Planting Peas in a Changing Climate

We’re arguing about when to plant the peas. They’re one of the first crops that can go into a garden, 2-4 weeks before the last chance of frost. In DC, that would normally be the beginning of March. However, with the weekly snowstorm blustering outside, it’s hard to be sanguine.

This is where the peas are supposed to go.

This is where the peas are supposed to go.

A couple of years ago I sat in on a demo of Games for a New Climate—a set of low-tech activities that the Red Cross/Red Crescent uses to start conversations about planning for climate change in agricultural communities. The game started out fairly basic. We each had to decide which of two kinds of crops to plant. A die was tossed—most numbers meant a normal season; high and low meant an unusually wet or dry season that would wipe out one of the crop types. You could hedge the risk by spending some of your profits or taking out loans. It was all relatively predictable, and after a few rounds most of our little “community” could get by from season to season.

Then they took away the die. In its place they put some very odd-shaped object—a bottle or a twisted piece of plastic, I don’t remember—but something that meant we could no longer predict the odds of extreme weather, except that we could guess that there would be more of it. “This is climate change,” and suddenly the game became much more challenging.

Climate change doesn’t just push our peas slowly from Zone 7 into Zone 8—it makes all the zones less predictable.

One of the most remarkable feats of genetic engineering in human history is the transformation of teosinte into corn. (I promise this is related.) Teosinte, a wild plant, can still be found all around Central America. It grows a few tiny kernels at a time over the course of a season. Its ears are about an inch long and are less nutritious than a single corn kernel—not particularly worth eating or growing. Ancient Mesoamericans bred corn from teosinte during their agricultural revolution: a feat of skill, patience, and imagination. Corn differs more from its ancestor than any other major crop, current or historical.

However, the required imaginative leap may not have been quite as huge as previously thought. Grow teosinte at the CO2 levels of 14,000 years ago, and the seeds come in all at once, closer together, instead of a couple at a time over the course of a season. Still not the world’s greatest food, but easier to harvest and use—something you can picture trying to improve on.

Climate change affects not only when you plant crops, and whether you get to harvest them, but the actual form those crops take.

My household isn’t dependent on our crop of peas. But we are, ultimately, dependent on somebody bringing in a good crop of peas, or corn, or beans or potatoes. And we know that planning is going to get harder—not just for us, but for everyone.

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