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Major USDA Research Underway On Crops And Climate

March 21, 2011

Sixty million dollars are being invested by the federal government on three major studies on the effects of climate change on crops and forests in hopes of ensuring farmers and foresters can continue producing food and timber while limiting the impact of a shifting environment, the Associated Press (AP) reports.

Midwestern corn will be the subject of one study, wheat will be the focus in the Northwest and a third study will determine the effects on Southern pine forests. The studies will attempt to combine crop and climate researchers from a wide variety of fields and encourage them to find solutions appropriate to specific geographic areas.

“Shifting weather patterns already have had a big effect on US agriculture, and the country needs to prepare for even greater changes, explained Roger Beachy, director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, to AP’s Steve Karnowski. Some areas may gain longer growing seasons or suffer more frequent floods, while others may experience more droughts or shorter growing seasons,

Beachy continued, “Different areas will need different solutions. Some areas may gain longer growing seasons or suffer more frequent floods, while others may experience more droughts or shorter growing seasons.”

Lois Wright Morton of Iowa State University will lead the corn project. She said the collaboration between climatologists, soil and plant scientists among others will result in researchers asking questions they might never have thought of before.

“We really have assembled what I really think of as the really top scientists in the agricultural arena to address these (issues),” Wright Morton told AP, adding that her team members are not only experts in their fields, they’re willing to learn from others. “That’s a pretty potent combination.”

The Southern pine forest research will be headed by Tim Martin, a professor of tree physiology at the University of Florida. Martin will focus on the loblolly pine, which covers 80 percent of the planted forest land in the southeastern US. The pine forests of the South produce more wood products than any others in the country, and pull vast amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere, making them important to the economy and environment, he said.

“Southern forests contain a third of all the sequestered carbon “” stored carbon “” in all the lower 48 states,” Martin told Karnowski. “And every year, Southern forests store enough additional carbon to offset about 13 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions in the region. So just by virtue of growing, forests take CO2 out of the atmosphere and store it in the wood and in the soil.”

Sanford Eigenbrode, an entomologist at the University of Idaho, will lead the wheat project and explains that grain crops store less carbon than trees, but they can be managed to maximize the benefit, such as with better tillage practices.

The wheat team will also look at nitrogen fertilizers, which are used heavily in wheat and corn production. When farmers use fertilizers efficiently, they require less, which keeps overhead low. When used inefficiently, he said, fertilizer pollutes water with nitrate runoff and the air with nitrous oxide.

“It’s a much stronger greenhouse gas, molecule by molecule, than is CO2,” Eigenbrode said of nitrous oxide. “So if we can learn to use our nitrogen as efficiently as possible we’ll be doing good things for the farmer, the consumer and the climate.”

Each of the projects would receive $20 million, according to the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The three studies, spread out among some two dozen universities, call for researchers to communicate closely with farmers and foresters to better understand their business decisions and try to improve the odds producers will adopt their recommendations.

Many farmers are skeptical of the idea that human activities cause climate change, but Martin said tries to explain to them the research is still worthwhile. “Regardless of what one may think about the cause, there’s certainly plenty of evidence that climates are changing and those changes can affect our production systems for agriculture,” Eigenbrode said. “It’s important for our food security. So as climates change, agriculture has to change.”

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