Agriculture uses deep science, we should follow the changes

By: 
Duane Dailey

Organic chemistry is a tough course in college. The toughest. As a journalist, I couldn’t hack it. I’m a word guy, not a molecule counter.

As an ag journalist I needed to know organic chemistry. Agriculture uses it to make food and fuel.

Farmers live by two basic sciences. They live them, even if they don’t know them deeply. The other science, so vital to farms is climatology, like it or not.

I learned chemistry from the best teachers in ag school. They gave farm examples. When they talk calcium, they talk milk. When talking nitrogen, they tell of legumes converting N from air into fertilizer. When they talk carbon, it’s organic matter. Those make sense to me.

When I took my first climatology class 59 years ago, I was taken by the topic. I continue to learn and try to understand. Weather affects farming every day.

My climate professor said that if global temperature rises by 3 degrees centigrade, it’ll be a disaster. I doubted that greatly. Now, we’re half way there. I wonder.

Weather happens one spot at a time. Climate accumulates data from weather stations the world over. Climate is the 100-year picture. Looking at one point doesn’t tell global climate.

A string of stories in the New York Times tell about farming where climate changes. In Syria the North African deserts crept in, killing farming.

As a result, young men who should be tilling soil take up guns to provide for their families. Mass murders add to mass starvation. There, climate change is serious.

Many places see dramatic changes in climate and culture.

Missouri farmers see changes in the weather, adding up to slow climate change. In my lifetime, the Corn Belt moved north to Canada. Soybeans a southern crop became Missouri’s No. 1 cash crop. It’s the changing weather.

The most basic of organic chemistry is photosynthesis. Sun beams trigger changes in every plant leaf. Stomata or holes in leaves open to pull carbon dioxide in from air. CO2 is one molecule of carbon and two of oxygen. The plant keeps the carbon but releases two oxygen molecules into the air for us to breath. Without oxygen, we die.

For farming that chemical change is vital. That’s for farmers and the rest of us.

Carbon builds plant structures. That’s in all crops and timber.

Done right carbon stays out of the air. With good farming, carbon returns to the soil. Our best soils are rich in carbon or organic matter.

Here’s where carbon and climate meet. When carbon burns, whether coal or gas, molecules go up smokestacks as free carbon. Back in the air each carbon molecule grabs two molecules of oxygen out of the atmosphere.

That oxygen lifts the carbon dioxide into the sky. We still burn lots of fuel. At a railroad crossing you might see a coal train heading back East. That’s tons and tons of carbon molecules going to power plants to be released into the air. It’s 120 coal cars per train now.

That’s one big way we change climate.

I’ve never said this is the end of civilization. I think we can change how we use energy. We need not release carbon into the air.

The EPA reported at peak in the past decade we released almost 8 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide a year into the air. With solar and wind power we’ve cut that by five percent. A step forward. But, not enough.

We can change. It’ll take leaders who know science, chemistry and climatology.

In this cold, I hear people say: “This freezing shows there can’t be global warming.” 

Not!

Warm air from over the Pacific Ocean surface flows north to send the jet stream south to Missouri. That’s Polar air displaced by warm air.

If you stick your toes in the Pacific at California, you’ll feel melted Arctic ice going south to warm up.

Write to duanedailey7@missouri.edu.

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