Keeping up crop production as climate shifts the country’s ‘bread basket’

By Niina Heikkinen | 12/23/2015 08:02 AM EST

In September 2014, a group of leading plant and agricultural researchers sat down at Washington University in St. Louis to discuss a looming question — how will agriculture in the Midwest be affected by climate change?

In September 2014, a group of leading plant and agricultural researchers sat down at Washington University in St. Louis to discuss a looming question — how will agriculture in the Midwest be affected by climate change?

This wasn’t just an academic exercise. Midwestern farmers grow the majority of the country’s corn and soybeans, and scientists had predicted that yields could take a substantial hit from changing weather patterns, with potential impacts on food prices and farmers’ earnings. Even though lots of researchers have studied how climate change could affect agriculture in the country’s "bread basket," discussions have been siloed. Agronomists talk to other agronomists, soil scientists to other soil scientists, and agricultural economists talk to agricultural economists.

The researchers suggested a different approach — one that would integrate data across disciplines to build a much more comprehensive picture of how a changing climate could alter farming in the region. Over the following weeks, they developed their idea further. The interdisciplinary group of researchers proposed the creation of a network of field research sites that would collect data on current and future crops, different cropping systems and farm-level management practices. It would emphasize collecting field data to better inform climate modeling in the region, and participating facilities would conduct experiments to test different adaptation and mitigation strategies.


Their proposal, titled "Pharaoh’s Dream Revisited: An Integrated U.S. Midwest Field Research Network for Climate Adaptation," was recently published in BioScience.

"We really wanted to step back and ask the big question of what could we do that would advance the response [to climate change], and we really felt that this was the thing that needs to be done," said David Gustafson, director of the International Life Sciences Institute Research Foundation’s Center for Integrated Modeling of Sustainable Agriculture and Nutrition Security and lead author of the article.

So far, Midwestern farmers have managed to escape major losses from climate change-related events, but that high productivity may change in just a few decades, researchers say.

Today, average yields for corn and soybeans in the Midwest are about 173 bushels per acre. By 2050, researchers predict, yields could fall by as much as a quarter. Yield losses in the Midwest aren’t just bad for American consumers. The region provides the largest share of globally traded corn and soybeans.

How do you plant ‘big data’ among farmers?

Farmers are already responding to more variable weather by installing drainage systems to keep their fields from becoming waterlogged during heavy rains and expanding irrigation to ward off the effects of drought. Some farmers are reducing tillage to increase soil carbon content and reduce erosion. Others are buying larger equipment so they can complete planting faster when the conditions are favorable.

But all these measures may not be enough to prepare Midwestern farmers for the dramatic environmental changes ahead. By between 2035 to 2065, temperatures in Illinois will be more like those in the mid-South, with rainfall patterns ranging between today’s East Texas and the Carolinas. While higher temperatures may make certain regions more hospitable for growing, other problems like low soil quality or not enough rainfall could make shifting production there more unlikely.

The effect on food prices is much less certain; studies suggest global food prices could stay relatively unchanged or increase by more than 60 percent.

These projections could become more accurate with broader access to relevant data on things like soil health, plant growth and farm management, the researchers said.

According to Gustafson, one of the first steps to encourage more data sharing will be to get partners like the Department of Agriculture’s Midwest Climate Hub, land grant universities and extension programs to collaborate more closely. The network would even include farmers and private-sector data, though that would raise more issues around proprietary information.

"Right now, we have islands of data collected by individuals; there really aren’t uniform standards for collection and curation of data," said Gustafson. "We believe there ought to be research accessible across the entire Midwest."

Richard Robertson, a research fellow with the International Food Policy Research Institute and co-author of the paper, agreed. As a crop modeler, Robertson said he could use more specific information about real-world farming practices to make his simulations more accurate.

"When should I get the fake seed into the fake soil under the fake sunshine?" he asked.

The answer isn’t always that obvious from the data. A mathematically ideal time to plant from a modeler’s perspective might not work for a farmer who is trying to keep his corn from being eaten by pests. But without communication, there is no way for people working with models to accurately reflect that kind of information in their predictions, he said.

"I think the vision outlined is brilliant and spot-on," said J. Gordon Arbuckle, a sociologist at Iowa State University who has done extensive research on Midwestern farmers’ views on climate change and who was not involved in the study. "Bringing the many relevant disciplines and stakeholders together would be a challenging but ultimately most effective way to improve the resilience of Midwest agriculture."

A long-discussed problem becomes crucial

The idea that scientists should do more to work together is not new, and calls for more open data have been getting louder since the early 2000s, said Gerald Nelson, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and co-author of the paper.

"In the last 10 years, the push for open data has been inexorable," he said. "That’s the direction everyone is headed. What you do have to do is make it easy for people to make data available."

He said that more communication would help researchers identify what kind of data would be useful to colleagues in other disciplines.

Robertson said that in his own personal experience, he has seen limited progress in how much researchers from different disciplines work together.

"I remember sitting in a room 13 years ago talking about the same thing. This goes back a long ways. Over these 13 years, we haven’t been able to get people in the same room at all. As a grad student, I could tell people were talking right past each other," he said.

Data-sharing networks similar to what the researchers are proposing already exist in other scientific fields. Climate scientists make weather and temperature data widely available to their colleagues. In genomics, open data initiatives like the Human Genome Project helped to quickly advance research in the field.

There are also smaller-scale examples of cooperation within climate change and agriculture research, such as the Sustainable Corn and Useful to Usable projects, which are funded by the Department of Agriculture, said Arbuckle.

"[These projects] have shown that integrated, transdisciplinary approaches that bring physical and social scientists together with farmers and agricultural advisors can have powerful results. Scaling such approaches up, as the authors envision, could help us meet adaptation and mitigation objectives more effectively and on a much larger scale," he wrote in an email.

Who pays for the experiments?

How do you get soil scientists, agricultural economists, hydrologists and climate scientists to work together across disciplines at the scale this paper proposes?

"Lock them in a room and shove pizza under the door," Robertson said, laughing.

While he’s joking about that part, Robertson said that getting everyone to sit down in the same room, and to keep doing that over an extended period time, is important for building communication across different research fields.

"For people to work together, there has to be something to work on, and there has to be support, i.e., money to make this happen. It would need somebody somewhere with a big pile of money to say, ‘Hey, let’s do something for the taxpayers,’" he said.

That support would most likely come from public sources like the Department of Agriculture and from private business like Monsanto Co. and Kellogg Co.

As for how to make this integrated system work on a practical level, it’s still much too early to say, but the researchers hope that the development of such a system would encourage similar collaborations across the United States and internationally.

"[The project] has to be big enough that it matters; we don’t know exactly how it’s going to happen. We need to be testing things out in a wide variety of different experiments," Robertson said.