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Climate changes changing agriculture?

Editor’s Note: The following story outlines a recently-released report on the impact of global climate change and an opposing view from a rancher but is not intended to be an exhaustive report on the subject, nor to be an endorsement of the report.

By Marilyn Bay Wentz

Since the 1996 farm bill dismantled decades-old controls that kept supplies of farm commodities on an even keel with demand, farm prices have been extremely volatile. This is not news to producers, who in 1999 received as little as half of what they received for the same commodities in 1996. Now it seems another twist—climate change—could contribute to increased production in some parts of the country, driving commodity prices even lower.

Within the last few months, the Rocky Mountain region has experienced some of its worst fires ever. What started as a controlled burn in northern New Mexico destroyed part of the town of Las Animas. In June, the Hi Meadow and Bobcat Fires in Colorado destroyed more than 21,000 acres and an estimated $20 million in property including 73 homes, deeming these fires some of Colorado’s largest and most expensive fires. Some are pointing to events such as these as evidence of global warming. Weather records confirm the increase in average temperatures and a decrease in precipitation for our region.

Over the last 100 years, annual precipitation has decreased by 10 percent in eastern Montana, North Dakota, eastern Wyoming and Colorado. Throughout the northern and central Great Plains, temperatures have increased more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit over the past century, with parts of Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota experiencing increases of up to 5.5 degrees Fahrenheit. This trend is expected to continue throughout the 21st century.

Rocky Mountain Farmers Union member John Guldemann of Animas, N.M., raises Texas Longhorns in the southwestern part of the state where some consider themselves to be in the seventh year of a drought. However, he is not overly concerned with the impact of global climate change.

“I don’t think it is anything to get alarmed about. If it is suppose to happen this way it will,” Guldemann said. “If research proves that the earth’s temperature is rising due to emissions and other human factors, I’m not optimistic that we will be able to get together to make changes due to the politics involved both nationally and internationally.”

According to a new study, global climate change is expected to increase production in some areas of the United States because rising temperatures mean greater concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This will generally result in higher photosynthesis rates and also may reduce water losses from plants.

The latest and most extensive research done to date on the impact of global climate change, “Climate Change Impacts on the United States: The Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change,” was released June 12.

The draft report was compiled by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, a team of over 300 scientists from government, academia and the private sector, and released for public comment. According to a news release announcing the release of the report, it was extensively peer reviewed. Once the report is finalized, it will be presented to President Bill Clinton and to the U.S. Congress.

Some of the key findings for the next 100 years as cited by the draft report include:

•Global Warming & Temperature Variability

U.S. temperatures are expected to rise 5-10 degrees Fahrenheit on average over the next 100 years. However, changes in temperature are expected to vary from one region to the next.

•Precipitation Changes

Heavy and extreme changes in precipitation are likely to be more frequent in some areas, while other regions become drier.

•Threatened Ecosystems
Some fragile ecosystems, such as our own Rocky Mountain tundra, are likely to disappear entirely.

•Changing Water Supplies

In addition to concerns for drought and flooding, heavy precipitation during short periods of time are expected to increase erosion and threaten water quality. Also, the rise in sea level due to more melting in Arctic waters could threaten coastal structures.

•Food Production

While overall U.S. farm production levels are expected to rise due to greater levels of carbon dioxide, the report cites concerns that higher levels of production will put downward pressure on prices, which in turn will place greater economic stress on farmers.

According to the report that deals specifically with agriculture, consumers are likely to see a one percent reduction in retail food costs due to lower farm prices, while producers will likely see their profits decline by 13-17 percent. The disparity, according to the report is “because much of the final cost of agricultural goods to consumers reflects processing, transportation, and retailing costs that are not affected by climate.” The economical impact on farmers could be even worse if other parts of the world also experience greater production.

The increases in U.S. agricultural yields are expected to vary greatly from region to region and among different crops. The study reports that the largest increase in yields is expected in the Midwest, West and Pacific Northwest. Crops expected to experience the biggest increase in yields include cotton, corn, soybeans, sorghum, barley, sugar beets and citrus. For other crops, such as wheat, oats, hay, potatoes and tomatoes, yields are projected to increase in some cases and decrease in others.

Both the need for irrigation and its economic viability are expected to decline due to increased precipitation in some areas and because of shorter growing times in other areas. As a result, the study predicts that much of the land that is currently irrigated will return to dry land production or will not be cultivated at all.

Other concerns affecting agriculture that were cited in the report include poorer ground water quality due to increased flooding and runoff, an increase in pesticide use paralleling the increase in crop yields, climate variability, and extreme events (storms).

In order to mitigate the negative impact of these predicted changes, the study outlines some adaptations farmers can consider such as

•altering planting seasons to avoid extreme weather;
•using different crop varieties; and,
•improving drainage systems to reduce damage from excessive precipitation.

The report also notes that farmers will likely rely more on six-month to one-year climate predictions to plant, harvest and market their crops.

Of course, the report does not address how farmers should protect themselves from the downward pressure on prices due to increased production. (If it did, there would certainly be great interest in this topic from producers!) This does not preclude individuals and farm organizations from raising awareness of the problems and asking that it be addressed in policy discussions.

The draft report can be viewed on the Internet by logging on to http://www.gcrio.org/National Assessment/ Public comments will be taken for 60 days, beginning with the day the report was issued in draft form (June 12, 2000).