Drought spurs ‘very aggressive’ USDA focus on climate change

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Department of Agriculture will focus aggressively on climate change following last year’s crippling U.S. drought.

USDA plans to ramp up weather forecasting and encourage more sustainable farming practices to mitigate climate impacts on farmers and ranchers, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told an industry audience at the department’s annual conference last week.

The department also plans to boost climate research and is exploring the creation of regional hubs to study impacts.

The focus on climate change comes after a historic drought last year gripped much of the United States, including the nation’s main corn-producing regions. For five months, more than 60 percent of the country was in moderate to extreme drought conditions, costing the agriculture sector more than $35 billion.

“We’re going to be very aggressive in this effort because we understand and appreciate, after the floods of 2011 and the drought of 2012, that folks need this assistance now,” Vilsack said. “And by doing this, by taking these actions, we can help to mitigate and help to manage risks.”

Last year’s drought cannot yet be tied definitively to climate change, Roger Pulwarty, director of the National Integrated Drought Information System, testified at a recent Senate congressional hearing. But the background climate is unquestionably changing, he said, and by midcentury, climate change is expected to be affecting the magnitude of long-term drought conditions.

A White House analysis late last year found U.S. agricultural research ill-equipped to meet several environmental challenges, including climate change. Climate change, the report said, will contribute to severe weather, change the life cycles and ranges of pests, cause weeds to emerge earlier and reduce soil moisture. All of those changes, the report said, will affect farmers’ ability to grow food.

“The United States must develop greater resilience to a changing climate through a broad research program aimed at new agricultural strategies to adapt to shifts in weather and climate,” said the report by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (E&ENews PM, Dec. 7, 2012).

USDA earlier this month released two reports of its own that found wide-ranging effects from climate change on rural areas, including altered precipitation patterns, increased production costs for meat and favorable conditions for plant pests (ClimateWire, Feb. 6).

USDA is working to improve weather forecasting models to predict the changing climate’s effects on pests and disease, Vilsack said. It will also increase its efforts to assist farmers with soil health management, as well as create programs to better account for crop losses more quickly and accurately.

The department has also instructed the Forest Service to take climate change mitigation strategies into forest management.

“There’s no question that the climate is changing,” Vilsack said. “We recently furnished two assessments in USDA on the impact of changing climates on agriculture and forestry, and the conclusion was pretty obvious. Higher temperatures lead to more intense weather patterns. More intense weather patterns lead to greater stress for crops and livestock and increased tree mortality.”

USDA says it will also take steps to encourage multi-cropping, such as planting two types of crops in an area, planting cover crops between growing seasons and integrating livestock into cropping systems. Such systems will allow for better conservation of lands and help protect water resources in times of drought, Vilsack said.

“We hope that we will do a better job of improving our communication about the conservation benefits that will come from multi-cropping,” Vilsack said, “and in turn give us yet another tool to deal with a changing agricultural and managing the risk of weather.”

USDA is still predicting rosy numbers for next year’s commodity crops. At its annual outlook conference last week, USDA chief economist Joseph Glauber projected an average corn yield of 163.6 bushels per acre and a total corn crop of 14.53 billion bushels, up 35 percent from last year. The corn price is expected to drop from $7.20 to $4.80, providing some relief for livestock producers by the end of the year.

But those numbers will hold only if weather cooperates. Forecasters are warning that hot and dry conditions could persist through this year.