Agriculture is an industry at the mercy of the weather, meaning climate change and its vicissitudes pose a special risk for farmers, and, by extension, anyone who likes to eat food. As the U.N. climate talks in Paris continue, Scientific American takes a look at how farming and the world’s food supply are threatened by global warming:
Changes in production capacity were among the most direct climate change impacts on food security globally. The researchers found that crop yield increases seem to have declined globally by 2.5 percent per decade because of climate change. In tropical areas where plants are already growing in conditions that are close to the maximum of what they can tolerate, yield losses will be greater as temperatures rise. Warmer temperatures also facilitate the spread of plant pests and diseases. Livestock are at risk because hotter temperatures can make animals eat less and become less physically active, which translates into lower growth and reproduction rates, and less meat, milk and eggs.
In a written statement, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack outlined the dual threats of population growth and climate change:
Never before has agriculture faced challenges of this magnitude. We’ve all seen the statistics: nine billion people by 2050. Feeding these new citizens will require at least a 60 percent increase in agricultural productivity. We must do all of this in the face of climate change that is threatening the productivity and profitability of our farms, ranches and forests.
The USDA released a report last week on ways to improve food security in the face of climate change. Environmental reporter Niina Heikkinen writes:
USDA is working to encourage farmers to voluntarily adopt more climate-friendly farming techniques. Farmers, ranchers and forest landowners looking for information about how changing weather patterns could affect their state can go to one of seven regional Climate Hubs. They can also participate in the 10 Building Blocks for Climate-Smart Agriculture and Forestry, a host of USDA initiatives to cut carbon emissions and increase sequestration of 120 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year by 2025 — the equivalent of taking 25 million cars off the road.
In an interview with Grist, agriculture policy reporter Chris Clayton argues farmers can help lead the charge to change, independent of the actions, or lack thereof, taken by world leaders:
A lot of farmers are way out in front of curve. People doing no till for decades. Or doing cover crops because they had soil erosion problems or wanted a cheaper way to introduce nitrogen into the soil, or because they just simply believed that something needs to be growing on the land year-round.
The same practices that you’d use to sequester carbon in the soil also reduce run-off and improve water quality. Those same practices build the resiliency for farms to withstand droughts or floods.
But Clayton notes efforts to reward farmers for carbon sequestration have been largely derailed by petroleum and fertilizer industry lobbyists.
With cap and trade, farmers could be getting paid a lot for that. Same with building up clean energy: Where are those facilities going to go? They are going to go in rural America, by and large. There is a real missed opportunity for agriculture to be a beneficiary.