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Suppressed USDA climate research details big impacts for Minnesota farmers

Publication of climate-change related research by the USDA has plummeted under the Trump administration.

How are climate change and human interaction impacting sunflowers in regions like Minnesota?
Photo by Yoel J Gonzalez on Unsplash

In the Midwest, sunflowers are contracting diseases at higher rates than ever before. Forest composition is changing dramatically. And tree killing insects are spreading across North American forests in greater numbers.

These are just a few conclusions from studies listed on a 634 page report released by the Senate Agriculture Committee last week — studies that Senate Democrats say the United States Department of Agriculture has intentionally made difficult to find.

In June, Politico reported that the Trump administration refused to publicize dozens of government funded studies that carry warnings about the impact of climate change. In the report provided by Senate Democrats, at least thirty of the studies center on Minnesota’s forests and agriculture industry.

Downplaying research

The USDA has four primary research agencies: the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), Economic Research Service (ERS), National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).

And each functions differently: the ARS is the primary in-house research agency, the ERS provided social science research and market analysis, NASS provides basic and accurate statistical information for ranchers, farmers, and public officials, and NIFA invests in agricultural research.

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The agency’s research on climate change focuses not on the causes of climate change, but on how it will have practical implications for farmers.

During the Bush era, the USDA’s climate scientists were essentially allowed to do as they liked, in terms of publishing their own science. Under Obama, they advocated publicly about the dangers of climate change and the need to adapt agricultural practices.

Under the current administration, at least according to Senate Democrats, that independence has changed. Democrats say the administration has removed references to climate change from agency websites, restricting agency scientists from speaking about climate change at conferences and blocked testimony to congress. Overall, they charge, government studies aren’t getting to the farmers that need them.

On Wednesday morning, Politico obtained a USDA internal memo that suggested that 38 specific publications that might be postponed, or discontinued, due to decreasing amounts of staff at the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

“Due to decreased staffing levels, ERS will for considerable time be unable to provide the same level of breadth and depth in its economic research and outlook analysis as it did in the past,” the memo reads. This also impacts funding for research conducted by universities that depend on NIFA grants.

Adding to the uncertainty in the USDA’s research divisions: The Trump administration’s plan to shift agency personnel from Washington, D.C. to Kansas City. (Minnesota was reportedly also considered as a destination for the scientists.) Only 19 of 280 USDA climate scientists from two USDA research agencies, the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), said they would make the move. That would leave the agencies with only 7 percent of the original 280 climate scientists, depleting the agency of vital resources and personnel.

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“You get the sense that things have changed, that this is not a place for you to be exploring things that don’t agree with someone’s political views,” Lewis Ziska, a plant physiologist at formerly at USDA’s Agricultural Research Service for more than two decades, told Politico.

Vital research

Brent Hulke, of the Agricultural Research Service, co-authored the sunflower study, “Phomopsis stem canker of sunflower in North America: Correlation with climate and solutions through breeding and management.” Essentially, his research boils down to one question: How are climate change and human interaction impacting sunflowers in regions like Minnesota?

The study looked at the spread of Phomopsis disease, which can cause premature ripening of seeds and diseased stems, resulting in lower yields.

Hulke said using field research and climate data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, he and his coauthors demonstrate that the confluence of human interaction and climate change, specifically increased precipitation, has “resulted in documented increases of disease.”

The research conducted by Hulke suggests that crop breeders are responding to the threats as quickly as they can, but that acceleration of climate change may make keeping the pace more difficult in the future.

Beyond showing a clear impact from climate on sunflower, Hulke had another reason why this is important:  “Soybeans and some weeds are also susceptible to Diaporthe, the same disease,” he said.

According to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, Minnesota ranks third in soybean production in the United States. Last year Minnesota produced 389 million bushels of soybeans with a value of $3.328 billion.

Minnesota Soybean Association President Jamie Beyer said she hasn’t had a chance to look over all the studies on the Senate report yet, but she is certain of one thing: the climate crisis is impacting farmers. “What I can tell you, is that farmers in my region — the Red River Valley — are absolutely dealing with climate change,” she said. “And we have made significant operational changes and long-term investments to adapt to our environment.”

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On Beyer’s own farm, she’s seen a dramatic increase in precipitation, compared to years prior to the 1980s. Because of now muddy harvest seasons, the equipment on Beyer’s farm has tracks, not wheels. There are drainage systems to keep the soil from being oversaturated and they are in the process of being updated, because many of them were built for rainfall prior to the 21st century. “To keep growing plants on a large-scale, outside, year-to-year, a successful farm has to adapt in real time,” she said.

‘The assault on science’

Sen. Tina Smith, who serves on the Senate Agriculture Committee, said that the USDA’s downplaying of its own research is dangerous for the people the agency is supposed to serve.

“Climate change poses a direct threat to agriculture in Minnesota. I’d like to point out that under President … Bush, the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service published eight news stories about climate research per year. Under President Obama, that number rose to 11 times per year,” said Smith. “Under the current administration, climate news stories have only appeared once per year.

“The USDA should not downplay risks to ag — they should be doing everything they can to make sure farmers and ranchers are prepared to make the changes they need to in order to adapt to extreme weather and other impacts of climate change.”

Fourth District U. S. Rep. Betty McCollum, who is the Chair of the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, said the behavior from the administration is entirely inappropriate.

“This assault on science has real impacts on people and communities,” she said. “Keeping USDA climate science from the public inhibits farmers’ ability to be resilient to increasingly severe and erratic weather and climate patterns—like the extreme rainfall and flooding seen throughout much of the country, including in Minnesota, over the last year.”

McCollum has regularly fought the Trump administration’s scaling back of climate science priorities. In the fiscal year 2020 appropriations bill, McCollum prioritized funding meant to combat climate change, increasing the amount of funding from the prior year against the recommendations of the White House.

Rebecca Boehm, an economist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, says the suppression of climate science will ultimately fall on farmers. “It’s compounding issues where the function of the ERS and NIFA is definitely at risk,” she said. “It just seems like the worst time to lay this on farmers when they’re already under pressure from so many different directions.”