USDA report details climate change threat to U.S. and global agriculture

By Bill Tomson

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WASHINGTON, Dec. 2, 2015 - The USDA today unveiled a new report warning that global warming will continue to cut agricultural production in the U.S. and around the world and reverse the recent trend of rising food security in some of the poorest countries.

Longer droughts, higher temperatures and stronger storms over the coming decades will reduce agricultural production and raise the demand for U.S. food aid, according to the new report released by USDA as Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack attends the United Nations climate change talks in Paris.

“Climatic stresses impact all of us and have real consequences on food production, dramatically affecting the yields of crops and threatening food security,” Vilsack said in a statement. “All nations have a role to play in supporting agricultural growth and driving the innovation necessary to survive.”

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Food insecurity worldwide has dropped by about 20 percent over the past 22 years, but global warming could erase those gains as farmers increasingly struggle with decreasing yields and consumers are faced with rising prices, according to the 146-page report, Climate Change, Global Food Security and the U.S. Food System.

The effects of global warming have already reduced yields for world grain farmers by 2.5 percent since 2000, the report concluded, but stressed that the worst impacts are yet to come and will hit tropical countries first.

But the United States is not immune.

An Economic Research Service report released in November predicts that global warming will hit U.S. farmers hard. By 2020, yields will be falling significantly for corn, soybeans, rice, sorghum, cotton and oats, according to the researchers. Drought and dwindling ground water supplies will reduce corn and soybean production by about 8 percent and cut the sorghum harvest by about 15 percent.

“We've seen increasing incursions of invasive pests and diseases and extreme weather, everything from bark beetle to severe droughts, which have cost billions in lost productivity,” Vilsack said. “We've faced a series of record wildfire seasons in the western United States - the worst decade in U.S. history for wildfire. The growing El Nino weather pattern in the Pacific has created the perfect storm for disasters to strike the already damaged and weakened western landscape.”

And as conditions worsen overseas, it will become harder and harder to source the roughly $116 billion of agricultural food imports that U.S. consumers depend on and prices will rise, today's report warns. And as production declines in the poorest countries, demand for U.S. aid will increase.

That new demand will come on top of the spiraling need for more and more commodities to feed a rapidly expanding population, Vilsack said.

“We've all seen the statistics: Nine billion people by 2050,” Vilsack said, an increase of almost 2 billion from the current world population. “Feeding these new citizens will require at least a 60 percent increase in agricultural productivity. We must do all of this in the face of climate change that is threatening the productivity and profitability of our farms, ranches and forests.”

Last year the USDA set up seven “climate hub” research stations across the country to coordinate efforts on mitigating the effects of increasingly erratic weather like the four-year drought in California and a South Dakota blizzard that killed tens of thousands of cattle in 2013. The hubs, which Vilsack called “part of our broad commitment to developing the next generation of climate solutions,” were developed as part of President Barack Obama's national Climate Action Plan.

Obama and other world leaders have departed the Paris talks, leaving it to their representatives to come up with a new multilateral agreement by Dec. 11. It's unclear if any new substantial commitments will agreed upon, but Obama stressed the situation is dire.

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This summer, I saw the effects of climate change firsthand in our northernmost state, Alaska, where the sea is already swallowing villages and eroding shorelines; where permafrost thaws and the tundra burns; where glaciers are melting at a pace unprecedented in modern times,” he said on Monday.

But it's not just government officials stressing the need for action. National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson on Tuesday urged Congress to help producers meet higher conservation goals and support the Obama administration's efforts to fight global warming.

“Earth's climate is changing - temperatures are rising, extreme weather events are becoming more frequent, and precipitation patterns are shifting,” Johnson said. “Farmers and ranchers need access to both robust risk management tools and resources to help them cope with this new reality, or global food security is at risk.”

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