Climate change worries may have positive effect

by Morton Sosland
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Avoiding the acrimony surrounding the debate on global climate change and what should be done to avoid that type of calamity does not mean the food industry should brush aside the huge part that Nature plays in the business. Not only do weather variations account for a significant share of the volatility driving swings in major ingredient costs, these forces have nearly an equally significant role in influencing consumer shopping as well as food preferences. Hardly anything about understanding weather has advanced enough to diminish its importance to the well-being of the food business. This reality tends to bring climate change full circle in its potential impact on how the food industry evolves because current global concerns have prompted a rush of research to find answers about issues that have evaded solutions for all of history.

Considerable study has been devoted to the two most basic dangers faced by crops from climate change — drought and flooding. These efforts have been spurred by dire forecasts of how climate change will reduce global outturns. Predictions are being made that yields of wheat, rice and corn could be reduced by as much as 12% to 13% by likely shifts in weather. It takes no more than the searing experience of the past several years, when global outturns varied by much less than those percentages to cause record-setting price advances, to understand the stepped-up pace of research. As wrong as such prognostications might be about the effect of climate change on crop yields, just reading about such possibilities has been enough to prompt a sharp increase in funding to find ways of mitigating this impact, no matter how questionable.

In research partly funded by the National Science Foundation, advances have been made by scientists seeking to understand how plant genetics affect adaptations to weather. Preliminary work has been focused on the mustard plant across a wide range of environments, mainly in its native habitat of Europe.
That research has already identified a specific set of genes that control the plant’s well-being in sharply different weather. This discovery has led to the possibility that these climate-related genes may be incorporated into the plant to make it adaptable to many different types of weather, with “adaptability helping the plant accommodate to climate change.” If this works with mustard, the application of this discovery to other plants will be investigated in an example of genetic engineering that would be hard, if not impossible, to oppose the way such programs are often challenged.

At the other extreme are plans proposed in countries prone to flooding where farmers have been shown how to join in establishing community farms that grow rice and even fish in areas with floating gardens. At the same time, developing countries are taking steps to spur well digging, to build dams for
storing water in reservoirs and to establish water movement links between areas that have surplus water and those that need irrigation to raise sufficient food.

While the ignition for many of these efforts in both developed and developing countries may be concern about climate change, the lasting effect might simply be encouraging good agricultural practices. Instead of the G20 nations fulfilling their promise to provide billions of dollars of aid to help food-deficit countries bolster their production, it seems that their focus has suddenly shifted to achieving the same goals in reaction to concerns over global climate change. Even without embracing the calamities forecast by those most focused on what may happen to climate, the emphasis is on helping poorer nations cope with meeting food needs, which are expanding in response to population and economic growth. Hardly any of the research is providing climate-specific answers. If the result is the widespread adoption of modern agricultural practices, the worries about climate change may end up having a more positive impact on food production than anyone has thus far imagined.
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