Last week, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a special report on climate change, calling for “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society,” including agriculture, in order to keep atmospheric warming from exceeding 1.5°C by 2030, and to avoid global crisis. Though the conclusions of the report are dire, there is much that farmers can do to build resilience to climate change on their farms, and powerful ways that the agriculture sector can mitigate future change.
Though climate policy has, unfortunately, become a highly polarized, partisan issue in this country, this consensus from thousands of the world’s leading scientists and experts, and the severity of the warning, is difficult to ignore.
The IPCC report synthesizes current climate science in order to compare the potential impacts associated with international climate targets set during the 2015 Paris climate talks: a global warming limit of “well below 2°C,” and a more ambitious 1.5°C cap.
If the current trend continues, atmospheric temperature is projected to rise by 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052. At the current 1°C above pre-industrial levels, we are already experiencing historic droughts, wildfires, heat waves, and sea-level rise. Additional warming brings risk of “ecological and social disaster,” including worsening food and water shortages, and threats to crop yields and fisheries, which will disproportionately affect developing countries.
Why should a temperature shift of only a few degrees be cause for concern? For context, a global mean temperature shift of 4°C is the difference between our current climate and the last ice age. If we reach 5°C above pre-industrial levels by the end of this century, this rate of warming will have been unmatched in the past 50 million years.
Implications for farmers
The report has serious implications for the entire global food system. The report’s authors call for agriculture to reverse “the degradation of our land, soils and forests so that they are more productive and absorb more carbon dioxide,” and for consumers to “limit demand for greenhouse-gas intensive foods,” in order to curb warming. A tall order. There is, however, huge potential within the global food system to both reduce emissions and adapt to climate changes already set in motion.
Farmers spend their careers exposed to, and reliant on, the land, water, air, and other natural resources now threatened by the changing climate. Farmers and ranchers across the Western U.S. already battle historic and catastrophic heat, drought, and wildfire, and farms of all sizes in North Carolina, Florida, and along the East Coast are struggling to rebound from Hurricane Florence, Hurricane Michael, and catastrophic weather events that are only expected to increase in severity and frequency over the coming decades.
Though farmers care more about the weather than almost anyone, climate change is still a divisive issue within many farming communities across the country. Among the farmers we surveyed in the 2017 Young Farmer Survey, 66% have already experienced unpredictable weather patterns, more severe storms, increased pest pressure, increased uncertainty in water supply, and/or increased rate of disease, which they attribute to global environmental change.
There are many ways that young farmers and ranchers are already adapting, while also curbing future change.
Key climate-smart agriculture practices
- Building soil health – improved soil health and organic matter sequesters carbon, increases fertility, and moisture retention, and reduces the need for synthetic inputs
- Planting trees on agricultural land – agroforestry, silvopasture, intercropping, reforestation, and afforestation have many climate benefits. Trees pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, provide localized cooling, reduce erosion, and increase soil moisture. Riparian buffers and windbreaks serve the additional benefits of improving water quality, reducing erosion, and providing habitat for pollinators and beneficial wildlife
- Conservation tillage – no- or reduced-tillage (with reduced synthetic inputs) can improve soil health, structure, and soil moisture, increase soil carbon and organic matter, and also reduce emissions from farm vehicles
- Perennial cropping – incorporation of perennials increases soil health, organic matter, and carbon sequestration
- Cover cropping increases sequestered soil organic carbon, increases soil moisture, reduces erosion, reduces need for synthetic inputs, benefits pollinators
- Green and animal manure composting and mulching for higher soil organic matter, carbon sequestration, soil moisture, to suppress weeds/reduce synthetic pesticide use
- Rotational grazing, which strategically moves animals between paddocks every few days, can be a powerful way to boost soil carbon sequestration. Adaptive multi-paddock grazing (AMP) may even have the potential to be carbon-neutral
The National Young Farmers Coalition is an energized and powerful group of farmers, community leaders, and supporters, and we hope that you will join us in demanding climate policy change at the local, state, and federal level. We are here to support you in accessing technical assistance and programs available to protect your farm and livelihoods against the impacts of climate change.
Moving forward, we will keep you updated on the news, resources, and opportunities available to help you engage in climate advocacy and adaptation on your farm. Here are some helpful climate resources and programs available for U.S. farmers. (This list is by no means exhaustive.)
Climate Smart Agriculture
USDA’s Risk Management Agency’s Crop Insurance Program
Farm Service Agency’s Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program (NAP)
2017 Wildfires and Hurricanes Indemnity program (2017 WHIP)
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