A Stormy Forecast for U.S. Agriculture

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"A Stormy Forecast for U.S. Agriculture"

The link between global warming and extreme weather events is evident – much as conservatives try to deny this reality (see “Why do the deniers try to shout down any talk of a link between climate change and extreme weather?“).  Research predicts that the trend will intensify, most likely causing more crop losses for farmers.  This piece by guess blogger Tom Kenworthy, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, was first published here.  The picture is of a sign outside the Iowa Welcome Center, which was partially submerged by flood water on June 15, 2008.

Farm belt lawmakers are posing a challenge to passage of clean-energy legislation in Congress because of a proposed Environmental Protection Agency ruling that they claim could make it harder for ethanol produced from corn and other U.S. crops to meet the federal renewable fuel standard under a 2007 law. But torpedoing the American Clean Energy and Security Act, H.R. 2454, would actually hurt farmers because harms linked to global warming””including drought, flooding, and other crop damage””would continue unabated.

House Agriculture Committee Chair Collin Peterson (D-MN) has threatened to bring down the entire ACESA if he doesn’t get his way on the renewable fuel standards and jurisdiction over ACESA in the agriculture committee. The Hill reported that committee Democrats want to alter “everything from fuel standards to renewable energy definitions to regulations governing the trading of carbon derivatives created through a cap-and-trade system.”

“[I]f they don’t want to change it, they’ll have to find the votes some other place,” Peterson told ClimateWire. “In my district a ‘no’ vote would be a good vote.”

[JR:  Note, more recently, Peterson said “We’re not trying to stop this bill.”]

The opposition of Peterson and some other agriculture committee Democrats stems in part from EPA’s draft ruling issued May 5 that determines whether fuels qualify as renewable. To do so, fuels over their life cycle must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent compared to gasoline. The draft EPA rule includes so-called “indirect land use” changes in that life-cycle determination. For example, if corn production in the U.S. for biofuel results in deforestation abroad that would mean more carbon emissions and would have to be taken into account in determining if corn ethanol is renewable.

But in fact, about 15 billion gallons of ethanol production capacity in place or under construction when Congress revised the 2007 RFS would be exempt from greenhouse gas reduction targets.

While it is only natural for lawmakers from states that have seen a boom in ethanol production to defend the interests of their constituents, they could make a tragic blunder if they block ACESA””the best prospect for action on global warming in the last decade. Without congressional action on climate change legislation, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions will continue to rise and the impacts on agriculture will grow.

The link between global warming and extreme weather events is evident, and research predicts that the trend will intensify in coming decades. A 2008 report by the interagency U.S. Climate Change Science Program, “Weather and Climate Extremes in a Changing Climate,” identified changes in extreme weather as “among the most serious challenges to society in coping with a changing climate.” Led by researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the report was the first comprehensive look at weather and climate extremes in North America:

“[I]n recent decades most of North America has been experiencing more unusually hot days and nights, fewer unusually cold days and nights, and fewer frost days”¦Heavy downpours have become more frequent and intense. Droughts are becoming more severe in some regions, though there are no clear trends for North America as a whole.”

In the future, the interagency report predicts, “With continued global warming, heat waves and heavy downpours are very likely to further increase in frequency and intensity. Substantial areas of North America are likely to have more frequent droughts of greater severity.” More intense drought and floods could devastate farm income.

The link between climate change and a dramatic increase in weather-related natural disasters since the mid-20th century was the subject of a 2006 meeting in Munich, Germany, between scientists and the insurance industry. An insurance company database showed that weather-related disasters had increased sixfold since the 1950s, compared to only a slight increase in non-weather disasters.

Reporting on the meeting, the journal Nature noted: “Insurance companies, acutely aware of the dramatic increase in losses caused by natural disasters in recent decades, have been convinced that global warming is partly to blame”¦. At a recent meeting of climate and insurance experts, delegates reached a cautious consensus: Climate change is helping to drive the upward trend in catastrophes.”

A Government Accountability Office investigation in 2007 found that private and government insurers including the federal crop and flood insurance programs paid out more than $320 billion for weather-related losses between 1980 and 2005. “Key scientific assessments report that the effects of climate change on weather-related events and, subsequently, insured and uninsured losses, could be significant,” the GAO concluded.

Clearly the implications of inaction on climate change are profound for U.S. farmers and taxpayers as the extent and cost of extreme weather events increase in coming years.

Another example: A report in 2000 by Harvard Medical School’s Center for Health and the Global Environment found that extreme weather events have “caused severe crop damage and have exacted a significant economic toll for U.S. farmers over the past 20 years” and in future years “could rise significantly due to greater climate variability, and to increases in insects, weeds, and plant diseases.” Since that report’s release, worldwide carbon dioxide emissions have increased at a rate that is 33 percent higher than emissions growth in the 1990s, 25 percent higher than in the 1980s, and 54 percent higher than in the 1970s.

Total damages””including agricultural losses””from the 1988 drought and 1993 Midwest floods were $79 billion, the report found. In the future, it predicted, “variability of precipitation””in time, space, and intensity””will make U.S. agriculture increasingly unstable and make it more difficult for U.S. farmers to plan what crops to plan and when.”

Crop losses insured by the federal government have also risen substantially in the past two decades, due to higher participation by farmers, rising crop prices, and big loss years like 2008, when the federal program paid out nearly $8.6 billion, much of it because of flooding in the Midwest. From 1990 to 1999, federally insured crop losses totaled about $1.3 billion a year; from 2000 to 2008, they averaged about $3.8 billion a year, according to data compiled by the Risk Management Agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

While some areas and some agricultural sectors could see some benefit because global warming will lengthen growing seasons and higher carbon dioxide levels spur plant growth, temperature and precipitation extremes will be costly for many farmers.

Looking just at increased soil moisture that comes with higher precipitation driven by climate change, authors of a study published in 2002 by Global Environmental Change estimated that the roughly $1.5 billion per year in crop damage from high soil moisture could double by the 2030s.

And an April report by Environment America found that, worldwide, climate change has cost corn farmers $1.2 billion per year since 1981, and that U.S. corn growers could face annual losses of $1.4 billion in the future.

In 2007, the Center for Integrative Environment Research at the University of Maryland report, “The U.S. Economic Impacts of Climate Change and the Costs of Inaction,” included a review of previous studies on climate change impacts on agriculture and water for various regions of the United States:

“The uneven nature of climate change impacts throughout the country makes the net impacts of global warming on the agricultural sector uncertain”¦ Some northern regions are likely to experience fleeting economic benefits with more profitable crops migrating there (as the climate becomes hospitable to those crops.) As climate conditions continue to change, however, those temporary benefits may be lost. Other regions, such as the Southeast, West, and southern Great Plains may face challenges from increased temperatures, water stress, saltwater intrusion, and the potential increase in invasive species and pests””the impacts of which may cause costs to outweigh benefits.”

Examples cited by the researchers are a potential agricultural loss of as much as $10 billion by 2090 in the Edwards Aquifer region of Texas, and productivity losses exceeding 50 percent for wheat and soybeans in the southern and Great Plains regions.

Other research predicts that the American Southwest will by mid-century face extremely difficult choices between supplying water for agriculture and the region’s booming cities. A study reported in Science in April 2007 said that a drought similar to conditions during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s could become the norm in the Southwest by 2050.

American farmers, like all of us, have a huge stake in the fight to stem global climate change. To hold their future hostage to a rulemaking battle over ethanol would be a grave, shortsighted disservice.

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6 Responses to A Stormy Forecast for U.S. Agriculture

  1. Leland Palmer says:

    Farmers could also make additional money selling their biomass crop waste – so long as the climate remains stable enough for agriculture.

    The rivers that coal fired power plants are cited on provide a natural transport network for biomass co-firing or biocarbon replacement firing – so long as the rivers continue to run.

    We have huge resources of biomass available in this country:

    From Oak Ridge National Labs:

    II. Resource and Usage Statistics

    1. How much biomass exists right now?

    Worldwide, total “standing crop” biomass (99% on land, and 80% in trees) is a huge resource, equivalent to about 60 years of world energy use in the year 2000 (1250 billion metric tonnes of dry plant matter, containing 560 billion tonnes of carbon). For the U.S. alone, standing vegetation has been variously estimated at between 65 and 90 billion tonnes of dry matter (30-40 billion tonnes of carbon), equivalent to 14-19 years of current U.S. primary energy use. However, the Earth actually grows every year about 130 billion tonnes of biomass on land (60 billion tonnes of carbon) and a further 100 billion tonnes in the rivers, lakes and oceans (46 billion tonnes carbon). The energy content of this annual biomass production is estimated to be more than 6 times world energy use or 2,640 exajoules (2500 Quads) on land, with an additional 2024 exajoules (1920 Quads) in the waters.

    We have huge biomass resources in this country – unless global warming ignites huge firestorms and sends billions of tons of carbon from this biomass resource into the atmosphere.

    We are a huge country, rich in biomass, rich in rail transport, rich in rivers for biomass collection and transport, rich in technology, and rich in education.

    We have everything we need to fix this problem – except a flexible financial elite that will adapt to and accept the reality of our changed situation.

    Yes, the farmers can profit immensely from the new green economy, by selling their crop residues to be used for biomass co-firing or biocarbon production, by growing biomass crops on marginal agricultural land, and so on.

    So long as the climate is stable.

  2. K L Reddington says:

    “More intense drought and floods could devastate farm income.”

    This means higher crop prices. Yield goes down and prices go up. Our biggest input cost variance last year was the price per ton of fertilizer.

    Gov intervention all the way to food export embargoes really has cost the government a lot. With the new energy bill, the EPA wants to elbow the USDA out of the way.

    Selling crop residues for ethanol production is stupid. It is ignorant, It enhances erosion and requires more topsoil runoff and topsoil going down the rive. Minimuym tillage practices have cut down dust, wind erosion and improved subsoil loisture retention.

    Leland selling biomass in the form of crop residue is ignorant and every farmer knows it. This is why city folks and government involved with legislating farming practices is very destructive to the conservation habbits on farms.

    Let me give an example of how selling residue is raping the soil. I have raced sialboats inland for over 30 years. We have algae blooms that of course effect drinking water quality and flavor for municipal water palnats. By encouraging farmers to change 2 things, leaving residu on top instead of plowing it uneer and injectiong fertilizer instead of top application, we have reduced Nitrogen run off and algae is gone. Now people want to buy the corn and sorghum stalks for ethanol?
    ethanol has another problem. it uses more BTU’s in total to produce than it creates.

    Keep the MBA’s in the city appartment buildings and out of farming. Russia has a lot of land and imports food because their governemtn seems to claim how to farm and their farmers are dictated what to do.

    Ethanol plants are shuttered and going chapter 11.
    there are 4 big reasons.

    They should go broke except POET.

  3. Leland Palmer says:

    Hi K.L. Reddington-

    Selling crop residues for ethanol production is stupid. It is ignorant, It enhances erosion and requires more topsoil runoff and topsoil going down the rive. Minimuym tillage practices have cut down dust, wind erosion and improved subsoil loisture retention.

    Leland selling biomass in the form of crop residue is ignorant and every farmer knows it. This is why city folks and government involved with legislating farming practices is very destructive to the conservation habbits on farms.

    Let me give an example of how selling residue is raping the soil. I have raced sialboats inland for over 30 years. We have algae blooms that of course effect drinking water quality and flavor for municipal water palnats. By encouraging farmers to change 2 things, leaving residu on top instead of plowing it uneer and injectiong fertilizer instead of top application, we have reduced Nitrogen run off and algae is gone. Now people want to buy the corn and sorghum stalks for ethanol?
    ethanol has another problem. it uses more BTU’s in total to produce than it creates.

    Well, I’m not advocating ethanol right now, but if I was I would point out that while ethanol from corn returns maybe 1.6 times energy invested, ethanol from cellulose could be closer to a return of 10 times as much energy returned as invested.

    If you investigate some of the investigators in this area, you will find out that Pimentel recieves money from Sarah Scaife May, a radical negative population growth source of funding, through her Laurel Foundation.

    You will find that he makes many questionable assumptions in his “research” and that his numbers are radical outliers from other studies.

    Another source of outlier net energy figures is Patzek, of Berkeley, who also runs an institute funded by oil companies, and investigates things like deep injection of CO2 to increase secondary oil recovery.

    Regarding soil depletion of carbon, most crop waste left on the ground is degraded by microbes, and most of the carbon from it goes into the air, rather than the soil. More net carbon could be injected into the soil by carbonizing the biomass into charcoal, selling part of it, and using the rest as biochar.

    Finally, we have to do these things to turn the corner on global warming. Carbon depletion of soils won’t matter if they are baked into a sterile mass by runaway global warming.

    I think it’s possible to harvest a lot of “waste” biomass, reduce the amount of carbon that soil microbes put into the air, and increase soil carbon content all at the same time – by applying our knowledge of soil science to the problem.

    More later, back to work. :)

  4. Gail says:

    Cliimate change will impact agriculture in frighteningly unpredictable ways. Not just the impacts of extreme weather, but an excess amount of CO2 concentration in itself is detrimental to plants. It seems a no-brainer that if plants evolved to survive in one type of atmosphere, then if the composition is altered, they aren’t going to be adapted to it!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vFGU6qvkmTI&feature=channel_page

  5. David B. Benson says:

    Check the price runup for phosphorus, an absolutely required plant nutrient.

  6. Famine is one of the original 4 horsemen of the apocalypse. A few more horsemen have been added, such as giant meteor impact, but it is famine, war, disease and pestilence that we will be facing soon and for sure. We in North America could add a lot of land area to food agriculture by growing food instead of cotton and tobacco, and by cutting down forests. The question is: when do we have to and will it actually do any good. It isn’t happening because it isn’t profitable or maybe even possible. Farmers are sticking to the land that they have always farmed. They probably know something, like that corn won’t grow in a lot of places where it isn’t growing now.
    Can we genetically engineer corn to grow on thawed out tundra? Maybe, but the research has to be done years in advance. Since climate can change a lot quicker than we had previously led ourselves to believe, there is a lag time between when climate changes and when people begin planting a newly engineered crop in a newly thawed out place. That lag time is a term of years with no food.
    How do you know in advance when you should go plow the tundra? Civilizations in the past have vanished when the rain moved 900 miles in 1 year. Climate does that. If the rain moved 1 mile each year for 900 years, no problem. It doesn’t. We just don’t have the science yet that can tell us what plan to make. We can’t forecast the weather years ahead. We can’t forecast the climate 2 or 3 years ahead either. We can make many years ahead climate forecasts and 2 week weather forecasts, but the 2 do not meet in the middle.
    The only reasonable thing to do is to work very hard to keep the climate as was. The folly of using food for fuel will soon be seen in grocery store prices.