If you felt this past winter had especially memorable weather, know that it wasn’t only in your town. This past winter was filled with weather irregularities, including the warmest temperatures ever recorded in parts of Puerto Rico and Hawaii, the coldest temperatures recorded in parts of Alaska since 1989, below average temperatures in the Rockies, above average snow in the Rockies, well below average snow in the Sierra Nevadas, moderate drought in a third of California, and above average flooding in the Southeast (NOAA, 2020). California noted the driest February on record (with California still experiencing drought in April), putting it at greater risk for wildfires this summer (Bloomberg, 2020). With these major weather pattern changes attributed to global climate change, it’s important to keep in mind how this impacts agriculture, and vice versa.
California leads as the primary state for agriculture production in dairy products and crops, and coming in second only to Texas in livestock. Almost all of the almonds, pistachios, walnuts, stone fruit, olives, and most of the avocadoes, grapes, lemons, lettuce, tomatoes, and melons, are grown in California. California is also plagued with wildfires, earthquakes, mudslides, and floods. In California, and every arable state in the U.S., climate change can result in deforestation, biodiversity loss, soil erosion, land degradation, desertification, soil salinization, and ocean acidification. Further, agriculture and climate change are circular processes, where climate change makes weather patterns less reliable creating more difficult farming conditions resulting in greater fertilizer use, land use changes, and risks for farmers and consumers.
The USDA recognizes several major impacts that climate change will have on conventional farming including a decline in crop yields (particularly for soybeans, corn, rice, sorghum, cotton, oats, and silage), water scarcities with surface water decreasing as much as 50% in some regions, increases in commodity prices, increases in pests, and decreases in profitability for certain crops or farming practices (USDA, 2019). Pests are expected to cause between $1.5 billion and $3 billion in destruction because of their increased range and spread (USDA, 2019). Cattle will be more susceptible to heat stress, which impacts the amount of milk produced and its nutritional value. In 2010, this resulted in a $1.2 billion loss for livestock farmers (USDA, 2019). By 2030, this will result in increased livestock costs, feed costs, and milk prices (USDA, 2019). Broadly, the USDA recommends research into drought resistant crops and heat-tolerant cattle breeds, energy efficient cooling houses for cattle, “emergent technology” and “innovations” (USDA, 2019).
Just over 10% of greenhouse gases emitted from the U.S. are from agriculture (USDA, 2020) and between 6 and 8% of the worlds greenhouse gases can be attributed specifically to food waste. And yet, rather than solidifying restrictive policies or supporting structural changes to commercial agriculture, the USDA recommends to continue business-as-usual with only reactionary changes. In reality, this issue does not warrant innovative technology, but rather a return to farming as it should be. Organic and regenerative agriculture provide significant options for climate change mitigation and adaptation. Organic soils are superior in protecting against disease and pests, soil erosion, land degradation, soil salinization, ocean acidification, and in promoting water infiltration, drought tolerance, and carbon sequestration. On a broader scale, changing diets to reduce meat consumption and also combatting food waste similarly does not require new technology. These options in many cases would be more economical, and provide greater long-term security for the environment, and for farmers and consumers. With more extreme weather happening each year, there is no time to waste to embrace these changes.