By Chris Adams

Farming has always been a weather-dependent endeavor. In an era of evolving growing seasons fueled by a changing environment, that’s never been more true.

In a session with National Press Foundation fellows exploring the future of agriculture, Patrick Schnable of Iowa State University described some of the biggest challenges farms face – and what plant scientists are doing about it.

As head of the university’s Plant Science Institute, Schnable directs research that seeks to adapt crops in a world of changing seasons, temperatures and land conditions.

Two realities are in conflict: The demand for food, feed, fiber and fuel is going up with the global population, and the amount of arable land worldwide is decreasing.

At the same time, the climate is changing, bringing with it droughts and floods, more extreme temperatures, new pests and disease.

“The agricultural system was developed over 10,000 years,” Schnable said. “During that time, the weather patterns have been pretty stable. Plant varieties were optimized for stable weather. But we’re coming out of that.”

The session touched on the basics of plant breeding, and how scientists can tease out favorable characteristics in plant varieties. One of the most important of those might be developing crops that work well in dry environments – a necessity during a time cities and farms battle for rights to limited supplies of water. Aquifers are being depleted, and there is a potential for major failures in years with below average rainfall.

Schnable talked about research at his institute and related companies that is developing strains of millet – a grass grown as a cereal crop or grain – that will grow well in increasingly dry climates.