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Climate Change May Bring Big Trouble to Big Bluestems (and the Cattle That Love Them)

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Konza Prairie, Kansas. Vincent Parsons / Flickr

By Susan Cosier

Loretta Johnson tortures plants. She sets them in awkward positions, deprives them of water or gives them too much, then watches how they react. Her victims are tall grasses—big bluestems, specifically, an icon of the midwestern prairie. Johnson isn't tormenting the plants for kicks; she's investigating how they fare under different climatic conditions. And so far, her observations provide clues to how the Great Plains could change within the next century.


Climate models show that warmer temperatures will likely continue to shift north over the next 75 years. Rainfall patterns are also expected to change, with portions of the big bluestem's midwestern range likely becoming drier for at least part of the year.

Big bluestems, which grow throughout nearly all of the U.S., make up 70 percent of the Midwest's tallgrass prairie. How these grasses grow, however, varies quite a bit by region. In drier areas, like eastern Colorado, the plants are short and stumpy. In the wetter eastern Midwest, such as Illinois and parts of Kansas, they reach up to nine feet tall. But no matter where big bluestem grows, cattle love to eat it—and if the grass stops thriving in certain places, ranchers could feel it in their wallets.

Grass seed.Reigh LeBlanc / Flickr

For the past seven years, Johnson, a professor in Kansas State University's division of biology and a codirector of the school's Ecological Genomics Institute, has belonged to a research team whose members hail from a number of states and scientific disciplines, including botany and climatology. To get a handle on what a changing climate might mean for the big bluestem, the scientists collected seeds from pristine prairies (those not degraded by agriculture or mining) in regions with various rainfall patterns. They then planted the seeds in three gardens—a wet locale in Illinois, a wet area in Kansas, and a dry area in Kansas—to test how the grasses might adapt under different conditions.

Interestingly, when these big bluestems grew, they did so exactly the way they would have in their home prairies. No matter how much rain, sunlight or wind (or the types of grasses growing around them), they didn't change. The regional differences between the plants, it appears, are genetic. The grasses may belong to the same species, but they represent what scientists call different ecotypes.

Jersey cattle near Baraboo.Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

And that could be bad news for cattle ranchers. According to Bruce Anderson, an agronomy professor at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln who has studied cattle and foraging grasses for 35 years, good bluestem land can feed more livestock than other types of land. He said grazing cattle on these plants, which grow well in the summer months, instead of solely on grasses that thrive in the spring, can result in a 20 percent to 25 percent increase in how many animals can feed off the land. If weather conditions change to no longer match the needs of the big bluestems that sustain cattle in an area, those plants would be less productive, which could then affect cattle operations.

We don't know exactly how climate change's impacts on big bluestems might, in turn, influence cattle production, said Melinda Smith, director of the Semi-arid Grassland Research Center at Colorado State University (she is not a member of Johnson's research team). But we do know that changing climate conditions will alter what grasses thrive on the plains.

Take Kansas, for example, where ranchers operate on a third of the land. The state is home to the bluestem pasture region, one of the largest remaining swaths of tallgrass prairie. Smith's research here shows that forbs, which cattle don't like as much, replace grasses during an extreme drought. The bluestems stop growing, but they don't die out (like trees do under similar situations). When and if the rain finally returns, the bluestems come right back, showing resilience.

Researchers are now considering how best to preserve those bluegrass ecotypes that are expected to face soggier or drier seasons. Big bluestems can survive as long as 20 years, but reproducing during that time under suboptimal conditions is not guaranteed. They may release seeds into the wind, but the seeds may not be able to drift far enough to reach an area where conditions are more hospitable. Human intervention may be required.

Big bluestem grass.Matt Lavin / Flickr

Johnson and Sara Baer, a soil and grassland ecologist from Southern Illinois University, are looking into moving big bluestems to different locales but say the idea of doing so raises questions about the species' future genetic diversity and its ability to mix certain ecotypes. Because the grasses' traits are so regionally specific, they flower at different times. "Their timing is off by, like, a month," said Johnson, and that may prevent them from interbreeding. Plus, the plants (or their hybrids) may not grow as well in their new homes, which could change the quality and quantity of plant material available to cattle.

Transporting certain types of big bluestem to new regions also raises questions of where exactly to put them. After all, just 4 percent of the original tallgrass prairie remains. (Less than 1 percent is left of Illinois's historically expansive prairie).

Baer, who has focused on prairie restoration for 20 years, says that small plots of restored prairie exist all over, and that making them more biologically diverse is important. If we plant grasses that can survive the changing conditions, more plant species—and their genetically different ecotypes—just may thrive. Then, she said, we can connect remnant prairies with those that have been restored, creating corridors where the grasses can disperse. That would be ideal.

In the meantime, Baer, Johnson and the rest of the team plan to dig deeper into bluestem's genetic differences and potential climate scenarios. Sorry, bluestems—it's time for a little more torture...

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Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.

Thaís Borges.

An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.

Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."

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