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

Posted on Wednesday, November 23rd, 2016 by Jeanne Merrill

This is a re-posted blog from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.   

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.

Mid-Century Strategy Calls for Immediate Climate Action

As we have previously reported, our nation’s farmers and ranchers have an enormous opportunity to mitigate the effects of climate change through conservation practices that sequester carbon, improve soil health, and reduce GHG emissions. In response to the growing need for immediate action, the White House recently released the “Mid-Century Strategy for Deep Decarbonization”, which sets out a long-term vision for the United States to achieve emissions reductions of 80 percent or more by 2050. This builds upon the target adopted as part of the Paris Agreement in December 2015, through which the world took a tentative but important step toward addressing the dangerous impacts of climate change.

The Mid-Century report stresses that GHG emissions reductions can absolutely co-exist (and in fact already have) with a strongly growing economy. Within this overall strategy for emissions reduction, the report lays out the critical role of working lands:

“How we manage our land resources, both in the near term and over the next several decades, will determine whether U.S. lands can remain a robust carbon sink while delivering across a suite of other objectives, including needs for additional food, fiber, forest products, carbon beneficial forms of bioenergy, living space, recreation, and the suite of environmental goods essential to healthy ecosystems and human well-being.”

Addressing the key role of farmers and ranchers in emissions reductions, the report highlights critical management strategies that could be utilized to improve soil health and increase carbon sequestration, including: cover crops; residue management; resource-conserving crop rotations; and planting field borders and other areas with perennial grasses.

The report also underscores opportunities in the livestock sector, such as the introduction of management-intensive rotational grazing, which can increase soil carbon storage on pasture land. This method frequently moves cattle to new pasture, thereby helping to prevent overgrazing so that pasture plants have continuously high biomass and build soil carbon in the process.

Policy Response

These two recent reports raise important considerations for federal agricultural policy. Increasing the investment in agricultural research, which has stagnated, and focusing particular attention on the myriad of researchable questions tied to creating a more resilient and climate-friendly agriculture needs to be front and center. Protecting the funding base for federal farm conservation programs that provide farmers and ranchers with the tools they need to remain in production, while investing in soil health and protecting the environment is also paramount. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), and the Grasslands Initiative are key tools that should be leveraged to support these critical land management strategies.

The significantly higher cost projected for federal crop insurance programs in light of climate change makes clear that crop insurance reform is also much needed. NSAC believes that all farmers deserve access to an adequate safety net to protect against the inherent risks of farming, and we also believe that a sound risk management program must include a central role for improvements in the conservation of natural resources and in the overall resilience of farming enterprises.

Continuing to treat risk management and conservation as two separate subjects and isolating conversations on each in policy silos is no longer acceptable. Existing federal crop insurance barriers to good conservation need to be removed. No less importantly, we need a new strategy to use the very significant taxpayer and farmer investment in the federal crop insurance program to increase resiliency and encourage climate change mitigation. Conservation can help reduce yield variability while building long-term soil health and productive capacity, lowering crop insurance program costs in the process while helping to address and mitigate the increasing pressures of a changing climate.

The need for policy solutions that build resilient agricultural systems, mitigate climate change through conservation, and address the growing economic threat posed by a changing climate has never been greater. The incoming Administration has an opportunity to make real, measurable progress in building the long-term health and productivity America’s farmlands and natural resources. We hope this opportunity will be taken advantage of for the health and prosperity of our economy, our family farms and ranches, and our environment.

Stay Connected
Get newsletter and blog updates and action alerts from CalCAN