How Climate Change Affects the Production of Crops in the Mid-Western U.S and Potential Solutions

3360 words (13 pages) Essay in Environmental Studies

08/02/20 Environmental Studies Reference this

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It is no news that the climate is changing significantly as each year passes by. Climate change has a detrimental effect not only on crops but it also affects the health of humans significantly (NASA, n.d). The ultimate effect of a change in climate to the agricultural sector is crop failure and before this issue can be resolved, crop farmers have to make significant changes to their farming practices. Climate change can simply be defined as the change in the atmospheric pattern of a region which is caused mostly by the emission of gases like carbon dioxide, Nitrous oxide, water vapor, and methane. Nitrous oxide is produced from the use of fertilizers, combustion of fossil fuel, production of nitric acid, and burning of biomass (NASA. n.d). Although a lot of emphases is being laid on carbon dioxide, methane is a more potent greenhouse gas and it is released from agricultural practices like rice cultivation and as a by-product of ruminant animal digestion. Chlorofluorocarbons are synthetic compounds gotten from waste products of industries which are now largely regulated because of their significant contribution to the issue of climate change (NASA, n.d). Evidence that the climate is changing can be referenced from the fact that the average surface temperature has increased by about 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit, oceans have warmed to about 0.69 degrees Fahrenheit, ice sheets have decreased significantly in mass, the sea level has risen about 8 inches, the amount of spring snow cover has decreased significantly, global sea level has risen about 8 inches in the last 20 years, and there is an overall increase in temperature across the United States  (NASA. n.d). These are a few changes that prove global change is really happening. In order to adapt to the rising change in climate, changes have to be made to the current farming methods to minimize a reduction in crop yield and stabilize the agricultural sector of the United States in general.

            Climate change is a thing of concern because not only does it make the environment unbearable for organisms living in it (especially the polar bears), rising temperature is bad for agriculture, water security, and even the US economy (Climate Reality Project, 2018). The Midwestern region of the US is the most important region in terms of crop farming. The Midwestern region includes states like Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin (Climate Hubs, 2017). There are over 127 million acres of land and about 75% of the total land is dedicated just to the production of Corn and Soybean (Climate Hubs, 2017). The Mid West crop agriculture in the Midwest alone is worth about 76 billion dollars which is a huge part of the U.S economy (Climate Hubs, 2017). How has the change in climate affected crop production in the Midwestern region? The average temperature has risen across all four seasons, there is a significant increase in the length of growing seasons, the regular precipitation pattern has changed significantly, and precipitation events have increased in frequency and severity (Climate Hubs, n.d). Due to change in climate, soybean, and corn produced in these areas have experienced changes in their growth cycle and overall yield. It is no news that there is a significantly larger amount of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere all over the world. The increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is expected to increase soybean production at first but the stress the crop will pass through to keep up with the CO2 is expected to eventually lead to a drop in the crop yield (EPA, 2016). A high temperature is detrimental to crop production because it leads to a significant shortening of the reproductive development (EPA, 2016). Increase in the spring precipitation is expected to cause an increase in disease-causing pathogens and delayed planting of both crops (EPA, 2016). These are the major problems that are most detrimental to crop and soybean production, although they also face other problems that result from greenhouse gas emissions and other problems faced by every other crop as a result of climate change. Temperature and pest resistant genetically modified crops have already been produced and its usage is ongoing (Grimm, 2017), so the continued usage of these heat and pest resistant would help combat the expected increase in pathogens that infect crops and temperature increase as a result of climate change.

 Considering that the world population is set to increase to 9 billion by 2050 (United Nations, 2015), there needs to be a way to adapt crops to the drastic change in climate and its adverse effects. Food production will need to increase by about 60% over the next couple of years to provide food security for the expected 9 billion world population count (Saab, n.d). How can we increase the production of food to feed the entire population in spite of adverse contribution of climate change in increasing crop yield? The answer is the use of genetically modified crops. According to the World Health Organization, genetically modified organisms (or crops) can be defined as an organism that has had its genetic material (DNA) changed in a way that doesn’t naturally occur either through mating or natural recombination (WHO, 2014). Crops can be modified in a variety of ways. They can be modified to increase their nutrient content, increase the shelf life of processed food from them, be more resistant to pesticides, and to decrease the levels of allergen they may contain. Looking at the low maize and soybean yield in the mid-western region as a result of climate change, one reasonable way to resolve this issue is by modifying the seeds planted to help them grow better.  The modification can be done in a way that these seeds become resilient to the change in climate and make them yield the same amount, if not more, food that crops farmers used to produce when climate change was not an issue. Due to an increase in spring precipitation, water logging is expected in the Mid-western area during the spring season. Water logging, which is simply over saturation of the area crops are grown with water, would lead to early death of corn and soybean crops as a result of anoxia. Plants that can withstand waterlogging (e.g perennial plants, tropical foliage plants and shrubs) do so because they have the ability to quickly switch to anaerobic respiration in its occurrence. Some of the mechanisms employed by these plants after switching to anaerobic respiration is to increase the activity of their glycolytic pathway, increase the availability of soluble sugar and increase the formation of aerenchyma (Ahmed et al, 2013). Ethylene, a gas present in significantly high amount in waterlogged soils activates the enzymes that induce the pathways necessary for survival in waterlogged areas in these waterlog resistant plants (Ahmen et al, 2013). The complete absence of oxygen in water logged areas may also lead to a change in the microbial composition of the soil to include more anaerobic microorganisms and more accumulation of nitrite and ferric ion, an overall condition most plants have trouble growing in (Ahmed et al, 2013). In order to help corn and soybean adapt better to this anaerobic environment, genes that regulate the activation of the pathways associated with anoxic conditions in the water log resistant plants can be transferred into the genome of the corn and soybean planted in the Midwestern region. The success of these genomic modification will increase crop yield even in the event of increased precipitation and flooding.

As mentioned earlier, Lack of nitrogen and the accumulation of nitrites as a result of waterlogging impedes the growth of corn and soybean. In an attempt to fix this problem, some groups of scientists have taken genetic engineering a step further, they are in the process of engineering crops that not only reduce the amount of nitrogen being emitted into the atmosphere, they actually fix nitrogen themselves. One major challenge crop farmers face is the supply of crops with enough nitrogen to help them grow. Nitrogen is being supplied to crops in form of fertilizers which has an adverse effect on the environment. The researchers working on this project hope to genetically modify crops to express nitrogenase which is usually found in bacteria in crops grown for food (Allen, Good, 2018). Progress had been made in this project using the tobacco plant as a model plant. Several important proteins that make up the nitrogenase has been expressed in tobacco (Allen, Good, 2018). There are however some scientific challenges also associated with this research. Since nitrogen fixation is entirely microbial, the total number of associated proteins needed to be genetically engineered into a crop to successfully express a fully functional plant hosted nitrogenase is not entirely clear. Also, what organelle to transfect these genes is also unclear, there is no chloroplast in the model bacteria the nitrogenase gene is gotten from so the presence of chloroplast in plants might pose a problem for successful engineering (Allen, Good, 2018). Lastly, if the plants eventually express the nitrogen, there needs to be a way to transfer the nitrogen from the nucleus of the plant to the cytoplasm to concentrate it in the xylem where the nutrient is most needed in order to prevent toxicity to the root of the model plant (Allen, Good, 2018). The ability of crops to express nitrogenase will help them fix nitrogen directly from the atmosphere which would reduce the need for artificial fertilizers.

Soybean production is greatly affected by the increase of atmospheric CO2 as a result of climate change. Plants generally use CO2 as a reactant to ultimately produce O2 as one of the end products. So, in principle, the increase in CO2 should increase the rate of photosynthesis leading to a faster rate of growth in plants. This phenomenon is also observed in soybean. The only problem, however,is that in the long run, increased CO2 eventually leads to a faster death of these crops and a reduction in its yield by farmers (EPA, n.d). The short-term benefit of CO2 increase is that an increase in CO2 in the atmosphere results in a 20% decrease in stomatal conductance which could help reduce the rate of evaporation thereby leading to an improvement in soil moisture (Aisworth, 2011). There are years where the Mid-Western region is expected to experience drought instead of increased precipitation. During these years, the increased CO2 in the atmosphere coupled with the drought is expected to result in more shallow roots in the soybean plants which would increase ABA signaling (ABA signals for stomata closure leading to a reduction in photosynthesis) (Aisworth, 2011). An ideal soybean seed is therefore a plant that can tolerate the increased CO2 condition without leading to a future reduction in crop yield, and also a seed that can withstand drought without leading to ABA signaling.  A good solution would be using a CRISPR-Cas9 system to introduce the gene responsible for resistance in a known drought resistant crop coupled with another gene in a strain of soybean known to grow well in under increased CO2 conditions into soybean seeds planted in the Mid-west. This way, the soybean will be able to grow well in years with increased precipitation, and equally well in years with increased drought.  CRISPR-Cas9 system is a system used by scientist to introduce a break in the genome of an organism so that a new gene can be introduced. The DNA repair system then integrates the newly introduced gene into the genome during repair leading to a change in the genome of the organism (Grimm, 2017). A plant proven to be resistant to drought is foxtail millet typically grown in India (Singh & Upadhyaya, 2016). A cultivar of soybean called Shanyou has been proven to have a higher yield in the presence of increased C02 with an approximate yield of 34.1% compared to 12.8% seen in other cultivars used in this experiment (Aisworth, 2011).Being able to combine the necessary genes from these two crops into soybean seeds should solve the problem of decreased crop yield as a result of increased CO2 and occasionally drought expected in the future.

There is a lot of controversy over the use of GM crops. Some of the reasons why crop farmers do not use GM crops are the increase in pest resistance, GM crops production not being economical, increase in crop pollination, and the presence of adverse environmental effects associated with its usage (Acker, Rahman, & Cici, 2017). The population is wildly skeptical over the consumption of GM crops because extensive research has not been done to know the long-term effect of its consumption on human health (Halls, 2016). Only specific pesticides can be used with GM crops due to its genetic alteration (Acker, Rahman, & Cici, 2017), the use of a limited number of pesticides has given rise to pesticide resistant pests (Acker, Rahman, & Cici, 2017). Weeds have also developed resistance, for example, there are now glycosate weeds because most GM crops only allows the use of glycosate pesticides (Owen, 2009). Growing GM crops with none GM crops has increased the rate of cross pollination. Organic crops being shipped to other countries have been reported to contain genes found in GM crops (Acker, Rahman, & Cici, 2017) which can only be possible as a result of both types of crops being planted in the same region. There are also concerns that ingestion of seeds from GM crops resistant to pesticides by insects could result in insecticide resistant insects which can also result in a non-balance in the ecosystem (Acker, Rahman, & Cici, 2017). Health concerns are mainly speculations as there isn’t any risk posed by all of the GM crops approved at this time (Halls, 2016). Some of the speculations are the possibility of the new genes introduced in GM crops leading to the emergence of new allergens to the human population, microbes existing as commensals in the gut microbiome acquiring antibiotics resistance making them become pathogenic, and the possibility of genetic mutation occurring as a result of the transfer of genes from the GM foods to the human genome (Acker, Rahman, & Cici, 2017. Although there are risks associated with the use of GM crops , the benefits of using GM crops in my opinion, greatly outweighs the risks  considering the detrimental effects climate change is expected to cause if nothing is done about it.

Benefits associated with the use of includes but is not limited to a significant increase in crop productivity, increase in the mandatory practice of conservation tillage, a higher rate of pest management, and contributing to a greener environment due to reduction in the use of pesticides and insecticides (Acker, Rahman, & Cici, 2017). GM crops are modified to be herbicide resistant and insect resistant which would reduce the cost farmers spend on insecticide leading to a higher profit (Acker, Rahman, & Cici, 2017. The overall increase in crop yield when GM seeds are planted would also help feed the population come 2050 when the world population increases significantly.  GM crop use also requires the use of conservation tillage (Acker, Rahman, & Cici, 2017), the practice conservation tillage is the process of leaving crop’s residue in the field after harvest instead of tilling the entire field and then planting seeds into that residue during the next planting season to serve as a barrier to for protecting the soil would also significantly reduce the carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere (Hall, Kate, 2016) contributing to the decrease in greenhouse gas emission into the environment. Overall increase in crop yield with through the use of GM crops will also strengthen the relationship of the U.S with other countries because more food can be exported to other countries which will result in a higher profit for the famers and the U.S as a whole.

            In conclusion, climate change is a pressing issue that has caused a significant amount of loss for farmers nationwide. The Midwestern region is of particular concern because the major crops the US is known for (Corn and Soybean) are being grown in this region so extra care needs to be taken to adapt the Midwest to the change in climate to prevent the US entering an economic meltdown. Seeing that the US also supplies other countries with food, it is important to protect our cash crops as much as possible to maintain a good relationship with other countries we supply with food. In other to combat the issue of climate change, farmers need to farm in a more productive way than what is being done before. GM crops is the answer in combatting climate change in an effective and efficient way. Some modifications that can be done to corn and soybean to adapt them to the change in climate is the introduction of genes that would confer drought resistance to them, use of herbicide, temperature and insecticide resistant seeds, introduction of nitrogen fixing genes to these crops, introduction of genes that would confer waterlogging resistance, and finally, development of crops that are resistant to the increase in CO2. The possible problems with all the solutions listed above is actually producing one seed that would have all these resistance in it and would still be controllable. In the case where a cross pollination allows the growth of these super resistance crops in unwanted areas, it might be difficult to get rid of the growth of these crops in those areas. However, considering the detrimental effect climate change is expected to have in the production of two of the most important crops in the US, genetically modifying corn and soybean is necessary to save the U.S economy and prevent food scarcity in the U.S come 2050 and beyond.

Citations

  • Acker, R. V., Rahman, M., & Cici, S. Z. (2017, December 11). Pros and Cons of GMO Crop Farming. Retrieved from http://oxfordre.com/environmentalscience/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199389414.001.0001/acrefore-9780199389414-e-217#acrefore-9780199389414-e-217-bibItem-0109
  • Agriculture in a Changing Climate. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.climatehubs.oce.usda.gov/agriculture-changing-climate
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  • Frequently asked questions on genetically modified foods. (2017, February 15). Retrieved from https://www.who.int/foodsafety/areas_work/food-technology/faq-genetically-modified-food/en/
  • World population projected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050 | UN DESA Department of Economic and Social Affairs. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/news/population/2015-report.html
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  • F. Ahmed, M. Y. Rafii, M. R. Ismail, et al., “Waterlogging Tolerance of Crops: Breeding, Mechanism of Tolerance, Molecular Approaches, and Future Prospects,” BioMed Research International, vol. 2013, Article ID 963525, 10 pages, 2013. https://doi.org/10.1155/2013/963525.
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  • https://www.soybase.org/meeting_presentations/soybean_breeders_workshop/SBW_2011/Ainsworth.pdf
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