CFS-HLPE Issue Paper Cites Need
For Better Food System Resilience
With the COVID-19 pandemic still unfolding, uncertainty, disruption and volatility best define the new norm for the food system, the global economy and life in general.
As noted in an issue paper – The Impact of COVID-19 on Food security and Nutrition – from the World Food Security Committee’s (CFS) High Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) in Rome, “the pandemic crisis is leading to instability in both local and global food markets, causing a disruption to food supply and availability. The present crisis highlights existing challenges in food systems and emphasizes the need for improved resilience in food supply chains and in food systems more broadly.”
Recommendations offered in the paper include:
- Just as management of COVID-19 requires a globally coordinated response, so does its impacts on food security. The CFS should take a lead role in coordinating the global food security policy guidance in response, in close collaboration with other agencies such as the WHO, FAO, WFP and the United Nations Secretary General’s Special Envoy for the preparation of the 2021 World Food Systems Summit.
- Governments should prioritize the most vulnerable and affected by COVID-19 and its impacts, such as the elderly, the ill, the displaced, and the urban poor. The specific role of women in health and food systems should be recognized, as food producers, processors and carers. Solidarity among people and communities should be promoted and as a priority continue to empower and support everybody to collaborate and cooperate to confront the emerging challenges.
- Social protection mechanisms for the poorest and most vulnerable people during and in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis need to be employed that incorporate provisions on the Right to Food, both in terms of quantity and nutritional quality. These mechanisms should provide essential assistance in the short-term and support livelihoods in the long-term.
New NRCS Practices to Address Climate Change Issues
The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service has expanded planning and funding related to climate smart farming practices for farms.
Recently the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) broadened its purpose to include new or expected resource concerns for adapting to, and mitigating against, increasing weather volatility; and addressing drought resiliency measures.
Improving soil health is a key component for farm resiliency to long term changes in weather such as increased temperatures and increased rainfall. Increasing soil organic matter can increase a farm’s ability to absorb and hold water, reduce erosion, and increase and retain nutrients.
NRCS planners may have available (depending on the state) for fiscal year 2021 new practices such as:
- Soil Carbon Amendment (808)
- Soil Health Conservation Activity Plan (116)
- Agricultural Energy Design Plan (136)
- Soil Testing Activity (216)
These are in addition to established NRCS practices that can improve organic matter, reduce runoff and improve infiltration of water. Established practices include conservation cover, conservation crop rotation, cover crops, forage and biomass planting, pest management conservation system, mulching, nutrient management, prescribed grazing, and residue and tillage management.
Applications for NRCS programs are accepted at any time but there is typically a cutoff for a particular year of funding.
For more information about how to apply, or to discuss concerns on your farm, contact your local NRCS conservationist. Find the conservationist in your county.
No Time to Waste to Avoid Future Food Shortages
As many around the world were experiencing empty supermarket shelves, without pasta, rice and flour due to panic buying, concerns were raised about the possibility of running out of food.
Farmers in Australia, as in other nations, reassured consumers, saying that they produce enough food to feed three times the nation-continent’s population. If that statement is to remain true in ten to twenty years in a world severely affected by climate change, there must be continuous funding towards creating solutions to increase crop production.
“Australian plant scientists are punching above their weight by participating in global, interdisciplinary efforts to find ways to increase crop production under future climate change conditions. We essentially need to double the production of major cereals before 2050 to secure food availability for the rapidly growing world population,” says Australian National University (ANU) Professor Robert Furbank, from the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Translational Photosynthesis CoETP.
“It is similar to finding a virus vaccine to solve a pandemic. It doesn’t happen overnight,” Furbank continued. “We know that Australia’s agriculture is going to be one area of the world that is most affected by climate extremes, so we are preparing to have a toolbox of plant innovations ready to ensure global food security in a decade or so, but to do this we need research funding to continue.”
Several examples of the innovative solutions were published recently in a special issue on “Food Security Innovations in Agriculture” in the Journal of Experimental Botany, including five reviews and five research articles.
Co-editor of the special issue, ANU Professor John Evans, says that the publication highlights the now widely accepted view that improving photosynthesis – the process by which plants convert sunlight, water and CO2 into organic matter – is a new way to increase crop production that is being developed.
“We are working on improving photosynthesis on different fronts, as the articles included in this special issue show, from finding crop varieties that need less water, to tweaking parts of the process in order to capture more carbon dioxide and sunlight,” says Evans, CoETP chief investigator. “We know that there is a delay of at least a decade to get these solutions to the breeders and farmers, so we need to start developing new opportunities now before we run out of options.”
The special issue includes research solutions that range from traditional breeding approaches to ambitious genetic engineering projects using completely different ends of the technological spectrum; from robot tractors, to synthetic biology. All these efforts are focused on finding ways to make crops more resistant to drought and extreme climate conditions and being more efficient in the use of land and fertilizers.
“Our research is contributing to providing food security in a global context, and people often ask what that has to do with Australian farmers and my answer is everything,” Furbank said. “Aside from the fact that economy and agriculture are globally inter-connected, if Australian farmers have a more productive resilient and stable crop variety, they are able to plan for the future, which turns into a better agribusiness and at the same time, ensures security across the world.”
The research has been funded by the CoETP, which aims to improve the process of photosynthesis to increase the production of major food crops such as sorghum, wheat and rice.
Biofuel Sector Presses for Help
from Reimbursement Program in HEROES Act
Biofuel interests are expressing gratitude for legislation introduced on Capitol Hill aimed at providing the industry some financial support in the face of the corona virus-related shutdown that has brought much of the sector to a stop.
The Renewable Fuels Association thanked Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) this week for introducing bipartisan legislation – the Renewable Fuel Feedstock Reimbursement Act of 2020 – to provide much needed emergency relief to ethanol producers hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. The new bill would reimburse renewable fuels producers for feedstocks they purchased during the first quarter of 2020.
As of Tuesday, only 60 of the nation’s 204 ethanol plants were running at normal output rates, with the remaining 144 either completely or partially idled. More than 40 percent of the county’s ethanol production capacity remains offline.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has had devastating effects on the U.S. ethanol industry,” Renewable Fuel Association (RFA) President and CEO Geoff Cooper said Tuesday. He lauded Grassley and Klobuchar “for watching out for the 350,000 men and women whose jobs are supported by the ethanol industry,” noting that the legislation “would lend a vital helping hand and assist renewable fuel producers as they attempt to get back on their feet.”
He said the biofuel sector expects “the inclusion and expeditious passage of emergency relief measures for the ethanol industry in the next COVID-19 stimulus package.”
American Coalition for Ethanol (ACE) CEO Brian Jennings said his industry needs direct assistance to help “survive this catastrophic downturn, and that the Grassley-Klobuchar legislation would do that.
“Momentum for direct assistance is building in Congress,” said the ACE CEO, but warned that “we are far from the finish line as the Senate may not take up the next stimulus package until sometime in June. Our immediate priority is to keep mobilizing grassroots support until direct assistance is enacted into law.”
Last week, the House passed the $3-trillion HEROES Act , a COVOID-19 financial relief package. The larger relief bill includes the Renewable Fuel Reimbursement Program, a provision that would provide direct assistance to renewable fuel producers impacted by the pandemic.
The program would provide a 45-cent-per-gallon payment for qualified biofuel produced by eligible producers from Jan. 1 through May 1 of this year. Furthermore, any producer taken out of service for a month or more over those five months would be eligible for the same credit, based on the volume produced during the corresponding month last year.
Based on U.S. Energy Information Administrator data, ethanol producers would receive about $2.2 billion for the 4.6 billion gallons produced since Jan. 1. Based on the renewable identification numbers (RINs) generated over the five-month period this year, biodiesel and renewable diesel producer would be compensated with $304 million for the 675million gallons produced.
The HEROES act passed the House on a mostly partisan basis this month and is facing some resistance in the GOP-controlled Senate. Nonetheless, biofuel industry leaders say the aid proposed is critical.
In a joint letter sent to House and Senate leadership, farm and biofuel groups said the reimbursement program is needed , given that “more than 130 biofuel plants have already partially or fully shut down as motor fuel demand plunged to 50-year lows. America’s biofuel plants purchase annually more than one-third of U.S. corn and U.S. soybean oil, and the loss of those markets has depressed farm income and will continue to push corn and soybean prices down dramatically.”
The RFA’s Cooper said the ethanol industry is experiencing the worst economic crisis in its 40-year history, with roughly half of the industry’s capacity offline today. Nearly 70 ethanol plants are completely idled and another 80 facilities are operating well below normal output rates.
“When an ethanol plant shuts down or reduces production, it destabilizes the entire rural economy,” Cooper said. “Jobs are lost, farm commodity demand and prices plummet, supplies of vital co-products like distillers grains and captured CO2 evaporate, and the nation’s drivers are denied lower-cost, cleaner-burning fuel options at the pump.”
Warming Midwest Conditions May Result in Corn,
Soybean Production Moving North
If warming continues unabated in the Midwest, by 2070, the best conditions for corn and soybean production will shift from Iowa and Illinois to Minnesota and the Dakotas, according to Penn State researchers.
The graphic shows the overlay of precipitation and temperature color coded to represent the best locations for corn in 2016 and in a climate scenario representative of 2064 if emissions are not curtailed. The darkest shade of purple is where temperature and precipitation align to provide the best weather for corn – for example, from northern Ohio all the way west through parts of Indiana, Michigan, Illinois and Iowa, among other states. In the projected 2060 panel, the best combination of precipitation and temperature become narrower and move north from current conditions. IMAGE: Kemanian Research Group/Penn State
Using machine learning – a form of artificial intelligence that enables a computer system to learn from data – the team considered more than three decades of county-level, crop-yield data from the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service for 18 states in the central region of the United States. That area produces the majority of these crops.
The researchers evaluated crop yields along with weather data. They considered fundamental climate variables to find yield predictors specific to each of the crop-growing phases. The study also analyzed the relationships between climate and corn, sorghum and soybean grain yield from 1980 to 2016.
“This kind of research was impossible before the era of big data we are living in now, and of course, it can be done only by using the powerful computing capacity that we can access at Penn State,” said researcher Armen Kemanian, associate professor of production systems and modeling in the College of Agricultural Sciences. “This study is important because in a climate that is changing relatively quickly, these techniques allow us to foresee what may happen.”
The findings, published in Environmental Research Letters, do not necessarily mean that the shift north and west in corn and soybean production will occur, said lead researcher Alexis Hoffman, who earned her doctoral degree in meteorology at Penn State in 2018.
But, based on the data, researchers conclude that such a shift is in progress, and that there is a strong probability it will continue.
“We are not suggesting that such a shift would be a catastrophe,” Kemanian said. “It doesn’t mean that Iowa will stop producing crops, but it might mean that Iowa farmers adapt to a warmer climate producing two crops in a year or a different mix of crops instead of the dominant corn-soybean rotation. The changes are likely to be gradual, and farmers and the supply chain should be able to adapt. But things will change.”
The three crops in the study have distinct responses to humidity and temperature, one of the most revealing results of the study, noted Hoffman. In general, corn needs more humidity, sorghum tolerates higher temperatures and soybean is somewhere in between.
In the study, corn exhibited a uniquely strong response of increased yield to increasing atmospheric humidity during its critical phase, from before to after flowering, as well as a strong sensitivity to exposure to extreme temperatures.
For each year during the study period, researchers estimated planting dates for every county, based on county-level temperatures to simulate farmer adaptation to cold or warm years, she said. They estimated that planting occurs once the 21-day moving average rises to a crop-specific threshold temperature. Planting temperatures for corn, sorghum and soybean were 50, 59, and 53.6 degrees Fahrenheit, respectively.
Corn exhibited a uniquely strong response of increased yield to increasing atmospheric humidity during its critical phase, from before to after flowering, as well as a strong sensitivity to exposure to extreme temperatures, Hoffman explained.
“Humidity is a factor for all crops studied, but what the data are telling us is that it is more of a factor for corn than it is for soybean or sorghum, and in a very narrow time window,” she said. “And by humidity, we mean that soils might be moist, but the data is showing that moisture in the air matters, regardless. That wasn’t known before.”
The ears above are from a stand of corn that experienced no water stress. The ears below are from a stand of corn that experienced water stress during flowering. The uneven and shorter ears with aborted kernels are typical of corn under water stress due to dry soil or very dry air – and show how the crop responds to climatic conditions.
However, soybean has a strong response to both maximum and minimum temperatures, she said. “All crops had threshold-like responses to high temperature, though we documented a comparatively greater tolerance to high temperature for sorghum at 90.5 F versus a range of 84.2 to 86 F for corn and soybean. We did not describe that response – machine learning revealed it for us.”
The research may have implications for companies selling crop insurance, Kemanian suggests.
“High-temperature swings are damaging. Learning when and by how much for both corn and soybean is critically important,” he said. “Crop insurance companies have an interest in this because they need to assess the risk of a given stress happening and how much they will pay as a result.”
Chris Forest, professor of climate dynamics in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, and Hoffman’s doctoral degree adviser, was involved in the research. This research builds on earlier work done by Hoffman and the team in sub-Saharan Africa.
The Network for Sustainable Climate Risk Management at Penn State, under a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture supported this research.
Balancing Impacts of Range-shifting Species:
Invasive Disruption vs. Biodiversity Benefits
For many years, the conservation community has embraced the idea that improving connectivity, that is, creating corridors so species can follow their preferred climate, will benefit biodiversity, says Toni Lyn Morelli at the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Climate Adaptation Science Center.
The Southern Pine Beetle is destroying forested ecosystems in New England and New York. Photo courtesy: University of Vermont/Elizabeth Jamison
But, she adds, “I also work with invasive species experts and conservationists who know that new species can be problematic. So, one community is saying yes, species arrivals are good; the other one says species arrivals are bad, and so far they aren’t talking much.”
In a new perspective paper with co-first author Piper Wallingford at the University of California, Irvine, Morelli and other colleagues address that disconnect. Writing in Nature Climate Change, they propose that reconciling these differing views will allow for better management of species that are shifting their ranges because of changing climates.
“This is us saying let’s be thoughtful about this, let’s have a dialogue,” Morelli says. “We’re going against two decades of established wisdom and we expect some pushback, but really any discussion will be helpful. We’re not saying that no species should move around. In fact, most species will have to move to avoid extinctions from climate change. But let’s look at what that means.”
To that end, Morelli, Wallingford and colleagues suggest using a tool like the Environmental Impact Classification of Alien Taxa (EICAT) – developed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature – to assess risk and develop management priorities. They write, “By adapting existing invasion risk assessment frameworks, we can identify characteristics shared with high-impact introductions and thus predict potential impacts.” Further, “Ecological impacts of range-shifting species could be predicted by leveraging knowledge of invasion ecology and existing risk assessments.”
The authors also point out that “with the exception of some problematic species, few studies have assessed the community and ecosystem impacts of species tracking their climate into new areas. The lack of studies on range shift impacts is surprising given that the introduction and spread of new species is often viewed by ecologists through the lens of invasion biology, where the primary concern is the potential for negative impacts on the recipient community.”
They recommend considering the ecological costs and benefits to recipient communities and ecosystem processes. Morelli adds, “If species that would have massive impacts are expected to move, we could know ahead and potentially take steps to stop or slow that.”
Study Shows Wetter Climate Is Likely to Intensify Global Warming
A study recently published in Nature indicates the increase in rainfall forecast by global climate models is likely to hasten the release of carbon dioxide from tropical soils, further intensifying global warming by adding to human emissions of this greenhouse gas into Earth’s atmosphere.
Sediment cores collected from the offshore fan deposited by the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers shows that a shift towards warmer and wetter climate over the last 18,000 years has increased the turnover rate of soils in the drainage basin of the two rivers. Dr. Valier Galy, WHO
Based on analysis of sediments cored from the submarine delta of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, the study was conducted by an international team led by Dr. Christopher Hein of William & Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science.
“We found that shifts toward a warmer and wetter climate in the drainage basin of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers over the last 18,000 years enhanced rates of soil respiration and decreased stocks of soil carbon,” says Hein. “This has direct implications for Earth’s future, as climate change is likely to increase rainfall in tropical regions, further accelerating respiration of soil carbon, and adding even more CO2 to the atmosphere than that directly added by humans.”
Soil respiration refers to release of carbon dioxide by microbes as they decompose and metabolize leaf litter and other organic materials on and just below the ground surface. It’s equivalent to the process in which larger multicellular animals – from snails to humans – exhale CO2 as a byproduct of metabolizing their food. Roots also contribute to soil respiration at night, when photosynthesis shuts down and plants burn some of the carbohydrates they produced during daylight.
The team’s study is based on detailed analysis of three sediment cores collected from the ocean floor seaward of the mouth of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers in Bangladesh. Here, the world’s largest delta and submarine fan were built by the prodigious volume of sediments eroded from the Himalayas. The two rivers carry more than a billion tons of sediment to the Bay of Bengal each year, more than five times that of the Mississippi River.
The cores record the environmental history of the Ganges-Brahmaputra drainage basin during the 18,000 years since the last Ice Age began to wane. By comparing radiocarbon dates of bulk sediment samples from these cores with samples from organic molecules known to be derived directly from land plants, the researchers were able to gauge changes though time in the age of the sediments’ parent soils.
Their results showed a strong correlation between runoff rates and soil age – wetter epochs were associated with younger, rapidly respiring soils; while drier, cooler epochs were linked to older soils capable of storing carbon for longer periods.
The wetter periods themselves correlate with the strength of the Indian summer monsoon, the primary source of precipitation across India, the Himalayas, and south-central Asia. The researchers confirmed changes in monsoon strength using several independent lines of paleoclimatic evidence, including analysis of oxygen-isotope ratios from Chinese cave deposits and the skeletons of open-ocean phytoplankton.
The magnitude of the correlation discovered by Hein and colleagues corresponds to a near doubling in the rate of soil respiration and carbon turnover in the 2,600 years following the end of the last Ice Age, as India’s summer monsoon strengthened.
“We found that a small increase in precipitation values corresponds to a much larger decrease in soil age,” says Hein.