USDA Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack answers media questions following the USDA Fall Forum on Climate Variability held at Arizona State University in midSeptember

USDA Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack answers media questions following the USDA Fall Forum on Climate Variability held at Arizona State University in mid-September.

Vilsack: Managing climate change a work in progress

“2015 was the warmest year since we began keeping records,” says USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. “We saw an increase in overall temperatures by .13 percent Celsius which is the highest increase seen. The question is - how does this impact the landscape and create challenges for farm families?”

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack says everyone in agriculture has a responsibility to manage the impact of climate change, including the farming industry by collaborating with state and federal governments, and vice a versa, to develop solutions.

Vilsack, speaking at the USDA Fall Forum in Climate Variability, Water, and Land Use held at Arizona State University at Tempe on Sept. 14, laid out the longer-term challenges facing agriculture tied to climate change trends.

Among those trends include continued warmer temperatures and related water shortages, plus more severe storms.

“2015 was the warmest year since we began keeping records,” said Sec. Vilsack, citing statistics from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

“We saw an increase in overall temperatures by .13 percent Celsius which is the highest increase seen. The question is - how does this impact the landscape and create challenges for farm families?”

The Secretary says the state worst hit by warmer temperature-created water shortages is drought-stricken California.

“It (climate change) also creates more intensity with storms,” Sec. Vilsack said. “We saw this with Hurricane Sandy which hit upstate New York farmers…There is greater intensity and size to these storms.”

He says the large storms and droughts are delivering an increase in invasive species - pests and diseases – to agriculture. When the drought intensified in the West, Vilsack said President Obama created a drought task force through an executive order to help farmers in the future.

“He (the President) told them we need better data, a better understanding of what is going on, and give people better information so they can make better decisions on how to adapt and mitigate the consequences of changed climate,” the ag secretary said.

As a result, USDA has focused on federal interagency collaboration to develop more precise improved monitoring systems, improved information collection, and better prediction models.

Vilsack said, “This gives farmers the capacity and the ability to respond.”

As a result of drought, Sec. Vilsack said, “We are looking at drought resistant crops – genetically (including genetic modification) to create a crop that can grow food with much less water.” The initiative is ongoing.

In addition, USDA has created 10 regional climate hubs where the agency’s Forest Service, Agricultural Research Service, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service will assess how climate change could impact crop and livestock production, plus create forest risks. USDA is now delivering first-year findings to producers.

Regionally, the impacts in the hub areas include scarcer water supplies in the West, water quality issues in the Midwest, and the impact of rising sea levels in coastal areas - on crops and livestock. USDA is developing tools so farmers can plug in their specific production figures to allow them to predict the impact of weather change on their own operations.

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Vilsack also discussed emissions as a cause of climate change. USDA’s goal is to cut in half the number of emissions from agriculture which the Secretary pegged at 60 million metric tons equivalent of carbon dioxide (CO2). The agency wants to quickly double the reduction in agriculture’s carbon dioxide emissions to 120 million metric tons.

“By doubling the rate of emission reductions, we will be able to contribute about a 2 percent overall emission reduction in the U.S. economy,” Vilsack said. “This is a pretty significant commitment for agriculture.”

Governmental-private partnerships on drought

The nation’s agriculture chief, who assumed the USDA helm in 2009, also discussed a USDA-created partnership with the U.S. Department of the Interior to spend $47 million to address future water shortages on the Colorado River, a water supply which in part supports agricultural production in California and Arizona.

“This water smart effort is designed to create a conversation and a consensus if possible to develop a pro-active plan to allow the storage of water and the credits during excess (water years), and then allocate the scarce resources in a way to meet as many needs as possible – driven by consensus,” with the agencies working closely with state governments.

Bottom line

Sec. Vilsack said the bottom line in all efforts to manage climate change is for U.S. agriculture to retain its role as an efficient producer of high quality food in the future. He noted that Americans on average spend 10 percent of their income on food. In most developed countries, the amount spent on food ranges from 20-25 percent, compared to about 50 percent in less developed countries.

“We (U.S.) are a food secure nation so we don’t really have to rely on anyone for food. China can’t say that. Few powers in the world today can do that.”

He said continued U.S. food efficiency and productivity is essential to allow the U.S. to maintain its current freedoms and food security. Managing climate change is essential to agriculture’s continued success.

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