On April 29 Sonali McDermid, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at New York University, presented at UC Santa Barbara’s Bren Hall to share her expertise on sustainable methods of reducing greenhouse gas emissions within the agriculture industry. Her long term research on Agricultural Model Intercomparison and Improvement Project attempts to tackle climate change in biological and socioeconomic contexts.

Ever since the start of the 21st century, climate change has been a widely discussed topic around the globe. The infamous phrase “greenhouse gasses” continues to become common knowledge and increases anxiety about the future of our planet. Greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide radiate heat within the earth’s atmosphere by absorbing energy from the sun. This disrupts our planet’s natural temperature cycle as greenhouse gasses can release heat even at night when temperatures are supposed to be cool. However, there appears to be a systematic approach that could salvage the Earth from the damage done in the past. 

One of the major contributors of climate change is unsustainable agriculture. Firstly, converting pre-existing ecosystems into farmable land disrupts biogeochemical processes such as the carbon cycle. When existing vegetation is cleared for farming, carbon stored within the soil is released into the atmosphere, increasing the atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations. Furthermore, large amounts of greenhouse gasses like methane and nitrous oxide are released into the atmosphere through intensive livestock farming and the use of fertilizers. As these harmful practices are perpetuated across the world, they create more extreme climate conditions, in turn making agriculture even more difficult. 

To end this vicious cycle, McDermid and her team focus on adaptive solutions to deal with extreme weather events (such as drought or wildfires) and enabling the compensating responses of crops. Compensating responses refer to the mechanisms that plants use to change their morphology or maintain homeostasis under stressful conditions. This approach is especially effective when multiple extreme climate events overlap with each other. For example, plant stomata typically stay closed during drought to preserve water. However, when drought is combined with extreme heat, some plants actually reopen their stomata to regulate their internal temperature via transpiration and increased gas exchange. McDermid suggests that modern agriculture overemphasizes increasing crop yield rather than increasing climate resilience or tolerance of the crops. 

In order to test their hypothesis, McDermid applied this innovative framework in rice fields across Bangladesh, Vietnam and India. These locations all record extremely low crop yields during drought or monsoon seasons. Observation and measurements of plant morphological features were recorded periodically and compared with other crops in similar climatic conditions. Different rice fields received different experimental treatments with some serving as the control variable. At the end of the study, three methods of increasing crop resilience appeared most appealing.

The first method is crop switching, which involves building tolerance through repeated exposure. Upon maturation, plants would be exposed to incrementally increasing doses of stressors such as UV radiation or aversive chemicals. Such an approach has already seen success in some sorghum and millet species. 

The second method is crop improvement through genetic modifications. DNA base pairs can be inserted or deleted in crop species in order to alter their characteristics and ultimately improve resistance. As the likes of Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) technology become more accessible, this approach could play a significant role in altering agricultural practices. CRISPR allows scientists to select favorable genes and discard unfavorable traits in plants via DNA insertion. The final approach is crop diversification. Planting a wider variety of crops in a single season can limit the damage of unexpected weather extremes. Crop rotations can also be utilized to avoid unfavorable conditions. 

“Our focus is bolstering the strength of crops rather than avoiding the inevitable,” said McDermid. 

Like with any good plan, there are bound to be some drawbacks. Firstly, alternative crops can be difficult to advertise to consumers who may be wary about consuming genetically modified products. Altering the resistance of plants may also disrupt its natural physiological functions, sometimes making maturation difficult even in normal conditions. Additionally, massive production quotas must be met to satisfy consumers, and diversification of crops creates a logistical difficulty. Fortunately, there are many incentives for farmers to reduce the cost of sustainable farming through government subsidized programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program which reimburses farmers for moving agricultural production away from areas susceptible to natural disasters. 

McDermid stated that she is excited to continue expanding this project across Southeast Asia and will be closely in touch with policy makers, ensuring effective measures are implemented as soon as possible.