USDA rep: Ag needs to adjust for climate change

Associate Editor

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Sept. 27, 2016) — The consequences of climate change are visible in growing environmental concerns  such as increased flooding and longer wildfire season  and the agricultural industry will have to adjust to those challenges, a USDA economist said this month.
“We are seeing the impacts of climate change now. On the ground,” said Jan Lewandrowski at the University of Maryland’s annual crop insurance workshop on Sept. 13. “I think crop insurance has a huge role to play going forward in minimizing the impacts of climate change on producers.”
Lewandrowski spoke at the conference to detail the USDA’s fast-moving plan to respond to climate change issues, including the creation of so-called “climate hubs” run by the department across the country.
The hubs are tasked with helping to boost agricultural production and natural resources even while climate and the environment become increasingly variable. The hubs have conducted regional vulnerability assessments and created databases for land managers and Extension professionals working to make productive farmland more adaptable to climate change. In the Northeast, for instance, the USDA determined that extreme precipitation, frosts after early spring and warmer temperatures are hazards.
Among its recommendations:
• Promote soil health using practices such as cover cropping and tillage reduction that reduce erosion;
• Protect crops from extremes with hoop and high tunnel houses, ventilation systems, riparian buffers, expanded irrigation and shifting production zones away from flood- and frost-prone areas; and
• Boost carbon sequestration and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by retiring organic soils from cultivation and restoring forested wetlands.
“We’re very optimistic about the hubs,” Lewandrowski said. “It’s only been a few years. But they appear to be working very nicely.”
Pests and disease are another growing concern, he said.
He compared the threat to the Zika and West Nile viruses, which were previously home to warmer, more equatorial climates. Now, they’re surviving in the United States.
“With some places becoming more moist, more warm, they’re fine,” he said. “That’s going to start costing money, well, now.”
Take for instance, he said, the New World screwworm fly, common to South America and the Caribbean. The parasitic fly can infest and damage livestock. They’ve been mostly eradicated from North America, but climate change could change that.
“It’s jumped before, but our winters have killed it,” he said. “If it survived (one winter), it would be a massive thing.”
The USDA is also pursuing 10 goals related to climate change with a 2025 deadline.
They include the placement of 64 million farmland acres under nutrient management plans, the addition of 500 new manure digesters for livestock, the reforestation of 320,000 acres in the nation’s “chronically under-stocked” forests, the placement of 9 million acres under grazing management plans and the promotion of renewable energy technology.
“The solution’s going to be a lot easier to get to if there are a lot of groups” involved,” Lewandrowski said.