Climate, Change, and the Thin Green Line

Our job is to predict the future, so your family can eat.

As a molecular biologist, I take a lot of heat when I write about the subject of climate. Look at my Twitter feed. Friends, followers and flunkies all let me have it with both barrels, “Stick to plants, you’re not a climate scientist!” and “Just because you are an expert in one area of science does not make you an expert in everything.”

Of course, none of the friends, followers and flunkies relegating me to a microcosm of science are scientists themselves, let alone climate scholars. It is the mere fact that I dip a toe into the acidic hot broth of climate change that offends their sensibilities.

But I have good reason to wiggle my little piggies in the climate arena. The first obvious defense is that I’m trained in the scientific method, statistics, and experimental design. I know how to interpret a scientific work, even if it is not in my direct field of expertise. Most of all, I can humbly admit when I have no damn idea and consult someone that does.

But the second defense is the most important. Here is the reality. If I’m going to lead efforts in plant genetic improvement or methods to enhance plant production — I have to understand climate trajectory.

It is no secret. Canada has three more growing weeks than they did in the 1950’s. The crops they can grow are different from decades ago, usually for the benefit of the Canadian farmer. Other regions suffer. In the southern regions of the USA tree crops like peaches do not receive adequate chilling in order to flower and set abundant fruit. Across the board new pests and pathogens enjoy a greater range and less winter kill. This new reality is part of agriculture, and a reality those of us serving agriculture need to embrace and analyze. If we do not intimately understand, predict, and plan for agriculture’s future canvas we are failing our farmers.

We live in a time of unprecedented, rapid change. However, breeding new plant varieties takes time, and it cannot keep pace with demand for adaptation. A new tomato or strawberry variety takes seven to ten years to develop. A new blueberry or melon variety, fifteen years. A new apple or citrus variety, 30 years. Inventing tomorrow’s fruit and vegetable crops takes time, so developing the next-best varieties means predicting future conditions where those new varieties will thrive. Yikes.

The glacial pace of conventional genetic improvement is why so many find value in genetic engineering. Whether it is adding or suppressing a gene using transgenic methods (the stuff we think of as “GMO”) or the newest gene editing techniques, scientists can create the precise modifications to make plants more tolerant to impending stresses by tweaking a gene or two, in a year or two. Yet regulatory hurdles strangle speed to application.

The major emphasis must be the continued improvement of foundational varieties by conventional breeding. But again, how do you design a plant for a climate and context you can’t predict? Plant resilience is complex, and our best efforts to feed the future must consider the agricultural theatre where the plants will asked to perform.

I believe this is a significant threat to food security. Nobody has a crystal ball. In a world of rapid, unprecedented change, it is incredibly difficult to hit a moving target, especially when nobody can predict how fast the target is moving, or if the rate of change is increasing or decreasing. We simply need to guess where climate will be when hungry mouths are asking for something to eat.

This is why plant innovators depend on the respected syntheses of the credible climate change literature. This is why we rely on experts from the National Academies of Science, and follow scholars that debate the magnitude and time course of change, and ignore the politicians that claim the thermometers are mass-produced Chinese propaganda, serving to only propagate the hoax. 
 So friends, followers and flunkies, give me a break. It is my job to consider the backdrop of farming’s future, as our efforts in genetics and production must be agile and adaptable if we are going to continue to serve farmers and families. Next time I annoy you by suggesting that I’m watching the trends and am planning for a warmer future, keep in mind that I’m thinking of farmers, and the thin green line that separates you and your family from food scarcity.