eight cereals
including the big three, corn, wheat, and rice. You can see the green revolution starting
to make an impact. The blue line which is the population in 1969 shows about an increase
an annual percent increase in population of about 2.2%. If I look at the increase in cereal
production and it’s over 2.5%. There’s no issue. You’re making more cereals than you’re
making more people. Same in the 1970s. Same in the 1980s. Now things start to change.
We’re starting only to produce as many cereals as there are people. Things are becoming tighter.
So, you cannot rely on the green revolution, per se, to continue to provide sufficient
food for the future. That is not going to happen. Resources are still limited.
So just to give you some updates, this is a global production, it’s a five year running
average of rice production, the percent increase in rice production over time from the green
revolution to the mid 2010s and wheat production as well. Population has gone down. You note
that the blue line is decreasing. Right now, we’re about 1. 1%. So again, just to give
you some sense that our production of wheat and rice, major cereals, are just barely keeping
pace with population growth. So, the challenges to food to food security are already severe.
And then you have to go, well, okay, hang on, there’s more. And what does that mean?
Well, what about climate change? How is that going to impact us? So, let’s turn our attention
to this for a moment and give you a brief overview of what climate change is.
Well, it has to do with atmospheric CO2. This is some of the data from the ongoing measurement
of carbon dioxide from Mauna Loa, Hawaii. It’s monitoring at 10,000 feet. It’s not contaminated
by city buses running by the monitors. Essentially during my life time, the amount of carbon
dioxide has gone up by almost 30%. Now, that change in CO2 is very rapid geologically.
If you go back in time, the CO2 concentration stayed pretty steady between 200 and 300 parts
per million. So, this change from a geological point of view is instantaneous. It’s occurring
in my life time. Why is that? It’s not actually very difficult if you take a source of carbon
which is a source of energy and you oxidize it, or you burn it, that produces heat and
energy. It’s what makes modern civilization possible. So, if I take coal or I take oil
and I combust its, I have carbon and oxygen. The byproduct of that is carbon dioxide. It
comes from fossil fuels and calcium carbonate production.
From land use change and deforestation, where does it go? About half of it stays up in the
atmosphere. About a quarter of it goes into the oceans where as it dissolves it’s reducing
the pH. It’s making the oceans more acidic. I won’t go through all the different models.
I’ll just sort of give you the two extremes. You’ll note this green line here at the bottom.
That sort of what I call everyone hold hands drive a Prius line. It’s wishful thinking
at this point. Where we are so far is problem between the business as usual line, this red
dash line, and some of the other higher lines. So, it isn’t likely that we’re going to see
a huge drop in CO2, per se. We need to of course deal with that. We need to look at
mitigation. But we’re also going to have to turn our attention to adaptation and how are
we going to capture that. So, the bottom line is, is that right now
by the end of the century, we anticipate carbon dioxide to be between 600 and as high as 1,000
parts per million. Why should you care? Who cares? Why why should you give a flying fig
whether CO2 is 300 or 600 or 700, right? A couple reasons why you should care. One of
course I’m sure you’ve heard about. One is warmer temperatures. The indirect effect of
rising CO2. The atmosphere consists of various chemicals. The principal ones like nitrogen
and oxygen we’re aware of. Two of the others, one is carbon dioxide, and the other one is
water vapor, H2O in the air. Humidity, if you will. We understand these two are the
net primary global warming gases. What does that mean? Global warming gas, what is that
exactly? And the best way I can explain it is through
music. Now, if you’ve ever played a guitar, you know that if I tune two of the strings
to the same frequency let’s say A which is 440hertz, and I pluck one string, the other
string next to it will resonate. It will absorb some of that energy from the first string.
That concept of resonance also applies for these molecules, carbon dioxide and water
vapor. When they experience heat or infrared radiation, they resonate, they absorb some
of that heat. Now, that in itself is not a bad thing. In fact, this is a natural greenhouse
effect that allows the surface temperature of the earth to be livable. If there wasn’t
any CO2, if there wasn’t any water vapor, then the earth would be much cooler than it
is right now. So, these are greenhouse gases, these keep the earth livable. But we can start
to see a Goldilocks paradigm here. If there’s too much or too little, what’s going to happen
to surface temperatures? Now, the other thing to keep in mind here
is that as CO2 increases, water vapor is also very variable on the earth. So, the temperature
increase is not uniform. And of course, in the northern hemisphere, there’s a lot more
land. Land warms faster than than the oceans and the southern himself fear. There’s a hemisphere.
If you look at the equator, the tropical regions, the primary greenhouse gas there is water
vapor. Adding more CO2, it will heat things up a little, but it’s not going to have a
huge effect. Now, flip that around. Where is the air dry, doesn’t hold a lot of water
and therefore adding CO2 will have a bigger effect? When the air is cold, it doesn’t hold
a lot of water. That’s why we’re seeing the poles warming up faster than other places.
In the deserts, the air is dry. The deserts are increasing. They’re becoming more diversified.
The drier areas of the world are becoming drier.
Also, with altitude, as you go up in elevation, the air becomes dry. You know the difference
between the humidity of summer and the humidity of winter. We predict winters will be warming
faster than summers. There’s another wrinkle which probably has been in the news recently.
And that has to do with the polar vortexes and so forth. Well, the jet stream is a fast
flowing movement of air that occurs when the cold air of the arctic meets the tropical
air of the equator. As the arctic is warming, the temperature difference is declining. The
energy is declining. And as something that’s spinning as the jet stream does, it spins
around the world, as that energy declines, it’s going to start to wobble like a top that’s
losing its momentum. As it wobbles, the cold air from the arctic might wobble down or the
warm air from the equator might come up. And that’s one of the things that we’re seeing
more of. So that’s one reason why you should care whether
CO2 is 300 or 400. Another reason is plants themselves. This is one that doesn’t get talked
about very much, and I think that’s unfortunate. Back in basic junior high biology, you learn
that plants depend on essentially four major resources: They neat light, they neat nutrients,
they need water, and for at least 90% of them, they need carbon dioxide. They don’t have
sufficient CO2. So, adding more CO2 is a source of carbon. It’s a resource that makes plants
grow more. That can be a good thing. There’s some work with pine going from ambient ambient
a few years ago to sometime in the 21st century, hey, it grows more, that’s really cool, that’s
great. It’s a little more complicated than that.
Let’s ask ourselves the question: Suppose I change a resource like light or water or
or phosphorus, right? Are all the plants out there going to respond the same way? I think
you know the answer is no, they’re not. So, what happens if I look at not just the pine,
but what if I look at a forest. This is done, actually, at Duke university. I was peripheral
to this, but it’s, to my knowledge, the largest CO2 study that has been done largest in area.
And it took a forest and they put these giant stand pipes if you will blowing CO2 into the
center of the forest. And does loblolly pine respond to that? Yeah, it does. But it’s not
the only thing that responds to it. In fact, the winter, quote unquote, was this species.
This species is in fact poison ivy. So, more CO2 doesn’t just mean more loblolly pine,
it also means more poison ivy. In fact, if you had to look at it from a competitive advantage,
the poison ivy would win. So, we have to be a little bit careful when
we talk about CO2 as plant food because it’s not the same food for everybody. And when
you add more of a resource, not everything is going to respond the same way. So, the
fact that they are going to respond, however, is a major issue when it comes to looking
at how rising CO2 is going to affect all life on the planet. Again, it’s unfortunate that
this aspect doesn’t get talked about enough, but it certainly will alter global plant biology.
We’ve looked at food security, climate change, let’s look at some of the consequences. Let’s
look at production. I’ll give you a couple of examples in the physical effects of climate
in terms of production, but also talk about some of the biological interactions and focusing
on weeds, and then a little bit about food safety in terms of pesticide use and so forth.
And then a little bit about attrition in the context of protein.
So, let’s begin with a common occurrence. It’s Friday. You’ve had a long week. You take
your family to the local steakhouse. The kids, you know, have burgers. You have a nice 2-pound
steak, your wife has chicken. How much water have you consumed? Just looking at the picture,
beer, maybe a glass of water, you know. But it takes water to grow food, right? So, it
takes about 20 to 40 gallons of water to make your mug of beer. Potato? 20 to 30 gallons
of water. Slice of bread? Another 20 to 30 gallons of water. The salad, 40 to 900 gallons.
That’s, you know, 900 gallons, why? That has to do with what you put on your salad. If
you only have lettuce, it’s 40. If the you put on cheese and sour cream and tomatoes
and dot, dot, dot, it can go up to 900. What is your steak do in terms of water consumption?
A lot. It takes a lot of water to grow the feed that feeds the cow that provides the
steak. It takes at this meal, you would basically consume enough water to fill an Olympic sized
swimming pool. And agriculture is the primary user of fresh
water globally. So, it’s something to think about in terms of the water issue. And of
course, as things heat up, water is going to be in demand. Basically, and roughly one
calorie of food equals about 1 liter of water. So, I want to give you a little bit of background.
My father was in the military. He retired in southern California. And one of the sort
of visual miracles that you see in southern California is the Colorado river and particularly
on the border between California and Arizona and the imperial valley, where I grew up on
the edge of the Mojave desert, there was no green. Maybe a couple weeks out of the year
when the rains came. Man, you drive down to the imperial valley, it is nothing but green.
And that contrast between the green and the dessert is phenomenal. All of that depends
on irrigation water. And what’s happened is that as that irrigation water is so important
and is becoming used so frequently that this is the Colorado River before it goes into
the Gulf of California. There is no river. All of the water is taken out before it gets
there. That’s not just the Colorado. Here’s the Rio Grande. Most of the water is taken
up in the Rio Grande. We predict, particularly in areas where deserts are increasing that
rivers like the Nile are not going to flow to the sea anymore. They’re going to be all
used up before they get there. So, water, in my mind at least, is going to
become a flash point in the context of food security and climate change. Temperature is
another major issue. We know that the average temperature is increasing. That doesn’t mean
that you can’t get below average temperatures. Of course, you can. But you’re going to get
above average temperatures and more in terms of extreme heat. Why is this important to
plant biology? Well, because different organs of the plant don’t have the same degree of
temperature sensitivity. If I look at the vegetative temperature for major crops, that’s
a fairly high temperature. As high in the mid to upper 90s. But flowering, no. Flowering
is in the 70s and 80s, right? Why? Because the pollen the pollen that the male flower
produces is, in fact, temperature sensitive. You can see in this lower left figure the
percent seed set doesn’t just decline gradually. If you reach a critical threshold temperature,
it drops to zero. And this temperature issue is is one of the major concerns in regard
to damage to U.S. crop fields under climate change.
What about dairy production? Cows in some ways are very much like people. We have a
humiture. That is, we don’t like to be hot and humid. Here is data from the University
of Arizona showing the temperature as relevant humidity. Lower temperatures, lower humidity,
there’s no stress. Obviously if you go up to 90% humidity and 100 degrees, you’re going
to get severe stress. And the graph on the right is showing you the projected decline
in dairy production over the northeast based on the business as usual projections.
Let’s segue for a moment to biological constraints. If you’re a grower, you know that it isn’t
just the environment that is going to affect your production, but insects’ pathogens
and weeds are also major concerns. Crop loss, percent loss from weeds will be less, but
there can be control costs are very effective in trying to maintain weed populations and
increasing production. So, what happens, then, in between weeds and crops as a resource changes?
Well, let me provide you with this true story. Pardon, I’m also a star trek fan. Long time
ago on a farmer’s field far, far away, there was a farmer growing corn in southern Pennsylvania.
And this is back in the I think it was I think it was the ’50s. Back then, the cost of fossil
fuels was very cheap. 15 cents for a gallon of gas and the fertilizer was very cheap.
You know what, here’s what I’m going to do. I am going to add so much fertilizer to my
field that there’s going to be enough for everybody, enough for the weeds, enough for
the crops, right? No longer be any competition. And he did. He put out 10 times the recommended
dosage of fertilizer. And the end result of that was nothing but weeds. Again, when you
change your resource, not every plant species responds the same way. When I change your
resource, in fact, whether that resource is fertilizer or carbon dioxide, the weeds can
be the beneficiaries. In particular, the worst weeds are ones that are similar to the crop
can in fact benefit from both recent and projected changes in carbon dioxide. Well, rightfully,
you can say, well, this isn’t really a problem. Not a problem. I’ll buy some Roundup. We do
use a lot of Roundup. This is some data from the U.S. geological survey. I think the red
lines are about 90 pounds per square mile of Roundup. You can look at this and pretty
much tell where we grow crops in America. We use about 300 million pounds of Roundup
annually. Problem of course, if you overuse anything, is that the number of species that
are resistant to Roundup and to herbicides in general is increasing very quickly. This
is from data from Ann Heap who is a scientist documenting this.
What happens when if in fact CO2 is plant food it’s going to be plant food for weeds
as well. How does that in turn effect things like herbicide efficacy. So, we have ambient
levels of CO2 on the left. This is Canada thistle. On the right, 700 parts per million,
we had no control. Zero control. Huh. So, the glyphosate efficacy was reduced. That
is a little weird. What’s going on with that? Well, it turns out, yes, CO2 is plant food.
Again, there’s another level of complexity. It doesn’t always affect the same parts of
the plant in the same way. Here we have the elevated CO2 divided by the ambient value
of one means no effect on the shoot growth or root growth. Over time, what we found was
the roots really did well when we gave them more CO2.
And the problem with that, if you’re familiar at all with this plant, it has a very, very
extensive root system. Any part of that root system can in fact grow a new crop. What we
were seeing, we think, is that as the CO2 increased, more roots were produced, and the
same amount were not control or kill all those roots and eventually the plant regenerated.
Now, can you kill the plant if you add more herbicide or you add a higher concentration
or increase the strain and so forth? Yeah, you can, but there’s going to be a cost. There’s
going to be an environmental cost and economic cost. What about nutrition? Well, when you
suddenly change the atmosphere and make it very high in carbon, other things happen.
This is the plant ionome. Just sort of a confluence of different elements present in plant organs
and plant material. This is the, I think, average of several hundred different studies.
And the CO2 averaged out to about 690 parts per million. When I give the atmosphere more
carbon, their organs become carbon rich. That’s the C on the left here.
But what happens, however, is that other elements nitrogen, phosphorus, calcium, et cetera,
decline over time. Because nitrogen is a pretty good proxy for protein, what we find is that
also declines. With the exception of soybean and peanut which appear to not really change
very much with more CO2. So, I want to talk about some of the work that we did, published
I think in May of last year. Work that we did with the Chinese and Japanese scientists
using a FACE system similar to what I showed you earlier for the loblolly pines. This is
a slightly different system. We did not quite as big an area. Inside the ring where we’re
blowing elevated CO2, we have about, I think, eight different cultivars in China, eight
different cultivars in Japan. We wanted to compare them with and without additional CO2
in terms of their nutritional content. What we found, many of the different lines showed
a significant decline in percent protein with additional CO2. These are japonica and indicas,
hybrid lines. In means something in terms of the overall nutrition. Other elements like
iron were also being affected, zinc was also affected. They have ramifications for human
physiology, so we wanted to find out about that.
This is the work that came out of science advances in May of last year. But we also
wanted to look at some of the vitamins. So, we didn’t have the opportunity to do this
for the Japanese cultivars, the various cultivars, but we did for the Chinese ones. We looked
at vitamin B1, B2, B5 and B9. There is an impact. That’s really disconcerting. We looked
at another vitamin, alpha Tocopherol and it went up. What is going on here? Why are some
going down and some going up? We think maybe there’s a firm possibility of a definite maybe,
that it has to do with this carbon and oxygen ratio in the sense that if I have a secondary
compound that has a lot of nitrogen, and that’s shown along here along the Y axis. Value of
.20 means that 20% of the compound has nitrogen. Molecular weight makes it 20%. The nitrogen
makes it 20% in compound. What’s interesting about this, the percent change relevant to
ambient is proportional to this change. If I have a lot of nitrogen, I’m adversely impacted.
But if I’m carbon rich like Tocopherol I might be benefiting from that change in CO2. So,
we want to do more work on this. And as part of this, we wanted to also look
at the bee aspect, pollinator aspect. There’s a lot in the news about this. If it’s affecting
human nutrition, is it also affecting bee nutrition. Now, bees are really, really good
about finding sugars. They have little dances that they do to tell their fellow bees, hey,
there’s a great source of sugar 20 feet out, hang a left. Not so much in terms of their
protein sources. Most of their protein all of their protein comes from pollen. And it’s
not something that they have the ability to distinguish one pollen source from another.
But if protein is being impacted by rise in CO2, wouldn’t that also affect bee nutrition?
So, we wanted to get a handle on this and to see if the recent changed and projected
changes in CO2 might be affected. How do we do that? It’s really difficult to scrub CO2
out of the air. Well, it turns out there’s this thing called
the Smithsonian natural history museum. In addition to the dinosaurs and the Hope Diamond,
way in the back by the gray metal cabinets are collections of goldenrod. Now, the goldenrod
was actually started collecting back in the the first ones we found were back in the 1840s.
But it has pollen on it, flowers on it. And you can’t assess the protein, per se, because
the protein would have degraded. But we can assess the elemental amounts for nitrogen.
We looked at carbon, oxygen, nitrogen for those goldenrod samples from the 1940s to
date. The recent change in CO2 has in fact affected the protein concentration of goldenrod
pollen. One of the last sources of pollen for bees. So, it’s a critical source. And
then we wanted to look at experimental evidence. This is some really elegant work by Wayne
Polly, USDA scientist in Texas. What we sort of wagon looking things are actually plastic
chambers. CO2 is added at one end. And as the plants photo synthesize, you’re seeing
carbon dioxide values back a hundred years ago.
This was our way of looking at it from an experimental point of view. And thank goodness
we had enough goldenrod along these chambers to do this. So basically, here’s some of the
data. The estimated protein based on the nitrogen concentration from the Smithsonian and then
some of the experimental data from the Texas site. And the numbers are slightly different,
but they all show the same thing, that as CO2 changes has changed and will continue
to change, protein is going to go down. There is going to be an impact in terms of nutritional
aspects related to bees. Is that something that other insects might be seeing? Is that
underlying some of the reports of the insect populous? Honestly, I don’t know. But we would
be very foolish, I think, to ignore it. We need to try and find out more about it and
what’s happening here. Is this something that’s going to continue in a linear fashion, at
what point will it start to bottom out. We simply don’t know. This is written up in the
society back in 2016. Just a quick word about pathogens. Some of
you, I’m sure, have gotten food poisoning. On average one in six Americans get sick by
consuming contaminated foods or beverages. Not surprisingly, as the temperature goes
up, that’s going to affect the degree or persistence of some of these pathogens in food. So overall,
here are some of the challenge in the context of food security that are going to be posed
by climate change. Water, number one. Again, I think that’s going to be an essential aspect.
Floral temperature sensitivity and seed production, again, that’s going to be another big aspect.
Pest demographics, pest pressures and crop losses and chemical management are going to
be impacted, nutritional quality. Food safety is going to be a concern or should be a concern
in terms of looking at some of the aspects of this. Now, we’ve talked about this so far
in a very sort of surreal, scientific way. I often get asked by students, what does this
have to do with real life, what does it have to do with real events?
Well, one of the real events that’s happening that you’ve probably heard about is the border
crisis. You have large groups from Guatemala and Honduras that are coming to the U.S. Why
is that? Well, it turns out that if you look at these areas and you look at the increasing
drought index, it’s becoming drier. That triangle between Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador
is becoming drier. It’s not to say that the climate induced change in food is the sole
reason, but it’s certainly a contributing reason. Focus on violence is eclipsing the
big picture. This is from Marvin Albro, a researcher on Latino American studies and
American diversity. The main reason people are moving is because they don’t have anything
to eat. It takes a tremendous amount of leverage to stay where you cannot eat. You will move
to go to where the food is. And we are seeing a strong link to climate change. I would offer
that this is not going to be the first migratory aspect of climate and food that you’re going
to see. I would urge you to Google things like climate change in Syria, climate change
in South Sudan, climate change in Pakistan. It is something that we are going to have
to deal with. These are the challenges. How do we solve
them? What can we do? Well, if there’s crisis, there is opportunity. What are the opportunities
here? What can we do to adapt to the change in climate that we are, in fact, seeing?
Management, genetics, education, research, dot, dot, dot. There are a lot of ways that
we can approach these crises. How about management? Well, right now in modern ag, we go with faster,
cheaper, uniform. We don’t have fertilizer, per se organic fertilizer. We use synthetic
fertilizer which takes a lot of energy. It’s part of the Haber Bosch process, takes nitrogen
out of the air, converts it to ammonia. We grow our corn. We give it to cows. We don’t
give it to individual cows, we give them to concentrated animal feeding operations. Why?
They can go to market faster there. But there’s cost. The cost, as you can imagine, is in
terms of cow poop. That cow poop actually creates what are called dead zones in the
Gulf of Mexico which in turn cause dead fish. So, this is not a balanced system. You can
look at one part of it and say, yes, it’s an advantage here, but it’s not an advantage
in terms of fisheries down in the Gulf. Polyculture and I know that’s a strange word.
If you’re a grower, your parents or your grandparents practiced. You grew the corn, you feed the
corn to the cows, the cows provided the fertilizer for the corn. There’s its own little minute
my ecosystem. For modern polyculture, you can do things like this. You can have ducks
out in the rice paddy. We may lose out a little bit on the rice production, but by changing
your diversity, you have some basic insurance. Other farms, other small growers, 10 acres
or 20 acres are growing 15 or 20 different crops so they’re not dependent on any one
crop economically. We’re talking about polyculture in terms of space. You can plant multiple
varieties of a given cereal. The reason, again, overall is looking at it from a yield perspective.
If I only plant one cultivar and everything goes well, great. But if there’s increase
in severe events, if climate change causes more extremes, it’s better to put more eggs
in different baskets so that you have some fallback position, you have some insurance.
So that’s what I’m offering in this overall sort of curve here.
Time, rotation is something that farmers understand, but also looking at rotation in terms of animal
rotation or putting in cover crops or having cover crops as a means to feed other animal
raising and so forth. Increasing resiliency is part of this diversity issue and time of
space at the early level. What about genetics? We have tremendous amount of natural variability
in things like apples and corn and so forth. How do we select crops today? Well, our economic
driver is very different than it was for our grandparents. I like McDonald’s. I like their
fries. I know. It’s a weakness, but they’re good comfort food. All their fries depend
on one variety of potato. I think 90% of them are one variety. Nice big fat potato makes
nice big, long fries. If I only grew one variety of potato and the climate is changing, that’s
not so good. But I’m going to grow it because, hey, McDonald’s buys 3.4 billion pounds of
potatoes. Of course, I’m going to grow it. But this is potato production in the U.S.
There’s millions of metric tons. You can see the green revolution part present easily.
Right now, at least since the beginning of the 21st century, production’s going down.
Right now, you have to use so many chemicals on rust set Burbank potatoes that they actually
have to be put into a large warehouse to de gas before they can be used. So that we need
to diversify. We need to go beyond that. How do we do that? What do we select for? Well,
what about CO2? Right? CO2 is plant food. Can we use it as a means to increase yields?
Well, the system work I did with a USDA scientist in Arkansas. We did six cultivated rice lines
and six wild rice lines. And I think it was the 55 days after sowing. At 300 parts per
million, that is the CO2 back in the 1950s, there’s a fair amount of overlap between cultivated
and wild rice. At 400 parts per million, the current CO2 level, what we’re starting to
see is a segregation. It isn’t that nature is selecting for the cultivated lines, it’s
selecting for the wild lines. And if I look at seed yield, grams per plant for the CO2
change that’s already occurred, clear field which is a typical cultivated line shows a
little bit of an increase, but the Stuttgart line doubles. Weeds might be able to provide
us with some interesting genetics as a means to adapt to climate change.
Now, at present to the best of my knowledge there is zero evidence that breeders have
selected for CO2 as an additional resource. Surprisingly or ironically, marijuana growers
have. I know that sounds odd. But if you go to Google and type CO2 and marijuana, you’ll
find all kinds of evidence about how CO2 can be used to make marijuana more productive.
I just wish they would translate over into to rice or wheat or some of the other cereals.
Here’s some more data. This is done by Diane Wang. Both myself and Dr. McClellan are co
authors on this. This is looking at the relevant increase in addition to CO2. We’re also looking
at temperature. So, the relative increase is the elevated biomass minus the ambient
biomass divided by ambient. You see the ancestral and the weedy lines as more positively affected
or not as damaged by higher temperatures. So, we think we have this resource to utilize,
to begin to adapt some of the modern lines. Let me give you a practical example of how
that’s being done. This is potato fields in Peru. It’s not that they don’t grow the same
variety of potato. They do. But what they do differently and have been doing for over
3,000 years is around the edge of that plot, they will plant wild or weedy potato. Which
seems weird except that they are looking around the edges for new combinations, new pace,
new disease resistance, new other things. By the way, here’s their production for potato.
Still going up. Finally, let’s go into what I call the rainbows, unicorns and sprinkles
solution. New technological, new magic bullets. Well, GMO gets a lot of attention. And you
understand that. To be able to genetically manipulate and and get anything that you want,
wow, that’s that’s a powerful attraction. But there’s a problem in the sense that, yeah
yeah, I can move this gene perfectly into that gene. How many genes does it take to
make a really productive plant? One? Ten? A hundred? Thousands?
How many genes can I move around and still get the yields that I need to? Evolution has
done it. I can move a few genes around and get some interesting results, but the potential’s
there. But we’re not there yet in terms of being able to mimic evolution in the laboratory.
So, okay, potentially it could be very effective. But my fear is that those who say, oh, well,
I’ll just move a few genes around and our food problem will be solved. No. It doesn’t
work that way. What about the Haber Bosch process? I mentioned this earlier where you
take nitrogen out of the air and make it into ammonia. That’s been done in big, huge chemical
plants that consume a lot of fossil fuels to do this, and it’s expensive to move it
around. What if we could shrink it? What if we could take miniature Haber Bosch plants
and put them in places like Africa or Asia so that local farmers would have access to
it? Maybe. Maybe that’s something to think about.
What about biochar? You take organic material and you squeeze it and you burn it under low
oxygen. It’s very carbon rich. You add it to the soil. It might help the soil profile
and the soil biology, but it’s expensive. I mean, if only we had a source of carbon
rich material that was cheap. You know, like coal. I know that seems odd, but maybe coal
could be the next biochar? Maybe if we ground it up and added it back to the soil instead
of burning it up and adding CO2 to the atmosphere it might help in marginal areas in terms of
soil health? There are lots of opportunities here to look into areas that have not been
well examined. Finally, the issues in terms of research and
education. As an academic, you’re taught to be a reductionist. You don’t we don’t take
a general view of things. To get your Ph.D. you get deeper and deeper and deeper into
the details. We don’t talk to each other. So, we have this issue of silos. Although
I think the current administration refers to them as cylinders of excellent. Just saying.
But we need to break through this. We need to be able to talk to others about climate
change and what it means. We need to look for commonalities and science platforms. We
need to have access to genetic information and germplasm. We need to have better ag statistics.
We need to have better tech and knowledge transfer. All of these things are key to beginning
to adapt agriculture and maintaining food security as the climate becomes more uncertain.
Finally, just a moment about education and communication. We need to invest in the next
generation. When I went to college, there were a lot of agronomy majors. Now mostly
just genetics. What’s wrong with that? We need to educate and communicate ag science
to the next generation. I think that’s imperative. How do we do that? We had a outreach program
here in Beltsville where we brought in students from the inner city. And I cannot tell you
the expression on their faces when they pulled a carrot out of the ground or saw a potato
out of the ground. They were fascinated by it and really, really interesting. So, I think
there is a lot of opportunity to do that. And finally, I’m going to say a very bias
the plug for investment in public research. Our investment at ARS, the national institute
of food and ag and the ag research service has declined over time. In terms of actual
dollars, ARS has lost about 25% of its budget. Now, I I understand the need to spend defense
money. You want to be safe. And so, we spend on average, every person in the U.S. spends
between 6 and $7 a day for the pentagon budget. You know, makes you feel safe, that’s great.
6, $7 a day is not a big deal. What do you went on ag research? We spend 2 cents a day
per person. Yet I would argue that investing in public research to sustain and improve
ag will have benefits in terms of global security as well, as much as investing in the next
weapons system, but we’re not doing it. And finally, recognizing that there are different
priorities, different means of educating between policymakers and government officials and
science. In science, we accept probability. In government, they want certainty. We have
a long term interest. Their interest will end with the election. We innovate. We like
to innovate. We steam innovation. To them, innovation is suspect. All of these differences
have to be looked at. They have to be calculated in a way that we can take the science and
make policymakers understand what it means. We cannot have a culture where if the science
agrees with the politics that’s good science. And it if doesn’t, that’s bad science. That’s
not how science works. We need to put the best science, the best logic, the best observations
out there and be fair about them. And base them on what logic and reason is, not on politics.
So now what? We acknowledge the interaction between plant biology and CO2 and global food
security. I mention the decrease in our budget. All I can do at this point is to provide you
with the information that I’ve done today to get a sense of what the challenges that
are facing us and the context of climate and food security are enormous. What can we do
together not in a silo? What can we do together to try and address some of these issues? We
need funding. We need resources. We need ways to move forward on these issues. And I would
only argue that I think that if we don’t do this, that we are going to be asking for trouble,
that we are going to be asking for a return back to the 20th century famine as endemic
issue.