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Strategies for a Changing Planet: Farming

•, By Maggie Koerth-Baker

The biggest challenge in preparing crops for climate change is knowing what to prepare them for. Even within agricultural regions, the effects of global warming will vary.


Consider Kansas, the source of a fifth of America’s wheat. Parts of eastern Kansas are now 20 percent wetter than they were in 1900. Rainfall in western Kansas remains largely unchanged, and the region could become much drier over the next century. Meanwhile, short-term fluctuations are becoming more extreme. Last year, despite the long-term increase in rainfall in the area, the state placed every county in southeast Kansas under drought warning or drought emergency.

Stephen Jones, a professor of crop and soil sciences at Washington State University, says it’s possible to stabilize wheat yields against an increasingly capricious climate by developing new wheat strains—each one adapted to a specific hardship—and then planting as many of those varieties as possible. Jones searches for drought-, disease- and flood-tolerant wheat strains that were grown in Washington a century ago (and which fell out of favor because they didn’t consistently produce large yields) and breeds them with modern, high-yield varieties. Farmers sow the resulting seeds and, at the end of the season, collect the seeds from the best-performing plants to use for next year’s crop. In as little as eight years, this process creates new wheat strains. And in a 2010 test in Washington’s Douglas County, one of these new wheat strains outperformed all 59 competitors, including entries from genetic-engineering giants Monsanto and Syngenta. 

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