Russia’s permafrost is melting and its farmers are cashing in

Russia’s permafrost is melting and its farmers are cashing in

Just below the Arctic tundra, in the vast plains that blanket much of northern Russia, a once-unthinkable business is taking hold: soybean farming. As Bloomberg writes, it's the result of years of rising global temperatures, which are thawing the permafrost and turning the land into fertile soil, and now Agronomist Gennady Bochkovsky is helping to take the crop to the next frontier, testing whether the beans can handle the upper areas of the Moscow region. So far, he says, the results are promising.

“Sprouts have emerged and they look beautiful,” said Bochkovsky, who worked with farming company TulamashAgro to replace peas with soybeans on 1,400 hectares (3,460 acres).

Soybeans in Russia embody a trend that’s sweeping the globe: warming weather is pushing crops further toward the poles than they’ve ever grown before. In the U.S., North Dakota has transformed into a major corn grower, and the U.K. has seen a rapid expansion in wine grapes.

“You can see the climate is changing -- there’s more warmth and the crops that didn’t grow here before can now be successful,” Bochkovsky said.

While Russian soybean farmers are seeing some benefits from warming weather, climate change has been wreaking havoc on global food production. Drought has hampered crop output this year in parts of Uruguay, New Zealand, Europe and Vietnam. Even Russia and the rest of the Black Sea region has seen the ill-effects of changing weather patterns in recent years, with drier conditions threatening the region’s wheat crop. The United Nations has said that climate change is one of the factors that’s exacerbated food insecurity, which means the world won’t reach a target to eliminate hunger by 2030.

That’s happening at time when the coronavirus pandemic has upended normal supply chains and prevented food from getting where it needs to be. A period of extreme weather that devastates harvests could force countries to deploy more protectionist food policies, creating a ripple effect through global trade. Concerns over access to wheat and other staples led nations including Kazakhstan and Russia to introduce export restrictions earlier this year, though most countries have since backed off those restrictions and global grain supplies look to be ample.

In Russia, farmers have embraced the opportunity to grow profitable soybeans. The oilseed is processed into animal feed, and demand has been strong amid a boom for livestock production. In fact, the nation still relies on imports of about 1 million metric tons of soy, so there’s more scope for domestic harvests to keep rising.

Soybeans were planted on 1.1 million hectares in 2019 in central Russia, an 18-fold increase over the past decade and equal to about 7% of the total cropland in that part of the country. The government hasn’t yet released data for the latest acreage after plantings ended last month. 

“The country needed more soybeans, and from an economic perspective, it’s better to grow them domestically,” said Sergei Zelentsov, who heads the soybean department at the Pustovoit All-Russian Research Institute of Oilseed Crops.

The latest varieties of northern soybeans can grow if temperatures rise above 10 degrees Celsius (50 Fahrenheit) for long enough, according to Margarita Fadeyeva, a soybean breeder at the Chuvashia Agricultural Research Institute. In northern latitudes, they need about 100 days of favorable weather to ripen.

Yields Double

Yields have doubled over the past decade while output almost quadrupled, Russian government data show. That’s also been helped by better seeds coming to market.

Still, there are tricks to getting the soy to do well in new areas.

The plants shouldn’t be in the shadow from hills or trees so they get as much sun as possible, said Bochkovsky, the Moscow region agronomist. And it’s necessary to level out the fields, or the harvesters will pass over some beans, which can hang as low as 4 centimeters from the ground.

Zelentsov, of the research institute, is hopeful that the soy expansion can continue, and he’s ready to tackle even more unthinkable conditions. His institute has collaborated with Siberian researchers to develop a variety that can grow even if there’s permafrost 2 meters (6.6 feet) underneath the topsoil.

“I used to be a pessimist about the prospects of growing soybeans in central Russia, but now I see that I was wrong,” said Dmitry Rylko, director general at the Institute for Agricultural Market Studies, a consultant in Moscow also known as IKAR. “I underestimated the scale of climate change. I underestimated the potential of plant breeding.”

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