Researchers propose climate-smart desert food production model for land and human health

Researchers propose climate-smart desert food production model for land and human health
File Photo: Blooming cactus (Source: KOLD)

TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - As the National Weather Service warns that a heat wave spreading across the southwestern United States is of a “magnitude rare, dangerous and deadly,” a team of scientists, led by the University of Arizona, has generated a new vision aimed at reducing climate disruptions to food security, human health and rural economies.

In a new article published in the journal Plants, People, Planet, 14 scientists from the U.S. Southwest and Mexico present a model for farming in arid landscapes that's designed to benefit land health, reduce disease risks and restore economic well-being to desert communities.

The researchers propose restructuring desert food production from the ground up, by selecting wild food crops already adapted to extreme conditions. The desert food crops would be companion-planted or "intercropped" in designs that not only reduce heat stress in the plants, but among the farmworkers who care for them as well. 

Researchers suggest that farmers in arid landscapes select crops from wild, resilient native species already adapted to aridity.  

“Desert plants have evolved a remarkable number of strategies to cope with heat, drought, unpredictable rainfall and poor soils,” said Erin Riordan, a UArizona research associate and the principal scientist coordinating the binational research team anchored at the University of Arizona’s Desert Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill.

Such stressful agronomic conditions are predicted to dominate over half of the world’s land surface in the coming century, Riordan said.

“We see today’s deserts not as wastelands but as laboratories for the future of agriculture,” said Gary Paul Nabhan, lead co-author of the study and a research social scientist in the university’s Southwest Center. Nabhan is a MacArthur award-winning agroecologist and the Endowed Chair in Food and Water Security at UArizona.

By combining ancient and cutting-edge strategies for dealing with rising temperatures, water scarcity and diseases exacerbated by heat stress, the scholars hope to make food production less daunting, dangerous and deadly for future desert dwellers.

The placement of several low-growing food under trees like mesquite and photovoltaic panels allows for partial shade, soil moisture retention, soil microbe proliferation and carbon sequestration to benefit the plants.

By relying on heat- and drought-adapted food species such as agaves, cacti and nitrogen-fixing legume trees, these diverse systems can provide reliable yields of nutritious foods with minimal irrigation in the face of climate uncertainty.

The Benefits of Consuming Desert Plants

Desert food plants not only benefit land health, but human health. Unlike corn, sorghum and sugar cane that produce simple sugars that aggravate obesity and adult-onset diabetes, perennial desert crops offer multiple means to prevent these diseases, the researchers say.

The study highlights 17 categories of desert plants that can reduce blood sugar levels and provide a diversity of antioxidants that help buffer humans from the negative consequences of chronic illnesses that are being exacerbated by heat stress.

The authors propose public investment in producing chemo-preventive foods and medicines to deal with health risks upfront rather than investing most health care dollars in costly end-of-life hospitalizations.

The researchers say the timing of their work is critical. With accelerating climate change and the ongoing pandemic, they warn that food security in arid regions will dramatically deteriorate over the coming decades unless new strategies are put in place.

Pilot projects to test the researchers' model are underway in both the United States and Mexico. The agrivoltaic component of this study, in which perennial crops are grown under solar panels, is being tested at the university's Biosphere 2 facility and at three public schools in southern Arizona.

In addition, Nabhan has been working with the Comcaac (Seri People) village of Desemboque in Sonora, Mexico, to plant perennial desert plants under new solar installations. Elements of the researchers’ model are already in use by some food producers, including the Via Organica Farm in Guanajuato, Mexico, where mesquite, agave and cacti are intercropped for food, drink and carbon sequestration.

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