The Agriculture Secretary used a recent speech to update developments in an ongoing program.
Tom Vilsack’s four-year-old grandson, on a recent visit, enjoyed walking through the dinosaur exhibits at the Natural History Museum in Washington D.C. But the outing, coupled with the recent discovery in Argentina of what might have been one of the largest dinosaurs to roam the earth, reminded the Agriculture Secretary of the potential dire impact of climate change.
"It occurred to me that a lot of us in this world today take what we have for granted," said Vilsack, speaking at last month’s summit on climate change, held by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. "But when you realize that years and years and years ago, these very large animals roamed the earth and that when the climate changed, they are no longer here."
Click here to listen to Vilsack's speech.
"I think it’s important for us to recognize that we must be serious about climate change in the context of global food security and the capacity of the world to continue to produce enough food in a sustainable way that will allow humankind to continue," he said.
Vilsack took the occasion to update the audience on USDA’s two-year-old climate change program designed to help farmers adjust to the impact of climate change, which he said includes more intense weather patterns, longer droughts, more severe storms, more pests and more diseases.
USDA has already produced a major report. The report concludes that climate change, particularly hotter temperatures and more extreme weather patterns, will take its toll on agricultural productivity, though its short on specific details. It suggests that growers will adapt by adjusting inputs, tillage, crop species, crop rotations and harvest strategies.
The impact is likely to be regional and vary by crop. For that reason, Vilsack has created seven regional climate hubs—along with three subhubs—and charged them with more accurately gauging how climate change will impact local agricultural productivity. Researchers at the hubs are doing vulnerability assessments. They have already developed a tool to help producers calculate the positive and negative impact of farming practices on greenhouse gas emissions of certain farming practices.
"We want to equip our producers individually with the capacity to begin thinking about greenhouse gasses and climate change and agriculture’s role in all of this," Vilsack said. "U.S. agriculture has done a pretty good job relative to the rest of the world in terms of greenhouse emissions, but there’s still work to be done."
In April, USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture awarded $6 million to 10 universities to study the impact of climate change on agriculture. As part of the grant, the universities will develop strategies to help farmers and ranchers deal with the impact of climate change.
Meanwhile, USDA has undertaken a massive project to determine the impact of climate change on soils across the United States. It is collecting soil samples from 6,000 locations. Vilsack described it as the most massive data collection in the history of the department.
The Agriculture Department is also working closely with the dairy industry on a plan to reduce greenhouse gases by 20% by 2020. As part of this effort, the department will continue to fund more anaerobic digester projects through its Rural Development program. Digesters break down manure into biogas and co-products such as compost, animal bedding and fertilizer.
The Department of Agriculture’s open data program, Vilsack said, will assist in climate change mitigation efforts. Producers will need a new generation of seeds that can better resist heat stress, flooding and droughts. To ensure research efforts aren’t duplicated in other countries, the U.S. government belongs to a global network of 41 countries.
In his keynote address, Vilsack emphasized the need to focus on food waste as well as food production. "Thirty percent of food is wasted. It’s a large producer of methane in our landfills, the single largest source of solid waste in our landfills," he said.
The Secretary suggested that a closer look at portion sizes is in order. He noted that he and his wife get the same amount of food at restaurants, even though he’s large and his wife is small. "There’s no way she can eat all the food she’s getting," he explained. "We need to be conscious of this, because all that waste winds up in the garbage."
A better job needs to be done educating consumers on when food actually goes bad. "Just because the package says ‘best used by’, you don’t have to throw it away," said Vilsack, lamenting how many eggs had been tossed by members of his own household. "We need better education about what those labels actually mean."
Vilsack highlighted the need for an app under development that would tell distributors, when their food is rejected by a restaurant or grocery, where to find the closest food bank or community kitchen. "And we need to think about how we recycle food," he said, noting that USDA recycles used coffee grinds for its gardens.
"We can no longer ignore this issue," he said in conclusion, urging producers to take action to mitigate the impact of climate change. "We can no longer assume that things will always be the same."