Climate change is a hot button issue- one of many that we’ve got happening right now. Whether you believe in it or not, you might have noticed that our weather is changing. A federal climate change report, called the Fourth National Climate Assessment, was released by the Trump administration this past November. What did it contain? What does it mean for US agriculture? What are other proposed solutions to prevent global warming?
Below, Gil Gullickson of Successful Farming reveals what the climate assessment found and suggestions for farmers on how to adapt.
The Climate Assessment
The US Global Change Research Program delivers a report to Congress and the President every four years. It’s compiled by over 300 federal and non-federal experts that volunteer to provide peer-reviewed assessments. The report is more than 1600 pages. According to the assessment, global atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration is now 400 parts per million, and it’s playing a major part in our changing climate. The last time CO2 concentrations were this high was 3 million years ago. Back then, global temperatures and sea level were both higher than they are now.
The report states that due to man-made greenhouse gas emissions, temperatures are predicted to increase and precipitation patterns will change. Increasing CO2 concentrations over this century will lead to levels not experienced in hundreds of millions of years. The concern is that the more the Earth warms, it becomes increasingly difficult to predict impacts. Some effects may be irreversible.
Global average temperature has increased nearly two degrees between 1901 and 2016. This is above the pace of natural variations throughout Earth’s history. Gullickson says that according to the report’s authors,
“Observational evidence does not support any credible natural explanations for this amount of warming.”
Global Warming Impacts on Farmers
But farmers have many tools available at their disposal to minimize the effects of these weather changes. Here’s what farmers can expect, and what they can do to adapt.
First, average yields for crops will change. Temperature increases will decrease yields for many commodity crops. A few crops may experience yield increases in areas of the north/central US due to more precipitation and carbon fertilization. But overall, US crop yields will decline.
Warmer global temperatures will also impact livestock and poultry. Severity will depend on region. Cooling measures in confinement systems will become more expensive to operate as temperatures rise, and they’re more apt to fail. Heat impacts dairy especially hard, and production declines due to heat related stress are anticipated to increase. But there are things farmers can do. Livestock can be genetically adapted for their environment, feed rations and management can be tailored so animals can tolerate heat stress, and more shade can be provided.
Another issue farmers may face as a result of global warming is increased precipitation. Between 2070 and 2099 winter and spring precipitation in the north-central US will increase by 20%. Over the summer months, the Great Plains will experience slightly less rain, and there’s no much change anticipated in the fall. The precipitation we do get will become more intense, however. Frequent downpours will become more common.
The Ogallala Aquifer Region (OAR) region will also be impacted. Home to some of the most productive farmland in the world, the Ogallala Aquifer provides essential water fro crop irrigation. The duration and intensity of drought is projected to increase around the OAR for the next 50 years. Being resilient to drought means farmers will need to improve irrigation efficiency and improving weather networks to share data.
Farmers can expect weeds to get worse. They love CO2, and with more of it around, they’ll grow in abundance.
The wildfire season may get longer, and the fires may be larger.
There’s also a risk for world-wide food security. Weather extremes can threaten food commodities and drive prices higher. World population is anticipated to grow to nearly 10 billion by 2050.
What Farmers Can Do
The report says that farmers already have many useful tools available to them to adapt to the changing climate:
• Selection of crop varieties and species that meet changes in growing degree days and changes in requirements for fertilizer rates, timing, and placement to match plant requirements.
• Changes in crop rotations
• Implementation of cover crops
• Improved irrigation management
Other tools to help agriculture adapt to adverse impacts of climate change include:
• Integrated pest and disease management
• Use of climate forecasting tools
• Use of crop insurance coverage to reduce financial risk
Roger Johnson is the president of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) and a third-generation farmer from Turtle Lake, North Dakota. He contributed an article to Agri-Pulse titled, “Climate Change is our Cross to Bear.” He argues that we need to do everything we can to help prevent climate change. We shouldn’t turn a blind eye to the biggest threat to family farm agriculture. The effects of climate change are already happening, it’s not just “alarmist” rhetoric. These problems are already ruining the livelihoods of US farmers.
The Fourth National Climate Assessment, released by the Trump Administration, says that by the year 2100, average temperatures will increase by 2.6-8.5 degrees. If we can reduce the CO2 emissions, the rise in temperature can be mitigated. The report estimates that if we continue on the same path, and make no changes, agricultural productivity will drop 25% in the Midwest by 2050.
Don’t assume that nothing can be done. Farmers can help.
Farmers bear the brunt of climate change, but we can be our own heroes. Each one of us sits on a formidable carbon sink. And the science is there – we know practices like cover cropping, crop rotations and precision farming techniques can sequester carbon in the soil. Agricultural soils have the potential to absorb 3 to 8 billion metric tons of CO2 yearly for the next 20 to 30 years. That’s the equivalent of roughly 30 to 80 percent of annual global CO2 emissions. It’s that type of CO2 emissions offset that farmers, along with the help of public and private incentives, should be working to provide.
US farmers should lead the world in sequestering carbon in our soils, and farm policy should incentivize doing it. We need to come together as our future generations depend on it.
Eliminating Animal Agriculture
Dr. Nevil Speer takes on another common solution for reducing greenhouse gas emissions: elimination of animal agriculture. He argues that media “pessimists” think we can solve global warming by removing meat, eggs and dairy from out diets. He cites an undisclosed article (that was actually published by Johns Hopkins University), as saying:
“In order to ‘feed the world’ we must stop factory farming our animals.” The article piled on by asserting: “Worldwide, animal agriculture is responsible for 90% of methane emissions and the U.S. habit of raising animals for food contributes more than half of our carbon footprint.”
To that end, Drs. Robin White (Virginia Tech University) and Mary Beth Hall (U.S. Department of Agriculture) fully acknowledge the suggestion of doing away with animal agriculture. Their research, published in a 2017 National Academy of Sciences paper, addresses it from a comprehensive perspective: “…it has been suggested that reducing animal agriculture or consumption of animal-derived foods may reduce GHGs and enhance food security.”
Speer says that before we go whole hog into an all plant diet, we should be sure we’re getting a few things straight. Plants-only agriculture would produce 23% more food, but it would meet fewer of of the US population’s nutrition requirements. People wouldn’t be getting all of their essential nutrients.
Speer deserves a little credit. He’s right- ruminants do perform an amazing feat of turning forage into protein. And meat can be part of a varied and balanced diet. It’s doubtful that everybody in the world wants to give up their meat, dairy and eggs. But that’s not the point.
Speer’s argument makes it sound like we can only have one or the other. We can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, or people can starve. It’s exactly this kind of argument that is holding us back. There isn’t going to be just one solution to global warming. A real solution is going to come from people working together and compromises on all fronts.