Untold Harvest

Extreme weather has always sustained India's population. Monsoons allow crops like millet to grow in the deserts of Rajasthan. But last year, when those formerly arid lands suddenly got three times their usual rainfall, villagers were panicked. The solution? Grow thirstier crops like wheat, mustard and spices. The result? A flooded area of Barmer, usually bone-dry part of Rajasthan, enjoyed a $3 million harvest last year, nearly 90 percent above the norm. "We can't change a natural phenomenon," says Barmer Deputy Commissioner Subir Kumar, who encouraged the replanting. "But with innovative ideas, we can perhaps use them to our advantage."

Climate Cassandras have always said that a warming planet would be particularly bad for farmers—vast stretches of the earth's prime arable land area would be submerged and even larger portions overrun by desert. But as havoc looms, so do new opportunities. Spiking temperatures and wild swings in weather are turning green belts into dust bowls—but also wastelands into breadbaskets. Farmers' fortunes will rise and fall accordingly. It's no exaggeration to say that civilization's future now rests largely on their ability to decipher, harness and adapt to the climate of tomorrow. Fortunately, farmers have been doing just that for millennia.

The climate crunch is already occurring, as evidenced India's erratic monsoons. Canada now harvests more cold-loving cranberries and lobster than an ever-balmier New England. Along with their pride, Vermonters are swallowing maple syrup made in Quebec. Siberia may soon bloom with garden fare like potatoes, apples and grapes, while 22nd-century wine snobs could celebrate prize-winning vintages from now chilly climes like British Columbia. And if the heat doesn't let up in the Brazilian hinterlands, Argentina will start growing a lot more cool-weather loving coffee.

As these examples suggest, the economic effects of climate change won't all be negative. Economists Olivier Deschenes of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Michael Greenstone of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently projected that while some U.S. farm states (California, Oklahoma) will suffer disproportionately in a climate out of kilter, overall U.S. agriculture will gain slightly, with annual farm profits increasing by $1.4 billion, or 4 percent, through 2099.

The biggest winners so far are the biofuels producers. Thanks to green groups and latter-day converts like George W. Bush, demand for so-called energy crops (corn, oil palms, sugar cane) is turning drowsy plots from Costa Rica to Kenya into fields of dreams. Mexican corn farmers are looking to expand production by around 20 percent this year, while exports of sugar cane-ethanol from the Caribbean are expected to jump to a record 1.9 billion liters. And nothing matches the frenzy of the Brazilian market, where sugar cane-brewed ethanol is made for 22 cents a liter, a fraction of the price of other feedstock (30 cents for corn, 53 cents for beets). Investors (including George Soros and Sun Microsystems founder Vinod Kholsa) have already committed some $14.2 billion to expanding Brazilian ethanol production. It's true that Brazil is the only country that has managed to create a self-paying national ethanol industry, and that took years of military fiat, billions of dollars and three vexing decades of scientific trial and error. But bio-energy's aficionados are undaunted.

Still, even short-term winners will stumble if the mercury doesn't level off soon. If temperatures swing too abruptly, "the result will be storms, winds, forest fires, floods," says Alexey Kokorin, a World Wildlife Fund climate-change expert. Heat-seeking pests and pathogens will also increase. "I'm always amazed when people say agriculture will simply adapt to climate change," says Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, an advocacy group for preservation of food crop. "It's not [just a matter of] packing up your seeds and trucking them 100 kilometers north." That's one reason Fowler's institute teamed up with the government of Norway to create the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which will safely store gene stock of the world's staple foods high on a cliff and 100 meters into the permafrost, far from rising tides and freak storms.

Still, even if the worst predictions come true, India's farmers have shown that failure is not a foregone conclusion. With NGO and government help, Indians are reviving ancient techniques for water collection, creating a cushion as the monsoons become more erratic. One group in the region of Rajasthan has already managed to establish 4,500 earthen reservoirs. A thousand kilometers north, in the rainy Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, villagers now do a brisk business in fruit, fish and marigolds. "By adapting to the monsoon changes, we've revived the entire economy of this area," says Anil Joshi, a botanist working with the local farmers. It's the sort of attitude that could make global warming a much less bitter harvest.

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