Editorial Office: The Great Pollen Meltdown

A bee tries to pollinate a blueberry. Photo courtesy of Jenna Walters, Michigan State University.

By Samuel Fromartz

Summer has arrived and in Washington, DC, where I am based, the heat is sweltering. In fact, I’m starting to wonder if it’ll smother the tomato blossoms that have bloomed in my garden heralding a summer bounty. I’ve seen a few wither in the heat.

Based on the latest FERN story, written by Carolyn Beans and produced in collaboration with Yale Environment 360, I have a lot of worries. Beans writes that “one point becomes alarmingly clear to scientists: heat is a pollen killer. Even with adequate water, heat can damage pollen and prevent fertilization of canola and many other crops, including corn, peanuts and rice.

And, yes, in tomatoes too. She quotes a grower from North Carolina who says that if the weather gets too hot, tomato pollen will “burn.” So he times his plantings to make sure the flowers arrive when it’s still cool at night – usually in early summer and then again in the fall.

As climate change drives more extreme heat, scientists are sounding the alarm because “every seed, grain, and fruit we eat is a direct product of pollination,” Beans writes. American researchers are trying to breed crops that can withstand the heat and they are talking about introducing crop varieties – from the tropics! — suitable for higher temperatures.

There are also public health dimensions to this problem, as Nancy Averett wrote in this week’s FERN Back Forty newsletter. Farm workers toiling in intense heat, she tells us, suffered quietly from kidney disease.

The researchers found that “in a single 10-hour workday where the heat index averaged 89 degrees Fahrenheit, the workers’ creatinine levels – a measure of how well their kidneys were working – spiked consistent with acute kidney injury, and that four out of five of the workers experienced body temperatures that exceeded OSHA’s recommended limit of 100.4 degrees F,” writes Averett.

A new world. Increase in disease rates. Lower crop yields. Pollination failure. But that’s not so surprising, especially if you’ve followed FERN’s stories about climate change and heat over the years. We’ve covered how climate change is changing agriculture (just listen to our Hot Farm podcast), but we’ve also focused on what farmers and researchers are doing in response.

As we celebrate FERN’s 10th anniversary, we recognize that your support has been invaluable. And we need this support to continue, because climate change will not wait. And with your help, neither do we. Please donate now.

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