Few industries are affected as much by the weather as agriculture. That puts farmers in the eye of the climate change hurricane.
Data indicate changes in the global climate will result in changes to farming practices. Add to that policy decisions that touch agriculture, and those who make their living on a tractor are dealing with the consequences and the effort to reverse it.
“Climate change is a long game, and we are not prepared to think in long-game scenarios,” said Jenifer Wightman, a crop scientist with Cornell University.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, agriculture accounts for only 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the country, or the equivalent of 345 metric tons of CO2 released into the atmosphere. Still, there is pressure on the industry to address the issue.
“Our goal always is to reduce our total GHG. It’s that simple, but it’s actually quite difficult to implement,” said Wightman, speaking on a recent conference call organized by USDA. “All three greenhouse gases must be counted together to ensure that a change in practice results in net greenhouse gas reduction and that they’re permanent or long-lasting.”
Those three consist of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, the latter having the greatest impact.
Meteorologist Jim Rasor said many people have a skewed understanding of the issue.
“Climate change is real,” he said at a recent Illinois conference. “The planet is getting warmer. But warmer doesn’t mean hotter.”
Instead, he said, cooler is getting warmer. Decades of his own research shows that.
“My average high temperature is not getting hotter, but the average low is going up,” said Rasor, a weather consultant who is chief meteorologist with WSIL-TV in Carterville. “A warmer atmosphere is going to hold more humidity; that’s simple science. It is raining more.”
That can affect water retention on the farm, meaning more need for tiling in some places.
An environmentally friendly practice such as use of cover crops is one tool that can combat the problem. But not all cover crops are beneficial from a greenhouse gas standpoint, according to Peter Woodbury.
“A legume cover crop will decrease nitrous oxide emissions,” said Woodbury, Wightman’s colleague at Cornell. “Non-legume cover crops increase greenhouse gas emissions.”
According to research done in New York’s Tompkins County, non-legume cover crops such as rye increase net emissions because more nitrogen fertilizer is needed, which results in release of gases not only in the fields, but also in the manufacturing process.
“Based on farmer practices and Extension recommendations, additional fertilizer is used for cover crops,” Woodbury said. “There is an increase in fertilizer use and emission from the production of the fertilizer.”
In its recently released Action Plan for Climate Adaptation and Resilience, USDA listed several areas of concern in agriculture.
“Climate change threatens growth in agricultural productivity through direct effects such as changes in temperature and precipitation patterns, and secondary effects such as increased pest and disease pressures, decline in pollinator health, reduced crop and forage quantity and quality, and infrastructure damage,” the paper said.
“Agricultural productivity is additionally threatened by impacts to water supply and increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.”
Regarding the climate- change controversy that has become a divisive political wedge, Rasor is a bit of a skeptic. While he is a believer in the basics, he has reservations about causes and remedies.
“There are people who believe all climate change is due to man. There are people who believe we have nothing to do with it. I’m in the middle,” he said. “If we remove all of man’s influence how long would it take for the climate to go back to whatever it is these people want to go back to? The consensus from the experts is 500 years, and some say never.”
If that’s the case, the focus should be on adaptation rather than mitigation, Rasor said.
“Forget about how we’re going to fix it and start thinking about how we’re going to adjust to it,” he said.