Morbid Monday: High temperatures are devastating wheat crops in the United States

I’m working on a fairly long and involved piece on organizing and how to move beyond the local efforts I will continue to promote (remember – direct action both makes a better future more likely, and tends to improve your own outlook and personal mental health). Because I want to add the new piece to my “guidebook”, I want to do it justice if I’m able. In the meantime, the need for action continues to grow, and paying attention to what’s happening now can help us to think about how to act, and to imagine life on the chaotic, hostile planet on which we find ourselves.

For decades now fossil fuel propagandists have used, among many other talking points, the claim that rising CO2 levels is actually a good thing, because “CO2 is plant food”. The problem is that it’s not the only factor affecting the growth of any plant. As with humans, high temperatures dehydrates plants, and as with humans, there are limits to the heat a plant can take. I suppose it’s understandable that people might not know that, since we’ve only been dealing with heat-related crop failures from time to time for a few thousand years. Regardless, the predictable is occurring, and this summers brutal North American heatwaves have been wreaking havoc on our wheat farms:

Sun-baked U.S. spring wheat fields have been so badly hurt by drought this year that some farmers are expecting to harvest what they’re dubbing a “half a crop.”
Plants are visibly stunted. So much so that when crop scouts toured the fields of top-producing state North Dakota this week they kept having to get close to the ground to inspect crops that were about 10 inches (25 centimeters) or shorter — about a third of the normal size for this time of year. Large patches of dry soil could be seen in between rows. In better seasons, the ground isn’t even visible.

All told, the harsh conditions will send yields for spring wheat in the state plunging to 29.1 bushels an acre this year, according to final assessment of estimates following the Wheat Quality Council’s crop tour. While that’s slightly higher than the most-recent estimate from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it would still mean a drop of 41% from last year’s harvest.

Spring wheat is highly prized worldwide for giving foods like pizza crust and bagels their chewiness. This season’s expected shortfall hits as neighboring Canada contends with extreme heat and dryness as well, putting those crops at risk. North American baking and milling companies may end up having to look overseas for imports. Some farmers, after battling shriveled crops and damaging grasshoppers, have already opted to bale up plants for hay or consider the entire field a loss.

The fact that so much of the food we grow goes to waste means that those of us accustomed to reliable access to food are unlikely to starve because of this, but it wouldn’t surprise me if wheat products became more expensive, absent some form of price control or subsidies. This kind of problem is only going to get worse. Various places will still have good years, but those will become fewer in number as the temperature rises, and with the temperatures we’ve seen in Canada this year, I hope it’s clear to everyone that no part of the planet is going to be safe from these problems. As I’ve said before, I think our response to climate change needs to include a massive increase in indoor farming, even if it’s mostly stuff like algae or edible bacterial cultures.

I hope you grew up wanting to live in some kind of science fiction setting where we use advanced technology to survive on a hostile planet, because while we can take steps to mitigate that hostility, I don’t expect the warming to end in my lifetime.

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  1. Who Cares says

    The correct counter for Co2 is good for plants is pointing out that to reduce water loss plants reduce the number of stomata in leaves and such when the temperature rises (as pointed out in the article to reduce dehydration), and that that reduction more then cancels out the ease of getting more Co2 into the plant.

    The only semi valid reasoning for more Co2 in the atmosphere that I’ve ever encountered is that we were heading for a new ice age and that more Co2 prevented that. To which the correct answer would be maybe +50 ppm over what it was in 1800 (reached somewhere in the 1970 to 1980 period) not the +130 ppm and still growing concentration that it is today.

  2. says

    As I’ve said before, I think our response to climate change needs to include a massive increase in indoor farming, even if it’s mostly stuff like algae or edible bacterial cultures.

    Lo till/no till + solar panels over the fields at a height would actually help quite a bit. It might be true that we need a lot of indoor farming, but agrisolar is something we should try 1st/at the same time, I would think.

  3. planter says

    We will see more news on this as the season goes on. In Saskatchewan where I live (and western Canada generally), most of the news has been about cattle producers selling off herds. These are mostly cow-calf producers that depend on grazing fields in the summer and baled hay in the winter. When a rancher starts selling off breeding stock you know that they are in a desperate situation. The native grassland these producers use is the most drought resilient part of the ag system here because the native plants are reasonably well adapted to dry conditions. On my family’s grain farm the crops are coming off weeks early with pathetically low yields for both legumes and cereals.
    If we continue to get this type of weather, great plains grain production will be in big trouble, and much of the world along with it. I am skeptical that indoor farming could be scaled up sufficiently to match the productivity that can be achieved (in average to good years) from the vast areas of grain crops we currently depend on. Getting our act together carbon-emissions wise would likely be far less expensive.

  4. says

    On agrisolar, while it will probably be limited as a food source I absolutely think we should be growing food – or at least plants – everywhere we can, both for the purpose of feeding people, but also for the temperature/climate effects. If there’s fire concern, non-food crops can be harvested and stored to pull that carbon out of the air.

  5. says

    @planter – I think your instinct about scale is right, which is part of why I’m worried. The advantage of indoor algae or bacterial farming is that it seems likely to be able to generate a large amount of nutritious – if boring – food with less input than would be needed for grains. From what I can tell the industry is still in its infancy, but I think there’s a lot of promise in the direction of what I guess would amount to massive edible sludge factories (I believe it’s generally packaged as flour or dried bricks, not sludge, just to be clear).

    Getting our act together on carbon emissions would have been less expensive – and it’s still less expensive than not doing so – but even if we stopped emissions this instant, and no natural sources generated new greenhouse gases, the temperature would still keep rising for at least a decade. At this point, I think we need to assume that conventional farming will fail in a major way sooner rather than later. We’ve already seen partial failures like what’s happening now. It seems likely that enough of those over a couple years, or enough in multiple places over one year, and we’d be in serious trouble.

    I’m very sorry to hear about your family’s harvest, and about the implications of what you said for those grasslands. Is there help for folks in your family’s predicament?

  6. planter says

    Thanks for the concerns. We will be fine as our farm is a very common type – it is land colonized by my spouses grandparents ~100 years ago and passed down through the family. We all live and have jobs in the city, so we don’t depend on the income for essentials like food and housing, and thus we can weather a few bad years. We hire some relatives who have a nearby farm to do the work – for them the custom farming is a guaranteed income stream. This is particularly important for them this year, because we will pay them crop or no crop, and their primary farm operation is facing the same crop failure as the rest of us. Further, we have access to heavily government subsidized crop insurance.

    One would think that in a province where agriculture is the primary industry, the government would be in tune to climate issues. Unfortunately, we also have a fairly active oil and gas industry, so the government has been actively obstructionist when it comes to even modest CO2 abatement.

  7. says

    I think our response to climate change needs to include a massive increase in indoor farming, even if it’s mostly stuff like algae or edible bacterial cultures.

    A greenhouse is next on my big build list. Thinking of a stood-off landrover-style sunroof with slats and solar power to close the slats to a metered level of light so it doesn’t get too hot.

    Pennsylvania will be the US’ new agricultural heartland and it’s no accident I wound up up here, on a mountain-top, with a lot of cleared acreage.

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