The links between food, water, and climate change

By 2030, the gap between global water supply and demand is projected to be 40%, with much of the excess need due to agriculture. World population is projected to reach 10 billion by 2050, demanding greater yields in crop productivity than the current trends project. The water problem and the food problem are both occurring against the backdrop of global climate change, which exacerbates both problems and demands radical new approaches to solve these problems because of the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

This unholy trio of factors was highlighted in a talk by Sir John Beddington, UK Chief Scientific Adviser, at the UK Plant Sciences 2012 meeting, which he used as a point of departure for discussing the vital need for plant science research. If I had to boil down his talk into a concise summary, it would be that we need to produce more food with less greenhouse gas emission and less water on the same acreage within the next two decades. Of course none of this is news, but this talk brings all the pieces together in a single place nicely.┬áIn addition to pointing out the dangerous position humanity is in, Beddington suggests a few areas of plant science research that could address some of these issues. The rest of the conference was presumably concerned with a more detailed look at solutions, from what I can glean from the list of titles available. I’m embedding the video below and plan to write more about the areas of plant science involved in the future.

Flowering out of sync

image of pear flowers
All dressed up, but nobody's coming over. This pear's pollinators are not showing up.
As you may have noticed if you live around here, spring came really early this year. In fact, winter barely came at all, so spring has kind of been brewing since late February. But temps were in the 80’s several days this week, so spring seemed to arrive for real this week. Our silver maple began flowering a couple weeks ago, and this week our two Cleveland Select pears burst into flower. As I was walking past/under the trees, holding my breath to avoid the rank odor they emit, I noticed something unexpected. Actually, what I noticed was nothing: there was not the usual cloud of tiny flying things around the flower clusters. I’ve now spent ten or so minutes each day over the last three days observing the flowers, and I’ve counted a grand total of 3 insects.

Let me acknowledge that I am not an expert in pollinator interactions, not by a long shot. [Note: for a real treat on these kinds of natural history and phenology topics, you should read Rebecca in the Woods.] It could well be that I’m just there watching at the wrong time of day, or mis-remembering past years’ pollinators, but I don’t think so. I think what I’m observing is a plant flowering far earlier than usual due to above-average temperatures. Meanwhile, its usual pollinators aren’t yet active. I think we can probably add this to the list of unexpected results of global climate change. In our case, I’m excited at the prospect of this tree not producing fruits — they’re messy and kind of a pain. But imagine if this were a fruit tree, or a whole orchard of fruit trees with no pollinators. Yikes.