Monday, October 11, 2004

New Foods Research

Our climate is going to change. Never mind whether the change will be human-induced or random. We know enough about the past ten thousand years to know that the western plains are going to dry up again sometime, and there isn't anything we can do to stop it. Some places will get far less rain and without care will become deserts. Some will become warmer, some colder, some get more rain, and so on.

That in itself isn't particularly shocking, or frightening. What is frightening is the discovery that dramatic climate changes can take as little as a few decades. We are not ready to adapt on that kind of time scale. And we'll need to adapt. Our crops are pretty versatile, but wheat yields are bound to fall by quite a bit when the Great Plains start getting 2 inches of rain a year.

I assert that we need to develop a variety of fall-back plants to replace existing strains and species, and some plans of what to do if we wind up with another dust bowl decade.

Great Plains Desert

As a for-instance, take the case of the Great Plains drying out again. The symptoms are what you expect: no rain, crops fail over a wide area, lots of farmers going broke; repeat for 8 or 9 years. Modern plowing practices should help keep the dust down relative to the mess we had last century, but sooner or later we're going to have dunes moving again. Sucking up the aquifer is a losing proposition, and we're already headed for deep trouble (pun intended).

Before that happens, somebody needs to give up on wheat and plant soil-retaining cover. There's no profit in mere ground cover; not in the short term (10 years or more when you talk about climate changes). If we can get the soil to stay put we can think about trying some desert crops: amaranth, etc. The yields have got to be substantially lower in terms of total weight of crop--you need the water to make the carbohydrates. Farming can still be worthwhile if the crop is high protein and low maintenance (and where harvesting doesn't trash the ground cover).

Unfortunately several of the needed actions aren't going to net farmers or bankers any money. We need a government plan for specifying at-risk land, taking custody of it when needed, and instituting emergency conservation plans. A bank is not going to think about needing the soil a hundred years from now, but a government may. We can hope.

You may object that this disposseses farmers, and so it does. I think it possible that we could allow ownership but not control, but I'll grant that ownership of a chunk of desert farm may not be a particularly valuable commodity during a century of custody. (Would you want to take a chance on the drought breaking in your lifetime?) You may object that this opens the door to corruption, and so it may. Safeguards may not work. But what good is desert going to be to a farmer?

Cold Idaho

Suppose we have substantially colder weather, with relatively adequate rainfall. The long-forgotten developers of the potato didn't just develop one strain. I'm told there are several hundred varieties, suitable for different altitudes. If ever a situation begged for botanical research, this is it. Let's find out what those varieties are good for, and see if we can improve them. Without knowing anything else about them, you can guess that there'd be different flavors and textures--there might even be a market today, let alone after a climate change.


We need some contingency plans for reasonably probable climate or other semi-permanent natural disasters (think about the inevitable flooding of the site where we now have New Orleans). Part of this planning is ecological, part legal, and part is purely food research. I think we can agree pretty easily on the value of new foods research. Deciding what to do when Mt Hood decides to dump a dozen feet of ash on Portland is a bit of a knottier problem: somebody is going to win and somebody lose, and that's always contentious.

So let's agree to expand our food research programs with an eye to contingencies and likely new climates. That means more archaeology, testing and developing foodstuffs from around the world, archiving and maintaining the results, and it means government funding. I can't see a private firm taking those kinds of risks. And think of the possible side effect: some of these fallback plants might be desireable now. Just maybe something new could show up on your table a few years from now. And pretty certainly some of the research would help third-world farmers living in marginal areas.


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