Hot crops: scientists look at global heat and agriculture
September 3, 1999
(CNN) -- Could Maine someday be the peach state instead of Georgia? Or could the climate of Central America one day turn sour for bananas?
As states in the northeastern United States cope with the worst drought in more than a century, scientists are studying the possible effects of global warming on agriculture.
"Some of the projections are that temperatures on a global basis will increase from two to four degrees Celsius," said James Jones, a University of Florida scientist at the school's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
"Rainfall patterns will change. Carbon dioxide will increase over the next 50-100 years," he said.
Computer projections may predict which plants will thrive and which may fail if greenhouse gases from cars and industry lead to long-term climate changes.
This research is helping farmers today as well.
In Argentina, Graciela Magrin predicts the effects of El Niño and La Niña, the periodic warming and cooling of Pacific Ocean waters, on the growing season.
"We did this for each of the crops, corn, soy, wheat, sunflower," she said.
She can advise farmers how to adjust planting dates, fertilizing and irrigation to prepare for conditions three to six months down the road.
"For the corn crop, for instance, (the) area north of Buenos Aires and south of Santa Fe is very vulnerable to La Niña years, when the precipitation is low," Magrin said.
Hartwell Allen, another University of Florida researcher, said the greenhouse where research is done measures the influx of carbon dioxide.
Allen and Kenneth Boote study how long-term increases in carbon dioxide and temperature affect soybeans, rice, sugar cane and peanuts.
"Just that four and a half degree temperature rise drops the peanut yield about 40 percent," Boote says, pointing to a greenhouse experiment.
An increase in four or five degrees could lower harvests in the United States, Russia and anywhere else from the mid-latitudes to the tropics.
That temperatures change could benefit others.
The winners might be countries at higher latitudes or northerly latitudes such as northern Europe or Canada where the growing season would be increased in length and the summer temperatures somewhat warmer.
Allen says to cope with the unknown climate of the future, the next step may be to alter plants so they'll produce seeds at slightly higher temperatures.
"The genetic potential of crops has not been thoroughly investigated," Allen said. "We would really like to see a global agronomist or a global plant scientist who would understand plant production literally from poles to the tropics."
Until then, these models may help boost farmers' harvests by helping them anticipate some of nature's harsher realities.
CNN Correspondent Marsha Walton contributed to this report.
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