They were seeking out birds that could survive a hotter planet.
The researchers were in the vanguard of food scientists, backed by millions of dollars from the federal government, racing to develop new breeds of farm animals that can stand up to the hazards of global warming.
Some climate-change activists dismiss the work, which is just getting underway, as a distraction and a concession to industrial-style agriculture, which they blame for compounding the world’s environmental problems. Those leading the experiments, however, say new, heat-resistant breeds of farm animals will be essential to feeding the world as climate change takes hold.
The experiments reflect a continued shift in the federal government’s response to climate change. With efforts to reduce carbon emissions lagging behind what most scientists believe will be needed to forestall further warming, the government increasingly is looking for ways to protect key industries from the impact.
In agriculture, “we are dealing with the challenge of difficult weather conditions at the same time we have to massively increase food production” to accommodate larger populations and a growing demand for meat, said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
That means efforts like the one here, in which Carl Schmidt and his colleagues are trying to map the genetic code of bizarre-looking African naked-neck chickens to see if their ability to withstand heat can be bred into flocks of U.S. broilers.
“The game is changing since the climate is changing,” Schmidt said. “We have to start now to anticipate what changes we have to make in order to feed 9 billion people,” citing global-population estimates for 2050.
Warmer temperatures can create huge problems for animals farmed for food. Turkeys are vulnerable to a condition that makes their breast meat mushy and unappetizing. Disease rips through chicken coops. Brutal weather can claim entire cattle herds.