USDA Report Offers Framework for Understanding Climate Risks to U.S. Agriculture

August 6, 2020

The USDA last week issued a new report that focuses on how agricultural systems are impacted by climate change. The report goes on to offer a list of 20 indicators of climate stressors on U.S. agriculture, outlining data that farmers and land managers can use to understand how climate change is affecting their operations.

The team of experts authoring the report note that agricultural production is highly sensitive to weather and climate, which affect when farmers and land managers plant seeds or harvest crops. These conditions also factor into decision-making, when people decide to make capital investments or plant trees in an agroforestry system.

Climate Indicators for Agriculture, which was produced through a collaboration between the USDA, Colorado State University and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, was written by a team of nine experts from across the nation, headed by Margaret Walsh, senior ecologist with the USDA Office of Energy and Environmental Policy, and Peter Backlund, associate director of the Colorado State’s School of Global Environmental Sustainability.

The 75-page report outlines how the changes taking place in agriculture affect the system from which many people make their livelihoods. The authors say their findings can help guide U.S. producers toward the development of effective adaptation measures.

The climate indicators described in the report are arranged in five categories, including physical (extreme precipitation and nighttime air temperature), crop and livestock (leaf wetness duration and animal heat stress), biological (insect infestation in crops, crop pathogens), phrenological (timing of budbreak in fruit trees, disease vectors in livestock) and socioeconomic (crop insurance payments, heat-related mortality of agricultural workers).

The research team said they chose those specific indicators based on the strength of their connection to climate change and availability of long-term data, which is needed to identify how impacts are changing over time and whether adaptive actions are having the desired effect.

Some of the indicators have national data, while others are more regional. Heat stress on livestock, for example, will be of interest to ranchers in Texas, Nebraska and Kansas, along with other leading, livestock-producing states. The problems posed by higher temperatures can go beyond the death of a few cows. It also interferes with the rate of reproduction and rate of weight gain, which together put pressure on the whole operation.

A crop insurance payment indicator offers insight on the repercussions of climate events, as a big climate event, like drought, can affect one region more than another. Good irrigation, however, gives growers better capability to deal with periods of low rainfall.

The research team also cites the indicator covering weed range and intensity as notable, finding that as carbon dioxide concentrations increase, extreme northern migrations and expanded ranges for weeds are being seen.

The researchers say the indicators included in the report do not purport to represent the specific conditions in all production types across all locations, which vary widely. They say the indicators will need to be adapted to accommodate specific locations, production types, varietals/breeds, priorities, limitations, and other influences on production agriculture and food system operations.

But the report also offers data source information so that farmers and ranchers can search for information specific to their locality and goals. The team’s hope is that the report will serve as a launching point from which those in the field can begin to construct a set of indicators specific to their circumstances that will support real-time and longer-term decisions aimed toward meeting their specific and particular climate objectives.

This is also the moment for producers to be recognized as leaders in conversations about policies that can make these indicators – as well as resources that will help them measure, adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate on their operations – more available. As the U.S. House and Senate begin to take up climate legislation, agricultural stakeholders can follow up on the report’s conclusions by pointing out gaps where their best course of action on climate challenges is blocked by the barriers of ineffective policies or lack of data.

Agriculture becomes a force for change when farmers are at the forefront, directing and advocating for further research, investment and enabling polices needed to sustainably intensify production, adapt and improve resilience and sequester carbon, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The enactment of these types of climate smart agriculture policies and programs will not only benefit producers but the planet as well. SfL commends the USDA and others involved in the development of this report for their timely contributions.

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