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Researchers look to solve food production challenges due to climate change

Lettuce Outbreak
Posted at 6:28 AM, May 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-04 11:22:47-04

YUMA, AZ — Researchers say climate change is posing significant challenges for farmers across the country and could have an impact on food production in years to come.

FULL SECTION: Read more about how climate change is affecting our communities, what it all means, and what we can all do to help

Former Deputy Secretary and Chief Operating Officer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan says at the local level, drought and wildfires are the most significant threats to Arizona ranchers.

“We were trying to do soil samples to see how their soil is on their ranch and they’re like, 'well you know, half of our ranch was destroyed by fire,'” she said. “We’ve had people severely impacted by that.”

RELATED: Get ready for a busy year fighting wildfires, experts in Arizona warn

To see what other challenges farmers across the state are facing due to changing weather patterns, ABC15 traveled to Yuma, Arizona. The southwest city is known as the lettuce capital of the world, and according to the Yuma Chamber of Commerce, is responsible for 90% of the leafy greens distributed in the United States.

At the University of Arizona's Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture, researchers are looking for solutions to the ever-changing climate. The center is a land laboratory that helps farmers overcome problems in the field.

"When the climate changes, it causes impacts to the crops," said Paul Brierley, the executive director of the center.

In the past decade or so, Brierley says farmers have experienced the water shortage on the Colorado River firsthand. But with new technology, researchers have found ways to measure exactly how much water to use so it doesn't go to waste. It's a process he calls, "more crop for drop."

RELATED: Arizona's water supply could be impacted by continued drought conditions

"How much water do you need to grow this crop? How much should you water next Thursday?" Brierley said. "We're working to make those kinds of recommendations. So based on the weather, based on the soil, based on the crop, exactly what do they need to apply?"

He says a changing climate has also brought new insects to farm fields, which could potentially damage crops.

"The farmers will bring this into the researchers here at the University of Arizona and they say, 'I don’t know what this is. I’m having a problem in my field,' and so they’ll try to figure out what it is," Brierley said.

Brierley says the research they're doing is important because it helps keep the food you buy safe.

“It allows the farmers to be more productive to feed the world,” Brierley said.

It's also something agricultural companies, like JV Farms, are watching closely.

"We collaborate with universities especially on research with food safety because we're always looking for a way to improve," said Food Safety Director for JV Farms Fatima Corona.

But the impacts of climate change go beyond Yuma.

Merrigan, who serves as the executive director of ASU’s Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems, says one of the biggest concerns in the Midwest is the loss of topsoil, which keeps crops rich with nutrients. A recent report by the National Academy of Sciences states the U.S. risks running out of topsoil by 2030. Nearly $3 billion worth of corn and soybean crops are lost a year because of this, according to the Yale School of Environment.

"It's just generally a global threat for agriculture production and food supply," Merrigan said. "One of the things that we work on in organic agriculture is trying to find farming methods that preserve soil and increase that soil organic matter that is so important to healthy crops."

RELATED: Arizona wine growers working to adapt to changing climate

Merrigan says the beef and dairy industry are also contributors to methane gas, which is one of the more lethal gases among greenhouse gases.

"There's a need to either find ways to innovate, to reduce those greenhouse gases. One way is how we feed cattle," she said. "And then there's just the overall question about, do we need to eat as much meat as we do?"

Because of the challenges ahead, Merrigan says the consumer could see price increases and other changes on store shelves in years to come.

"They may see switch-outs in some of the things that they're used to buying," she said. "Over time, farmers may switch out for hardier crops that meet the new climate conditions where they grow and ranchers may switch out the breeds of animals that they raise that fit the climatic conditions as they shift."