Climate Change Studies Underscore Need for Adaptive Management Strategy for Agriculture

June 13, 2018

Successful agricultural producers take pride in their ability to assess their past experiences and the knowledge they have accrued, then use that to prepare themselves and their operation for what may lie ahead. It’s an approach that Solutions from the Land emphasizes when promoting to farmers the management practices they can use to make their operations more productive and resilient to increasingly changing climate conditions.

Reports and studies released this week are just the latest among many in recent years laying out the growing challenges posed by a changing climate. The research makes clear the risk that U.S. agricultural producers must address to maintain their capability to help feed a global population of 10 billion people by 2050.

This week, the National Oceanic and Air Administration (NOAA) stated unequivocally that in 2018, the contiguous United States experienced the hottest month of May documented in the 124 years government scientists have been recording temperatures.

The average May temperature across the lower 48 states was 65.4 degrees Fahrenheit, 5.2 degrees above average and higher than the previous record of 64.7 degrees set in 1934, during the Dust Bowl era. There were more than 8,590 daily warm station records broken or tied.

NOAA also noted that average precipitation for May was 2.97 inches, a mark not particularly noteworthy – only six one-hundredths of an inch above average and ranking near the middle of the record books. However, more than a quarter of the contiguous United States remained in drought, with “record and near-record rain” in other regions making up the shortfall.

Meanwhile, researchers from the University of Washington, Stanford University and the University of Minnesota joined to publish a study this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) showing that a changing climate is leading to an increased risk of big yield losses in the world’s leading corn-growing regions.

The world’s four top corn-exporting countries (including the United States) currently account for 87 percent of global corn exports. The probability that they would experience simultaneous production losses greater than 10 percent in any given year is presently virtually zero. However, even if the increase in temperature is held to 2 degrees Celsius by 2050 – the absolute limit set under the Paris climate agreement – the chance of simultaneous losses among those countries will increase to 7 percent. More concerning is the finding that if temperatures increase at their current rate and rise by 4 degrees Celsius, the chance of a concurrent blow to corn production in those four nations increases to a frightening 86 percent.

The scientists’ projections signify rising instability in global grain trade and international grain prices, affecting especially the approximately 800 million people living in extreme poverty who are most vulnerable to food price spikes.

Another study published this week in the PNAS – this one from a team of experts on population health led by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine – says environmental changes brought about by climate change and other factors will have a negative impact globally on the yields and nutritional values of vegetables and legumes, important parts of healthy diets.

But the authors of both studies also say there are, in the words of one team, “suitable responses from the agricultural sector.” Adaptive management tools and practices are available. Policy at the federal and state levels can go a long way towards providing the technical assistance and incentives producers need to address the challenges ahead. For example, the University of Wisconsin-led study cites “the urgency” of investments in breeding for heat tolerance.

Another viable way policy can better enable farmers to meet those challenges is to give them the ability to develop and implement management practices that can increase soil quality, productivity and resilience to drought and flooding. Improving soil health can also enhance carbon sequestration and boost a producer’s bottom line. Policies must be implemented that enable producers to scale up practices that boost production, reduce runoff into neighboring waters, increase organic content and enhance biodiversity, nutrient cycling and other ecosystem services.

Some states have launched initiatives that broaden the role farmers can play in both stemming and adapting to climate impacts, including Healthy Soils Programs in California and Maryland (other states have similar legislation on the books). Advocacy for these programs comes from a wide range of private sector interests, including the North Carolina-based Soil Health Institute.

For the past several years, SfL has been facilitating farmer-led, multi-stakeholder adaptive management planning initiatives at the state level. We are now looking to expand this work and invite interested parties to join us in helping agricultural landscapes become more resilient in sustainably producing food, feed, fiber and ecosystem services while simultaneously reducing and sequestering greenhouse gases.

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