To a Farmer From a Plant Scientist

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There is a bridge between farmers and scientists, farming and science. Golden Gate Bridge and foreground in San Francisco, CA. Photo courtesy of Dr. Karen Ring. You can also find her science communication on Instagram at drkarenring.

To the farmers that don’t want to say the words “Climate Change”,

I saw this in the New York Times via the National Center for Science Education:

Locally, it’s apparent that the environment on the farm is different than it once was. You’re not alone in noticing. Across the world, locals know that things are different as well. Southern Fried Science compiled a list of some of these differences specific to coastlines and oceans. You may not particularly care what is going on in the rest of the world, but perhaps it’s good to know you’re not alone in noticing new conditions.

I’m going to state a fact I think we’ll both agree on: Plants and soil are important to your farm and the natural world.

Whether you know it or not, the seeds you plant are likely the products of science and scientists bringing together the most desirable, elite, traits for you on your farm. Some are, perhaps, from the biotech industry and roundup ready or perhaps designed to kill certain caterpillars. As an American farmer, you, at least in theory, have access to some of the best seeds in the world.

The genes, how the cells of the plants you grow develop into a plant, how densely they can be planted, their water and nutrient use efficiency, their pest resistance, are just part of what the community of plant scientists work on daily.

According to the Planet Money “Seed to shirt” project, American cotton is the most consistent and highest quality in the world. And the modern American farm is a pretty high tech place as Flash Forward notes in their episode, “Robocrop”. It’s likely not just cotton, but corn, soy beans, or vegetable crops too.

Those seeds, that technology, all started in a laboratory a bit like the one I’ve spent my career in. Plant science starts with curiosity. Plant scientists explore how plants work with an eventual eye toward application and getting knowledge out to the world where it can be used and applied. Not fooling ourselves takes independent confirmation and trying to put our current knowledge to newer and further tests until it is either accepted, modified, or rejected by the scientific community. Cultivating knowledge is neither a quick or easy, nor a process with an end.

Neither is farming.

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A New England Farm, ca. 1910-20. Keene Library, via Flickr. Public Domain.

I have a cousin with a family farm in the midwest and it hasn’t been easy going. Another cousin has started farming in North Carolina and again, not easy work and they are doing their best to manage their land and make a living growing food.

We’re experts in our respective domains. The genes, how the cells of the plants you grow develop into a plant, how densely they can be planted, their water and nutrient use efficiency, their pest resistance, are just part of what the community of plant scientists work on daily. This work results in better understanding of how we can get more, whether in quality or total yield, out of the plants you grow. At minimum, ensuring consistency of crop year after year is a goal, making your work and life a bit easier.

You’re an expert on your land. Manage it how you like. If some say you shouldn’t use chemicals or have to go organic, realize that they aren’t really speaking for scientists, quite the contrary. Grow GM. Use the chemicals you need to manage pests and weeds (though I hope you follow the usage guidelines and have some concern about environmental impacts that aren’t just local). One reason scientists developed round-up/glyphosate was increased the safety over previous herbicides that works at a low effective dose. The newest things are soil microbiology to improve plant growth and precision farming technologies permitting meter by meter field management.

I’m going to state a fact I think we’ll both agree on: Plants and soil are important to your farm and the natural world.

Knowledge of genetics for plant breeding and conferring biotech traits like round-up ready seeds started with a Monk in the modern day Czech Republic, Gregor Mendel, a religious and scientific person. He was the first to hint at what we know of today as ‘genes’. A maize expert, Barbara McClintock discovered how the plant behaved at a cellular level and confirmed that some DNA can jump around genomes and can sometimes control whether a gene is on or off. This is one way to get natural trait variation in maize. Norman Borlaug bred disease resistant and hardy versions of wheat that made Mexico food secure. A Japanese Ecologist, Shigetane Ishiwatari, in 1901, first discovered a common pest-fighting tool in the soil: the Bacillus thuringiensis  (Bt) bacterium. These are just four examples of scientists that made contributions to modern agriculture. There are many more plant scientists past and present that did and are doing work to understand and improve agriculture.

I tell you all this to say that science has been behind your farm for a long time. Maybe that’s not always a good thing (e.g. bumper crops can flood the market driving prices down), but American farmers have among the highest yields on Earth because of it. And science is considering the future of farming as well. You, as a farmer, I’m assuming, nip potential problems on your land in the bud. A weed popping up? there’s likely more where that one came from, better address it now. A diseased plant? That could easily spread…so removing it or treating it right away is best. Ignoring it isn’t affordable.

Similarly with Carbon dioxide building up on the planet, scientists have to pay attention. The businesses that supply your seeds need to take it into account as well, to be able to anticipate future conditions you will face. They sell seeds that we need you to grow and continue to maintain, and indeed, actually increase yield on your farm to feed the world. Ignoring what nature is telling us, how it’s behaving, isn’t an option scientists have. We go where the data points, and more and more independent lines of evidence support the idea that the Earth is warming, that humans are responsible for the present warming trend, and that has implications for our future. And there are things we can do about it.

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Blue marble. The only home we know, or will ever know, currently with 7.4 billion humans and life we have have a massive influence on through a lot of our activities. NASA image in the public domain via Wikimedia commons

Carbon dioxide has risen quickly since the industrial revolution, a spike that is one of the more rapid ones we have on record in the long history of the planet to the point where life may not adapt to the rapidity of the change. Along with carbon dioxide, temperatures are measurably rising. The first hints of this were suggested in Mendel’s time, in the mid-19th century, and through observation and exploration, scientists are more and more certain that human industrial— including agricultural— activities are causing the Earth to heat up.

There are over 7,400,000,000 humans living on Earth now and we haven’t yet shown too many signs that we’re going to stop emitting heat-trapping carbon into our atmosphere.

As a farmer, I’m guessing weather forecasts (another thing improved by science over time) are something you pay attention to. Weather data over decades-long time periods is the climate record. The temperature increase has been measured world-wide on land, in the seas, and by satellites. The warming can be tracked in earlier springtimes and noticeable migrations North or to higher elevations of living things. Pests and diseases affecting your fellow farmers in the tropics may well move north.

This letter isn’t to prescribe a solution. Your job is to focus on the land you farm now. Adopting no-till and sowing efficient seeds that don’t require as much in-field maintenance all help reduce your carbon emissions and mean less investment for similar yield. You win as does the Earth. Maybe you put a wind turbine or solar panel array on parts of your land and that helps you become even more independent with a carbon-free energy source. Perhaps there are new farming practices, like push-pull to manage insect pests that can make your farm more resilient for the warmer we will already experience. Science and technology can address global warming.

You’ve noticed things are different now. Scientists have too and noticed it’s global. Acting locally is good. Taking care of your land is good. Becoming energy independent is good. But there are effects of a warming planet that you won’t be able to address on your own. Lost ecosystem services, more severe droughts in some places, and increased flooding in others all bode ill for the global supply and trade of plant products.

Global warming problems are like the ones you identify and solve on your farm every day, just on a planet-wide scale. You wouldn’t turn away or deny a problem on your farm, I hope. Similarly, scientists are asking for the world to pay attention to what may well be a civilization-threatening problem. A hard one, one that is solvable, and does not necessarily require government intervention/regulation (though in this one scientist’s personal opinion, some government policy would help).

Right now, the recently elected administration is not favorable to global warming science. There are proposals to simply stop gathering data about it. Essentially, sticking their heads in the sand over a problem you can see locally affecting you right now.

Scientists are willing to go to great lengths to find out about how higher CO2 levels might effect plants. One scientist traveled to Ethiopia for a conference to present her work and meet with collaborators on a project seeing just how plants deal with elevated CO2 and higher temperatures. Tragically, Sharon Gray was killed there, simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time; nothing to do with her trip there. Science is a process that knows no borders and is enriched when knowledge is pooled from around the world. Work on elevated CO2 combined with elevated temperatures indicate gains made by plants having more carbon available may be offset by having to deal with higher temperatures (and therefore more stress).

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An Ethiopian Landscape. Photo by Luigi Guarino, via Flickr. CC-BY 2.0.

I hope you’ll at least consider that turning a blind eye to global warming isn’t in your future interest. A minimal role for government would be to continue forecasting weather and tracking the climate. However, lawmakers denying there’s a problem and simply hoping it will go away and just not looking strikes me as both cowardly and foolish, neither of which likely characterizes you, a farmer facing nature every day.

I, personally, am not religious. Many scientists are, however. And they are religious precisely because of the awe the natural world shows upon closer study. Every plant on your farm is a complex living universe unto itself. Plants are more aware of their environment than you may realize, complex creations of nature.

Humans have channeled plant traits for our use. Whether through breeding or genetic engineering doesn’t matter. The Haber-Bosch process producing nitrogen fertilizer also boosts agriculture. The biological and chemical inputs to your farm are from the exact some process that has observed the Earth is warming up. The weather is different. You don’t have to know all the science behind the seeds you plant or that your seed suppliers take climate change seriously, but it is OK to say the climate is changing because it is.

Right now might be a second major civilizational revolution after the one where humans invented the backbone of civilization: farming. The shift to a carbon-neutral and cleaner power sources would be a major civilizational change. It’s shifting to a world where we are more like the plants you grow: harvesting energy directly from the sun (where all the energy on Earth originates).

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Young Coffee trees on a farm in Nicaragua. Photo by Dennis Tang, via Flickr. CC-BY-SA 2.0

If you’re reading this while drinking your morning coffee, it may well come from Central America where coffee grown at higher elevations used to be out of reach of coffee rust. With a changing climate, mountaintop coffee farms are now susceptible to the rust. There are solutions, like rust resistant cultivars. However, returning to a cooler climate will prevent the rust from occurring once again and give it fewer chances to overcome a plant’s resistance. Prevention is a good way of protecting our crops, but adapting and figuring out how to create resilient farms will also be important, as your tropical colleagues are  also having to do right now.

Farmer and scientist both have important roles to play in the future of food.

Sincerely,

Ian Street, PhD


2 thoughts on “To a Farmer From a Plant Scientist

  1. I really liked those 4 examples. Inspiring.

    “Knowledge of genetics for plant breeding and conferring biotech traits like round-up ready seeds started with a Monk in the modern day Czech Republic, Gregor Mendel, a religious and scientific person. He was the first to hint at what we know of today as ‘genes’. A maize expert, Barbara McClintock discovered how the plant behaved at a cellular level and confirmed that some DNA can jump around genomes and can sometimes control whether a gene is on or off. This is one way to get natural trait variation in maize. Norman Borlaug bred disease resistant and hardy versions of wheat that made Mexico food secure. A Japanese Ecologist, Shigetane Ishiwatari, in 1901, first discovered a common pest-fighting tool in the soil: the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) bacterium. These are just four examples of scientists that made contributions to modern agriculture. There are many more plant scientists past and present that did and are doing work to understand and improve agriculture.”

    Liked by 1 person

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