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Researchers in Illinois Study Impact of Environment on Crop Yields

The growing demand for food worldwide has helped push the price of many commodities to record levels. Besides demand, prices are influenced by other factors such as weather patterns and pollutants that can affect crop yields. At the University of Illinois in Urbana, researchers are studying the effects pollutants have on crop growth. As VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports, the researchers say they can accurately predict future carbon levels in the atmosphere and in the world's farm fields.

It's planting season for corn and soybeans in the United States. For Amy Betzelberger, the time of year is familiar.

Amy grew up on a farm near a small town in Illinois a few hours away from this field. Growing crops is a family tradition.

"We've lived on that same farm for over 150 years, so I actually grew up, you know, playing in the soybeans, playing the pasture, and learned at a very early age not to go out in the cornfield once it's past your head," Betzelberger said.

It's early in the planting season. It will be some time before the corn is over Amy's head.

The field is run by the University of Illinois in Urbana and is an important part of a study called SOYFACE. Amy is working on it under the direction of Donald Ort, a scientist with the U.S Department of Agriculture.

"We are located right in the center of the U.S. corn belt,” Ort explains. “The Midwest is responsible for growing about 40 percent of the maize and soybean that's produced throughout the world. You may know that maize is the most important food crop in the world, and soybean is the most important oilseed crop in the world."

The scientists here say these fields are an ideal place to conduct studies on how greenhouse gases affect crop growth - and how much, or how little, the world food supply will be affected by climate change.

Carbon dioxide gas is released from the tubes surrounding the corn plants and, inside this ring, it wafts over the crop at a level environmental scientists predict for the year 2050.

Studies show elevated carbon dioxide, a gas attributed to global warming, helps grow plants larger and in greenhouses it makes plants look more beautiful.

"What we didn't know is that it also makes the plants more delicious to herbivorous insects, which might be a problem in the future if there's more bugs eating our crops," Betzelberger said.

Then there's the issue of elevated ozone, which when released in the rings appeared to lower soybean yields by 20 percent due to ozone pollution.

The future of corn and soybean production is a great concern to countries struggling with record food prices, caused in part by increased demand and decreased supply. Millions of the world's poorest people are on the brink of starvation.

Ort says, "We began seeing even five and six years ago that world grain reserves were in dangerously low levels and those were harbingers of beginning to wonder if there is a bad year globally in production, how is that going to affect world food supplies and we're beginning to see that play out," he said.

In the short-term, SOYFACE will have no impact on food prices.

But over the long term, scientists say this research and related genetic engineering might produce varieties that are more resistant to increased carbon and ozone levels, and to plant-eating bugs. And that could help prevent future price spikes and shortages.

For Amy Betzelberger, it's about carrying on a family tradition that has survived war, drought, flooding, and the Great Depression. "If people are aware of these things, there will be more push for tax dollars or more private companies to fund this sort of thing," Betzelberger said.

Betzelberger says she hopes families like hers will have confidence that when they plant a crop, it will grow, even in an era of climate change.