On Feb. 4th, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a report titled “Climate Change and Agriculture in the United States: Effects and Adaptation,” concluding that a changing climate would pose unprecedented challenges to U.S. agriculture that require immediate adaptive actions and further scientific research. The report opens with this strong statement: “The vulnerability of agriculture to climate change is strongly dependent on the responses taken by humans to moderate the effects of climate change.”
Combining professional input and scientific research from the government, universities, non-governmental organizations, industry, and private sectors, this peer-reviewed study provides an extensive overview of the climate change effects on U.S. agricultural production, suggesting that while farmers and ranchers have a long history of successful adaptation to climate variability, the accelerating pace and intensity of projected climate change effects over the next century requires major adjustments—simply put, we need to take action to moderate those effects in the United States, and worldwide.
“Climate change poses unprecedented challenges to U.S. agriculture because of the sensitivity of agriculture productivity and costs to changing climate conditions,” the report says. Through direct (e.g., rising temperature) and indirect (e.g., increased pest pressure) effects, climatic change affect crop and livestock productivity, as well as soil and water quality—resources of key importance to agricultural production. For regions of the country that are already climate stressed (like the drought-stricken Midwest in 2012), their agricultural systems will likely need more adaptive changes to remain productive and profitable in the face of climate change.
What is especially noteworthy about this report is that it goes beyond simply providing a generic framework to look at the impact of climate change on agriculture. Importantly, it emphasizes the merits of sustainable agriculture practices and their strategic roles in mitigating and adapting to climate change. By “developing drought pest, and heat stress resistance in crops and animals, diversifying crop rotations, integrating livestock with crop production systems, improving soil quality, minimizing off-farm flow of nutrients and pesticides,” sustainable agriculture practices help farmers cope with extreme weather events and increase the overall resilience of agricultural systems under a changing climate. “Enhancing the resilience of agriculture to climate change through adaptation strategies that promote the development of sustainable agriculture is a common multiple benefit recommendation for agricultural adaptation planning,” the report concludes.
Finally, the report calls for a coherent climate policy framework that highlights the synergy between mitigation and adaptation. We couldn’t agree more. As a member of a climate change consortium recently convened by the California Department of Food and Agriculture to make recommendations on strategies for climate change adaptation, we bring a sustainable agriculture perspective to the discussion, seeking state-level policy tools to support California producers in responding to climate-related challenges.