How Can Agriculture Address the Growing Economic and Environmental Pressures of Climate Change?

Published on: November 18, 2016

The devastating consequences of climate change threaten our natural resources, food security, and the productivity and economic viability of farming operations. Agriculture has an important role to play in helping us mitigate and adapt to climate change, and as we approach a major administrative transition and early discussions around the 2018 Farm Bill, the connection between agriculture and climate change will need to be further explored. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) and our members believe that by giving farmers the tools to invest in their soil and become an active part of climate change mitigation, we can develop effective strategies that work for farmers, the environment, and the economy.

The Economic Impact of Climate Change

A new report released by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) warns that the impacts of climate change will cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars. The report, “Climate Change: The Fiscal Risks Facing the Federal Government,” provides analysis showing that the fiscal impact of climate change is already very real. According to the report, those risks will only continue to grow over the next century unless we take ambitious action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) and adapt to a changing climate.

The report lists several significant economic threats facing the nation as a result of climate change, including increases in: the need for disaster relief and flood insurance to address the heightened frequency of storms; investments to protect, repair, and relocate federal facilities impacted by rising sea levels and heavy rain events; health care costs as a results of degraded water quality, air quality, and unpredictable weather conditions; costs for fire suppression as a result of an increased frequency and intensity of wildfires across the country; and risk management for the nation’s farmers and ranchers who most directly feel the impacts of changing weather patterns and increased storm intensity. On this last point, OMB estimates there will be a 50 percent increase in the cost of the federal crop insurance subsidy program due to a changing climate in the coming decades.


Law Professor Outlines Steps to Achieve Global, Sustainable Agriculture

Author: Mike Krings | Published: December 13, 2016

Around the world, more land is being converted into agricultural production to feed the growing global population. However, the current model of agriculture is unsustainable, uses unprecedented amounts of fossil-carbon energy and contributes to pollution, water degradation and other problems. A University of Kansas law professor has written a book calling for support of a revolution in agriculture and outlines the legal, national and international political innovations that would be required to make it happen.

John Head, Robert W. Wagstaff Distinguished Professor of Law at KU, has written“International Law and Agroecological Husbandry: Building Legal Foundations for a New Agriculture.” The book first outlines the “extractive agriculture” system the modern world has used for the last few centuries and its unsustainability. Head then explores the prospects for transitioning to a system that could produce grains perennially and achieve adequate yields to feed the world while reducing problems such as climate change and soil degradation.

“How can we use international law and international institutions to facilitate the transition to a natural-system agriculture? My impression has been that those engaged in crop research efforts feel that if they come up with the right answer as a scientific and technological matter, then agriculture will be somewhat easily changed,” Head said. “I doubt that will be the case. I see it as a progression that has several elements and will take a great deal of international cooperation.”

Head, who grew up on a farm in northeast Missouri and has practiced international and comparative law, emphasizes his support for research being done at organizations such as the Land Institute in Salina. The institute, along with other research bodies around the world, is studying how to develop high-yield grain crops that could produce food year after year without replanting. Drawing inspiration from native grassland ecosystems such as those of the prairies that once covered North America’s Great Plains, the scientific efforts aim not only to develop crops that are perennial — wheat, for instance, that would not require yearly land preparation, planting and intense weed and pest control efforts — but that are also grown in mixtures with other plants. If successful, research efforts at the Land Institute and elsewhere would revolutionize the way agriculture can be practiced around the world, Head wrote.

“What they’ve achieved makes it pretty clear that it is possible to move from annual crops in a monoculture to perennial crops in a polyculture and produce adequate yields,” Head said of research at the Land Institute and other organizations.


Carbon Sequestration a Positive Aspect of Beef Cattle Grazing Grasslands

Author: Donald Stotts | Published: December 6, 2016

Beef cattle grazing on grass pastures might not be the first thing people think of when discussing the subject of combatting greenhouse gas emissions, but it is an agricultural practice providing significant dividends to the effort.

“Environmental as well as economic sustainability are key elements of best management practices for agriculture, as most people involved in agriculture are well aware they are stewards of the land,” said Keith Owens, Oklahoma State University associate vice president for the university’s statewide Oklahoma Agricultural Experiment Station system. “Air, water, soil; we pay attention to all of them.”

In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, scientific studies have long indicated the burning of fossil fuels and land-use changes such as deforestation have led to an increase in atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide since the beginning of the industrial revolution.“Carbon dioxide atmospheric concentrations have risen from 280 parts per million prior to the industrial revolution to more than 400 parts per million today,” Owens said.Carbon sequestration – the long-term capture and storage of carbon from the atmosphere, typically as carbon dioxide – is a method of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.“Many different agricultural production practices can capitalize on carbon sequestration in both soil and biomass to reduce negative environmental effects,” Owens said. “These practices enable use of the natural carbon cycle to replenish carbon stores while reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.” That is where beef producers who employ grasslands as a pasture resource come in. Research by R.F. Follett and D.A. Reed published in 2010 examined the effects of grazing on soil organic carbon storage in North American rangelands. Follett and Reed found impacts ranging from no change to up to 268 pounds of carbon stored per acre per year.


The New Water Alchemists

Author: Judith D. Schwartz | Published on: November 29, 2016

Australia is the world’s driest inhabited continent, and a nation cursed by headline-grabbing weather extremes. In 2013, Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology famously added dark purple to its weather maps to denote over-the-top heat waves, the no-longer-rare days when air temperatures breach 122 degrees Fahrenheit (50 degrees Celsius). Australia’s history since European settlement has been riddled with droughts and floods so dire they’re etched in the books as significant natural disasters. The millennium drought, known colloquially as the “Big Dry,” persisted for 15 years until finally doused by epic rains and floods that lasted from late 2010 into early 2011.

As for wildfires, the most devastating since 1851 have names, including Black Christmas and Black Tuesday. Most recently and most deadly were the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009 in the southeastern state of Victoria, which killed 173 people. The sheer extent of Australia that goes up in smoke is mind-boggling. An estimated 60,000 bushfires, many of them extensive, flame through Australia each year. (Between one-third and one-half of these are attributed to arson.) According to several tallies, between 130 and 220 million hectares (or 321 to 543 million acres) are burnt each year by either wildfires or intentional controlled burns. That’s a patch of earth somewhat bigger than the nation of Liberia. The carbon emitted from these conflagrations dwarfs the amount spewed by fossil fuels.

“I think of this as solar real estate. And I look at myself as a capitalist,” says Chris Henggeler, referring to his land in a hot, desolate corner of Australia. And his cattle? That’s “middle management,” he says. “They’re our plumbers and electricians.”


Our Modern Food System Is Not Set up for Good Health

Author: Paul Ebeling | Published on: Nov

Cheap food is really more of a curse than a blessing.

Agriculture has undergone huge changes over the past 70+ years. Many of them were heralded as progress that would save people from hunger and despair.

But, today, we are faced with a new set of problems driven by the innovations and interventions that were meant to provide people with safety and prosperity.

Since WWII food production has been all about efficiency and lowering cost. Today, we see what this approach has brought on heightened disease statistics and a faltering ecosystem.

The success of the processed food industry has come at a tremendous price to the people who eat it. As their lives are now at stake due to diet-related diseases. Many people have also become incorrectly convinced that eating healthy is a complicated equation requiring lots of nutritional data.

They are wrong.

It is very much simpler than one might think. Eating healthy is really about eating REAL food, meaning food as close to its natural state as possible. Avoiding agricultural toxins like pesticides is also part of the answer. But sadly this is not the kind of food American farmers are currently focused on producing.


Drought in Southern Africa Points to Urgent Need for Climate Change Plans

It is expected that temperatures in southern Africa will rise by between 1.5°C and 3°C due to climate change by the year 2050. This is likely to cause heavy fluctuations of weather patterns and more frequent severe weather events like droughts and floods. Agriculture will be severely affected.

In turn, many economies in southern Africa which are dependent on agriculture will feel the impact. The effects of climate change are already being felt. The 2015 agricultural season in southern African was considered the driest in 35 years.

Five countries in the region – Swaziland, Lesotho, Malawi, Namibia and Zimbabwe – declared national drought disasters. Eight of South Africa’s nine provinces and the southern and central areas of Mozambique declared partial drought emergencies.

Massive crop failures were experienced across the region. This led to a deficit of 9.3-million tons in cereal crop harvests. On top of this 643 000 cattle were estimated to have died in the drought. Because of these agricultural failures, food insecure populations increased by 31%. This implied that more than 40 million people needed humanitarian assistance.


Africa: Climate Finance for Farmers Key to Avert One Billion Hungry

Author: Fabíola Ortiz | Published on: November 21, 2016 

Marrakech — With climate change posing growing threats to smallholder farmers, experts working around the issues of agriculture and food security say it is more critical than ever to implement locally appropriate solutions to help them adapt to changing rainfall patterns.

Most countries consider agriculture a priority when it comes to their plans to limit the rise of global temperatures to less than 2 degrees C. In line with the Paris Climate Change Agreement, 95 percent of all countries included agriculture in their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs).

“We need to find solutions that allow people to live better, increase their income, promote decent jobs and be resilient.” — Martial Bernoux of FAO

“The climate is changing. We don’t have rains that we used to have in the past. In the last decade, we had two consecutive years of intense drought and we lost all the production. The animals all died because they had no water,” Ahmed Khiat, 68, a small farmer in the Moroccan community of Souaka, told IPS.


Diverse Groups Call for a Bold, New Vermont Agriculture Issue- Open Letter to Governor-Elect Scott

Author: Regeneration Vermont | Published: December 6, 2016

Today a group of more than a dozen Vermont farm, environmental and business leaders issued an open letter to Governor-Elect Phil Scott calling attention to the serious issues facing the state’s conventional dairy industry and proposing a solution to begin a necessary statewide transition toward regenerative and organic dairy production.

“We are deeply concerned about the dire economic conditions that continue to face Vermont’s conventional dairy producers and their families and the impact this is having on the economy, the working landscape, farmers and farm workers, the environment, and our rural communities,” the letter begins. “These are hardworking families and your leadership is needed to address what we believe requires a bold, new economic model that will result in a viable dairy sector in Vermont that lives up to our ideals and solves many of our farm-related issues.”

The letter was co-authored by former Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Roger Allbee and the team from Regeneration Vermont, a new nonprofit organized to promote agricultural solutions to the state’s environmental, climate and economic problems. The list of co-signers includes the Conservation Law Foundation, Lake Champlain International, Vermonters for a Clean Environment, VPIRG, NOFA-VT, Sierra Club (VT Chapter) and business leaders like The Alchemist Brewery, Butterworks Farm, and Chelsea Green Publishing.

The letter points out that, currently and for the foreseeable future, “Vermont’s conventional, non-organic dairy producers are getting paid less than it costs them to produce their milk — an economic travesty that is not only forcing farms out of business but is also giving rise to a host of ecological, worker justice, and animal welfare issues.”

The impacts from relying on this economically crippling, commodity-based model go far beyond just bankrupting farmers, but also include causing nearly half of Vermont’s water quality woes, promoting the use of GMO-derived feed, toxic pesticides and climate-threatening nitrogen-base fertilizers, giving rise to social and worker justice issues relating to farm and farm workers, and causing cow burnout and ill health from the dramatic push for more and more production of cheap milk.


USDA Publishes New Resource to Help Farmers Adapt to Climate Change

Farming is an inherently risky business. On top of daily weather events, market fluctuations, land access, taxes, and expenses, the stress of climate change exacerbates these problems and serves to make agriculture even less predictable. Farmers and ranchers all over the United States are already experiencing the effects of climate change and severe weather events, and this variability is only expected to increase in the years ahead.

So this begs the question– what can farmers do to maintain their livelihoods and America’s food supply in the face of a rapidly changing climate?

In response to these pressing concerns, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently released a new report to provide farmers with preparation strategies, coping mechanisms, and recovery actions to acclimate to climate change impacts. It will ultimately serve as a key resource for educators and advisors as well as farmers and ranchers. The report, titled Adaptation Resources for Agriculture: Responding to Climate Variability and Change in the Midwest and Northeast, was published by USDA’s Climate Hubs for the Midwest, Northeast, and Northern Forests.

In 2014, USDA created the National Climate Hubs program to collect data, scientific studies, and climate projections to gauge the effects of climate change on the environment. USDA maintains seven hubs–Pacific Northwest, Southwest, Northern Plains, Southern Plains, Midwest, Southeast, and Northeast–and three sub-hubs–Caribbean, Northern Forests, and California. According to USDA, “the hubs are intended to help maintain and strengthen agricultural production, natural resource management, and rural economic development under increasing climate variability by providing guidance on technologies and risk management practices at regional and local scales.”

For this report, the regional climate hubs assembled authors from different USDA programs, including theAgricultural Research Service (ARS),  the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and the Forest Service, in addition to conservationists and climate scientists.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) and our members believe that by giving farmers the tools they need to invest in their soil and actively adapt to and mitigate climate change, we can develop effective strategies that work for farmers, the environment, and the economy. The report published this week provides an important overview of key adaptation and mitigation strategies to achieve that goal, and below we highlight key findings from the report.

Climate Change is Already Affecting Northeastern and Midwestern Farmers

All across the country, climate change means warmer temperatures for longer periods of time, in addition to more frequent and stronger weather events. As the report points out, the Northeast and the Midwest are experiencing more rainfall than ever before­, with the Northeast’s precipitation having increased by 70 percent since the mid 20th century.

The report digs into the climate change-fueled problems farmers are already facing. Extreme weather events, heightened precipitation levels, flooding, and warmer temperatures all have the potential to directly damage crops, soil health, and critical farm infrastructure. Warmer temperatures and resulting droughts can degrade soil moisture content, and ultimately lead to lower yields and poor quality outputs.

The report also highlights the impacts of increased pests pressures and diseases. Changing climate patterns allow invasive species to grow and outcompete fields of crops. And with milder and shortened winters, both destructive insects and pathogens are set to become stronger and to cover a larger ground, impacting crop and livestock production across the country.

As we have previously reported, the impacts of climate change will cost taxpayers billions of dollars, but our nation’s farmers and ranchers have an enormous opportunity to mitigate these effects through conservation practices that sequester carbon, improve soil health, and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. At the same time, farmers will have to rapidly respond to the increased pressures from a changing climate, and the report highlights the key linkage between these two strategies.

The Linkage Between Adaptation and Mitigation

The report points out that climate change adaptation ­– a form of increasing resilience by reducing the impacts of these weather events– and greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation – an action that actively seeks to reduce noxious carbon and other GHG emissions to reduce harm to the environment – are separate concepts. However, the actions needed to address these two goals can often be one and the same. For example, using cover crops helps retain soil moisture content and prevent erosion (an adaptation strategy) while also increasing the soil’s carbon sequestration (a mitigation strategy).

Adaptation can require immediate responses, based up on daily weather events, in addition to planning months or years ahead to prepare for ever-evolving patterns and obstacles. Both are equally important to consider and can often work in tandem such that “short-term initiatives can inform longer term strategy through a ‘learn by doing’ approach,” as noted in the report.

When presented with constant fluctuations both daily and annually, it is evident that farmers will not be able to continue their practices under the status quo. The report presents two adaptation options: maintain but adjust current practices or change over more completely to a sustainable agriculture approach.


Farmer Survey Reveals Concern, Shifting Attitudes on Climate Change

More than 1,300 primary producers, from a wide range of industries and states, responded to the survey which was organised by Farmers for Climate Action.

Of those who responded, 80 per cent wanted politicians to do more about climate change, including renewed and secure public investment in research, development and extension programs, to help farmers adapt to a more volatile climate.

The same number of farmers wanted their agriculture sector representatives to do more to advocate for stronger action.

Peter Holding, a mixed farmer from Harden on the NSW south-west slopes and long-time climate science advocate, said there was a clear message that farmers wanted strong political leadership on the issue.

“Economics you can work around, debts you can work around, finance and all the other issues that we’ve got [as farmers], but if we continue to ignore climate change and it continues to get worse, I think we’re in real big trouble,” he said.

Climate change concerns go beyond the label

Not all farmers are comfortable subscribing to the idea of climate change, the survey found.

According to the survey, about 60 per cent of farmers believed in climate change. But even more respondents said they were concerned about changing conditions they had observed on their properties, even though they were not prepared to call that “climate change”.

“Eighty per cent of farmers acknowledge that things are happening on their farm: whether or not they accept climate change, that doesn’t really worry them. Quite frankly it’s kind of irrelevant,” he said.

“They’re suffering more frequent droughts, less rainfall, more bushfires, increased weeds, and have made the statement that it’s been happening with more regularity.

“They don’t know why it’s happening, and they’re not prepared to accept climate change, but what we’re trying to point out to the politicians is that these things are happening.”

Mr Holding acknowledged there may have been an element of self-selection in farmers who chose to complete the survey, but noted that with 40 per cent of respondents saying they didn’t believe in climate change, the sample was far from unanimous.