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'We are just killing this place:' Growing food to survive extreme heat of climate change

UF leading the way on climate change research
Sunset on Lido Key, Florida.
Posted at 6:06 AM, Jun 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-23 11:31:17-04

TAMPA, Fla. — Climate and weather impact every aspect of our life. And, as the Earth gets hotter, how, when, and where we get our food is changing.

Farmers and ranchers across the state are working with researchers at the University of Florida on hundreds of projects to prepare our society for the impacts of climate change.

Some of their research focuses on best practices for increased sustainability. Other projects are sifting through billions of DNA strands in plant and animal cells to find natural traits to make them more thermo-tolerant.

SEARCHING DNA FOR HEAT-RESISTANCE

Finding the thermo-tolerant traits isn't impossible. But, it will take supercomputers and some brilliant scientists like Dr. Raluca Mateescu to crack the code.

"Only one cell has 3-billion base pairs," Dr. Mateescu said. "So, you have to look at all of that and figure out which of those 3-billion base pairs makes an individual more heat resistant or heat tolerant. So, for example, right now in our project, we have about 4,000 animals that we have a complete (DNA) sequence of, so do 3-billion, times 4,000."

Dr. Mateescu told me there is so much data; a regular computer isn't powerful enough to open one file. Luckily, the University of Florida has one of the most advanced supercomputers in higher education using artificial intelligence to crunch the numbers.

For the past seven years, Dr. Mateescu and her team have searched for the traits that confer heat tolerance. It might take another three to four years before they find what they are looking for. It's a race against the climate clock to make sure our food source remains stable.

"When it's really hot and humid, we don't feel like eating, and that's what the cattle do they drop off feed, are going to stop eating, find the shady place they are going to lay down," Dr. Mateescu said. "If they are not eating, they are not growing. Their reproduction is going to be impaired, so you know an effect on productivity which is going to hurt the bottom line."

"Could our food source, if we didn't take these steps, become unstable?" ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska asked Dr. Mateescu.

"Absolutely, there is no question about it. There is no question we are looking at a food security issue when you talk about productivity in cattle."

HEAT RESISTANCE IN PLANTS

Just down the road, on another part of campus, Associate Professor Dr. Muhammad Ali Babar is researching how to make crops more heat resistant. His Ph. D. is in plant genetics, breeding, and stress physiology.

"One of the major ways of mitigating future climate change is developing high-temperature stress adapted variety," Dr. Babar said. He studies resistance in crops like grain, wheat, oats, and legumes like chickpeas and quinoa. Babar explains it isn't just about heat resistance. They are looking for natural genes that help plants produce more yield.

"How we can use the genetics and different traits. So we can within a small area produce more crop," Dr. Babar said.

"How worried are you about where we are headed? Paluska asked.

"Everybody is concerned about it, okay, the population is increasing, climate is increasing, and it is increasing pressure on food security," Dr. Babar said.

"If you could answer one question in your research to help the world, what is the one thing you would want to answer?" Paluska asked.

"Increase wheat yield 20% in the next 20-years," Dr. Babar replied without hesitation.

Dr. Babar said wheat is the number one food crop globally, providing 20% of protein and carbs. But, global warming, changing rainfall patterns, and extreme weather could impact the global food supply.

"We have to change government policy. We have to invest more in the research. We have to bring the best creative mind in this work, so altogether it could be solved," Dr. Babar said. "Many people will not have enough food if we can't do it."

BIG RED CATTLE COMPANY

For more than 60-years, cattle raised in Florida have been bred for heat resistance. As a result, the cows, bulls, and steers we saw at Big Red Cattle Company are well adapted to our sweltering heat and humidity. But, cattle rancher Jim Strickland worries whether it will be enough in the future.

"Ranchers knew that we were going to have an issue with some of the breeds of cattle we had here," Strickland said. "They (researchers) are continually getting them better and be more heat tolerant, but also producing more beef if you will per acre becoming a little more efficient monetarily too."

Strickland is focused not only on the quest to have the most heat-resistant cattle grazing his fields across Florida. He is a cowboy turned scientist. His fight is to raise awareness to anyone who will listen about sustainable development. Working with the University of Florida, he plans to take part in a brand new initiative to gather data on all of the benefits his ranch land has for society.

"We would like to see the artificial intelligence aspect of what does this land do for greater society? We call them ecosystem services," Strickland said. "It's really what nature is providing through carbon sequestration, oxygen, wildlife corridors, a home for endangered species, water filtration, water storage, water is life here in Florida, so let's be able to identify what nature gives us on these ranch lands."

Strickland said the endangered Florida Panther uses part of his lands as wildlife corridors. He wants to see farm or ranch land preserved or developed with sustainability and the ecosystem at the forefront.

Estimates show about 1,000 people move to Florida daily. The pressure to build, expand, and accommodate more humans could come at a high cost. Once the land is paved over, Strickland says converting it back is nearly impossible. So he wears multiple hats. Don't let his cowboy hat fool you.

"A cowboy that walks hand-in-hand with a scientist is a great way to walk in and tell your story," Strickland said.

In the coming months, he will be farming a new crop — carbon. He is working with researchers to find soil and grasses that sequester more carbon dioxide than traditional varieties.

"We are going to be looking at using probiotics on our soils that enhances the amount of carbon, what they think enhances the amount of carbon sequestered in our land," Strickland said. "It's not artificial. It is a probiotic. And, we are going to be running a bunch of tests on different soil types to see how much more carbon putting probiotics into the soil helps sequester."

"It's a great exciting time because we can now talk about climate change. We can now express concerns and get funding," Strickland said. "We are all survivors. Everyone is a survivor. We are just wanting to say we are all going to work together. We are all in this together."

WISH FARMS

At Wish Farms in Plant City, employees are slowly coming back to their brand new headquarters. The massive 36-acre campus sports a new office and hi-tech 125,000 square-foot warehouse and cooling facility.

According to the company, solar panels on the roof cut their electric bill in half, and the warehouse is 73% more efficient than their old warehouse.

We interviewed owner Gary Wishnatzki in a section of campus called the jungle. A beautiful lush green area filled with native plants and trees. Wishnatzki says the land and environment are deeply rooted in their hundred-year history. To grow 100-million pounds of strawberry a year, Wishnatzki says you have to be sustainable and efficient.

"We are only giving the right amount of water to the right block, so we are not overusing, overpumping, using more fuel and water than we need to," Wishnatzki said. "It's good for the environment, and it's also good for the farm's bottom line. So, it just makes good business sense."

Founded in 1922, Wish farms hasn't always been a grower. Wishnatzki said his grandfather was a berry purveyor. They were buying the crops and selling them on the market. It was until 1987 that Wishnatzki started growing their fruit. Recently, Wishnatzki has noticed some significant changes.

"I've personally witnessed over the last 50 years almost of being in this business the changes in the climate and how we've experienced less freezes," Wishnatzki said. "Quite frankly, it hasn't always been bad for us not to have freezes, but the warming climate now is starting to see other problems arise. We've seen more disease pressure and other things that could impact us going forward."

Foggy, warm January mornings can lead to more fungus on the strawberry crop. That leads to more potential for rot, decay, and less yield.

But, as far as weather events go, Wishnatzki said, "the freezes of the 1980s were probably some of the most devastating things that happened to the agricultural community here."

Warmer temps bring challenges, but Wishnatzki said they would adapt.

"This is the right latitude. Plant City has historically been the right spot in Florida. You go a little too far south, and it's too warm. You go a little bit too far north as it used to be you used to get freezes. Maybe the industry will be moving farther north in the future if the climate continues to warm," Wishnatzki said.

"Do you think Plant City will continue to be that Goldilocks zone for you guys?" Paluska asked.

"Plant City has been the Goldilocks zone; whether that continues, we'll just have to wait and see," Wishnatzki said.

Plant City is home base for Wish Farms, and Wishnatzki says they won't be going anywhere anytime soon.

"Yeah, this is our forever home," Wishnatzki said. "You can't survive, and you can't thrive if you don't always look to the future what's happening next."

WE ARE JUST KILLING THIS PLACE

Scientists like Dr. Charles Barrett are working hard to make sure farmers can use the latest science, emerging technologies, and best farming practices to survive. His work focuses on adapting not only to a warming climate but sustainability. The goal: produce better yields on their crops no matter what the temperature.

"As a society, we've gotten further and further away from understanding what it takes to produce our food and where our food comes from," Dr. Barrett said. "I don't know how you make it (farming) sexy. I don't know how you make it interesting. I don't know if Kim Kardashian has to come out to a cornfield and make it popular. I wish people would understand better."

Dr. Barrett specializes in water resources, climate change, and sustainable farming. He said his work was challenging even without climate change. Throw that into the mix, and things are even more complicated. Yet, even with the challenges, he remains optimistic.

"But, we are doing stuff, we are doing things to make things better for the future. Now, that's why I was so happy to talk to you guys today. It's a chance for us to highlight the good things we are doing in agriculture, the research, the extension, the time and the energy farmers are putting in to adopt the new technologies, best practices to be more sustainable not just for their business so we can all eat."

Dr. Barrett is fighting to implement the newest technologies across the state.

"To be an ideal system, a home run, we are using soil moisture sensors, variable rate irrigation, we are using cover crops, and we are banding our fertilizer by the row. We are doing all these best management practices," Dr. Barrett said.

"Keeping our nutrients in the root zone, so nothing is lost or wasted and recycling those nutrients, using the cover crops so that we don't have to eventually use as much nitrogen in the future and then that carbon footprint is reduced cause we are using less synthetic fertilizer we are able to get more benefit from the rotation, from the soil itself. So we've had to do these things to be sustainable to stay in business."

Dr. Barrett said Florida is not at a point where farmers will have to change what crops they grow. But, the concerns surrounding climate change as it pertains to crop yield, extreme weather events, or fungal diseases that thrive in warmer temperatures are concerning. Every new study he reads about our warming planet worries him more and more.

"I was reading that stuff and seeing that stuff, and I was just like, we are just killing this place. If you just give the old gal a break for a minute she might bounce back, she would bounce back." Dr. Barrett said. "Our weather patterns are shifting. For sure, we've had a lot more warmer winters. So, we have a hard time growing things that need the cold temperatures, things like strawberries or our cold crops like cabbage."

HEATING UP! HOW HOT COULD WE GET?

By the end of the century, Florida will get even hotter. According to the authors of a recent study in the Environmental Research Communications Journal, "by late century, large portions of the Gulf Coasts states—including Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida—are projected to experience 120 HI100+ days per year or more while more limited areas in Texas and south Florida are projected to experience 150 or more HI105+ days per year."

"HI" stands for "heat index." That is the feels like temperature when you factor in humidity.

A joint study by NASA and NOAA found that Earth's energy imbalance has doubled.

The results were published June 15 in Geophysical Research Letters.

"Scientists at NASA and NOAA compared data from two independent measurements. NASA's Clouds and the Earth's Radiant Energy System (CERES) suite of satellite sensors measure how much energy enters and leaves Earth's system. In addition, data from a global array of ocean floats called Argo enable an accurate estimate of the rate at which the world's oceans are heating up. Since approximately 90 percent of the excess energy from an energy imbalance ends up in the ocean, the overall trends of incoming and outgoing radiation should broadly agree with changes in ocean heat content," the authors said.

"The two very independent ways of looking at changes in Earth's energy imbalance are in really, really good agreement, and they're both showing this very large trend, which gives us a lot of confidence that what we're seeing is a real phenomenon and not just an instrumental artifact," said Norman Loeb, lead author for the study and principal investigator for CERES at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. "The trends we found were quite alarming in a sense."

"Increases in emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane due to human activity trap heat in the atmosphere, capturing outgoing radiation that would otherwise escape into space. The warming drives other changes, such as snow and ice melt, and increased water vapor and cloud changes that can further enhance the warming. Earth's energy imbalance is the net effect of all these factors," according to the report.

The question now, will all of the science and data save us? Strickland hopes so.

"I'm not the guy. I don't have tin foil on my hat this morning saying the sky is falling and we are going to burn up," Strickland said. "What I'm saying is, is that science and research are starting to tell us we are going to see changes, and we need to adapt if we will survive."