In Uruguay, Columbia scientists are working on a forecasting system to help farmers cope with climate change.

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FEATURE

Seeds of Hope

As climate change creates agricultural instability around the world, Columbia scientists are testing a seasonal forecasting system in Uruguay to give farmers a fighting chance.

by David J. Craig Published Spring 2015
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Walter Baethgen in Las Brujas, Uruguay, where he has established a field office for Columbia’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society.

“Farmers make decisions based on all sorts of factors — the weather, obviously, but also market prices, production costs, fertilization requirements, the risk of disease to crops,” he says. “They think about these factors holistically, and often quite intuitively. If you tell a farmer there’s a 40 percent chance of getting more rain than normal, and a 20 percent chance of getting less rain than normal, how is he supposed to use that information? He’s trying to decide whether to plant soybeans or maize. You need to give him information in a way that helps him answer that question.”

In 2004, Baethgen was recruited by Columbia to be part of the IRI, an interdisciplinary unit within Columbia’s Earth Institute whose mission is to help people adapt to climate change, especially in developing countries. The IRI’s forty-­member staff includes climate scientists, as well as researchers who, like Baethgen, specialize in making climate data accessible and relevant to people working in agriculture, public health, urban planning, economic development, ecology, and other sectors.

“The IRI is the only place I know of that has made a science of turning raw climate data into actionable knowledge,” says Baethgen. “It’s a place where a Columbia professor can tell a public­-health official in Bangladesh if floods are likely to cause cholera epidemics anytime soon. Or, in my case, whether farmers ought to be worried about their cattle going thirsty.”

Farm scenes in southern Uruguay.

Since coming to Columbia, Baethgen has contributed to IRI agriculture projects throughout the world. He has worked on efforts to discover which types of corn are most likely to withstand rising temperatures in West Africa, how rice crops will react to new rain patterns in India, and what potato varieties might survive drought conditions in Tanzania. Baethgen’s research in Uruguay, meanwhile, has benefited from the cross­-disciplinary contributions of IRI climate modelers, economists, management experts, psychologists, sociologists, ecologists, and financial analysts. His access to the University’s intellectual resources, he says, has enabled him to undertake increasingly ambitious projects in his home country, many of them supporting the National Agricultural Research Institute (known by its Spanish abbreviation, INIA), a research and development agency with close ties to Uruguay’s agriculture ministry. In 2007, for instance, Baethgen helped to organize a collaboration between INIA and IRI scientists to create a system for monitoring soil­-moisture levels across Uruguay; electromagnetic images of the soil captured by NASA satellites are now analyzed regularly by Uruguayan scientists to see if drought conditions are imminent. “The country’s agriculture officials appreciate this, because it can validate their request for relief funds if, say, they want to provide emergency credit lines to farmers for purchasing water,” says Baethgen, who in 2010 received the Morosoli de Oro, a prestigious award given to Uruguayan citizens for service to been built up between Uruguay and Columbia over the years.”

“If a farmer tells the website where he lives, how he irrigates, and what fertilizers he uses, he’s going to get individualized feedback about what his crop yield could look like.” — Catherine Vaughan

The relationship deepened last year when INIA allotted the IRI $1.6 million to lead the development of its new seasonal forecasting and information service. Baethgen quickly assembled a group of Columbia scientists with the expertise to build the necessary climate­-modeling technologies and to present the results in a way that was useful to farmers. He set up an IRI office in Las Brujas, a small town thirty miles outside of Montevideo, to accommodate the large numbers of Columbia faculty, researchers, and students who would be traveling to Uruguay to work on the project.

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