Climate Change Is Transforming How Plants and Soil Interact

Changes in temperature and precipitation patterns can fundamentally transform microorganism communities in the soil. This, in turn, impacts plant growth and, potentially, crop productivity.

By Daniel Dawson
Feb. 21, 2020 06:02 UTC

One of the less-dis­cussed but more dis­rup­tive impacts of cli­mate change on agri­cul­ture will be how chang­ing weather and pre­cip­i­ta­tion pat­terns affect plant-soil feed­back sys­tems, accord­ing to a recent sci­en­tific paper out of Spain.

There are thou­sands of micro­bial species in each gram of soil that strongly inter­act with each other and with plants. Each, how­ever, has a favorite set of cli­mate con­di­tions, and changes will favor some and harm oth­ers.- Francisco Pugnaire, pro­fes­sor at Spain’s Experimental Station of Arid Zones

The plants and soils of the Mediterranean basin, where the vast major­ity of the world’s olives are grown, will undoubt­edly be impacted as the cli­mate becomes increas­ingly hot and dry.

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In Mediterranean sys­tems, as every­where, the mutual inter­ac­tions between plants and soil microbes will be affected by cli­mate change,” Francisco Pugnaire, the lead researcher of the paper and a pro­fes­sor at Spain’s Experimental Station of Arid Zones, told Olive Oil Times.

These changes to the envi­ron­ment will fun­da­men­tally alter the way in which plants inter­act with the microor­gan­isms in the soil and have the poten­tial to neg­a­tively affect the pro­duc­tiv­ity of crops.

There are thou­sands of micro­bial species in each gram of soil that strongly inter­act with each other and with plants,” Pugnaire said. Each, how­ever, has a favorite set of cli­mate con­di­tions, and changes will favor some and harm oth­ers.”

As a con­se­quence, inter­ac­tions will change, although we do not know enough to antic­i­pate the direc­tion of changes,” he added.

Changes in the local cli­mate can alter the nutri­ent and min­eral con­tents of the organic lit­ter that falls from trees and shrubs. This, in turn, favors dif­fer­ent types of soil microor­gan­isms and may lead to changes in the types of microbes and fungi best suited for the envi­ron­ment.

Changes in the amount of pre­cip­i­ta­tion that falls in spe­cific areas can also alter the rate and amount of nutri­ents that decom­pose into the soil, which can also impact the makeup of its microor­gan­ism com­mu­ni­ties.

With a chang­ing fun­gal and micro­bial com­mu­nity in the soil, comes the oppor­tu­nity for pre­vi­ously non-native and inva­sive species to set­tle in.

In gen­eral, Pugnaire believes the bound­aries of tra­di­tional veg­e­ta­tion zones will begin to migrate north as well as toward higher alti­tudes.

Climate change, how­ever, will force trees and plants to seek more favor­able con­di­tions in the north and moun­tain areas, and the same will hap­pen with soil organ­isms, but some will not do so at the same time,” he said. They will sep­a­rate and that will alter the bal­ance between species.”

This shift­ing of veg­e­ta­tive zones may impact the pro­duc­tiv­ity of tra­di­tional and organic olive groves, where the chang­ing cli­mate will impact the soil’s microor­gan­isms but the veg­e­ta­tive cover will largely remain the same.

Intensive olive farms, how­ever, are likely to be unaf­fected since these rely on the use of fer­til­izer and irri­ga­tion to pro­duce a uni­form yield each year.

For olive trees, I think there is ample con­sen­sus that orchards would do bet­ter higher up in ele­va­tion or in lat­i­tude,” he said. However, where I am based [in Andalusia], the drier and warmer point in Europe, there is low land olive oil pro­duc­tion ranked among the best in the world.”

Pugnaire added that the meth­ods used in super-inten­sive agri­cul­ture are exac­er­bat­ing the prob­lems already being faced by plant-soil feed­back sys­tems in the wake of cli­mate change.

Intensive agri­cul­ture leads to soils low in organic mat­ter and impov­er­ished in micro­bial species, with threats of soil loss and deser­ti­fi­ca­tion,” he said. In this regard, the new hyper-inten­sive tech­niques are wor­ri­some.”


However, there are prac­tices that can be embraced by olive farm­ers and other types of agri­cul­tur­al­ists to improve soil health and mit­i­gate the impact of cli­mate change on the plant-soil feed­back sys­tems.

In other crops, we have seen that adding organic mat­ter increases soil micro­bial diver­sity and increases pro­duc­tiv­ity,” Pugnaire said. Therefore mov­ing to more sus­tain­able prac­tices like non-tillage and asso­ci­ated live­stock farm­ing will be very pos­i­tive for the qual­ity of olive oil while help­ing to mit­i­gate the effects of cli­mate change.”

By increas­ing the num­bers and diver­sity of soil micro­bial com­mu­ni­ties, envi­ron­men­tally-friendly farm­ing could greatly con­tribute to buffer the neg­a­tive effects of cli­mate change on plant-soil inter­ac­tions, keep­ing more sus­tain­able farm­ing,” he added

Pugnaire and his col­leagues had orig­i­nally pre­pared the sci­en­tific paper, which was a review of numer­ous pre-exist­ing stud­ies on the impacts of cli­mate change on plant-soil feed­back sys­tems, for a United Nations con­fer­ence on cli­mate change that took place in Madrid last December.

Our aim was to pro­vide updated sci­en­tific evi­dence on the impacts of cli­mate change and bio­di­ver­sity loss and alter­ations for use by sci­en­tists and pol­i­cy­mak­ers dur­ing and after the COP 25,” he said. However, the out­come of the con­fer­ence was dis­ap­point­ing, as pol­i­cy­mak­ers did not reach any sub­stan­tial agree­ment to curb CO2 emis­sions and we are los­ing pre­cious time to halt changes that every day seem more evi­dent, and harm­ful.”


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