In my job, I monitor many news websites and social media feeds. As I have mentioned before in previous postings, you never know what kind of information you will come across, and I might add how stories will interconnect.
For example, I have seen many stories lately about extreme weather events.—First, was a story I came across in the High Plains Journal titled “Kansas Governor declares drought emergency, warnings and watches for Kansas counties.” This story outlined the action taken by Governor Laura Kelly in response to the deepening drought including placing all 105 Kansas counties either in drought watch, warning or emergency status. This was closely followed by a press release from the media office of the Governor of the State of Texas declaring “Governor Abbott Issues Drought Disaster Declaration in July 2022” outlining his response to the worsening drought south of the Red River. And finally there was a piece on the Kansas Farmer website talking about with the headline “Drought tolerant wheat trait clears one more hurdle in United States” outlining how a new strain of wheat with traits designed to better handle dry conditions has cleared yet another regulatory hurdle on the way to final release for planting.
What all this says to me is that the horn we have been blowing on for over 20 years now—that we need to put a hard focus on “hardening” production agriculture to the extreme weather events that our changing climate is exacerbating—is sounding out notes as true as they have ever been. Extreme weather IS the new norm. It just is. The crazy weather we have always had in the southern great plains really has been shot full of steroids. WE MUST GET READY AS BEST WE CAN FOR WHAT LIES AHEAD!!
I have to admit it did my heart some good to see that some of the state governments in the region are jumping into action to try and help their communities deal with this drought. I also am always excited when a research effort results in a new tool that can help farmers and ranchers better deal with weather extremes. The work of the USDA Agricultural Research Service, our land grant universities and private industry and foundations is absolutely vital if we are going to be able to feed and clothe over 9 billion people by the middle of the century, especially in light of the challenges that climate change exacerbated extreme weather will bring to the table.
Breakthroughs like the newly developed drought tolerant wheat trait (called HB4) hold the promise of providing the tools necessary to adapt to our changing climate. I know many folks will read this and counter with ‘why focus on adaptation? Shouldn’t we instead be trying to roll climate change back?’ I would respond that of course we should do all we can to help stop our impact on the climate, but at the same time we have to realize that some of the ‘triggers’ on the climate have already been tripped and no matter how hard we dive into rolling things back, we still are going to be dealing with the impact of these changes for a long, long time.
Here is a little taste from the story I referenced above—
Kansas State University Wheat Breeder Allan Fritz explains that the HB4 trait is targeted for drought tolerance, offering farmers a chance for increased yield under drought conditions. It’s not meant for irrigated fields, but rather those conditions where farmers may have to deal year after year with greatly reduced available water.
“A year like this, drought is on people’s minds,” Fritz says. “And it’s not uncommon to have drought in Kansas. So having this tool in the toolbox would be a really valuable thing.”
Fritz goes on to say that there is still a lot of work to be done before a wheat variety that has the HB4 trait is commercially available to U.S. farmers. But, if it gets full approval, the HB4 trait could be used in wheat breeding programs, much like disease resistance genes and others that those breeding programs are already managing on a technical basis. He does caution that there are a lot of questions to be answered before the HB4 trait is allowed to be used in U.S. wheat breeding programs, but that the news is encouraging.
According to the folks who have been working on this effort, the HB4 drought-tolerance trait has been shown to increase wheat yields by an average of 20% in water-limited conditions. But that’s not the whole story. They also say this trait can also be used in soybeans; and when you plant HB4 wheat and HB4 soybeans in a double-crop, no-till rotation, initial research shows that you can fix an estimated 1,472 pounds of carbon into the soil per acre, per year (and burn less diesel doing it then you would under conventional till). This shows once again that many of the tools we use to adapt to climate change can also help mitigate some of climate changes root causes.
What all this means to me is that we do have a road ahead to help deal with our changing climate. The question is can we get down that road fast enough and how far does it go?