While some vehemently dispute the concept of “global warming,” there seems to be more general consensus that climate change — with more frequent weather-related extremes such as drought, flooding and runoff from heavy rainfall and wildfires — is a reality in our world.
The studies come and go, sometimes with little fanfare, but a new federal report on climate change released around Thanksgiving has raised some red flags about how a changing climate might affect agriculture’s long-term future.
The predictions were alarming for those of us involved in agriculture.
While technological advances have allowed U.S. farmers, over the past few decades, to continue producing more crops, despite greater frequency of climate-related weather events such as drought and flooding, we could actually begin to see productivity declines as a result of our changing climate.
Almost across the board, yields have been on the rise due to continual genetic improvement and crops engineered to better withstand detrimental weather and pests.
But “it’s not clear how far that progress can keep going,” Don Wuebbles, a University of Illinois professor and one of the authors of the Fourth National Climate Assessment, told the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.
Crop yields, over the next 30 years, are projected to drop back to the levels seen in the 1980s due to rising temperatures, extreme rain events and drought. To put that in perspective, 1984 corn yields nationwide averaged 106 bushels an acre, compared to 176 bushels last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Not only is climate change expected to hamper livestock and crop productivity, but warming temperatures could exacerbate water concerns, disturb world trade and ultimately, harm rural economies, especially in the heavily cropped Midwest, according to the report.
Compiled by more than 300 scientists throughout the federal government, the report found that the earth’s climate is changing more rapidly than at any point in the history of modern civilization, “primarily as a result of human activities.”
Illinois State Climatologist Jim Angel, another author of the report, said that, until now, the agriculture industry has done a good job of increasing production despite climate change, “but the weather is going to change so rapidly, we won’t be able to keep up.”
Too much water has been one of the biggest threats to crop production so far, Angel said, but in the future, temperature extremes, mainly summer heat, could emerge as a larger threat.
Tom Driscoll, director of the National Farmers Union Foundation and Conservation Policy, weighed in on the strange timing of the study’s release, saying it’s indicative of conflict on the issue within the Trump administration.
“It is also clear that a lot of folks in the participating agencies know that we are facing a huge problem and we can’t wait to address it,” Driscoll said. “They were willing to contradict President Trump, who has made his climate skepticism widely known, in order to disseminate this message.
“While the current administration is unlikely to take decisive, adequate action — or any kind of action — to mitigate and adapt to climate change, the publication of this assessment leads me to believe interests that have successfully resisted action on climate change will not be able to do so indefinitely. Further, the longer the wait, the more severe the consequences in the meantime and the more disruptive the eventual regulations or other remedial reactions.”
No one can say for sure what the future holds — and of course, no one controls Mother Nature — but one thing is certain: Agriculture can’t afford to rest on its laurels.
The world’s population is expected to reach almost 10 billion by 2050 — an increase of more than 2 billion — so we need our best and brightest minds to continue seeking advancements that will not only help U.S. farmers adapt to the changes to come and mitigate the effects but also meet the increasingly urgent food security challenges ahead.