There is not a day, it seems, that goes by without yet another grim assessment of the U.S. drought that is now reaching historic proportions.
The combination of searing heat and virtually no rain has shriveled our typically abundant fields and ignited our nation’s forests. As Americans, this is in stark contrast to what we have been used to: Year after year, American farmers provide a plentiful supply of high-quality, low-cost food. We’ve gotten used to it and as a nation we have counted on it.
But if this year is any indication of our future, and many scientists and even former climate skeptics say it is, then we are in trouble. Previous scientific assessments had difficulty linking long-range climate to shorter-term weather events such as droughts or extreme rain events. But new research in the last two years has changed that—along with the minds of some former climate skeptics. We shouldn’t miss the opportunity during this year’s drought and farm bill debate to adjust policies for the climate constrained future that is on the horizon. In fact, the risk management provisions of the Farm Bill are really the first serious effort to tie the core of the Farm Bill provisions to managing risk in the face of natural disasters like heat, drought, and climate and precipitation variability.
Today’s hard reality is that by 2050, another 2 billion people will be added to the planet. In essence, the world’s farmers, ranchers, and fishers will be expected to produce more food in the next 40 years than they have had to in the last 8,000 years combined.
If we are going to produce that much more food under increasingly difficult and uncertain growing conditions, business as usual will no longer suffice. As a nation, we’ve got to start taking meaningful steps to prevent the worst, while preparing for an increasingly challenging future. And part of that means it is time for American agriculture to acknowledge what is happening, recognize that the long-term future of famers and ranchers is at stake, and commit to be in the forefront of a rational discussion addressing the challenges. I suggest the following:
• Provide greater support for intensive research initiative into drought resistant crops and grazing systems.
• We recognize that water scarcity is going to get more common and widespread and will threaten key U.S. crop production regions. Technologies and policies must be put in place to reduce water utilization and increase efficiency. Agriculture must address this problem since it accounts for 70% of the overall fresh water utilization in the world, which is unsustainable given the increasing urbanization of the world.
• We make a commitment to assist farmers and ranchers at home and abroad with the knowledge, technologies and techniques that will allow them to adapt as climate change increasingly impacts their agricultural operations.
The U.S. has a dual role and responsibility—to grow all it can and do it with a minimum of new adverse environmental impacts. Helping farmers and the environment is critical, but ensuring that hungry men, women and children have the nutritious food they need for good health is equally vital. It’s no longer about managing our farm production to meet targets; job one is now responsibly maximizing crop and livestock production while increasing sustainability, limiting weather risk, minimizing greenhouse gas emissions and optimizing carbon sequestration.
To accomplish these goals, we have to help farmers by carrying out research on crop varieties and growing techniques, as well as providing producers with new crop and risk management tools, including better information about the impacts of climate change and ways in which they can adapt. Moreover, as we set agricultural policy every five years or so in the Farm Bill, we should seek to enact incentives that promote the best and most efficient farming and ranching practices, ones that will be best suited to a warmer and drier world. We have gotten more and more sophisticated about developing financial risk management tools for producers to utilize, but we have yet to apply the same level of enthusiasm to merging those tools with the techniques and policies that producers can use to mitigate climate risk.
That needs to change. It will not be sufficient in the future simply to provide crop or livestock insurance to producers when crops fail; we need to ensure that we do everything in our power to prevent crops from failing in the first place. Billions of hungry people will be depending on it. And ultimately we need to decide how best to weigh our needs for food production in ways that align with the goal of preserving our agricultural resources and our climate.
Our future might very well depend on it.
This article was originally published in The Hill on August 27, 2012.
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