Scientists Developing ‘Heat-Resistant’ Farm Animals To Feed Warming Planet

By Matthew Mientka on May 6, 2014 9:32 AM EDT

 

As the globe warms, researchers are rushing to develop new agricultural and livestock technology to mitigate the effects of higher temperatures as the human population surges.
As the globe warms, researchers are rushing to develop new agricultural and livestock technology to mitigate the effects of higher temperatures as the human population surges. Photo courtesy of Peter Cooper, CC BY 2.0

As history begins anew, the world's northern powers have achieved an overwhelming political consensus with regard to global climate change: humans must adapt to survive. To do, some researchers are rushing to develop new breeds of farm animals resistant to a rising global temperature.

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With funding from the U.S. government, researchers from the University of Delaware scoured the biodiversity of Africa a couple of years ago, in search of the chicken of the future. Among a world population of 24 billion domesticated fowl, surely the hottest place on the planet had developed a natural lineage of heat-resistant birds, pre-BBQ. With such a lineage, scientists might then improve yields from industrial farming with selective breeding as well as genetic design.

Yet global climate change advocates criticize the research as a concession to the agricultural industry, which itself is to blame for rising temperatures. A 2006 report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says the production of meat releases more harmful emissions into the atmosphere than either industry or transportation, an effect compounded as much of a surging human population rises from poverty to consume greater amounts of meat.

Although pragmatic, the strategy to adapt to global climate change amounts to conceding defeat, these critics say. With international efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions insufficient to forestall warming, many policymakers say the federal government should begin planning for every contingency.

"We are dealing with the challenge of difficult weather conditions at the same time we have to massive increase food production," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says of U.S. strategy.

As such, the future farm animals of America may include "climate-resistant" cattle, in addition to a potential line of chickens mixed with the African naked-neck domesticated fowl. "The game is changing since the climate is changing," Delaware researcher Carl Schmidt told the Los Angeles Times. "We have to start now to anticipate what changes we have to make in order to feed 9 billion people" by 2050.

In western Kenya, global climate change has already arrived as a bellwether for the rest of humankind. There, newly unpredictable rain patterns and rising temperatures have coincided with an increase in crop diseases along with lower yields. Production of the region's starchy staple, a tuberous root called cassava, has fallen significantly as the plants succumb to disease. But the government has a plan, says Samson Maobe of the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute.

"We are promoting technologies, particularly drought tolerant varieties, ... that are high-yielding and promoting those adoption of those crops and production of those crops in order for the farmers to acquire capacity to adopt and produce those crops as measures to mitigate against adverse effects of the climate change," he told Voice of America last year.

Aside from preparing plant life for the coming change, Kenya is also looking for ways to ameliorate the effects of global warming on its livestock industry. Joshua Omollo, a 38-year-old farmer, says he's replacing his stock of indigenous goat breeds with "Galla Bucks" goats bred to mature much faster than others. Other lines might incorporate other traits seen as advantageous for the hotter climates of the world's future.

Food scientist Gale Strasburg of Michigan State University stays busy these days experimenting with turkeys, looking for genes that predispose animals for survival in hotter climes. The present generation of American turkeys won't suffice for Thanksgivings of the future, particularly as turkeys remain particularly susceptible to hotter weather, their breast meat turning mushy and unappetizing.

"It's a big problem when it happens," Strasburg told the Los Angeles Times. "Within a day or two after the heat wave hits, you will go from there being no problem at all on a farm to 40% of turkey breasts having a problem. If we start seeing a lot more shifts in summer temperature extremes, there is going to be more of this."

Strasburg and others working to develop the climate-resistant food of the future laud the best efforts of conservations and vegans alike, but acknowledge the inevitably of a warmer, more crowded world.

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