Grain Drain

By Mitra, Maureen Nandini | Earth Island Journal, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Grain Drain


Mitra, Maureen Nandini, Earth Island Journal


LAST YEAR, RECORD RAINFALL during the spring turned his fields so slushy that wheat farmer Carl Mattson was unable to sow a crop in some sections of his 4,000-acre farm in Liberty County, Montana. But by mid-June, weeks earlier than usual, the sky dried out. Intense heat and strong winds parched the soil. Then leaf stripe rust attacked the wheat stands. For the first time in his farm's 100-year history, Mattson was forced to use a fungicide to save his crop.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

"It is getting more and more difficult to finish the spring wheat crop in July and August because it's tending to be hotter and drier than is good for the crop," says 61-year-old Mattson, who runs Mattson Farms along with his wife, son, and daughter.

Wheat falls into two main categories: "winter wheat" and "spring wheat." Spring wheat, which is usually planted in April in north-central Montana, needs moisture until late June or early July to produce a good yield. For the past seven years, this region in the heart of Montana's wheat-producing "Golden Triangle" has seen scant rain after mid-June. Before that, the entire region went through a severe drought from 1995 to 2005.

For the Mattsons, whose farm is completely rain dependent, the changing weather has meant that since 2007 they've gone from growing mostly spring wheat to growing mostly winter wheat. That's a major shift so far up the Northern Plains. It used to be that Montana growers stayed away from winter wheat because of the risk of deadly frosts. Mattson has also begun exploring drought-tolerant crops like peas and lentils. "Economically it's still a struggle [to grow wheat]," he says.

Scoping out new crops is a wise move for farmers like Mattson. New research shows that climate change will have a greater impact on wheat crops than expected. A study by scientists at Stanford University found that a 2 degree Celsius increase in temperature would reduce the wheat-growing season by nine days and cut yields by up to 20 percent. Alter looking at nine years of data on wheat performance in northern India, the researchers concluded that extreme heat causes the plant to age faster, reducing the size of the grain head. "Many wheat growing areas around the world face climate related challenges and have seen climate changes in the past few decades," Steve Lobell, the report's lead author, says via email.

This fits with Mattson's experience. As the world gets warmer, the growing range of heat-intolerant crops like wheat is shrinking. Climate change has already reduced wheat yields across the world by 5.5 percent since 1980, according to a joint study on climate trends and crop production by Columbia and Stanford universities. The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico estimates that nearly half of the world's wheat crop is at risk from rising temperatures. The United States, which is the world's largest wheat exporter, might escape much of the impact mainly because about 70 to 80 percent of its wheat is grown in winter. The biggest losers from global warming appear to be Russia, India, and France. Conservative estimates say that wheat yields in India could fall by 30 percent.

Meanwhile, global wheat production, now at 689 million tons, needs to increase by about 50 percent by 2050 to feed an expanding population, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. …

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