Climate Change To Lower Productivity In Major Crops, Livestock

Drought took a toll on Missouri crops in 2018, including this corn field in Ray County, near the town of Hardin. (July 2018) ( Tyne Morgan )

The National Climate Assessment (NCA) predicts agriculture will be one of the greatest casualties when it comes to climate change.

“Any change in the climate poses a major challenge to agriculture through increased rates of crop failure, reduced livestock productivity and altered rates of pressure from pests, weeds and diseases,” the report states. “Rural communities, where economies are more tightly interconnected with agriculture than other sectors, are particularly vulnerable to the agricultural volatility related to climate.”

The report outlines four key messages to agriculturalists:

  1. Reduced agricultural productivity: food and forage production will decline in regions experiencing increased frequency and duration of drought. Producers could see increased intensity and frequency of wildfires, depleting water supplies for irrigation and expanded incidence of pests and diseases for crops and livestock.
  2. Degradation of soil and water resources: degradation of soil and water resources will expand as extreme precipitation events increase, thus threatening crops with excessive runoff, leaching and flooding. This results in erosion, degraded water quality in lakes and streams and damage to rural infrastructure.
  3. Health challenges to rural populations and livestock: human and livestock health is being challenged due to increased frequency and intensity of high temperature extremes. These conditions can lead to heat exhaustion, heatstroke and heart attacks in humans. Heat stress in livestock results in economic losses for producers.
  4. Vulnerability and adaptive capacity of rural communities: many rural communities have limited capacity to respond to climate change impacts. Communication, transportation, water and sanitary infrastructure are vulnerable to disruption from climate stressors.

“Rising temperatures, extreme heat, drought, wildfire on rangelands and heavy downpours are expected to increasingly disrupt agricultural productivity in the U.S.,” according to the report. “Expected increases in challenges to livestock health, declines in crop yields and quality and changes in extreme events in the U.S. and abroad threaten rural livelihoods, sustainable food security and price stability.”

There are actions to slow these threats. It’s not all doom and gloom and many actions are in place today, or will be soon, that could help reduce the impact of climate change, according to NCA.

Researchers are developing stress-tolerant, high-yielding crops. Whether through traditional breeding techniques or new manners such as CRISPR, scientists are finding ways to adapt to a changing climate. For example, many seed companies offer drought-tolerant corn hybrids.

Practices such as conservation tillage and cover crops are helping restore soil structure and hydrologic function to help address water and soil challenges. While cover crops and no-till aren’t used on every farm they’re helping where employed.

Health challenges in livestock and humans are being addressed. Some rural areas are expanding health services and heat-tolerant livestock and improved confined animal housing is helping minimize animal health issues related to heat.

Finally, there are ways to address how vulnerable farmers and rural communities are to climate change, according to NCA. “Achieving social resilience to these challenges would require increases in local capacity to make adaptive improvement in shared community resources.”

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