Arctic Agriculture: Alaska Eyes New Crops for Added Food Security

In Alaska vegetables and other foods are shipped long distances to reach store shelves and dinner plates. But the region’s changing climate and the introduction of new technologies is making local farming increasingly feasible. Some farms are thriving.

With the right investments in research and infrastructure, farming could become more profitable in Alaska and less of an alien concept, says Milan Shipka, the director of the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Root crops and tubers do well in Alaska, but grasses and grains, leafy greens and flowers can also succeed.

There are more than 750 farms in Alaska, including some that produce more than $500,000 annually. But, like elsewhere in the U.S., the average age of a farmer in Alaska is tipping toward 60. “If we’re going to talk about all the things that we can grow in the Arctic, then we have to talk about who is going to grow these things. We have to create enterprises that can support them economically,” says Shipka.

To dig deeper into the future of Alaskan agriculture, Arctic Deeply recently spoke Shipka.

Arctic Deeply: How has, or how is, climate change altering agriculture in Alaska?

Milan Shipka: People on the ground in the North, including Alaska, they see a change happening. It’s not uncommon to talk to somebody who’s been in the area for many years and hear them refer to “when it used to get cold.” For example, the number of frost-free days in Fairbanks have increased by 50 percent from about 80 to 120 per year. That’s phenomenal. But these things aren’t only changing in the summer. We certainly don’t see the cold in the winter that we used to see.

Arctic Deeply: What does that expansion of frost-free days mean when it comes to growing produce?

Shipka: It means new varieties, new cultivars that we have not been able to grow here before. There are many I could name, spring wheat is one example. Wheat has been impossible to grow at our latitude. But we are now seeing a longer growing season and, with the right selection of varieties, we can create a cultivar that will make it to maturity. It is completely possible to have a successful harvest.


Take the Long Root Home

The folks at Hopworks Urban Brewery were kind enough to send out samples of their newest project beer, Long Root Ale. HUB is based out of Portland, Ore., so why is it showing up in a Lancaster County column? Agriculture.

When I heard about Long Root I immediately reflected on our area’s rich tradition of farming. Corn, tobacco, and soy make for great cash crops here. Some of that corn may make it into popular beers (Corona, Miller Lite, PBR). Traditionally brewed with some kind of grain — wheat, rye, and most often malted barley — beer is an agricultural pillar.

Adhering to their motto of “using beer as a force for good,” HUB teamed up with Patagonia Provisions (from the parent clothing company who popularized fleece in the ‘80s) to create a beer to revolutionize brewing while significantly benefiting the environment. As its grain component Long Root uses Kernza (a registered trademark of The Land Institute), which is a perennial grain grown using regenerative agriculture practices. I had to look it up. Regenerative agriculture is defined as a practice of organic farming, which helps build soil health or regenerates unhealthy soil. The crop is a perennial, so it doesn’t need to be sowed each year. While the aboveground component of Kernza stands four feet high, the roots tower ten or more feet below the surface.


Agriculture Gets Attention at COP22 With AAA Initiative

For the first time in the 22 years of  Conference of Parties (COP) session of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), agriculture is being  given attention during climate discussions at the ongoing  COP22 conference in Marrakech, Morocco.

This will be made possible by the Adaptation of African Agriculture (AAA) to Climate Change initiative adopted in September this year by a coalition of 27 African countries who gave their backing and commitment to placing this initiative at the heart of COP22 negotiations.

Pitched as a major challenge for the COP22, agriculture is for the first time in the history of the COP brought to the forefront of climate discussions.


Zimbabwe: Climate Change Changes Face of Urban Agriculture

Rain is something that Zimbabweans very much look forward to. For years, many have looked up to their rain-fed agricultural projects to bring them food relief in the face of gnawing hunger that has resulted from the country’s economic collapse. The unpredictable pattern that now characterises the rainy seasons, however, has lately been rendering people’s effort useless.

Urban agriculture is part of Zimbabwe’s urban landscape and in Harare; frantic efforts by the city council to put an end to it came to naught — to the extent of the authorities seemingly throwing in the towel. It would seem they finally realised how unreasonable their push was to destroy an activity that brought food relief for many food-insecure urban households, most of who have been left to scrap for a living after their breadwinners lost jobs following either company closures or retrenchments.

Today, however, the council authorities do not pose as much a threat to urban agriculture as does the no-longer-reliable rainfall.

While traditionally, by mid-November the maize crop would be at knee-height, with people at that point simply worrying about the insistent weeds and getting money to purchase fertiliser, today’s mid-November paints a very different picture. Going around most high-density suburbs in Harare on Tuesday afternoon, this writer witnessed people, mostly the elderly, clearing the land and readying it for planting in the sweltering heat. Other fields, however, had already been cleared and people now only await the proper onset of the rainy season so they can plant.


Organic Agriculture Can Help Address Climate Change, Feed the World

The role organic agriculture can play in fighting climate change effects and in boosting food security was the main theme of a debate held in the COP22 Green Zone by the federation of Moroccan organic agriculture professionals (known by its French acronym FIMABIO.)

Speaking on this occasion, Andre Leu, President of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), underscored that organic agriculture can reverse climate change.

He highlighted the global momentum towards adopting organic agriculture to counter climate change, notably through the “4 for 1000” initiative, which aims to increase the amount of organic matter in soil by 4 per thousand (0.4%) each year, which would be enough to compensate for all global greenhouse gases emitted due to human behavior.

Organic agriculture practices are conducive to the global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions before the point of no return, he said.


Moroccan Vault Protects Seeds from Climate Change and War

Should a doomsday agricultural crisis hit the world’s driest environments, scientists and farmers will turn to an up-and-coming research center and seed bank in Morocco to restock their harvests.

Tucked away in the university hub of Irfane in Rabat, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, or ICARDA, hosts the largest collection of seeds in North Africa.

“If for any reason, a particular community lost all their resources, we are capable of providing them with the seeds for restoration and rehabilitation,” says Ahmed Amri, head of ICARDA’s Genetic Resources Unit.

The crucial role of seed banks in protecting biodiversity is receiving increasing attention because of climate change, which threatens to wipe out crops as dry areas of the world get even hotter and drier. The impact on African agriculture is among the topics being discussed at U.N. climate talks taking place through next week in Morocco.


France’s 4 Per 1000 Initiative Makes Important Advances

France’s innovative 4 per 1000 Initiative: Soils for Food Security and Climate has made significant progress over the past year in preparation for the COP22 climate change conference taking place now in Marrakesh, Morocco.

As a reminder, the 4 per 1000 Initiative was launched by France in 2015 to bring together all willing partners (national governments, local and regional government, companies, trade organizations, NGOs, research facilities, and others) to commit together in a voluntary action plan to implement farming practices that maintain or enhance soil carbon stock on as many agricultural soils as possible and to preserve carbon-rich soils. Scientific studies have found that an annual increase of 0.4% of carbon stored in soils would make it possible to stop the present increase in atmospheric CO2, which is a major contributor to the greenhouse effect and climate change.

The aim of the Initiative is to demonstrate that agriculture, and agricultural soils in particular, can play a crucial role where food security and climate change are concerned. Some ways that agriculture can achieve this is by using innovative techniques such as no-till farming practices, which increase the amount of microorganisms present in soils and increase soil fertility and carbon sequestration. Other examples include the promotion of agroforestry, introducing more intermediate crops, restoring soil quality in places with poor conditions, and better landscape management. Increasing carbon sequestration in soils enhances soil fertility and combats land degradation aiming to improve food security.


Implementing Climate Smart Agriculture up for Discussion at COP22

The Southern African Confederation of Agricultural Unions (SACAU) will join partners to discuss African agriculture at the 22nd Conference of the Parties (COP22) meeting in Morocco, currently underway. COP22 will look at adaptation, mitigation, transparency, and technology transfer to combat increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

SACAU CEO Ishmael Sunga is one of the several high-profile African speakers who will be speaking on Africa Day Side Events at COP 22 on 16 November 2016. The day will open with a high-level panel discussion on Implementing the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) in Africa: Moving from Commitment to Action with speakers from the African Union Commission (AUC), UNECA, African Development Bank (AfDB), President of African Ministerial Conference on Environment (AMCEN), and the Pan-African Parliament.

Sunga will be speaking during a panel discussion on the Implementation of regional climate smart agriculture approaches: the case of East and Southern Africa at a side event.

The session will look at the barriers preventing smallholder farmers from improving their livelihood in the face of negative climate change impact, how systems in which they operate can be strengthened to facilitate transformative change, and how to address youth involvement and gender parity.

Other panelists include Hon Oppah C.Z. Muchinguri (Minister, Ministry of Environment, Water and Climate, Republic of Zimbabwe) and Golden Mahove (Deputy Team Leader and Agricultural Development Facility Lead, Vuna).

“Farmers in southern Africa are at the front-line of this catastrophe, and are arguably the worst affected,” said Sunga before his departure for COP22.


Building a ‘Good’ Anthropocene From the Bottom Up

Author: Andrew C. Revkin 

Over the last few years, I’ve gotten to know a determined cast of characters in academia aiming to identify paths to a good AnthropoceneAnthropocene being the closest thing there is to common shorthand for this span of human-dominated planetary history unfolding around us.

One such researcher is Elena M. Bennett, an ecosystem ecologist and geographer at McGill University. She’s the lead author of “Bright Spots: seeds of a good Anthropocene,” published in the October edition of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. The paper describes an effort to identify and propagate social and environmental projects that could reverse a centuries-long pattern in which human prosperity has come at the cost of substantial harm to ecosystems and excluded communities.


Changes in Soil Microbial Community Structure in a Tallgrass Prairie Chronosequence

Authors: Victoria J. Allison, R. Michael Miller, Julie D. Jastrow, Roser Matamala, and Donald R. Zak 

Increasing the abundance of fungi relative to bacteria should favor C accrual, because fungi use C more efficiently, and are composed of more recalcitrant C compounds. We examined changes in soil microbial community structure following cessation of tillage-based agriculture and through subsequent succession in a C-accruing tall-grass prairie restoration chronosequence. We predicted that the relative abundance of fungi would increase following conversion from tillage-based agriculture. Soil microbial community structure was assessed as relative abundances of phospholipid fatty acids (PLFAs). Cessation of tillage-based agriculture did initially lead to an increase in the abundance of fungi, particularly arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF), relative to bacteria. We suggest this is primarily due to reduced disturbance when tilling ceases. Vegetation characteristics also appear to be important, with high cyclopropyllprecursor PLFA ratios indicating bacterial communities under stress in agricultural soils, probably due to low C, and possibly to low C relative to N inputs. A secondary gradient in soil microbial community structure was related to successional time, and tied to soil characteristics, particularly bulk density (D-b), pH, and soil organic C and N. However, while the fungifbacteria (F/B) ratio was high in early succession plots, it declined later in succession. In addition, although the F/B ratio increased with SOC in the agricultural soils, it decreased with SOC in prairie soils. We conclude that increased community metabolic efficiency due to higher relative abundances of fungi is not the primary mechanism leading to enhanced C storage in these soils.