Sustainability of Crops

Despite the attempt to increase the productivity of crops through modern agricultural techniques, a recent study found that crop yield has not been rising at a sufficient pace to meet the projected demand by 2050. The study analyzes the historical improvements in crop yields for corn, rice, wheat and soybeans. The solid lines in the graph below show that growth has been growing at a consistent rate over that past few years. However, they also show what would happen if this growth rate continues, which is a rate that is unsustainable. The dashed lines show how productivity would need to grow even more rapidly in order to satisfy the expected demand in 2050, essentially doubling global food production.

This additional wheat production graph below shows that crop productivity is not the same across the world and is actually stagnating. In the U.S. Midwest, wheat yields per acre have been rising at a 2 percent per year. But in parts of India or Eastern Europe, they’ve basically flat-lined. It is assumed that the countries experiencing this are simply not using their resources such as fertilizers properly. However, on the other hand, some parts of the world are hitting a “biological wall,” a limit on how much yields can keep rising. Even with genetic modification and better technology, there are physiological limits for plants. This in combination with the effects of global warming such as extreme heat waves that can affect crop yield are quite terrifying when considering our future. The current population of about 7 billion is projected to rise to 9.6 billion in 2050 suggesting that our crop yields will not be sustainable. Essentially, we are not growing enough to feed the world.


Water Consumption of Idaho Potatoes

Most of you have probably never been, or even wanted to go to Idaho. Probably the most random state in the US, we have one thing that we are known for. This thing is so popular, in fact, that we emblazon it on our license plates! Idaho is loud and proud about our potatoes. And yes, before you laugh, there is other stuff to do there too, but potato production is the pride of the Gem State. On a more analytical level, the potato production out of Idaho alone accounts for $1.9 Billion dollars a year of profit for the state. Idaho produces more potatoes per year than any other state, with 62% being used for processed/ dehydrated foods (such as McDonald’s french fries), 29% are shipped fresh and 9% are planted for certified seed. 310,000 acres of land in Idaho are dedicated to the growth and harvest of potatoes. Last year alone, Idaho produced 134,850 cwt of potatoes. 1cwt = 112 pounds. So that means that last year, Idaho produced 15,103,200 pounds of potatoes. The average weight of one russet burbank potato (which is the most commonly produced type of potato in Idaho) is 5-7 oz. So basically, that’s a whole lot of potatoes.

As far as water is concerned, this level of growth places constant stress on the environment. Most of Idaho is high desert, which means that it is in a state of perpetual drought. An average of 34 gallons of water is required to grow just one pound of potatoes. So if we are to estimate how much water was used to grow Idaho’s potatoes last year, that figure sits somewhere in the ballpark of 513,508,800 gallons. (However, it was probably more because the number of pounds of potatoes produced, does not account for the potatoes that went bad or were contaminated in the growing process). All in all, this is a huge amount of water being used by only one state for only one crop. While the Idaho potato industry may be lucrative and historic for the state, it is not environmentally conscious nor is it sustainable at this rate.

How much water is in a glass of wine?

It takes 872 gallons of water to produce 1 gallon of wine. Scaled down, it takes about 34 gallons of water for a 5 fluid ounces of wine, according to Huffington Post. But how is this even possible? How come it takes so much water to make wine? What is drought-stricken California doing to conserve water while remaining one of the largest winemaking regions in the world? The water consumption required to cultivate wine includes water used on the vines, water used in the winery and rainwater (crops consume the rainwater). The grapes for the wine require constant irrigation especially in drought-stricken areas such as California and parts of the Mediterranean region. It is important to note that wine grapes require about one-third of the amount of water used to grow almonds, so I guess we should all drink less almond milk and more wine? In the winery, the water use is mostly focused on sanitation. The barrels, tanks, presses and crushers are cleaned and disinfected after every. single. use. Even if the the equipment will be used to make the same type of wine. Wineries are, however, working to use less water. Many wineries, especially in France where crop irrigation is legally regimented, have converted to drip irrigation and today’s advanced technology allows for hoses that can sense when to turn off. Many wineries have adopted onsite water treatment systems so all that water used to clean the equipment can be recycled at the winery. I think it’s safe to say that wine will continue to be consumed all around the world but sustainable technologies and practices must be adopted in order to drink wine guilt free.

Drip Irrigation on a Spanish vineyard. Photo found on:

Rising Levels of Carbon Dioxide Could Both Hurt and Help Crops

The crops that are grown globally, and sustain close to 4.5 billion people worldwide, are wheat, maize, rice, and soybeans. With these crops sustaining more than half of the world’s population, how are they not apart of the bigger conversation surrounding the rising levels of carbon dioxide?

In an article by Samson Reiny, published on NASA’s website, he discusses the fact that rising levels of carbon dioxide could both, simultaneously, help and harm the four crops listed above. He makes the argument that, so far, climate prediction models have only taken into account the effect that carbon dioxide will have on yields and not the effect they have on water efficiency, and even then are only measuring temperate climates. He reports on a simulation conducted by a Delphine Deryng in which the yields and evapotranspiration were manipulated to “to estimate crop water productivity” by using a measurement of yield that was produced per unit of water. In total, there were 30 simulations, six of which were using data from “five different global climate models” which assumed the carbon dioxide levels that were reported in 2000 had doubled by 2080. Another simulation models used assumed that the carbon dioxide levels had remained stagnant since 2000.

The simulation crops that operated at the 2000 carbon dioxide levels the yields suffered dramatically. However, with the doubled carbon dioxide levels predicted at 2080 both yields and water efficiency had a dramatic increase. These increases, however, depend upon regions and whether the crops were irrigated or rain fed. For example, Reiny discusses maize in terms of losses with the doubled carbon dioxide, due to the crop’s already efficiency of photosynthesis, maize would yield 15% less in areas using irrigation and 8% in rain fed areas. However, these losses would close to double without the doubling of carbon dioxide in the simulation, and the assumed doubling of carbon dioxide since 2000 would reveal that wheat would show crop yield increases “across the board”. These yields would be 8% increased with a 50% increase in water efficiency in rain fed areas.

Essentially, there needs to be far more research done about carbon dioxide and its effects, but the four most globally powerful crops need to be apart of that conversation. Through these simulations there has been discovered that a lot more research has yet to be done on the effect of carbon dioxide on these crops, but more so in developing countries that tend to have drier and more arid climates instead of the temperate climates of the west. Our climate models, and models for how we plan to feed future generations, need to include the countries that are not apart of the western hemisphere. How would any climate or environmental model be accurate if we exclude them?


Agriculture and Climate Change

Agriculture has been the main means of survival for humans for centuries. The age of hunter-gatherers is ancient history. Societies all over the globe have been built and destroyed over the resources that are yielded due to the development of agriculture and agricultural technology. Because agriculture involves utilizing a small area relative to the number of crops grown or livestock raised on it, it means that farmers and ranchers are able to produce a high volume of what they are producing in a concentrated area. However, the world has been facing an agricultural crisis in the last millennium due to exponential population growth and a vast reduction in arable farmland. This means that the demand for milk, eggs, crops, meat, etc.. is rising, but the area in which these resources are produced is shrinking. The United Nations Department of Economic and Social affairs reported a projection that the world population will reach 9.7 billion people by the year 2050. But what does that mean for the future of agriculture? Well, modern scientists have already started to come up with solutions to these issues; many of which may sound familiar. Factory farming, genetically modified foods, pesticides and artificial growth hormone and antibiotic cocktails for animals are only a few ways that agriculture has been permeated by modern technology. Unfortunately, many of these technological ‘advances’ have been catastrophic for the earth. Factory farms produce incredible amounts of CO2 and CH4 and they pollute soil, ground water and air quality. The sick animals that they raise on artificial hormones and antibiotics are then fed to humans which makes us, by default, sicker as well. The plants, such as soybeans, produced by companies like Monsanto, are so altered and sprayed with chemicals that they are de facto stripped of their nutritional value.

In the same UN/DESA study, it is projected that the yield of staple grains like wheat and corn will decrease by 50% due to the effects of global warming. Imagine that: 35 years from now, we will probably have only half the number of grains and corn that we have now because of climate change. Less arable land means fewer farms, which leads to higher prices and lower production. Agriculture, and the deforestation that is needed to create farmland, is responsible for 1/5th or 21% of all CO2 emissions in the world, between 2000 and 2010. The total estimate of CO2 emissions from agriculture in this decade was approximately 44 billion metric tonnes. Anthropic climate change is killing agriculture, but the deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions from farms is one of the single largest causes of climate change in the world. So is agriculture good or bad? The simple answer is both or neither, whichever way you choose to look at it.

You can read the whole article here.

Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Increases

In reading an article from the Scientific American, I have learned that for the past five years, Carbon Dioxide levels in the atmosphere have increased at a rate of at least 2 parts per million, which is an “all time high” according to author Scott Waldman. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been keeping a close watch on increasing Carbon Dioxide atmospheric levels due to the intense environmental threat increases in CO2 levels pose. Pieter Tans is a lead scientist at the NOAA’s Global Greenhouse Gas Reference Network, and he is especially concerned at the rate of the increases of CO2 in our atmosphere, “The rate of CO2 growth over the last decade is 100 to 200 times faster than what the Earth experienced during the transition from the last ice age,” Tans said. “This is a real shock to the atmosphere” (Waldman 2017). Why the concern? High levels of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere can cause sea levels to rise, increase the existence of droughts, extreme weather including hurricanes, blizzards, and more. Outside of this article, I see my own concerns for rising CO2 levels in our atmosphere. A direct impact on all living things on this planet by the extreme weather is our ability to grow food. As the environment changes and becomes more hostile, it is also much more difficult for agricultural endeavors to thrive. This will end up causing food shortages and disastrous effects on all living creatures as well as the economy. Action must be taken to reduce Carbon Dioxide emissions and Carbon Dioxide levels in the atmosphere so that life can continue to thrive on Earth.

Link to article here.


Carbon Dioxide and its’ Effect on Agriculture

Although living organisms emit carbon dioxide (CO2), in this context it is considered as a pollutant. For this specific context, CO2 is defined also as the modes of transportation, the use of power plants, factories and so on. And as industries are expanding, more of the gaseous CO2 is being released resulting in an increased overall atmospheric temperature in addition to affecting the growth of agriculture.

Furthermore, plants need CO2 to survive. One way in which this process is completed is by taking advantage of photosynthesis. In a study completed by researcher, Elliot Campbell, data found that over the past decade, humans have contributed to the identified increase in photosynthesis. This increase of photosynthesis has been at a rate of 30%.  At first, the results overall suggested that with increased amounts of carbon dioxide present, there will be an increase in crop abundance, which therefore benefits the farmers.

But, the results are not as simple as they may sound. Increased amounts of photosynthesis does not translate to a direct increase in produce. Other influential factors of agricultural growth are due to the advancements of seed variants, irrigation systems and fertilizers. Surprisingly, research has found that more CO2 can make plants less nutritious. With an increased presence of CO2 it has been found that plants contain lower concentrations of  important nutrients such as potassium, nitrogen and copper. Higher rates of carbon dioxide also result in a faster rate in which microbes take up nutrients. This acceleration in microbe action prevents the plants from taking up valuable nutrients through their roots. The lack of nutrients further can make humans more vulnerable for diseases including pneumonia and malaria. Furthermore, increased carbon dioxide levels have also influence the concentrations of iron. Iron is a crucial in helping pump oxygen throughout the body.  This research suggests that the “rate of iron deficiency” will increase from 21% to 27% in the next 10 years. 

            There needs to be an increase in awareness and communication about how to decrease an individuals’ carbon footprint. Our own use of fossil fuels decreases the nutrient value in our produce and weakens our immune system.