New research from Michigan State University advocates for soil management as a climate mitigation strategy for farmers. The study, published in Nature Communications, aims to address concerns surrounding predictions that the Midwest will need about 35% more water by 2050 in order to maintain current levels of corn and soybean yields.
"The Midwest supplies 30% of the world's corn and soybeans," said Bruno Basso, an ecosystems scientist and MSU Foundation Professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. "These crops are sensitive to temperature and water changes."
More adaptation, not irrigation, is the key takeaway from the study, explain the research team from MSU. The team questions the assertion that the Midwest is in deep trouble unless significant amplification of irrigation is achieved for the area in the coming years. They say that their data analysis suggests that while the Midwest is experiencing hotter daily temperatures, that increase comes from nighttime temperatures. Meanwhile, daily maximum daytime temperatures have actually fallen, according to the trends they studied from a 120-year weather record. That means overall more moisture is in the air.
"Warmer temperatures generally mean that crops need more water, but that doesn't seem to be the case in the Midwest," said Basso. "Because the increase in average temperature comes from higher minimum temperatures -- the temperature at which dew is formed -- this means that the air is also becoming more humid."
Their computer models show that because of this phenomenon, in recent years potential crop water demand has stayed relatively unchanged warming temperatures. Their simulations for future years showed that water demand will likely continue to remain the same or only increase by an average of 2.5%. But, they warn, droughts will undoubtedly become more frequent.
That’s why the researchers recommend that farmers invest in technology and regenerative soil practices that have the goal of increasing plants’ resiliency and adaptability. "As we continue to learn more about weather and its increased variability, farmers need to adapt, which they are starting to do," Basso said. "I feel optimistic that with the progress made in regenerative practices, genetics, and digital technology solutions, we can adapt to climate and have a better chance of winning this battle against our own previous mistakes."