The Impact of Climate Change on Agriculture: In recent years, the U.S. has experienced significant challenges from mother nature. Tragic wildfires, severe droughts, heavy rains, massive flooding, hurricanes, and more have wreaked havoc throughout the states. These environmental threats have ruined crops, harmed livestock, and impacted the livelihoods of Americans from around the country, but especially those in key agricultural regions.
Lately, these natural disasters have taken the news stage due to their intensity and frequency and represent the impacts of a changing climate. Farmers in the United States often bear the brunt of these disasters and feel the impact of climate change especially close to home and in their business bank accounts.
External environmental impacts like those plaguing news headlines as of late pose significant risks to plant and crop health and often stress plants beyond their tolerance limits and can lead to diminished marketable yields. Natural disasters are an obvious cause of plant stress, even to the naked eye. But, did you ever realize that plant stress comes in many other forms, some even invisible to the naked eye?
Plant stress is a state where a plant is growing in non-ideal growth conditions and has increased demands put on it. Plant stress refers to any unfavorable condition or substance that affects a plant’s metabolism, reproduction, root development, or growth. Plant stress can come in different forms and durations. Some plant stressors are naturally occurring, like drought or wind, while others may be the result of human activity, like over irrigation or root disturbance.
Plant stress is caused by a variety of factors, some of which are obvious (like natural disasters), while others occur on a micro scale in the soil. Recent natural disasters represent one type of plant stress factors, called abiotic factors, which usually occur above ground. A second type of plant stress factors are called biotic factors, which mostly occur underground, and can cause plant stress through pathogens and pests.
Abiotic stresses originate from the surrounding environment of the plant. One of the most important abiotic factors affecting plants is water stress. A plant requires a certain amount of water for optimal growth, too much water can cause plant cells to swell and burst, whereas too little water can lead to desiccation. Temperature stresses can also negatively impact a plants growth and livelihood. Cold weather may affect the amount and rate of uptake of water and nutrients, and hot weather can affect the permeability of plant membranes. Abiotic factors come in other forms as well such as wind, toxins, and light.
Biotic stresses can cause damage to plants through living organisms that may cause disease. In agriculture, biotic stresses are most often responsible for pre or post-harvest losses. Soil is filled with fungi and bacteria – 1 teaspoon of soil can hold billions of microorganisms. Just like microorganisms found in humans, some can be beneficial, and others can be detrimental. Healthy soil biological systems showcase an appropriate, harmonious balance between beneficial microorganisms that protect against biotic stresses and detrimental microorganisms – that if not held in check can result in biotic plant stresses. Examples of common biotic plant stress factors include pathogens, insects, and weeds but the exact types of factors depend on the environment and differ from region to region.
Plant stress can be prevented and limited by maintaining a stable soil foundation and optimizing key soil performance characteristics. In farming, gardening, landscaping, and nursery management, soil serves as the foundation for plant quality, beauty, and productivity. So, by optimizing soil health, plants are better able to withstand abiotic and biotic factors.
Soil health can be optimized by implementing management practices that maintain a suitable habitat for the soil microorganisms and that build lasting soil structure. These management practices include disturbing the soil as little as possible (consider reduced or no-till disturbance), growing multiple species of plants, keeping living plants in the soil often, and covering the soil with cover crops. Additionally, amendments can be added to the soil to enhance specific soil properties.
Our biochar-based soil amendment, Cool Terra®, improves key soil performance characteristics and can be used to support the ability of plants to withstand plant stresses. To understand how Cool Terra works, think of a coral reef in the ocean. Just like a coral reef in the ocean provides habitat, structure, and resources for ocean creatures, Cool Terra provides structure in the soil and a beneficial habitat for soil microorganisms.
Cool Terra acts like a coral reef and works to unlock the potential of the soil through three basic mechanisms: physical, chemical, and biological.
The physical mechanisms are designed to enhance the soil structure. Its highly porous, beneficial for water and nutrient holding. It has an expansive surface area which creates free air space in heavy soils and can improve infiltration. And, its water holding capacity improves plant available water and reduces evaporative loss in highly evaporative soils.
Cool Terra’s chemical mechanisms are designed to enhance nutrient efficiency. Its high ion exchange capacity can promote nutrient exchange and availability, holding nutrients in the root zone longer. The porous structure of recalcitrant carbon can delay leaching giving the plant more time to use available nutrients.
The biological mechanisms are designed to support activity in the root zone which can promote a healthy and harmonious microbial environment. The strong and durable cell walls, neutral pH, and pore size distribution provide a microbial habitat than can optimize microbial populations that protect against abiotic and biotic plant stress factors and support efficient nutrient cycling.
Abiotic and biotic plant stress factors will always exist, and climate change may even cause greater plant stress factors in the future. In fact, last month, the Fourth National Climate Assessment, released by the Trump Administration projected the country’s average annual temperature to increase by 2.6 to 8.5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. And, a 2018 landmark report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that there is only a dozen years for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius, beyond which a slight increase will significantly increase the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat, fires, and poverty for millions of people around the world.
Indeed, farmers and land stewards most often bear the brunt of the impact of climate change, but fortunately they are also innovating and implementing soil management practices to enable plants to better withstand abiotic and biotic plant stress factors. On top of that, improving soil health is recognized as a method for mitigating the impacts of climate change. Thanks to agriculture innovation, sustainable land management techniques, and innovative new technologies, the future is bright.