Two recent reports outlining the effects of climate change on crop and food production state that adaptation is essential to continued productivity. Agricultural experts discussing these reports in a Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) briefing on May 1 concluded that the time to act is now.

The reports, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report and the National Climate Assessment (NCA) report, which is in draft form and due out May 6, both conclude that climate disruptions to agricultural production have increased recently and will continue with increasingly negative impacts on most crops and livestock over the next 25 years in the U.S. and globally, with consequences for food security not only through changes in crop yields, but also through changes to food processing, storage, transportation, distribution and retailing.

“This isn’t just a concern for farmers,” said Claire O’Connor, attorney and agricultural water policy analyst, NRDC, and author of NRDC’s “Soil Matters” report, during the briefing. “We are also talking about a real impact on consumers in terms of supermarket prices, the availability of food and even food quality.”

Climate change and resilience in agriculture

“Research over the last twenty years has revealed a clear and consistent message that global and U.S. climates are changing and that humans are largely responsible,” said Dr. Eugene S. Takle, convening lead co-author of the agriculture chapter of the NCA report, professor of agricultural meteorology and atmospheric science, and director of the Climate Science Program, Iowa State University. Examples of this climate change, according to Takle, include heat and drought impacts on crop production in California and on animals and grazing resources in Texas and the Great Plains, and a shift in seasonality of precipitation in the Midwest.

These trends in temperature and precipitation are likely to continue, explained Takle, and they are consistent with global trends of wet regions becoming wetter and more humid while dry regions are becoming drier and hotter. Over the past twenty years, farmers have been able to maintain high production by adapting to climate change, including planting earlier, planting longer-season hybrids, harvesting later, purchasing larger machinery to plant in smaller weather windows and planting higher corn populations.

While some of these changes are favorable for agriculture, Takle stated, “By midcentury, it is unlikely that adaptation strategies will be sufficient to avoid negative impacts on most U.S. crops and livestock production."

The physical aspects of climate change, like heat and drought, are not the only concerns affecting production, according to Dr. Lewis Ziska, contributing author to the NCA and IPCC reports, and plant physiologist, Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. Biological limitations such as pests, invasive species and even the nutrition quality of crops will also pose an issue to agriculture in the next few decades. Warming winters are not only causing shifts in the length of growing seasons, but also where certain species are growing and spreading. There is also the issue of biological food quality: “As the C02 has risen in the atmosphere, we see generally across the board for all cereals a reduction in protein content,” said Ziska.

The future of farming

Whether or not they believe in climate change, farmers are already adapting.

“There may be some farmers out there who are still denying that climate change is happening, but trust me, none of us are ignoring it” said Matt Russell, a fifth generation Iowa farmer and State Food Policy Project coordinator, Drake University. The increase in extreme weather in Iowa over the last decade is changing the discussion among farmers, including Russell.

“In the next decade, we’re going to move away from debating whether to deal with climate change to an all-out race against the clock to both adapt to it and to innovate to reverse the causes,” continued Russell. “American farms can be part of the solution.” The solution, according to Russell, involves the same practices that help protect water and soil to help stabilize the climate. “We need to stop putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and we need to start pulling them back and putting them into the ground, and this is something American farmers like me can do.”

Soil, according to O’Connor, is the best insurance policy that farmers have against climate change. Healthy soil is more resilient to extreme weather events like droughts and floods. NRDC’s “Soil Matters” report describes how farmers can build farms that are more resilient to climate change.

“Climate change is a tough challenge, but we know what we need to do,” concluded O’Connor. “It’s time to act. The next generation of farmers depend on it.”