Drought, Fire and Freeze: Lawmakers Consider Impacts of Extreme Weather on Agriculture

The votes are in and the winner for Most Arresting Title for a Senate Committee Hearing goes to the Agriculture Committee for yesterday’s hearing, “Drought, Fire and Freeze: The Economics of Disasters for America’s Agricultural Producers.”

Lest we forget floods, another potential result from changing weather patterns due to climate change. Photo: US Fish & Wildlife Service
But seriously folks, I was delighted yesterday when newly appointed Sen. William Cowan (D-MA) boldly questioned expert witnesses on the impacts of climate change on agriculture.

“What does it mean, in terms of our agricultural economy, if we don’t do more to curb the greenhouse gas issues we’re facing?” Cowan asked.

A good question, and members of Congress don’t ask it often enough. Farmers, and subsequently consumers, are already feeling the effects of climate change. Dr. Joe Glauber, Chief Economist of the USDA, answered the question by discussing a recent USDA report that included these key messages, paraphrased below:

  • Bad news: Climate change will have an impact on agricultural productivity, but
  • Good news: there are steps we can take to curb emissions and lessen the negative impacts of climate change.

The report explains that the economic effects of climate change on agriculture depend on a complex web of factors. For example, climate change can impact the livestock industry through the price of feed grains, competition for pasture land, and changing patterns of pests and diseases. How it all plays out could very well depend on how the livestock industry adapts to climate change. Farmers could build livestock shelters to protect their animals from extreme temperatures, but how will farmers protect livestock from the less predictable changes in disease distribution?

Climate change is already costing us. Continuing to use the agricultural economy as an example, consider the hefty price tag of the drought of 2012; it cost taxpayers $14.2 billion in crop insurance alone. Our pocketbooks will be feeling the cost of rising food prices throughout 2013. That is why it is even more important to take action and promote agricultural policies that encourage climate-friendly farming.

As several agricultural producers testified in the hearing, conservation practices have the potential to make farming systems more resilient to changing weather patterns.  For example, conservation tillage practices and cover crops have the potential to improve soil health so that the soil holds more water and sequesters more carbon, keeping harmful greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere and making agricultural land more productive.

Take Action Sometimes people ask me why NWF is involved in the fight on climate change.  I work on agricultural issues, but all natural systems are connected. There is no greater threat to wildlife than climate change; it’s that simple.  A recent report by NWF shows the urgency of acting to protect wildlife against climate impacts. That is why I hope you’ll join us this Sunday at the “Forward on Climate Rally” in DC, or consider financially supporting our work.