USDA: Farmers must both recognize climate change & become a part of the solution

On the heels of his agency's release of a comprehensive report on climate change and its effects on U.S. agricultural production, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said yesterday that America’s farmers and ranchers are a critical part of the solution and that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) would be there to help them step up to the plate.

As I discussed here, USDA made news earlier this month with a sobering message: climate change is real, climate change is the result of human action, and climate change poses unprecedented challenges to U.S. agriculture.

Yesterday, Secretary Vilsack followed up that message with both a call to action and a promise to focus aggressively on climate change:

"We're going to be very aggressive in this effort because we understand and appreciate, after the floods of 2011 and the drought of 2012, that folks need this assistance now…And by doing this, by taking these actions, we can help to mitigate and help to manage risks."

Amongst other things, the agency plans to ramp up its efforts to encourage sustainable farming practices, both to help farmers be more resilient to climate impacts and to mitigate climate change by reducing agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and increasing carbon sequestration. This comes as very welcome news to anyone who cares about reducing climate pollution and ensuring the stability, resilience and health of our agricultural system.

As my colleague Claire discusses in an upcoming paper on the impacts of a changing climate on U.S. agriculture, scientific experts, including leading agronomic organizations and USDA researchers, expect climate change to result in more frequent droughts, more intense precipitation events, greater water requirements for growing crops, and more significant pest problems for American farmers.[1][2]  Some of the areas that can expect to be hit hardest by climate change are also some of the nation’s most agriculturally productive.[3]

Luckily, the solution lies in practices that solve immediate environmental problems—for example, reducing soil erosion—while at the same time mitigating climate change through greater carbon sequestration and increasing farmers’ incomes both in the near and long term.

It’s not often you find such a triple threat solution to such a serious and far-reaching threat.

Specifically, USDA points to best management practices such as conservation tillage, cover cropping and greater crop diversification, as well as more efficient irrigation as a key strategy to adapt to the intense rainfall and severe drought episodes that are expected to accompany climate change. In his speech, Secretary Vilsack said his agency will take steps to encourage multi-cropping, such as planting two types of crops in an area, planting cover crops between growing seasons and integrating livestock into cropping systems.

That's encouraging news, since farming systems that are more ecologically integrated can help farmers better conserve their lands and protect water resources in times of drought.

On the other hand, failure to act is likely to be catastrophic and will lead to huge and ever-increasing expenditures to prop up a stressed and failing agricultural system. This is not hyperbole. American farmers have already experienced nearly $14 billion in crop losses from last year’s drought alone—a drought so bad that water levels in the mighty Mississippi River dropped 30 to 50 feet below normal levels, making it nearly impassable for barge traffic. 

This map from USDA's Risk Management Agency is worth a thousand words. And that doesn’t include losses to ranchers in places like Texas, where the worst drought in state history devastated cattle herds in 2011.

USDA is not alone in identifying climate change as a risk. As my colleague Theo discussed here, the Government Accountability Office (GAO)—the government’s nonpartisan watchdog—rang the alarm bell on climate change, showing how exposed federal and state agencies and programs such as the National Flood Insurance Program and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are to the devastating impacts of climate change and calling for a government-wide strategic approach with strong leadership to manage related risks.

While Secretary Vilsack spoke specifically to the agricultural community yesterday, the bottom line is that we must make all of our communities cleaner, stronger, and more sustainable. Failure to take action to reduce the pollution that’s causing our climate to change and warm means saddling ourselves with steep costs, devastating losses, and mounting dangers. An important step is limiting emissions from our largest source of climate pollution: existing power plants. You can read more about NRDC’s innovative plan to cut carbon emissions from America's power plants 26 percent by 2020, and urge the Obama administration to take action to protect us from dangerous carbon pollution, here.

[1] Working Group Representing the American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, & Soil Science Society of America, Position Statement on Climate Change (2011).

[2] C.L. Walthall, et al., Climate Change and Agriculture in the United States: Effects and Adaptation, USDA Technical Bulletin 1935 (2012).

[3] Sujoy B. Roy, et al., Evaluating Sustainability of Projected Water Demands Under Future Climate Change Scenarios, TetraTech 2010.

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