This year’s harvest season has been bittersweet. Interspersed with delightful treats like apple cider and pumpkin pie has been a disheartening stream of news from America’s farmers, many of whom are struggling to stay afloat amidst low crop prices, trade wars, and disasters stretching from east coast hurricanes to west coast wildfires. As if there weren’t enough to worry about, the newly released Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4) sends a sobering message that things likely won’t get easier anytime soon. Although, spoiler alert: it’s also clear that farmers have agency on climate change matters, and could play a pivotal role to make things better.
Climate impacts on agriculture are dire and getting worse
The NCA4 is a quadrennial scientific review mandated by Congress to help the nation “understand, assess, predict and respond” to climate change. Building on the most recent version (2014), the overarching message for agriculture is unambiguous: climate change is already impacting farms and ranches nationwide, and there are many challenges ahead. The several hundred page document is filled with important details, but here are some top takeaways:
- The farm and food system as we know it is transforming before our eyes, and the productivity we’ve benefited from is in jeopardy. Year by year, increasing temperatures, shifting rainfall, and rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are messing with farming basics–like growing seasons, pollination, and more. As conditions deteriorate for some crops, many weeds and pests are expected to thrive, cutting deeper into productivity. For farms along the coast, sea level rise and salt intrusion are encroaching, creating additional strains. As a result of multiple forces, significant declines in productivity of livestock and major crops, such as corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, and cotton, are expected within the century.
- Extreme events are devastating farms and ranches, and rapidly getting worse. Extreme rains, droughts, and fires cause costly damage and disrupt farmers’ capacity to adapt to the steady pulse of more gradual changes. For instance, heavy rainfall drowns crops and flushes valuable soils and fertilizers into waterways. Increasing frequency and duration of droughts can wreak havoc on crops, livestock and dwindling water resources. And in increasingly warm and dry conditions, wildfires are becoming more frequent and damaging throughout grasslands and forests, many of which are used for, among other things, the important agricultural activity of livestock grazing.
- Climate change is contributing to deteriorating soil and water quality, entrenching challenges that have ripple effects felt far beyond farms. As heavy rainfall pummels farms and sweeps soils and fertilizers off fields, polluted water travels to rivers, streams, lakes, and oceans where it contributes to toxic algal blooms and dead zones. The effects of such water quality woes have already translated to decades of costly problems in the US, including contaminated drinking water, impaired fisheries and recreation industries, and damaged rural infrastructure. Not to mention the fact that excess water running off of farms can contribute to flooding and destruction in communities far downstream.
- In farming communities across the country, lives and livelihoods are on the line, with some populations suffering disproportionate risk. Climate change poses serious health and safety risks to agricultural workers, who are increasingly exposed to extreme heat, which can cause heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and heart attacks, with additional implications for lost wages and livelihoods (the NCA4 reports that heat stress in outdoor workers will lead to an estimated 2 billion labor hours and billions of dollars in wages lost annually by 2090). Combined with declining yields and deteriorating natural resources, these factors will put additional stress on agricultural and rural communities, many of which already experience high levels of poverty, unemployment, and other challenges. To make matters worse, critical infrastructure, such as for communication, transportation, and water, are all at risk. And, some groups will be more vulnerable than others, such as low income communities, which are disproportionately communities of color, and Indigenous peoples, and are likely to bear the brunt of the consequences.
- The number of people who go hungry each day will climb–in the US, and abroad. Despite today’s productive farming system, far too many American households struggle to put the food they need on the table. The USDA estimated that around 12 percent of US households were food insecure in 2017 as a result of stagnant wages and other barriers to accessing and affording healthy food. Climate change impacts–including declining productivity, price shocks from extreme weather, and effects on food processing, storage, transportation–could lead to even lower levels of food security in the US and worldwide.
Farmers and rural communities can be part of the climate solution
While the impacts described in the NCA4 are alarming, compounding effects and certain surprises could make matters even worse than predicted. That’s why it comes as a relief that the report suggests several possible steps forward, including ways in which farmers and rural communities can be part of the climate solution.
As the report notes, transforming our food and farm system can directly reduce emissions (agriculture contributes about 9% to the US carbon footprint) and also pull carbon out of the atmosphere and into plants and soil. Farmers can make these changes happen by adopting complex crop rotations, managed grazing, and many other practices that boost soil health, make farms more resilient to extreme weather, and solve other problems (for example, with water and energy) along the way.
Some pioneering farmers are already adopting new practices and seeing benefits. But many more will have to join in to avoid the worst climate impacts. And in order to shift practices at the required scale, we must ensure farmers and ranchers have the support, tools, and know-how they need. While the NCA4 doesn’t take the step of making policy recommendations, one thing seems clear: setting farmers up for success will set us all up for a brighter future.