The Trump administration has gone to great lengths to suppress climate change research, weaken key research institutions by moving them out of Washington, and scrub mentions of climate change from government websites and documents. Despite this denial, climate science is advancing. Agriculture is one of the hardest hit sectors, yet U.S. farm policy is largely devoid of climate considerations, and most climate change policy proposals insufficiently address agriculture.
In response to this challenge, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), of which the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy is a member, released a policy position paper that overviews the latest science on climate change and agriculture and includes federal policy recommendations to advance climate action that will help farmers meet the challenge and be part of the solution.
The policy position paper synthesizes the latest science on how climate change impacts farmers, how agriculture contributes to climate change, and how farmers and rural communities can contribute to the solution. Agriculture will be challenged by increased average temperatures, alterations in rainfall patterns, more frequent occurrences of weather extremes, and altered patterns of pest pressure. Increasing volatility will destabilize crop yields, contribute to livestock stress, and heighten economic uncertainty for farmers already facing the most challenging farm economy since the 1980s.
We’ve seen these effects already; in Minnesota, the snowiest February on record paired with extreme flooding led to the latest planting to date. Now, farmers are trying to harvest as frost and snow have already hit and struggling to get crops out of the field.
“Climate change is now our shared reality, and the adverse effects are adding new challenges to farms like mine every year,” said Tom Nuessmeier, a Minnesota livestock and crop farmer and organizer with the Land Stewardship Project. “In order to not just adapt, but to play a positive role in combating climate change, we need to develop new farming practices and systems that store more carbon in the soil.”
Nitrous oxide and methane
While agriculture is a relatively minor emitter of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide is released through fertilizer application and other practices that increase nitrogen availability in the soil, and methane is a byproduct of the increasing use of liquid manure storage lagoons found on concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Agriculture also indirectly contributes to climate change when carbon stored in the soil is released as land is converted from forests, native prairie, and other grasslands to annual crop production with tillage and chemical inputs.
Achieving an agricultural system that is both adapting to and mitigating climate change requires focusing on systems of practices and understanding farms as holistic operations. While individual practices such as cover cropping or no-till can accrue carbon in the soil, integrated systems of practices based on agroecology have the greatest potential to mitigate GHG emissions and create a productive, resilient agriculture system.
Although the science is clear, farmers’ management decisions are based on many complicated factors. Habits are deeply personal and often rooted in family tradition. Corporate consolidation has constrained farmers to certain seed varieties, chemicals, animal genetics, and management practices to meet requirements of what the industry is selling and buying. And the U.S. agriculture secretary, Sonny Perdue, said in October that “in America the big get bigger and the small go out.” This sentiment of “get big or get out” is built into current farm policy and has left many farmers struggling. This is where reformed policy can – and must – support farmers in implementing scientifically supported practices that help with adaptation and mitigation of climate change.
A blueprint for policy action
The policy position paper will be delivered to Congress as a blueprint for policy action and a challenge to the administration’s false narrative that farmers neither want nor need strong climate action. The findings of the paper will also be used to inform recommendations to the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, which undertook its first hearing on climate change and agriculture this fall.
NSAC is clear in its support for an immediate transition to a resilient agriculture system based on sustainable and organic practices. We need agriculture policy solutions that are scientifically grounded and support the viability and diversity of farmers, ranchers, and rural communities by building resilience, soil health, economic justice, and profitability.
Tara Ritter is a senior program associate for climate and rural communities at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. She does research and advocacy on climate and agriculture policy, including work on the farm bill, conservation practices and carbon markets. Ritter holds a B.A. in environmental studies from St. Olaf College and a M.S. in environment and natural resources from The Ohio State University.
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