Is it hot in here or is it just climate change? - The Packer

Is it hot in here or is it just climate change?

02/25/2010 06:11:19 AM
Tom Karst

Here is the transcript from the 2010 USDA Agricultural Outlook Forum, a presentation on climate change and agriculture from Dr. Nina V. Fedoroff, Science & Technology Advisor to U.S. secretary of State and to USAID Administrator. She "believes" in global warming, but is most concerned about implications for agriculture.

Rethinking Agriculture in a Warming Climate
Nina Fedoroff

DR. FEDOROFF: Thank you very much. It’s a real pleasure to be here. We’ve been asked to be a bit provocative, and I hope to comply. But let me start with an even broader historical perspective than you’ve had so far. Worries about food, what we now call food security, are as old as mankind.

It was perhaps Thomas Malthus who most clearly crystallized these concerns with the publication of his essay about 210 years ago. Curiously, and probably coincidentally, science began to enter agriculture in earnest at about the same time with Joseph Priestly’s discovery that plants evolve oxygen. Since that time, science has powered enormous gains in agricultural productivity through fertilizer production, mechanization, and plant breeding as well as chemical additives.

Critical to our current high productivity agriculture were the inventions of these two gentlemen, Haber and Bosch, who figured out how to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere where it’s in unlimited supply and convert it to a form that plants can use. This is done now in huge plants around the world. Another advance that Malthus couldn’t have foreseen was the mechanization of agriculture, which has penetrated in many, many countries, but not everywhere.

Yet long before science entered agriculture, people were genetically modifying plants to make them into suitable food crops. What you see here is the closest relative of our modern corn plant. It’s called teosinte. It looks so different from our modern corn plant that it was originally assigned to a different species. And it wasn’t until it was discovered that teosinte and corn could crossbreed that people began to appreciate how closely related they are.

The outcome of crossing of these two plants yields everything from the teosinte rachis, which is at the top of the plant just as it is in other grasses, and small ears of corn. Seeds of teosinte are hard as rock. Indeed, they have silica deposits at their surfaces. It was as long ago as 10 to maybe even 13,000 years ago that people gathered this collection of mutations—that’s what genetic changes are called technically—together, and it turns out that it isn’t a large number.

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