U.S. Ag Sector Positioned to Meet Challenges of a Changing Climate

The release this week of the latest assessment of climate conditions by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has generated a lot of media traffic over the degree of certainty the multinational panel has ascribed to human activity as the source of the change. Regardless of the cause, changing climate conditions are a reality that must be addressed, and U.S. agriculture, with advances in technology, the production of cleaner-burning biofuels and improved land management practices, is establishing a solid track record in not only meeting the challenges posed by that reality, but offering solutions to the problems climate change is creating.

It’s unsettling to learn that the world’s leading climate scientists agree that 1983 to 2012 was likely the warmest 30-year period of the last 1400 years and that the warming trend is likely to continue. Furthermore, the extensive drought and flooding in recent years underscores the assertion made in the IPCC assessment that the contrast in precipitation between wet and dry regions and between wet and dry seasons will increase.

The value of agriculture in the strategy to address the growth in greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) that contribute to a changing climate was evidenced by the appearance last month at Climate Week NYC by Pam Johnson, the president of the National Corn Growers Association. The multi-day event in New York City was a summit of government, business and policy leaders brought together to build coalitions that can drive innovation and deliver practical solutions.

Johnson, who joined at the podium dignitaries including former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, Jim Kim, president of World Bank, and Todd Stern, U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change, talked about the scientific and technological advances used by agriculture to not only meet increased demands, but a changing environment. Responding to critics of agriculture who argue that food and biofuel production practices stress our natural resources, Johnson asserts that “modern agriculture isn’t the problem; it’s the solution.”

“The good news, Johnson said, “is that technology advancements in agriculture are helping farmers become more resilient in the face of volatile weather, while also significantly decreasing greenhouse gas emissions” that contribute to climate change.

It’s been amply demonstrated that growers now produce more crops on increasingly limited arable acres; that they sequester carbon with low-till practices; and that they produce biofuels like ethanol made from corn and biodiesel derived from soybeans emit significantly fewer greenhouse gases than comparable, fossil-based fuels.

Johnson’s assertions are in line with the recent findings from Paul Vincelli, Extension professor and Provost’s Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Kentucky, who makes the case that “intensification” is reducing the carbon footprint of U.S. crop production.

Vincelli cites four recent, prestigious research papers that underscore his point, showing that for every acre of land cultivated in the United States, producers grow as much food as is reasonably possible, with as little carbon emission as possible. By excelling at crop intensification through agronomic/horticultural improvement, U.S. growers have seen astonishing increases in yields.

High‐production agriculture in the United States stands in contrast to the situation in many developing countries, where crop yields are quite lower and where the path to producing more food often is to cultivate more land, an expansion that can as much as triple the carbon footprint of food production there, Vincelli says.

In other words, U.S. growers continue to produce more and more food – and fuels – while holding their impact on the atmosphere steady.

The 25x’25 Alliance earlier this year issued a report that offers recommendations that will not only enable the U.S. agriculture and forestry sectors adapt to changing climate conditions, but continue the trend cited by Vincelli and others of reducing emissions. Agriculture and Forestry in a Changing Climate: Adaptation Recommendations, which was compiled by a collaboration of agriculture, forestry, business, academic, conservation and government leaders who spent more than 18 months exploring the impacts of a changing climate and other variables on U.S. agriculture and forestry, focuses on production systems, risk management, ecosystem services and communications.

Through 2014, 25x’25 will be supporting project outreach partners, including farm and commodity groups, by offering presentations, workshops, webinars and additional forums to generate dialogue and foster greater understanding within the agriculture and forestry sectors of climate change’s impacts and the near term, high value and low-cost solutions that only farmers, ranchers, and foresters can deliver.

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