Don’t be alarmed, but we have a lot of work to do.

By 2050 it’s estimated that there will be roughly 9.8 billion people on the globe, more than in the entire history of our species. That is a scary thought when you consider that
a 2022 study led by the University of Massachusetts Amherst estimated that, since Euro-American settlement approximately 160 years ago, agricultural fields in the midwestern U.S. may have lost, on average, two millimeters of soil per year–nearly double the rate of erosion that the USDA considers sustainable. In fact, this study concludes that current USDA estimates of erosion (which are high enough in their own right) may be between three and eight times lower than what the researchers involved in this effort think is happening.

Regardless of what the number is, it’s disconcerting.

I can hear some of you now saying “gee this sounds familiar. Haven’t you written about all this before?”

Yes, yes, I have.

I have written several blogs about how we need to get our farms in the fight to feed this growing population and how soil erosion is a quiet crisis that we ignore at our own peril. And while I apologize for sounding somewhat like a broken record, I truly feel that we need to do what we can to get ahead of these challenges.

Now today I came across a story about a study conducted by the USDA Agriculture Research Service (ARS) on how certain varieties of wheat react to increased levels of carbon dioxide (CO2); specifically wheat varieties that are resistant to Fusarium, a fungus that thrives under warm, wet conditions and causes Fusarium head blight, a costly disease of wheat, barley and oats that can damage the grain and contaminate it with mycotoxins, rendering the grain unsafe for food or feed use. The purpose of this research was to try and develop a strategy to get ahead of the metabolic response these resistant wheat varieties have to high levels of CO2; specifically, the build-up of starch and other carbohydrates that corresponds to a drop in grain protein and mineral levels.

You see, all things being equal, overall grain yields tend to increase when CO2 levels rise while at the same time showing an overall decrease in nutritional value. But that’s not all—the ARS research on this issue suggests that as wheat plants lose nutrients, they also increase their risk of mycotoxin contamination, threatening grain end-use quality, potentially delivering an economic hit to both wheat growers and millers while also reducing the overall amount of grain we have to feed this growing world population.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), CO2 levels are now more than 50% higher than they were in the 18th century (pre-industrial revolution). In fact, they have gone up over 100 parts per million since 1958. More CO2 means more challenges feeding all those people (I haven’t even touched on what temperature changes can do to grain). And if you have ever seen anyone conduct the “earth as an apple” demonstration you already know that only a very small fraction of the planet can actually produce food and fiber. With the amount of soil we lose each year to erosion, we have some real challenges ahead.

All this said there is some good news. The research that ARS conducted on wheat and carbon dioxide provides solid information to help crop breeders shore up wheat’s climate resiliency. It is also helping guide growers to adopt crop management strategies that could offset wheat’s metabolic responses to high CO2 levels and, in turn, the likelihood of mycotoxin contamination.

We also know that we can do a lot to reduce soil erosion. From the days of the Dust Bowl to today, the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (supported by research by ARS and Universities) has been providing agriculture producers with financial and technical assistance to help address soil loss and other natural resource challenges. As always, farmers and ranchers can touch base with their local USDA Service Center to see what type of help is available.

There are a lot of obstacles out there when it comes to meeting the challenge of feeding the world. We need to do all we can to get ahead of the curve.

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