No matter your views on climate change, the United States’ exit from the Paris climate agreement could compromise the ability of farmers and agribusinesses to become more resilient in the face of extreme weather events.
That’s why we absolutely need to keep supporting and funding the critical work already underway to help farmers mitigate the effects of an unpredictable climate. In the absence of federal leadership, individual farmers, state and national ag associations, food companies, retailers, and environmental organizations will need to fill the void.
I’m confident we can do this, because all the farmers I’ve ever known are, at their core, incredible innovators. In his book, From Poverty to Prosperity, Nick Shultz notes, “Maybe there is no free lunch, as the saying goes; but we do not have to work nearly as hard to put food on the table as we used to. Just two hundred years ago, over half of all Americans worked in agriculture. Today, the figure is less than two percent.”
These innovations – from improved seeds to precision agriculture technologies – mean that today’s farmers produce much more crop per drop of water, fertilizer, or other inputs.
According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, a farmer in 1970 could plant 40 acres of row crops in a day each spring, and in the fall could harvest 4,000 bushels per day. Today, farmers can plant 945 acres a day and harvest 50,000 bushels a day. Using 1940 methods and tools, the US would have needed another 150 million hectares to grow what they grow today, which is three times the size of Spain.
The point in looking back in awe at these advancements is to recognize how desperately we need that same pace of innovation to continue as we face an ever-changing climate. Climate smart agriculture practices – resilience, adaption, and mitigation – will ensure that food production can continue in uncertain times.
Agriculture has faced increasing disruption from extreme weather and climate shifts over the past 40 years, and this trend is expected to increase over the next 25 years. The good news is that through changing crop rotations, adjusting planting times, technological advancements, as well as fertilizer, pest, and water management – farmers can make their crops more resilient.
Take, for example, the story of my friend Brent Bible. I visited Brent at his farm in Indiana not long after the severe drought in the Midwest in 2012. Brent estimated that practices such as conservation tillage, cover crops and precision use of nutrients meant he got about 70 percent of his normal yield that year while many of his neighbors had no yield at all. Those practices proved themselves as both business smart and climate smart.
I’m disappointed by the new Administration’s decision – not just because I am an environmentalist, but also because it slows momentum for implementing practices that help both farmers and the planet. For example, using fertilizer more efficiently saves money and reduces emissions, capturing methane emissions from manure can generate energy, and planting riparian or forested buffers alongside farmland can reduce erosion and sequester carbon.
I realize that the Paris agreement may not be top of mind for most farmers, and it’s unlikely that the industry will join states like Washington, California, or New York in independently committing to the Paris agreement (although this would be an amazing show of leadership I would strongly endorse!). Instead, my hope is that farmers and the agricultural sector will continue to innovate – even if behind the scenes – to continue improving the way we produce food, taking these solutions to scale, and exporting them to the world.