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Drought-Fighting Technologies Won’t Save Farmers From Climate Change

Drought-tolerant corn can grow a decent crop in dry years, like this Syngenta hybrid in 2012.

The tools and technologies that farmers use to get a decent corn crop during drought years should not leave the impression that innovation will make bad weather inconsequential. That’s the conclusion of a new study about corn and climate change. 

David Lobell, a Stanford University professor of earth system science, led a study that looked at corn crops across nine states during the past two decades. He says drought-tolerant seeds and soil management practices that improve moisture retention are important, but often people misinterpret relatively successful drought-year crops. 

“What we’ve seen with new technologies is that more than anything they help you take advantage of good weather,” he says. “And so we can’t look to technologies to save us from bad weather.”

When people compare a corn yield during a recent drought to how badly yields dropped during a drought decades ago, Lobell says they’re missing an important point. Current yields with average weather are much higher than they were decades ago. 

“People will often point to how much better we did in recent droughts as compared to droughts 20 or 30 years ago. And they point to that as a reason that there’s really not that much to worry about with climate change because new technologies are so much better in these adverse conditions,” he says. But a decent drought year, compared to a historic drought, doesn’t mean farmers are better equipped to deal with climate change. 

“The upshot here is, if you don’t appreciate that distinction, you can really underestimate how much harm droughts are doing.” 

Lobell says there’s no real debate over the question of whether technological improvements are a good thing. 

“The debate really is about whether this technology is reducing the need to worry about climate change,” he says.

And his answer is that unless climate change mitigation efforts, both on the farm and far from it, start to bring down the frequency and severity of drought, it may become impossible for technology to keep up. 

Lobell and his colleagues primarily relied on satellite images of cornfields to develop their model, though they used other existing datasets to cross-check their estimates for accuracy. Historically, Lobell says county-level yield data has been available for researchers, but the process of requesting it from the U.S. Department of Agriculture has grown more onerous over the past five or six years. 

“It’s something that I think could potentially be opened up, especially if the government is wanting to encourage a better understanding of how farmers are adapting and how they might better adapt to climate change.”

Harvest Public Media

Harvest Public Media

Harvest Public Media reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues through a collaborative network of reporters and partner stations throughout the Midwest and Plains.

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