I wrote a story about the future of crop science that's printed in the June issue of Popular Science. When I was doing the research, the big question I wanted to ask was this: "How can we take the most important agricultural crops and make them more sustainable and adapted to climate change?"
I suppose there are a lot of ways to define "most important", but I went with the crops that feed the most people. Wheat, rice, and corn account for more than 50% of all the calories consumed on Earth. So those are the plants I looked at. And that's where I ran into a surprise. Scientists had some really interesting, concrete suggestions for how to prepare wheat and rice for a changing world. But with corn, they took a different tack. Basically, the scientists said the best thing to do with corn was use less corn.
Large yields and high calorie content have made corn the most popular and most heavily subsidized crop in America. That’s an increasingly urgent problem. In 2010, corn production consumed nine million tons of fertilizer and led to greenhouse-gas emissions equivalent to 42 million tons of CO2—and corn isn’t even something we can easily eat. “The digestibility of unprocessed corn to humans isn’t very high,” says Jerry Hatfield, a plant physiologist with the USDA. “We have to put it through processing of some sort, whether that happens in a factory or an animal.” Set those problems aside, and a deal-breaker remains: modern corn is more sensitive to heat than any other major crop, and attempts to create drought- and heat-resistant corn through genetic modification are still unproven. A recent study found that a 3.6°F increase in global temperatures could make corn prices twice as volatile.
All of which is why many experts advocate replacing corn with a portfolio of hardier, more nutritious and more efficient food sources. Wheat production generates less than half the fossil-fuel emissions of corn and returns 63 percent more protein. Other crops actually give back to the land. Chickpeas and peanuts contain twice as much protein as corn, and they increase the nutrient content of soil.
Read about the other suggestions for adapting major food crops to climate change.
Image via WATTAgNet
Some snakes have evolved the ability to glide through the air. For example, paradise tree snakes in southeastern Asia can launch off from a branch and fly as far as 10 meters. Scientists have known that the snakes flatten their bodies to gain lift but new research reveals that they also undulate their bodies as […]
We humans are castaways on an ocean of uncertainty. Since the beginnings of history, our ancestors sought knowledge and understanding about their lives, their relationship with the cosmos, and perhaps take a peek into their future. In such effort—long before the answers of science—earthlings developed a rich variety of divination practices and systems. Many forms […]
NASA has funded a new research collaborative research effort between Harvard, the Smithsonian Institutions, and the University of Rochester to search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). This is the first NASA grant for SETI in three decades and the first ever to search for signs of ET that aren’t radio transmissions. Instead, the scientists will look […]
“The guitar has a kind of grit and excitement possessed by nothing else.” – Brian May If someone was assigned to turn raw sexiness into an actual, physical real-world object, it would have to be a guitar. The sound. The fit. The swagger. The allure. The longing. It’s all right there in 38 inches and […]
There was already enough concern about the healthy state of our drinking water before COVID-19. And while there’s no evidence that the coronavirus has ever been detected in the water supply, the general sense of fear surrounding any type of contamination is obviously at a fever pitch everywhere. Contaminants like lead, chromium, arsenic, copper, mercury, […]
Allergies are brutal, affecting about 30 percent of all American adults. While many only saddle sufferers with mild irritations like coughing, sneezing, a runny nose or watering eyes, some symptoms can be even more intrusive and significantly more painful. Sinus pressure is one of those unholy side effects, causing a pain that can stretch from […]