The Dirt on Ag & Adaptation

October 15, 2013

Special Report: Part One

By CHRIS CLAYTON

If you’re looking to connect average Americans to climate change and to how they will have to adapt to it, why not report on the future of food and agriculture? After all, most Americans may not visit the polar ice caps, but everyone needs to eat.

Farmers, scientists and nutrition advocates are constantly asking, “How are we going to feed nine billion people in 2050?” Simply put, food production has to grow to feed everyone. The way we grow our food also has to intensify on the land already being farmed, because every other land creature still needs a place to live as well. Because of water and nutrient challenges, farmers will have to grow more with less.

But as you probably know, most farmers do not see climate change as a threat. The typical response goes something like, “The climate has always changed and farming has always adapted.”

For instance, I recently read an EPA report describing how higher temperatures could cause crop acreage to move northward. That would lead to “increased erosion and runoff, with negative impacts on surface and groundwater quality.” In other areas, such as the Great Plains, less rainfall could spur more irrigation and spark conflicts over water usage. Also, heat would put more stress on livestock.

When did EPA make those projections? 1989! I cited that fact in a series examining the long-term risks to irrigation and crop production in the Southern Plains. Most readers who took the time to comment dismissed the old EPA report.

Talk about the weather

While we may have some climate deniers in agriculture, no one denies the weather is changing.

Earlier this year a group of farmers, scientists and other agricultural advocates wrote a report, “Agriculture and Forestry in a Changing Climate: Adaptation Recommendations.” The report, by the 25x’25 Alliance, detailed what needs to happen with research, production systems, risk management, decision-making tools for farmers, as well as how to talk to wary rural Americans about climate change. The paper points out that we’re having bigger weather events now. There are more intense rains, more intense droughts and costlier crop disasters. [ DISCLOSURE: I directly participated in the 25x’25 committee to learn more about climate adaptation issues.]

But agriculture is also one industry where mitigation and adaptation intersect. Sequestering carbon in the ground is not only a mitigation strategy, but building organic matter in the soil – carbon – is also one of the best adaptation practices for a farmer. Some people suggest we need a “Brown Revolution” to rebuild our degraded soils globally.

More analysis is needed to document the benefits and production that can come from different kinds of agriculture, such as grass-fed meat, orchards, urban farming or permaculture practices.

Environmentally, there are other significant benefits if farmers are growing cover crops and not tilling the land (here’s more on the no-till idea). Soil erosion and water quality, two of agriculture’s biggest environmental challenges, both improve when farmers adopt these practices.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture embraces this strategy. Last year, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service rolled out a “soil health” initiative built around growing organic matter in the soil. There just hasn’t been a lot of reporting on it outside of the ag press.

USDA regional climate hubs expected

This fall, USDA is expected to announce seven new “regional climate hubs” to combine work at USDA and land-grant universities. Ideally, the hub concept will also build better networks between research and field extension work to connect with farmers and agribusinesses.

The National Institute for Food and Agriculture also has funded several multi-year studies to examine how climate change affects various crops or livestock production. Just search “USDA NIFA grants climate change” and several links to those studies pop up. Work on climate change at USDA contrasts with what’s happening in Congress. Sometime in the near future (at least as of the SEJournal press time) Congress will come to terms on a new farm bill. Few reporters have examined how the farm bill would help or hinder climate adaptation.

Both the Senate and House cut between $3.6 billion-$4.8 billion out of conservation programs. Both bills also shift more crop support to crop insurance, but one of the biggest debates is whether farmers will have to meet minimum conservation standards to be eligible for crop-insurance premium subsidies.

Data from the 2012 USDA Ag Census also should be released in February 2014. That information could provide some insight on irrigation expansion, crop shifts or changes in livestock production in your area.

Get out of the office

To keep on top of the topic, take advantage of various farm tours or attend conferences. And even if you can’t make such events, examine the programs on-line. Do any of the topics relate to your area regionally, or affect a particular agricultural sector close to you? Are any of the speakers from your area?

Here are just a handful of groups and annual events where climate adaptation would be on the agenda.

  • The World Food Prize Symposium is held annually in mid-October in Des Moines, Iowa. Created to honor Nobel Prize winner Norman Borlaug, the World Food Prize has become an increasingly high-profile event to discuss global food security, biotechnology and climate change.
  • The American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, Soil Society of America, in what is simply called the “tri-meeting,” all gather Nov. 3-6 in Tampa, Fla. “Water, Food, Energy & Innovation for a Sustainable World” is the name of this year’s event (more info). The tri-meeting is the place to learn about the latest in soil and agronomy research.
  • The group “No-till on the Plains” holds its annual meeting early February in Salina, Kan. The event in recent years has been the mecca for farmers who want to stop tilling their soil as well as grow cover crops. Perhaps most importantly, many of the presenters at the conference are farmers. Salina also is home to Wes Jackson and the Land Institute, which is another excuse for going there. The Land Institute is home to research on perennial wheat crops. The Prairie Festival at the Land Institute is held every September and highlights progress in the institute’s research and crop production.
  • The Soil and Water Conservation Society usually holds its annual meeting in late July. This group is made up of conservationists who work at all levels of government. SWCS also sponsors regional meetings and tours around the country.

Keep in mind that you have to get out of the office to effectively report on agriculture and climate change. If you are truly lucky, you will get to share a story about a tour bus breaking down on a 100- degree afternoon somewhere in South Dakota. If everything works out, you will end the day in a small-town bar with 50 farmers talking about the importance of earthworms in the soil while watching the women’s gymnastic finals from the Summer Olympics.

It happens.

Chris Clayton is policy editor for DTN/The Progressive Farmer in Omaha, Neb. He’s also an aspiring author, having rewritten his book proposal on agriculture and climate change, “The Elephant in the Cornfield,” more times than he cares to count. He can be reached at chris.clayton@dtn.com

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* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Fall 2013. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.