Climate assessment paints grim picture for U.S. agriculture

National Farmers Union
Extreme weather events will continue to have widespread and irrevocable ripple effects on almost every aspect of food production.

On Black Friday, the Trump administration released the second volume of its Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4), a massive document compiled by 13 federal agencies known as the U.S. Global Change Research Program. (USGCRP) The first volume, published a year ago, was a scientific analysis of 1,500 peer-reviewed studies on climate change.

The subsequent volume used that information to "analyze the effects of global change on the natural environment, agriculture, energy production and use, land and water resources, transportation, human health and welfare, human social systems, and biological diversity."

Though the findings of the report in regards to the food system are alarming at best, they are not surprising. Indeed, they confirm what we have known for quite some time: climate change is already affecting farmers' livelihoods, rural economies, and global food security, and if left unchecked, will devastate all three.

In broad terms, USGCRP projects that shifting weather patterns and greater and more frequent extreme weather events will continue to have widespread and irrevocable ripple effects on almost every aspect of food production, from changing the length of growing seasons to increasing the likelihood of heat stress in livestock.

Should current trends continue, crop production in the Midwest will fall dramatically, reaching levels not seen since the 1980s by 2050.

Farmers have, for the most part, been able to compensate for previous climate shifts with a combination of technology and innovative management. But at some point in the near future, the agricultural industry will likely not be able to keep up with increasingly erratic and severe fluctuations.

Roger Johnson

"Climate change is going to be able to overcome whatever technological changes we're going to be able to provide," said National Farmers Union (NFU) President Roger Johnson in an interview with The Progressive Farmer. "That's a pretty stark assessment."

The report not only serves as a warning of sorts, but also as a prescription for  addressing this crisis. Though farmers and ranchers will be disproportionately affected by climate change, it is also clear that they will necessarily play an important role in the climate solution.

The implementation of conservation practices, like managed grazing or cover crops, can pull carbon out of the atmosphere and sequester it in the soil. These practices not only have climate-mitigating effects, but they can also improve soil health and increase agricultural yields.

NFU has long emphasized the urgent need to address climate change. Every year for the past several years, NFU members have passed a special order of business calling on the organization to advocate policies that help farmers mitigate the effects of and build resilience to a changing climate. Given the findings of last week's report, it's clear that those efforts are critical now, more than ever.