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Posts Tagged ‘agriculture

“Plants can’t move, yet the insects come to them and spread their pollen”*…

A canola plant damaged by heat and drought in Saskatchewan, Canada last July

The impact of climate change on agriculture is much discussed– but mostly at the level of yields. Carolyn Beans looks into what a warming planet means for fertilization and reproduction…

… heat is a pollen killer. Even with adequate water, heat can damage pollen and prevent fertilization in canola and many other crops, including corn, peanuts, and rice.

For this reason, many growers aim for crops to bloom before the temperature rises. But as climate change increases the number of days over 90 degrees in regions across the globe, and multi-day stretches of extreme heat become more common, getting that timing right could become challenging, if not impossible.

Faced with a warmer future, researchers are searching for ways to help pollen beat the heat. They’re uncovering genes that could lead to more heat-tolerant varieties and breeding cultivars that can survive winter and flower before heat strikes. They’re probing pollen’s precise limits and even harvesting pollen at large scales to spray directly onto crops when weather improves.

At stake is much of our diet. Every seed, grain, and fruit that we eat is a direct product of pollination…

Farmers and scientists are increasingly observing that unusually high springtime temperatures can kill pollen and interfere with the fertilization of crops. Researchers are now searching for ways to help pollen beat the heat, including developing more heat-tolerant varieties: “Pollen and Heat: A Looming Challenge for Global Agriculture,” from @carolynmbeans in @YaleE360.

* Nahoko Uehashi

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As we try to stay cool, we might recall that it was on this date in 1960 that chlorophyll– the green pigment responsible for photosynthesis in plants– was first synthesized. The feat was accomplished by Robert Burns Woodward, the preeminent synthetic organic chemist of the twentieth century, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1965 for this and other syntheses of complex natural compounds (including Vitamin b12).

Robert Burns Woodward

“A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself”*…

The world’s largest permafrost crater, Batagay, Russia, 2017

The cliché, avidly promoted by Moscow, is that Russia, one of the world’s largest petro-states, will be a relative winner in climate change; but a new book argues that the country will find itself in deep trouble. Sophie Pinkham unpacks the lesson’s in Thane Gustafson’s Klimat: Russia in the Age of Climate Change

Thane Gustafson, a longtime specialist on Russian energy, wrote Klimat: Russia in the Age of Climate Change before the [Ukraine] invasion, when the Covid pandemic seemed the great unexpected event complicating every prediction. Yet with its focus on the future of Russia’s energy, grain, and metals markets, all of which have been reconfigured by the war and the new sanctions, Klimat could hardly be more timely. Gustafson argues that Russia’s days of hydrocarbon-funded might are numbered. Unfortunately, the end of this era will not come soon enough for Ukrainians, or for the planet.

Russia is warming 2.5 times as fast as the world on average, and the Arctic is warming even faster. The cliché, avidly promoted by Moscow, is that the country will be a relative winner in climate change, benefiting from a melting and accessible Arctic shipping route, longer growing seasons, and the expansion of farmland into newly thawed areas. Gustafson counters, with a dry but persuasive marshaling of facts, that in the redistribution of wealth and power that will result from climate change, Russia is doomed. After reading Klimat, Russia’s attack on Ukraine begins to look like the convulsion of a dying state.

About two thirds of Russia is covered in permafrost, a mixture of sand and ice that, until recently, remained frozen year-round. As permafrost melts, walls built on it fracture, buildings sink, railways warp, roads buckle, and pipelines break. Anthrax from long-frozen reindeer corpses has thawed and infected modern herds. Sinkholes have opened in the melting ground, swallowing up whole buildings. Ice roads over frozen water, once the only way to travel in some remote regions, are available for ever-shorter periods. The Arctic coast is eroding rapidly, imperiling structures built close to the water…

Russia’s forests are the largest in the world, accounting for a fifth of Earth’s trees, but they are being grievously damaged by fire, drought, and disease, all of which are caused or exacerbated by climate change. Smoke has choked Siberian cities. During the 2019 fires that burned about 10,000 square miles of forest in Siberia, the Internet lit up with protest, and Russian singers and actors took part in a flash mob called “Siberia Is Burning.” President Putin sent in military units to help extinguish the fire, but he was soon rescued by rain. The problem was forgotten. As burning, dying, clear-cut forests become carbon producers rather than carbon sinks, they make the problem of climate change even worse. The same is true of melting permafrost, which releases methane, another potent greenhouse gas…

Imperialism originates in a struggle for resources; the ideology justifying the brutality of conquest and control is secondary. Oil has been one of the most coveted resources of the modern era, but the oldest and most essential resource is food. Ukraine’s famously fertile “black earth,” desired by many invaders and colonizers over the course of the country’s history, may also be among the motivations for Russia’s new aggression. According to recent reports, Russia has been commandeering or destroying Ukrainian grain stores and making off with Ukrainian agricultural equipment, smuggling the stolen grain to Syria for sale in the Middle East. Gustafson points out that as shortages become more frequent, food will become an increasingly significant tool of geopolitical influence…

Eminently worth reading in full: climate change is coming for Russia: “A Hotter Russia,” from @sophiepinkhmmm on @ThaneGustafson in @nybooks.

Lest American readers feel complacent: “The challenging politics of climate change,” from @BrookingsInst.

* Franklin D. Roosevelt

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As we get serious, we might send imperial birthday greetings to the man Vladimir Putin seems to wish he was: Pyotr Alekséyevich, also known as Peter I, and best known as Peter the Great; he was born on this date in 1672. But even as Putin is trying to turn back the cultural clock, Peter was the Tsar who modernized Russia and grew it into an empire, capturing ports at Azov and the Baltic Sea, laying the groundwork for the Imperial Russian Navy, ending uncontested Swedish supremacy in the Baltic, and beginning the Tsardom’s expansion into a much larger empire that became a major European power.

Peter led a cultural revolution that replaced some of the traditionalist and medieval social and political systems with ones that were modern, scientific, Westernised, and based on the Enlightenment. His reforms had a lasting impact on Russia, and many institutions of the Russian government trace their origins to his reign. He adopted the title of Emperor in place of the old title of Tsar in 1721, and founded and developed the city of Saint Petersburg, which remained the capital of Russia until 1917.

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“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”*…

Staying yesterday’s agribusiness theme: George Monbiot on the extraordinary challenges facing the world’s food system…

For the past few years, scientists have been frantically sounding an alarm that governments refuse to hear: the global food system is beginning to look like the global financial system in the run-up to 2008.

While financial collapse would have been devastating to human welfare, food system collapse doesn’t bear thinking about. Yet the evidence that something is going badly wrong has been escalating rapidly. The current surge in food prices looks like the latest sign of systemic instability.

Many people assume that the food crisis was caused by a combination of the pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine. While these are important factors, they aggravate an underlying problem. For years, it looked as if hunger was heading for extinction. The number of undernourished people fell from 811 million in 2005 to 607 million in 2014. But in 2015, the trend began to turn. Hunger has been rising ever since: to 650 million in 2019, and back to 811 million in 2020. This year is likely to be much worse.

Now brace yourself for the really bad news: this has happened at a time of great abundance. Global food production has been rising steadily for more than half a century, comfortably beating population growth. Last year, the global wheat harvest was bigger than ever. Astoundingly, the number of undernourished people began to rise just as world food prices began to fall. In 2014, when fewer people were hungry than at any time since, the global food price index stood at 115 points. In 2015, it fell to 93, and remained below 100 until 2021.

Only in the past two years has it surged. The rise in food prices is now a major driver of inflation, which reached 9% in the UK last month. [Current estimates are that it will be 9% in the U.S. as well.] Food is becoming unaffordable even to many people in rich nations. The impact in poorer countries is much worse.

So what has been going on?…

Spoiler alert: massive food producers hold too much power – and regulators scarcely understand what is happening. Sound familiar? “The banks collapsed in 2008 – and our food system is about to do the same,” from @GeorgeMonbiot in @guardian. Eminently worth reading in full.

Then iris out and consider how agricultural land is used: “Half of the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture.”

… and consider the balance between agriculture aimed at producing food directly and agriculture aimed at producing feed and fuel: “Redefining agricultural yields: from tonnes to people nourished per hectare.”

Hélder Câmara

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As we secure sustenance, we might send carefully-observed birthday greetings to Dorothea Lange; she was born on this date in 1885. A photographer and photojournalist, she is best known for her Depression-era work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Lange’s photographs influenced the development of documentary photography and humanized the consequences of the Great Depression.

Lange’s iconic 1936 photograph of Florence Owens Thompson, Migrant Mother [source]
Lange in 1936 [source]

“The keeping of bees is like the direction of sunbeams”*…

Loading bees for transport

And moving those bees…

About 75% of crops and one-third of the global food supply rely on pollinators such as honeybees, according to Our World in Data. But farmers have to rely on commercially managed honeybees trucked in from other states to help pollinate certain crops, such as almonds, because there aren’t enough wild bees to do the job. And trucking bees hundreds or thousands of miles is not simple…

Honeybees are disappearing due to shrinking habitats and the growing use of pesticides. When there aren’t enough bees to pollinate fields of crops, companies pay beekeepers to transport their colonies of bees for pollination season. 

“The great pollination migration” happens every year in February when the almonds bloom in California.

Pollinating the seemingly endless fields of almond trees in California requires 85% to 90% of all honeybees available to pollinate in the U.S… Bees are trucked into California from across the country…

Earl and Merle Warren are brothers, truck drivers and co-owners of Star’s Ferry Transport, based in Burley, Idaho. They started hauling bees for a local beekeeper in 1990 and moved about 50 loads of approximately 22 million bees each last year for companies such as Browning’s Honey Co.

“This is not like a load of steel or lumber. These are live creatures. This is those beekeepers’ livelihoods, so we do everything possible to keep them alive,” Earl Warren said.

Some beekeepers estimate that every time you move a truck of bees, up to 5% of the queens die… Minimizing stress for bees is critical, so beekeepers rely on experienced truck drivers to navigate difficult situations such as warm weather, few opportunities to stop during the day and inspections…

A fascinating link in the modern food chain: “A day in the life of a honeybee trucker,” from Alyssa Sporrer (@SporrerAlyssa).

* Henry David Thoreau

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As we ponder pollination, we might spare a thought for a scientist whose very field of study was (and is) made possible by bees, Anders (Andreas) Dahl; he died on this date in 1789.  A botanist and student of Carl Linnaeus, he is the inspiration for, the namesake of, the dahlia flower.

220px-Double_dahlia
Dahlia, the flower named after Anders Dahl [source]

“Remember kids: brush your greens, eat your teeth, stay in milk, drink your school, don’t do sleep, and get your eight hours of drugs!”*…

Nearly-lost collard green varieties are being preserved and propagated across the country

On the preservation of a Southern staple…

In the American South, many people have fond memories of a pot of collard greens simmering on the stove for hours, seasoned with a ham hock and stirred by a parent or grandparent. Cousins to cauliflower and broccoli, collards are a hearty green known for their robust, slightly bitter taste and the rich, nutritious “pot liquor” they produce when cooked. These greens and their liquor have been lauded for generations, but few in the South know that there’s more than one kind of collard green. Even fewer know that there are dozens of different varieties, and that many are now on the verge of disappearing forever.

That’s where the Heirloom Collard Project comes in. By distributing and growing rare and unique collards, this massive collaboration has created ties between chefs, gardeners, farmers, and seedsmen who hope to preserve the plant’s genetic diversity.

Collards are not native to the United States. Instead, they’re Eurasian in origin, and ancient Romans and Greeks feasted on them thousands of years ago. As for how they became prevalent in the American South, scholars have a number of theories. Collard seeds may have been brought over from Portugal in the 18th century, or from the British Isles to the early colonies. However, the most prevalent theory is that enslaved Africans introduced them to the region, since collard greens were a staple crop in many parts of Africa. Historian John Egerton, in his 1987 book Southern Food, declared that “from Africa with the people in bondage came new foods,” such as okra, black-eyed peas, yams, and collard greens…

Seed savers are preserving and celebrating the enormous genetic diversity of collard greens: “The Farmers and Gardeners Saving the South’s Signature Green,” by Debra Freeman (@audiophilegirl) in @atlasobscura.

Robert Smigel

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As we dig in, we might recall that it was on this date in 1804 that John Wedgwood, son of industrialist potter Josiah Wedgwood (and so uncle of Charles Darwin), chaired the inaugural meeting of the Royal Horticultural Society, a group that he proposed and co-founded.

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We might also send hearty, healthy birthday greetings to Luther Burbank; he was born on this date in 1849. A botanist, horticulturist and pioneer in agricultural science, he developed more than 800 strains and varieties of plants– fruits, flowers, grains, grasses, and vegetables– over his 55-year career.

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