I was interviewed for the article “The Megadrought is Just One Factor Driving Up the Price of Your Bread” in The Counter that will give you a sense of what wheat growers and users in the US are dealing with, in addition to what I wrote in my post ‘2021 Harvest Outlook.’
What is missing from the dominant narrative about the drought in relation to climate change is what might happen next, and that change can happen soon–sooner than we think, which is the story of climate denial and inaction. There’s coverage of the aridity of the megadrought and how it lends to fires. The lightning storm and humid elements are left out, which point to a more complicated environment ahead. I brought up some of this in my response to the journalist’s follow-up question to my interview:
Journalist: If the megadrought (drought conditions+extreme heat from climate change) continues year after year, is it accurate to say that even the drought-resistant strains you’ve bred wouldn’t be able to survive without intervention in the form of irrigation?
When we arrive at a Mad Max scenario, yes, irrigation will likely be needed.
What we’ve seen so far and is projected to continue for in my region are intense winter storms (short periods of heavy rain) followed by warm, dry periods, and then little spring rain. We need to capture whatever water we get, and that can be achieved in the field by increasing soil organic matter. To do so, we need: policies that promote on-farm composting, municipal and industrial infrastructure to turn green waste into quality compost and distributed equitably to farmers, subsidies for diversified production systems from farm to table, programs that connect shepherds with farmers (and wildlands) to rotate animals for reducing fuel loads and turning them into nutrients, tools that reduce tillage, and compensating Indigenous land stewards and BIPOC agroecological practitioners in sharing their methods. In the bigger picture, we need to densify where people already live and stop developing on farm and wild lands that provide critical surface area for storing water and, of course, stopping climate change.
Building soil organic matter both increases our water storage capacity and plant-available nutrients, the latter of which is often left out of the drought and climate change conversations. Studies have shown that grains lose nutrients in high atmospheric carbon conditions (i.e. climate change), and our current global trajectory is increasing atmospheric carbon. Another reason why plants are likely to lose nutrients is that our skies are increasingly grey with cloud cover because heat volatilizes water, suspending it in the air, and increased wildfires send up more cloud condensation nuclei that seeds thicker, sunlight-blocking atmospheric moisture. Without full-spectrum light plants will have insufficient energy to photosynthesize, meaning they won’t produce building sugars (building blocks for the plants) or oxygen for us aerobic animals. They’ll need whatever nutrients they can get from the soil. From a human standpoint, this will make whole grains even more important–we won’t want to let go of any nutrients.
Under the projected scenarios of post-extreme heat that we’ll live in a dark, moist, warm world, the prolonged atmospheric moisture will breed disease, mold, and rot that threatens wheat. We may need to increase hulled varieties, which means we need better dehulling equipment because currently the standard return rate is about 15%–put in 100 lbs, get 15 lbs back.
Going back to irrigation, though, salient issues are 1) Northern California’s water is toxic because of the wildfires
that burned synthetics and human-made products that leached into the water, so more wildfires mean likely more toxic water and 2) extreme heat has caused power outages, which turns off water pumps. Thus, water from pipes and pumping pose their own issues, and points to why soil organic matter is key to retaining water in the field.