Farming During Drought Conditions

July 18th, 2012 | Simcha Weinstein | Comments Off on Farming During Drought Conditions

Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen that much of the continental United States is experiencing one of the worst droughts in 50 years. Not only has it been dry, but crippling heat has added to the situation with our farmland experiencing a significant hit. About 55% of the continental United States is now considered to be in a moderate drought or worse – the largest since 1956, according to the National Climatic Data Center. The Corn Belt has been hit particularly hard, and all of this certainly begs the question, “how will further drought conditions impact our food supply?”

Despite what some deniers say, we are indeed facing a broad-scale warming of the planet, and just about every credible scientist believes that as we keep pumping more carbon emissions into the atmosphere, temperatures will keep rising, and as a result, we will see more and more of these drought conditions. What we’ve been experiencing is not at the levels of the Dust Bowl, when in 1934 we saw the worst drought month in recorded history. However, this past month does rank in the top 10 for this past century, according to the Weather Channel’s data.

A distinguishing characteristic of our current drought is how widespread it has become – with researchers saying it spans a greater geographical region than the conditions of the 1930’s. It seems pretty likely that we will continue to see drought conditions over the next several decades, and most likely with more severity. Keep in mind that the planet has only warmed about 0.6 degrees centigrade since the 1930’s, and most climate experts expect us to see a 6-degree warming by the end of the century. That’s pretty significant.

So, amidst this growing expectation of more and more drought-like conditions, how will this affect our food supply? One step that has been taken by the agribusiness industry is to move as much corn and soy seed as possible over to genetic engineering. They’re quite proud of having engineered seeds that fair much better under drought conditions than previously developed seeds. Of course, along with everything else about genetic engineering, this really doesn’t even address the problem. For whatever your take on GMO’s, all that this does is treat the symptom and not the problem. On the other hand, it turns out that one of the best food system solutions for a planet, that is not only getting warmer but also drier, is organic farming.

Over the past several months, there has been quite a bit of buzz over a recent study showing conventional agriculture producing, on average, a 25% greater yield than organic farming. There is much to take issue with on the study, but that’s for another article. Even if you buy into what the study claims, then you must also acknowledge a key point that was further discussed, which is that under conditions of extreme heat and dry weather, soils managed with organic methods exhibit a better water-holding capacity and water infiltration rates, and thus produce higher yields than conventional farming under both drought conditions as well as during excessive rainfall. We can expect to see more of both of these conditions throughout this century as climate change continues to unfold.

So what accounts for this difference? With conventional farming practices the fields are typically fertilized each year with straight nitrogen. And while this may provide the nitrogen source necessary to continue planting the same fields with the same crops each year, the pure nitrogen contains no organic matter – it does not provide true nutrients to the soil. With organic farming on the other hand, one cannot simply spray a chemical directly onto the fields. Organic growers must feed their soils nitrogen as well, but they achieve this by using matter that actually contains nitrogen. This means that the soil not only receives its dose of nitrogen, but it also receives the added benefit of organic matter as well. This organic matter typically comes in the form of compost and manure.

As a result of how organic farming is managed, the soil tends to trap more carbon in the soil than conventional farming practices. This carbon turns out to be a huge benefit to the crops as it retains water and nutrients better than the more depleted soils of conventional farming. As an additional bonus, the carbon that is stored in the soil, is carbon that would otherwise be heading up into the atmosphere, trapping heat and contributing to planetary warming.

Moving forward, I doubt that we will see as dramatic and sudden shift to organic farming as I’d probably like to see, but my guess is that conventional farming will have to make some sort of serious adaption to the changing climate conditions in the next 10 years. This will certainly involve soil nutrition and development as opposed to simply spraying pure nitrogen onto the fields and then calling it a day. The droughts that we’ve been experiencing this past month have been devastating in their reach. We can only hope that they encourage us to be smarter – not just putting band aids on the symptoms, but actually trying to solve our food system problems through thoughtful and intelligent farming practices.