Adaptation to Climate Change vía Agriculture
by Ernie Shae
December 13, 2019
This interview was originally conducted and condensed by frank news in September 2019.
Clean Energy Solutions from the Land’s Clean Energy Platform is led by the newly added 25x’25 Alliance. 25x’25’s Vision: By 2025, America's farms, forests and ranches will provide 25 percent of the total energy consumed in the United States, while continuing to produce safe, abundant, and affordable food, feed and fiber.
Ernie Shea: I am the president of a relatively new not-for-profit called Solutions from the Land. It's a farmer led entity that is about putting farmers in the forefront of global challenges. We have three primary areas of focus. One is clean energy solutions that sustainably managed farms can deliver. Second is climate smart agriculture, which asks how do we adapt to these changing conditions and simultaneously deliver climate solutions? The third is really closely related, but it's more broadly focused on ecosystem services such as improving soil health and increasing organic content, filtering and storing water and enhancing biodiversity.
When crops and grasses grow, they pull carbon dioxide out of the air and sink it into the ground. It's a win-win.
When we work with the livestock community and do a better job of managing manure, methane emissions off of manure can be used to produce electricity and renewable natural gas, both of which are important ways that the animal agriculture sector can directly contribute climate solutions that also benefit them. In the transport sector farmers grow feedstocks like corn, sorghum and soybeans that are used to produce much cleaner and renewable liquid transportation fuels to power the vehicles that we depend on every day. Biodiesel and ethanol have a significant advantage over petroleum gasoline in that they have significantly less greenhouse gas emissions.
Those are just three examples of the climate mitigation solutions farmers and ranchers can provide.
How do you explain the importance of agriculture to climate conversations?
It depends. Are we talking about the United States here?
The science is very clear about what we're experiencing and what we need to expect. Warmer temperatures, more volatile weather conditions, more frequent extreme precipitation events, along with more subtle changes, things like higher nighttime temperatures that affect pollination of crops. Seasonal shifts in terms of the growing season, false springs – these are all examples of climate variations that disrupt production agriculture.
Depending upon where you are you experience the impacts. The eastern Corn Belt this year is one example where precipitation last fall, over the winter, and continuing into this spring, is off the charts and has resulted in places like Ohio with significant percentages of the cropland acreage not being planted in corn and beans because the ground was too wet.That's an example of climate change that scientists tell us is becoming the new norm.
The flooding that has occurred throughout the Mississippi River Valley this year was the direct result of significantly abnormal wet conditions in the winter and the spring, and the flooding that resulted led to infrastructure failure. The levees that failed along the Missouri River inundated cropland and totally shutting producers out from using those bottom lands this year and maybe for some more years because of the amount of damage that was done.
The flooding also took out critical infrastructure and capital investments such as grain storage facilities and irrigation systems. Another example of how climate change is disrupting what was once was a pretty stable and productive system.
We can go west to California, where in the San Joaquin Valley, you have a recurring concern over water availability. We're now managing water much differently than we were before. In some cases it's resulted in a transformational change in what is grown when water is no longer available. In some cases irrigated crops are no longer produced.
The agricultural system is constantly evolving and changing. What we're finding is that the climate impacts are so pronounced and so extreme that it's even threatening the ability to manage through them.
Agriculture is a technology-driven industry and would have benefited greatly from precision agriculture, hybrid seeds, controlled environment systems that can adapt. But the climate scientists tell us that as we move forward we're going to be even more pressed and challenged, and while there may be some regions where there are some temporary enhanced growing conditions such as the Upper Great Plains and into Canada, where the corn and soybean production regions are moving North, those regions eventually will be affected as well.
There's a lot of concern about the future viability of agriculture, the future ability to feed 10 billion people by 2050. That's why we're putting so much time into this Climate Smart Agriculture movement.
What sort of policy will incentivize people to take SDGs into consideration on a small scale?
There's no silver bullet. There's lots of things that are needed and are happening at different scales. Some are changes in production practices and conservation systems. Here in the United States our bread and butter USDA conservation programs, like EQIP and the Conservation Security Program that NRCS runs, are really important in helping farmers adopt no-till or reduced tillage farming systems and other best management practices that help them become more resistant to climate shocks.
Risk management strategies need to be revisited. The government and the private sector can help farmers mitigate risk from by trying new practices and systems that can provide production benefits as well as public benefits in the form of ecosystem services.
Infrastructure investments are needed. This would be another way that the federal and state governments can help by funding water storage and delivery projects.
The water levels in rivers are affected by extended droughts compromising the functionality of major river systems where agricultural goods flow. Locks and dams that are aging need to be upgraded to deal with the new norm of extreme weather events.
There's many areas where enabling policy can provide support and assistance. Another one would be research. We are critically dependent upon our government and private sector research partners helping us come up with things like new crop varieties that can help farmers adapt and improve resilience. Examples include drought resistant and shorter maturity seed varieties that can allow a producer to get a crop in late like this year and still have a crop at the end of the season. We need a lot more investment in agricultural research. We're looking towards USDA, Agriculture Research Service, our state land grant partners, our extension partners that help with knowledge sharing, to team up and come up with new solutions that can then be disseminated to farmers across the country.
Is there a debate question you’d like to ask the primary candidates in this race?
I guess I'm encouraged by what I've seen so far on the Democratic side – there's a lot of attention being paid to agriculture. The fact that agriculture has historically been a cornerstone of the economy is well-known, but what's not well-known and appreciated is how the agricultural sector can meet not just the food, feed, fiber needs of the country, but also can simultaneously provide high value ecosystem services like sinkign carbon the ground and filtering and storing water. I'd like to see a bigger conversation with the presidential candidates around policies, programs, incentives that they can back that will allow farming landscapes to deliver a wider range of goods and services.
What is their position on incentivizing producers to encourage practices that deliver public goods? There's a growing conversation about the value and need for payments for ecosystem services. Right now when a farmer farms sustainably he's producing a crop that he sells, but he's also producing a lot of free externalities that the public benefits from: cleaner water, more carbon intensive soils, a more diverse habitat that supports wildlife and endangered species.
Right now the producers bear most of the expenses to produce those public goods. Can we find a way to incentivize more of that good work with public investments that will achieve the outcomes that the public want? That'd be a good question to pose to the candidates.
Are you optimistic about the answer?
There's a growing awareness that we've been undervaluing the contributions of the agricultural community, and we've been fixated on identifying problems and focusing the conversation on challenges. Well, there's challenges in every industry. But if you're not looking at the other side of the coin, the net solutions that we can deliver, and what does it take to deliver those solutions, then you're not keeping your eye on the ball, so that's our challenge to the policymakers to avoid the rush to judgment, the public sport of attacking, and really think about constructive solutions that are going to lead to delivering the win-win outcomes for producers and the public.
Let's not forget the fact that we live in a free enterprise country, and our economy is driven by capitalism. If we forget the fact that farmers, ranchers, foresters have to earn a living to be able to provide these public goods and services, and if we fall into the trap of expecting we can regulate all this to happen without an economic return, we're not going to get the outcomes that we both want and need.