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Climate Change Report: Short-Term Benefits, Long-Term Worries For Farmers

Amy Mayer
Harvest Public Media

The White House’s new climate change report predicts threats to agriculture, including severe weather, more pests and greater demands for water and energy.

The third National Climate Assessment is a summary of the current science about the nation’s climate and how it’s changing written by a panel of expert scientists.

Climate change is already producing more extreme weather such as drought and flooding, which is eventually going to cost farmers. But the climate in recent years has actually contributed to higher yields for certain Midwestern crops, such as corn, according to Iowa State University professor Gene Takle, who co-authored the agriculture chapter of the report.

“We are going through a period where there are some favorable changes occurring that have increased production,” Takle said. “But this isn’t likely to last.”

Rather, he said the evidence suggests that higher humidity and changes in precipitation and temperatures over the long term will make farming more difficult.

“We see that most crops and livestock are going to be challenged by climate change,” Tackle said, “and that it’s very unlikely, given current technologies, that we can continue this increase in average yields.”

The report calls for increasing the research commitment to finding adaptive strategies so farmers can continue their work. In California, for example, he said different cherry species may need to replace currently popular ones. And winemakers are already using shading strategies and off-season irrigation to combat ongoing drought conditions and high temperatures.

Takle said that as land stewards, farmers tend to be astute observers of even subtle changes on their land. And they tend to take a long view of their responsibility. Still, he noted that some have been slow to recognize climate change.

“Farmers are now starting to connect the dots and see, yeah, there is something at play here,” he said. “They’re still reluctant to adopt the scientific view that humans are responsible. Certainly they want to be good stewards of the land, but they have a very strong drive to help feed the world and so they feel this dilemma.”

But Takle said researchers have begun tapping into the wealth of data generated by farmers’ annual observations. By partnering, the farmers and researchers can both potentially contribute to finding solutions.

“We need to be thinking forward as to the kinds of adaptation strategies that we need to adopt,” Takle said, “while at the same time we are looking for measures to mitigate the underlying cause of climate change.”

That’s a tall order, though not something agriculture has to shoulder on its own.

Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames. She covers agriculture and is part of the Harvest Public Media collaboration. Amy worked as an independent producer for many years and also previously had stints as weekend news host and reporter at WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts and as a reporter and host/producer of a weekly call-in health show at KUAC in Fairbanks, Alaska. Amy’s work has earned awards from SPJ, the Alaska Press Club and the Massachusetts/Rhode Island AP. Her stories have aired on NPR news programs such as Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition and on Only A Game, Marketplace and Living on Earth. She produced the 2011 documentary Peace Corps Voices, which aired in over 160 communities across the country and has written for The New York Times, Boston Globe, Real Simple and other print outlets. Amy served on the board of directors of the Association of Independents in Radio from 2008-2015.
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