Editor’s Desk: The great pollen meltdown

A bee attempts to pollinate a blueberry bush. Photo courtesy of Jenna Walters, Michigan State University.

By Samuel Fromartz

Summer’s here and in Washington, D.C., where I’m based, the heat is beating down. In fact, I’m starting to wonder if it’s going to snuff out the tomato flowers which have bloomed in my garden heralding a summer bounty. I’ve already seen a few wither in the heat.

Based on FERN’s latest story, written by Carolyn Beans and produced in collaboration with Yale Environment 360, I have a lot to worry about. Beans writes that “one point is becoming alarmingly clear to scientists: heat is a pollen killer. Even with adequate water, heat can damage pollen and prevent fertilization in canola and many other crops, including corn, peanuts, and rice.” 

And, yes, in tomatoes, too. She quotes one North Carolina grower who says if the weather gets too hot, tomato pollen “will burn up.” So he times his plantings to make sure the flowers arrive when it’s still cool at night — usually early summer and then again in the fall.

As climate change drives more extreme heat, scientists are sounding the alarm, since “every seed, grain, and fruit that we eat is a direct product of pollination,” Beans writes. U.S. researchers are trying to breed crops that can withstand the heat and they are talking about introducing crop varieties — from the tropics! — suited to higher temperatures. 

There are public health dimensions to this problem, too, as staff writer Nancy Averett discusses in this week’s FERN Back Forty newsletter. Farmworkers toiling in high heat, she tells us, have suffered quietly from kidney disease. 

Researchers found that “in just one 10-hour work day where the heat index averaged 89 degrees Fahrenheit, workers’ creatinine levels—a measure of how well their kidneys are functioning—rose to a level consistent with acute kidney injury, and that four out of five of the workers experienced body temperatures that exceeded OSHA’s recommended limit of 100.4 degrees F,” Averett writes.

A new world. Rising disease rates. Falling crop yields. Failing pollination. But it’s not all that surprising, especially if you’ve followed FERN’s stories on climate change and heat over the years. We’ve covered how climate change is altering agriculture (just listen to our Hot Farm podcast), but we’ve also focused on what farmers and researchers are doing in response. 

As we celebrate FERN’s 10th anniversary, we recognize that your support has been invaluable. And we need that support to continue, because climate change won’t wait. And with your help, neither will we. Please give now.