In case you missed it, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) put out its latest report March 27 (you can read more about the report here). The culmination of over 7 years’ worth of work, the report is the most strident released by the IPCC yet, saying that it is “unequivocal” that human influence has warmed the global climate system, with observed changes already impacting every region on the planet with some of the changes researchers observed in the climate described as “unprecedented.”That’s some pretty strong stuff from a multi-government, multi-agency report that requires consensus.
That said, I am sure that some of you who follow this blog are already chomping at the bit to challenge the entire premise of this report — and my writing about it at all. Others of you question the whole the idea of human influenced climate change (or climate change in general) and are just itching to take shots at me and this whole idea. Well, before you pull out your verbal pistols and go to work, I would ask that you take a second and unpack some of what this report actually says about agriculture, natural resources and climate change.First, let’s look at what the report says about climate change and its impact on overall food and fiber production:“Climate change has reduced food security and affected water security, hindering efforts to meet Sustainable Development Goals (high confidence). Although overall agricultural productivity has increased, climate change has slowed this growth over the past 50 years globally (medium confidence), with related negative impacts mainly in mid- and low latitude regions but positive impacts in some high latitude regions (high confidence). Ocean warming and ocean acidification have adversely affected food production from fisheries and shellfish aquaculture in some oceanic regions (high confidence). Roughly half of the world’s population currently experience severe water scarcity for at least part of the year due to a combination of climatic and non-climatic drivers (medium confidence).”Whew!Basically they are saying that while agriculture productivity has increased, the pace at which it has done so has slowed thanks to the changing climate. It also says that roughly half of the world’s population is getting hit with severe drought and other extreme weather events for at least part of the year.If you live in western and southern Kansas and are being affected by this record dry weather, you should agree with the statement about water shortages. After all, you don’t have to believe in climate change to believe in droughts. Personal experience should tell you that extreme weather is becoming more and more the norm. Droughts, floods, blizzards and fires have always happened. Climate change is just taking the crazy weather we have always had in the Southern Plains and making it that much crazier.Next, the idea of food production slowing down is nothing new either. In fact, the USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) released a study this past December discussing this very issue. In that report, ERS stated that data collected from the time period ranging from 1961 to 2020 showed that average annual agricultural output growth slowed to its lowest rate in 6 decades. The study went on to say that the growth rate for global ag output was nearly a third slower in the 2010s compared with the 2000s, falling to 1.93% per year from 2011 to 2020 from 2.72% per year during the period of 2001-10.Think about it — how many ag meetings have you been to in the last few years where someone has said “If we are going to feed over 9 billion people by mid-century, we will have to produce more food than ever have before.” This idea of declining food production is something we’ve been discussing for some time. I actually wrote in an earlier blog about how we are expecting nearly 10 billion people on the globe by 2050 and how we should start getting our farms into the fight to feed the world. This isn’t necessarily a new or radical idea.The report also mentions the loss of land we are seeing both to soil erosion and urbanization — again, something that we have all heard about (and, yes, I have even written about). In Oklahoma alone, it’s estimated that we lose around 50 million tons of soil to erosion annually. Worldwide, it’s been estimated that we currently are losing around 10 million hectares of farm ground every year to soil erosion. That equals almost 25 million acres of crop land. That’s roughly the equivalent of every year losing all the harvested acres in Iowa.When you consider that climate change means that droughts are getting longer and hotter, and rain events are getting heavier and more violent, the challenge of soil erosion is going to continue to grow. Again, you don’t have to believe in climate change to believe in soil erosion!The takeaway from all this is that if we step back from the passions surrounding the term climate change and just look at the issue for what it is, we soon realize it’s just another natural resource challenge that we have to deal with. Granted, it’s a big one, but a natural resource challenge none the less. The good news is that the things we want to do to get ready for climate change really boil down to getting ready for droughts, floods and other extreme weather. On top of that, the same things we want to do to get ready for extreme weather also help our bottom lines. They also are the same things, by and large, we want to do to fight climate change.Here is what the IPCC report had to say about agriculture helping actually REVERSE climate change:“Many agriculture, forestry, and other land use options provide adaptation and mitigation benefits that could be upscaled in the near-term across most regions. Conservation, improved management, and restoration of forests and other ecosystems offer the largest share of economic mitigation potential, with reduced deforestation in tropical regions having the highest total mitigation potential.”Basically they are saying that if we practices good stewardship including improved pasture management, soil health practices, like no-till and cover crops, and undertake better forestry management we can go a long way toward helping deal with this crisis — even if you don’t believe it’s a crisis — because, again, we all believe in soil erosion, droughts and floods and improving our bottom lines. Do the things that control erosion that help you hold on to more moisture when it rains and help you reduce input costs and the climate change benefits come along with it.It really is a win-win for everybody.For more information on all this, and if you want to know about how USDA programs can help you get some of these practices on the ground, contact your local USDA service center.There is a way forward on this—and it really is one that we all should want to take, regardless of what we believe.
Clay Pope is a farmer and rancher from Loyal, Okla., and is working as a consultant to the USDA Southern Plains Climate Hub. He also serves on as a board member of the Oklahoma Wheat Growers Assn. He is former executive director of the Oklahoma Assn. of Conservation Districts.
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