June 12, 2024

Farm & Food File: The more things change, the more things change

The old maxim, “the more things change, the more things stay the same,” might ring true for some facets of our lives, but it’s not true for climate change. In fact, when it comes to our now fast-changing climate, the more things change, the more everything changes.

That’s especially true in agriculture, as almost every farmer and rancher — as well as every taxpayer and food buyer — knows. Moreover, we see it daily in global food and commodity markets.

But we haven’t seen the worst of it yet, according to two reports on the ag impacts of climate change. The first, by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, examines what U.S. farmers will experience in the coming generation. The second, by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, offers a global analysis.

Both studies are eye-opening and heart-stopping. For example, the CSIS report opens with this jolt: “In 2021, agriculture and food-related industries contributed 5.4% of U.S. GDP and provided 10.5% of U.S. employment. Worldwide, almost 45% of the population lives in households where agricultural activities represent the primary source of employment.”

So, yes, “if agriculture can make global prosperity, it can also break it.” That’s especially so with the United States because it “is the largest exporter of agricultural commodities in the world; foreign markets absorb about one-fifth of U.S. agricultural production.”

What makes the CSIS report so revealing is its detailed look at how climate change will impact individual state crops. For example, it notes that all Iowa counties’ corn yields will likely drop 5% by 2030 and “over half of the (state’s per-county) yields will experience burdens of more than 10%.”

The good news, it goes on to report, is that Iowa’s “wheat yields are projected to see an increase of 17% in this time period as (wheat’s) growing range is expanded due to higher temperatures.”

Well, it’s good news if you have the machinery, skill and local markets to bring wheat back into your generations-long crop rotation that’s included little more than corn and soybeans since Grandpa plowed with the old Johnny popper.

The CSIS report takes similar looks at dairy, wheat, soybeans and corn and then examines how climate change will affect today’s conservation policies and farm bill legislation. That data reinforces the plain fact that almost no one on either the political or production side of American agriculture is preparing for the immense change farmers and eaters face with climate change.

A big share of that responsibility lies with Congress where “the current debate around the farm bill seems to be focused on redirecting climate-related funding” — ag’s portion of the green-as-spinach Inflation Reduction Act — “rather than enhancing it.”

There will be a future price to pay for that present shortsightedness. In fact, we’re already witnessing that growing cost, according to the FAO’s deep dive into the impact of weather disasters on global agriculture and “food security.”

The “increasing severity and frequency (of weather disasters), from 100 per year in the 1970s to around 400 events per year in the past 20 years, affect agrifood systems across multiple dimensions, compromising food security and undermining the sustainability of the agriculture sector.”

That impact, “an average loss of $123 billion per year,” estimates the FAO, hits everyone in the global food chain, but its “highest relative losses (are) on lower- and lower-middle-income countries.”

War and crises “such as the COVID-19 pandemic” hammer both sides of the food equation — food growers “as well as input and output markets” that “result in negative effects on the wider agrifood system” to bring more instability to an already wobbling international food market.

Both reports all but beg for immediate international action to reduce climate risk while developing “more scalable farm-level” solutions to address the looming food crisis.

What neither analyzes, however, is if anyone is listening.

Alan Guebert

Alan Guebert

Farm & Food File is published weekly through the U.S. and Canada. Source material and contact information are posted at www.farmandfoodfile.com.