The changing planet and the future of farming

The changing future of farming brings challenges. Research team describes an urgent need for better predictive models of climate change. Professor says science needs to better measure the many global changes that have taken place in recent years.

Political persuasion aside, it’s not much of a stretch for most farmers to agree with science that the planet’s climate is ever evolving. Periods of global cooling and global warming have been around for a long, long time, and while we have no idea how long each stage of climate might hang around before changing again, we are trying to get better at predicting it.

On June 7 Anthony Barnosky, professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and Co-author Elizabeth Hadly from Stanford University, published a review paper in the journal Nature, that details the work and the conclusions of a team of 22 scientists concerning changes to agriculture, fisheries, forest products, and clean water by the end of the century. The new Nature issue is devoted to the environment in advance of the June 20-22 United Nations Rio+20 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

And the picture is not pretty.

In an article published in ScienceDaily June 6, the team, consisting of biologists, ecologists, complex-systems theoreticians, geologists and paleontologists from the United States, Canada, South America and Europe, describe an urgent need for better predictive models of climate change that are based on a detailed understanding of how the biosphere reacted in the distant past to rapidly changing conditions, including climate and human population growth.

Barnosky says science needs to better measure the many global changes that have taken place in recent years, and he suggests that by the end of the century there could be a reduction in biodiversity worldwide and severe impacts could take place that would affect much of what we depend on to sustain our quality of life. He says more detailed information is needed as soon as possible. Barnosky and team are recommending the development of a complete biological forecast that could help predict correctly the impact of the coming changes. This information, he says, could be used to help us plan for such a future and give us time to work on developing solutions to help the growing burden on natural resources.

Better models needed

"Better predictive models will lead to better decisions in terms of protecting the natural resources future generations will rely on for quality of life and prosperity," Barnosky said.

The team suggests climate changes that will occur in the years ahead will bring many changes to the biosphere, taxing local resources and threatening changes in socio-economic conditions around the world.

“We need to understand how plants and animals responded to major shifts in the atmosphere, oceans and climate in the past, so that scientists can improve their forecasts and policy makers can take the steps necessary to either mitigate or adapt to changes that may be inevitable," Barnosky said. “The result of such a major shift in the biosphere would be mixed with some plant and animal species disappearing, new mixes of remaining species, and major disruptions in terms of which agricultural crops can grow where.”

Scientists say currently, to support a population of 7 billion people, about 43 percent of Earth's land surface has been converted to agricultural or urban use, with roads cutting through much of the remainder. The population is expected to rise to 9 billion by 2045; at that rate, current trends suggest that half of Earth's land surface will be disturbed by 2025. To Barnosky, this is disturbingly close to what he calls a global “tipping point.”

The Berkeley Initiative in Global Change Biology, or BiGCB, is a massive undertaking involving more than 100 UC Berkeley scientists from an extraordinary range of disciplines that already has received funding. According to Berkeley officials, the type of work being recommended in the paper is currently underway.

"UC Berkeley is uniquely positioned to conduct this sort of complex, multi-disciplinary research," Graham Fleming, UC Berkeley's vice chancellor for research said in the ScienceDaily interview. "Our world-class museums hold a treasure trove of biological specimens dating back many millennia that tell the story of how our planet has reacted to climate change in the past.”

Fleming says a distinguished faculty will employ every effort to better predict the changes and impact expected when the planet reaches its tipping point.