NPC Luncheon with Tom Vilsack, Secretary, U.S. Department of Agriculture

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack described the effects of climate change on agriculture and detailed three new steps his department is taking to mitigate them at a National Press Club luncheon June 5, 2013.


Expected increases in the frequency, duration and intensity of weather events driven by climate change will affect how farmers raise crops and livestock in the future, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

USDA states in a recent report that “climate change is a global agricultural phenomenon that is affecting the global agricultural agriculture-impact-climate-change-photosystem.” It also says “climate-driven yield reductions and, in some cases, enhancements in different regions will affect world markets” and global food security and increase the risk that pests and pathogens spread through agricultural exports.

The report also says that climate change may cause geographic shifts in production that create new markets in some areas and may require some countries to rely more on agricultural imports to make up for domestic shortfalls.

“The threat of a changing climate is new and different from anything we’ve ever tackled,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said June 5 at the National Press Club in Washington.

He outlined the potential long-term effects of climate change on agriculture and USDA’s visions of solutions to environmental challenges, starting with farmers who “are on the front lines of identifying threats and adapting to meet

He said that as temperatures increase and precipitation patterns change, crop production will need to shift to where water is available. Where a farmer may be growing water-intense fruits now, in a generation on the same land, a farmer might grow drought-resistant row crops.

Vilsack said that where winters no longer are cold enough to kill invasive insects, those insect populations are likely to increase. Increased temperatures are also likely to result in more invasive weeds and grasses. Controlling both insects and weeds will bring increased costs to farmers, he said.

Changes in climate are also likely to affect the timing of when pollen is released to fertilize plants, USDA adds.

Vilsack said the effects of climate change extend to forested areas where “intense and destructive wildfires threaten to become the norm.” He said in the United States, the “fire season” is now 60 days longer than it was in the early 1990s.

Livestock also are vulnerable to temperature stresses, USDA reports, as their ability to adjust their metabolisms to cope with temperature extremes can lead to lower productivity of meat, eggs and milk.

To help meet environmental challenges, USDA released an online carbon dioxide management tool to allow U.S. farmers to calculate how much carbon their conservation efforts can remove from the atmosphere, Vilsack said.

“By improving soil health we can simultaneously improve productivity, protect water resources, improve biodiversity, reduce erosion and help put carbon back into the ground where it belongs,” he said.

USDA also will establish seven U.S. regional hubs to serve as sources of hazard and adaptation planning information on climate change for agricultural producers and foresters.

Internationally, USDA says, climate change affects land use, environmental certification of agricultural and food products and 1800_climateagriculture_803production systems, biofuel production, deforestation and agriculture’s role in mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.

The USDA report states that increasing international awareness of agriculture and climate change presents opportunities to promote science-based free trade rules. USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) specialists work through U.S. embassies worldwide to engage country officials on climate change and to report on how weather events affect local food security, USDA says.

The USDA report further states that climate change may increase demand for USDA technical assistance to help partner country scientists and farmers undertake climate-resilient and low-emission agricultural planning. Several countries, the report states, already have requested USDA expert assistance related to climate change. USDA and the U.S. Agency for International Development will sponsor professional exchanges so that American and international scientists can work side by side on climate change research.

FAS also collaborates with the State Department on the Energy and Climate Change Partnership of the Americas to promote renewable biomass for energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions among partner countries. The partnership created in 2009 is led by the United States, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Mexico, Peru, and Trinidad and Tobago.

“Developing modern solutions to a changing climate requires a doubling down on collaboration between farmers, governments, researchers and industry,” Vilsack said.

The full report (PDF, 11.81MB), Climate Change and Agriculture in the United States: Effects and Adaptation, is available on USDA’s website.

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