National Climate Assessment Offers Grim Prospects for Agriculture and Forestry

November 27, 2018

Blog posted on November 27, 2018 by Solutions from the Land

The release of the Fourth National Climate Assessment Report, Vol. II may have come last Friday, a traditionally slow news day. But the assessment significantly details future production declines and economic losses for our nation’s farmers, ranchers and forestland owners if no action is taken to adapt to and help mitigate the growing catastrophic challenges of our changing climate.

The report was produced by the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), which is a federal program mandated by Congress in 1990 directing 13 federal agencies and departments, including USDA, EPA and the Departments of Interior and Energy, to conduct or use research on global change and its impacts on society. This second volume of the latest quadrennially-issued national climate assessment (the first volume was released last year) was produced under the guidance of a 60-member federal advisory committee and focuses on impacts, risks and adaptation in the United States.

Unfortunately, a recent, high-profile cautionary report from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and dire findings on atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHG) from the UN’s World Meteorological Organization (WMO) have been dismissed by some critics here as alarmist and unfriendly to national interests. But the assessment released the day after Thanksgiving comes from our own government and underlines emphatically how seriously the threat must be taken by our elected leaders in Washington. There is no way to sugarcoat or downplay the outlook which the report forecasts. For agriculture and forestry, it can be summed up in one word: grim.

Despite the near-term possibility of crop productivity expansion in some regions, overall, the assessment warns, “yields from major U.S. crops are expected to decline as a consequence of increases in temperatures and possibly changes in water availability, soil erosion, and disease and pest outbreaks.” In addition to reduced food and forage production, wildfires will intensify, reducing forage on rangelands, accelerating the depletion of water supplies for irrigation, and expanding the distribution and incidence of pests and diseases for crops and livestock.

Federal experts also say changing conditions pose a growing threat to human and livestock health due to the increased frequency and intensity of high temperature extremes. Heat exhaustion, heatstroke and heart attacks are conditions likely to increase in humans, while heat stress in livestock results in large economic losses for producers.

However, the assessment also offers solutions advocated by SfL: fixes that can be obtained by adopting Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA) policies and systems. Strategies that acknowledge the need for change in the 21st century can ensure the sustainable production of food, feed, fiber, energy and ecosystem services; enhance climate resilience; reduce and sequester greenhouse gas emissions; and contribute high-value pathways to sustainable development goals.

The assessment cites modern breeding approaches and the use of novel genes from crops’ wild relatives being employed to develop higher-yielding, stress-tolerant crops; management practices that improve resilience by restoring soil structure and the hydrologic function; and the development of heat-tolerant livestock and the improved design of confined animal housing as important advances to minimize risk and impacts.

SfL recognizes climate change is a politically sensitive topic. But we believe that it is incumbent on all agricultural and forest leaders to carefully assess what the 300 scientists who produced this report have to say about the impact that climate change is already having and will have on our industry going forward. These conditions represent a major threat multiplier to the future economic viability and sustainability of our nation’s farms, ranches and forests.

Agriculture in the 21st century needs to not only adapt to the challenges, but pivot and demonstrate through the production of renewable energy and sustainable farming systems how agricultural and forestry landscapes can capture, reduce and sequester greenhouse gas emissions – the dominant cause of climate change according the report’s authors.

The solutions that can be obtained from our nation’s working landscapes are too critical to our nation’s well-being for them to be ignored. Now is the time to move them forward.

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An Agricultural Renaissance, led by innovative and entrepreneurial farmers, ranchers and foresters constructing sustainable, profitable and resilient systems that lay the foundation for a world of abundance on many scales capable of producing nutritious food, feed, fiber, clean energy, healthy ecosystems, quality livelihoods, and strong rural economies.