Crop diversity to become key as global climate shifts

Producers making changes, need to stay profitable, say experts

As weather changes continue to affect crop farmers, producers are making changes to what they plant in order to remain profitable and keep up with the new climate, according to reports.

U.S. farmers overall in the 2012 season planted the most corn since 1937, but growers in Kansas planted the fewest acres in three years, switching to crops requiring less water such as wheat, sorghum and triticale. Corn acreage in Manitoba, Canada, however, has doubled in the last ten years due to weather changes and high prices. “These changes are happening faster than plants can adapt, so we will see substantial impacts on global growing patterns,” said Axel Schmidt, a former senior scientist for the International Center for Tropical Agriculture and currently with Catholic Relief Services.

The 2012 drought in the U.S. was the worst since 1954, according to the Palmer Drought Index, and dropped estimates for the country’s corn harvest to the lowest levels in six years. At the same time, September was the 331st consecutive month in which worldwide temperatures topped the 20th-century average. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has updated its plant hardiness map, shifting many regions into zones five degrees Fahrenheit warmer than in the late 20th century.

“We’ll see a real mix of crop signals and climate signals,” said Wolfram Schlenker, an environmental economist at Columbia University. He said the climate is in transition, and agriculture needs to adapt. Even small changes in average temperature may shift climate patterns, affecting rainfall, evaporation rates and the ability of plants to thrive in certain environments.

Even the U.S. Corn Belt is seeing changes, according to Tabitha Craig, a crop insurance seller for Young Enterprises Inc. She said that wheat acres will be high in 2013 due to the hotter, dryer weather pattern.

Overall, biodiversity is going to be the key to sustainability, and demand will be needed to maintain profitability for farmers. “We need to use biodiversity and crop varieties to our advantage,” said Roger Beachy, the first head of the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. “Can a farmer make as much money raising chickpeas as corn? You have to create value for the farmer. We need to get the scientists and the economists talking to one another about this.”