INDIANAPOLIS — Though it is not known what effect the
increased greenhouse gases present in the Earth’s atmosphere will have on the
future, scientists are urging members of agriculture to be proactive in
responding to a changing climate.
Agriculture accounts for a significant portion of carbon
dioxide, nitrogen and methane emissions found in the earth’s atmosphere, studies
Agriculture and deforestation account for about one-quarter
of global greenhouse gas emissions, with methane from livestock production being
the most important type of farm-related emission, according to a recent news
report from Purdue University.
“2012 is the warmest weather year on record in American
history,” said Purdue agricultural economist Otto Doering, who spoke at the
annual conference of the Indiana Association of Soil and Water Conservation
Districts about extreme weather, climate change and the farm bill.
“The increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are known
by scientists to relate to human activity, and already we think we’re seeing the
impact of climate change, though we don’t know how much hotter the planet will
get,” he said.
Doering pointed to work being done by scientists in
Australia, where temperatures have surged to record levels in recent years.
Climatologists there are monitoring the waters of the Indian Ocean to detect
temperature changes that could influence monsoons and weather.
Their work in climate variability has enabled them to
develop a system to try and forecast for farmers the amount of rain they will
receive each year to plant their wheat crop accordingly, Doering said, citing
work done at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research
Worldwide work on climate change has influenced people at
Purdue to develop a similar model for agriculture in the future, he
One of those models in the new U2U project through the
Purdue University Climate Change Research Center.
Started in April 2011 with a grant from the U.S. Department
of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U2U is a five-year
project between nine universities aimed at making climate change resources more
user-friendly and applicable to Extension work being done on agro-climate
“We’re hoping to improve existing climate information for
agricultural producers and their advisers in the 12-state region of the Corn
Belt, and we’re doing that by developing enhanced decision and support tools for
our stakeholders,” said Melissa Widhalm, U2U program manager.
The program coordinators are developing tools to improve
access to existing climate records, with some extending to incorporate corn
phenology and others helping farmers with irrigation, tiling and management
practices based on past and future climate data in different areas, Widhalm
“There are hundreds of weather stations across the U.S.,
many of which go back 30 to 100 years in history, and those are
quality-controlled and put into our database so others can access them,” she
said. “We’re using high-quality observation information.”
“One of the benefits of the project is we have five state
climatologists from across the region and two regional climate centers covering
the Corn Belt to make sure the best information is available and used,” she
Widhalm said the specialists envision developing a suite of
tools to help people examine the effects of different climate scenarios on their
finances or environment.
A critical component to the U2U program in addition to data
collection and agronomic and climate modeling work is stakeholder
Widhalm cited a mail survey conducted among 4,778 farmers
with a minimum of 80 acres of corn and $100,000 in gross farm income in 22 of
the top corn-producing watersheds across the Midwest last February that found
about 66 percent agreed that climate change was occurring, with 8 percent citing
exclusive human causes and 25 percent attributing it to mostly natural
“Climate Change Beliefs, Concerns and Support for Adaptation
and Mitigation among Corn Belt Farmers,” a collaboration between Iowa State
University and U2U, found that 31 percent of the farmers surveyed said they
believed there is not enough evidence to determine whether climate change is
occurring, while 4 percent do not believe it is happening.
“We’re also planning some focus groups, and we’ll have a lot
of instances throughout the project where stakeholders and scientists can get
together and make sure they are communicating,” the program manager said.
“Our other survey was done with private and public advisers
for selected states in the region in which we asked them about a variety of
topics, including their use of weather and climate information, risk management
strategies and which information sources they trust.”
Widhalm said an interesting outcome of the survey was that a
significant correlation was found between respondents’ climate change beliefs
and their willingness to use climate information for their farm. Tools currently
being developed through the U2U program include a climate lookup tool to improve
access to user-friendly websites and an assistant for nitrogen management for
long-term management strategies.
Widhalm said that while no work currently is being done to
study the impacts of climate on agriculture, the program participants are using
models to predict how it could affect profitability on the farm.
“In the Midwest, we already have a variable climate — it’s
the nature of the weather in this area — but the weather is expected to become
more variable and more extreme, with more droughts in the spring and summer that
could affect when farmers get out in the spring to plant,” she said. “One of the
immediate effects of climate is on water availability at critical times during
the growing season.”
Widhalm noted that the National Climate Assessment, a
publication of the U.S. Global Change Research Program, is expected to be
released this month.
Doering, a participant in the U2U project, said it could be
a very useful tool in providing farmers with information about weather events
that are likely to occur to help them gauge risk and manage decisions they make
on their farm.
“It’s your farm and your decision. I can’t just write a
prescription for it, but I can tell you the consequences of your actions,” the
economist said. “The farmer has to be engaged to the point that the farmer makes
In addition, future extreme events could compel farmers to
realize the positive difference that cover crops and soil health can make in
helping their farms adapt to nutrient management, Doering said.
It will be difficult for scientists to convince farmers to
invest in climate-adapted technology when they’ve enjoyed good weather for years
on end, but it is a good start, he added.