The third in a series of National Climate Assessment reports that are issued every four years is highlighting the already observed and potential effects climate change plays on agricultural production and food security.
During a May 1 teleconference, Natural Resources Defense Council attorney and agricultural water policy analyst Claire O'Connor noted there were nearly 300 contributors to the latest report, which has its roots in an Act of Congress in 1990. Their findings agree that the current climate and its predicted trends pose a serious threat to farmers, consumers and the nation as a whole, she said.
Real effects of climate change have already been felt in the nation's breadbasket region and could well be felt soon on food availability, prices and perhaps even quality, she warned. This is a "field to table" concern pertaining to agriculture in general and food security specifically, according to O'Connor, who is a fifth generation member of a Nebraska farm family that experienced the 1930s Dust Bowl.
Among farmers, "all-out race to cope with climate change is coming," said fifth generation Iowa farmer and state food policy project coordinator Matt Russell. Extreme episodes of weather — ''wrong weather at the wrong time" — during the past decade have already made it more difficult to serve the basic food supply needs, he said.
On his family's farm, a blizzard struck on May 1, 2013, as part of a growing season with lengthy periods of weather that were too wet, too dry, too cold and too hot, he said. Across Iowa, it was ironic that about 800,000 acres of farmland were not planted in 2013 due to extreme weather in the spring while later in the season many fields of soybeans suffered greatly from drought.
"We farm in nature," Russell said. What nature has been offering in recent years has been forcing farmers to scramble when working their fields, he added. "There's an obsession to do as much as you can as fast as you can."
Russell fears the tightening of planting and harvesting windows will become worse. Although a number of farmers continue to deny there has been climate change, the current weather episodes have certainly prompted discussions among farmers and related actions.
Among the effects Russell has noticed are increased field tiling, the creation of more ponds, the drilling of more wells, more irrigation, greater reliance on crop insurance and the departure of livestock growers. He'd like to see farmers put more emphasis on saving their soil by growing more forages and cover crops.
This would help to reduce the additions to greenhouse gases and also serve to store carbon in foliage, Russell said. He doubts if the current farming practices will be able to maintain or increase yield under different growing conditions, wonders if the current plant genetics will be right for the future and is not sure if protein levels in food and feed can be maintained.
Based on trends that have emerged during the past 40 years, more research is needed on plants, pests and pathogens, according to Eugene Takle, director of the climate science program at Iowa State University. He is convinced there is "clear and consistent" evidence to document climate change and its effects on food production.
In California, Takle cited the recent widespread periods of drought and extreme heat along with the loss of the "chill hours" (the 900 or more hours of low temperatures per year needed for growing cherries and grapes) because of higher average temperatures.
He also mentioned the repeated patterns of wet springs followed by dry summers in the Midwest, the soil erosion caused by extremely heavy rains, the application of more fungicides to combat plant diseases, the use of larger field equipment and the increasing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxides and methane gases — all of which he views as negative in the long run.
Other effects of climate change mentioned during the teleconference were the shutdown of cattle operations in Texas and the Southern Plains; the disruption of river shipping of farm commodities due to low water levels; a possible drop in protein content in cereal grains because of higher carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere; and an increase in the dispersal of substances that cause allergies.
Also addressing long-term concerns was Lewis Ziska, a plant physiologist with the Agriculture Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He mentioned biological limitations likely to affect weeds, insects and plant diseases by the year 2050.
Ziska cited the northward creep of kudzu, a voracious smothering plant, into Ohio, Michigan and southern Canada. Kudzu, which is native to the South, wipes out productive land and disturbs the ecosystems in forests and elsewhere. He noted, however, that goats like to eat it and that its starchy roots hold the potential for production of biofuel.
What surprises Ziska is how many farmers are saying there has not been a climate change. He suggested this might be due to their political allegiance but he agrees with Russell that "something has changed — it is real."
Russell looks at the situation as "an opportunity" for farmers to step up to a challenge — just as their predecessors have done at times. "Be a leader in a world that is looking for solutions," he said.
Takle noted, however, that six years of nontypical growing season weather is not necessarily proof of a long-term change. He questions, though, whether the current production strategies are capable of coping effectively with the production threats to corn and other crops.
For O'Connor, the challenges to farm production and food security are the greatest since the Dust Bowl era. "We cannot ignore it; we must be resilient," she said. "Make conservation a way of life."
O'Connor called for rebuilding soil health with the help of cover crops and less dependence on crop insurance to compensate for income losses on crop production. She would also like the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Risk Management Agency, which oversees the crop insurance program, to use the authority it has to lower the crop insurance premiums for farmers who carry out practices to improve soil health.
Ziska called for more crop diversity, more rotation of crops and a search for plant genetics better suited to current growing conditions. Noting the density of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased from 300 to 400 parts per million during his professional career, he suggested research on the weedy cousins of rice in order to develop new strains that would use more carbon dioxide and pursuing similar goals for soybeans and wheat.
Regarding the increase in atmospheric carbon, O'Connor said half of it could be traced to power plants. She called for stronger emission controls in order to reduce the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.