Current Progressive Dairy digital edition
Advertisement

The View from Here: Tsunamis and changing weather

Mike Gangwer Published on 25 April 2011
Tsunamis skyshot

The recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan is heartwrenching. The enormous power of water is captured in multiple videos and photography.

One telling video shows the power of water overcoming everything in its path on the very limited farmland, the disappearing hoop structures and barns and buildings, now gone.

advertisement

advertisement

I was in Narita, Japan, over 20 years ago and watched women tend to vegetable crops growing on every square meter of land available. In farm fields just like the ones that are now years away from productivity.

Here is my point: These kinds of superevents change the entire cropping system in a matter of minutes. While the total land base affected in northern Japan is minimal, nevertheless, given the need to grow food and feed for the future, these events can result in tactical tipping points of food insecurity.

Over the course of a growing season, a drought or a wet season drags down yields from an expected potential. We saw this last year in Russia (wheat) and this year (all crops) in China. In both locations, dry years have stunted crop production and one outcome is higher food prices.

Further, the entire climate change model is shifting agricultural production toward change. We do not notice these subtle changes in the Midwestern corn and soybean belt, but in our country’s southern regions, drier-than-normal conditions will challenge our farmers to maintain crop yields.

The effects of changing weather are progressive and slow, unlike the tsunami event in Japan.

advertisement

Taken as a whole, the case can be made for a thorough review of our entire global food and feed-producing model. I have written about this model before on these pages.

Recently, I suggested we identify our Class I and II soils in the rainfed system, wherever located on planet Earth, and really give some serious thought about protecting them. Protection includes manmade development and resource conservation.

For instance, during my recent assignment in Pakistan, the most fertile farmland in the Central Asia region (the Indus River Basin) was slowly marching towards degradation from salinization, the application of heavy metals from untreated human sewerage, building construction and water erosion from summer monsoon rainfall events that have been more intense these last few years.

In this region sits India, heavily using non-sustainable aquifer water for irrigation. China resorts to overt fertilizer applications that end up causing nutrient runoff into surface waters.

So, here we are, with three large and heavily populated countries that have large production challenges. On the one hand they must feed their people; on the other they must balance resources and sustainability with demand.

I suggest there are two other important strategic goals that we should work toward, in addition to land use decisions.

advertisement

Our soils feed us, and to make sure our soils remain healthy and productive, implanting conservation practices that build soil organic matter and fertility capacity are essential. The sequestering of soil carbon, the increase in cation exchange capacity, the better nutrient turnover rate of a healthier soil biologic tilth system are all beneficial towards long-term soil health.

In much of the world, the soil organic content is well below 1 percent. These soils lack water-holding and nutrient-adsorbing capacity, which limit crop yield even if nutrients are applied.

Further, we must elevate soil fertility monitoring to its level of importance. I have visited too many places where soil fertility was measured decades ago; nutrients (urea and diammonium phosphate, for instance) are added given the law of primacy rather than every crop year.

I strongly believe every crop field should have a soil fertility analysis done every year. Soil fertility analysis is an investment, not a cost.

In summary, adopting practices that will improve soil biologic properties and then annual soil fertility monitoring will help us make the tactical and strategic adjustments necessary for soil health.

Secondly, the application of water on crop fields can be significantly improved. I am not suggesting a change to drip or center pivot irrigation as the primary improvement – rather, irrigation water management that is done at the field level through irrigation scheduling.

The simple components of knowing the volume, the rate and the timing of water applied to crop fields will help farmers beneficially use water (for transpiration through the plant). In every country, regardless of installed irrigation system, the need for scheduling water application is one of the most important requirements.

Look to India and Pakistan as an example. Most of what is grown in these two side-by-side countries is done using irrigation. In both, there is a lot of improvement potential for utilizing water beneficially, with a gain in crop yield and food quality as well.

Food production and the cost of food are appearing in the popular press in spite of the singular events happening now in Japan. And we have seen photographs of empty stores in Japan and the food shelves are emptied first.

But from my perspective, the real news is the slow, year-by-year changes in storm patterns and intensity, warming temperatures and the land use decisions that slowly, over time, remove our best soils from agricultural production.

It seems to me that we already know enough to change our global food production system. Adjusting to climate change using accepted soil management practices of soils as carbon sinks, soils with increased soil organic matter and soils that are monitored for soil fertility, can protect and rebuild some of our depleted soils in much of the world.

Adjusting our irrigation practices by implementing irrigation scheduling will help farmers beneficially use water across the entire globe, but especially in water-stressed regions … including the western United States.

And then, coming back to the first item … protecting our most valuable soils in the rainfed system is of prime importance.

As I traveled outside Islamabad, Pakistan, recently and watched recent alluvial soils (these are loamy soils) with new construction, I thought of the same thing that I watch taking place in the Midwestern U.S., a lack of land use laws that place food and feed production at the top of the land use hierarchy.

This day will come … and when it does, civilization will know that our most valuable resources, soil and water, are just too important to mismanage and squander.

The case I am making is that this knowledge must be done on a global scale. For what happens in China or India or Russia or anywhere else for that matter, does have an impact on our global food production system.

I submit we need to elevate this discussion to our policy makers right now, and not wait until multiple large-scale events occur at the same time. PD

PHOTO: The town of Minamisanriku is submerged after the strong earthquake-triggered tsunami in Miyagi prefecture, northern Japan. Photo by richwebnews.

  • Mike Gangwer

  • Agricultural Scientist
  • USDA-NRCS
  • Email Mike Gangwer

LATEST BLOG

LATEST NEWS