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Soil quality can help crops survive rising temperatures

In a new study published in the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, researchers have determined that in the face of heat stress due to climate change, soil quality – specifically its ability to hold water – will be a crucial factor in determining corn, soybean, cotton, and wheat success. 

According to researchers, we are amid a food crisis. Climate change was responsible for the undernourishment of 750 million people in 2019. Moreover, they expect crop production to decrease by 25 percent within the next 25 years due to rising temperatures, and all while experts predict we need to double the current rate of food production by 2050 to feed a booming global population.

“At the same time that farmers are facing more extreme weather events caused by climate change they are dealing with the growing problem of soil degradation,” said study first author Professor Debjani Sihi of Emory University.

Moreover, we should consider that poor soil quality leads to the release of more carbon. “Keeping soil healthy is a key component needed to adapt to the climate crisis,” said Sihi.

In the mainland United States, the researchers aimed to assess how climate and soil properties affect corn, soybean, cotton, and wheat yields over time. They gathered 34 years of data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and evaluated the impact of crop yields on several climate and soil variables.

The results of the study suggest that the most important climatic factor affecting crop production is rising temperatures, while water holding capacity was the most crucial soil property.

Furthermore, the authors found that reduced soil moisture doesn’t just affect short-term crop production. but also encourages further decline in crop production via degradation. 

“The take-home message is that farmers in regions facing added heat stress for their crops may want to proactively focus on the water-holding capacity of their soil,” said Professor Sihi. 

So how does this apply to the real world? Professor Sihi explains that clay soils and soil containing rich organic material hold water better than sandy soil. Therefore, farmers who have sand plots should consider modifications that improve water-holding capacity. For example, the use of mulch can reduce evaporation. 

The researchers believe their findings will encourage decision-makers to adapt long-term sustainable crop management practices. 

By Erin Moody , Staff Writer

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