About 80 people gathered in a church at Ames on a recent Sunday afternoon to listen to a panel discussion on agriculture and climate change. Moderator Mike Glover, a retired Associated Press political reporter who covered the Iowa Legislature for many years, opened the discussion by asking the panelists how they see climate change affecting agriculture. Do they believe the current modern-day system of producing crops and livestock can continue to exist if climate change continues at its current pace?
The four panelists agreed that farmers need to be involved in this issue, to help find workable solutions to cope with climate change and extreme variability in weather. "We're not just victims here, we can be engaged in the solution," said Matt Russell, one of the four panelists.
Christopher Anderson, an Iowa State University climate scientist and agronomist, said farmers need to think about how to adapt to the effects of climate change because there is already evidence Iowa weather and agriculture are being affected by the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. He added, "What we are doing is creating a future agriculture that's going to require people my age and younger, farmers of the future, to make very different capital investments than they make nowadays. They're going to have to reshape their farming practices in very serious ways."
Farmers need to be involved, help find solutions
The panelists were Christopher Anderson, ISU climatologist and agronomy professor; Joan Fumetti, retired United Church of Christ pastor and former national staff member of Foods Resource Bank; Matt Russell, coordinator of the Drake University Ag Law Program's State Food Policy Project and co-owner of a farm he and a partner operate at Lacona; and Arlyn Schipper, a Grundy County corn, soybean and livestock farmer.
The farm Russell co-owns is 110 acres growing organic seasonal vegetables and other crops, and producing eggs and beef—both grain and grass finished—from mostly Angus cattle. Russell sells the produce at the downtown Des Moines Farmers Market. The farming operation Schipper runs with his son and family near Conrad is larger in acreage—a typical Iowa grain and livestock farm. The Schippers planted 1,800 acres of corn last year.
Iowa Interfaith Power and Light, an advocacy group that encourages efforts to slow human-caused global warming and to mitigate the effects of changes in climate, hosted the March 30 discussion at Bethesda Lutheran Church in Ames.
Roller-coaster weather raises climate questions
The weather extremes farmers have experienced the past five or six years are raising increasing concern, especially after the extremely cold winter we just had, said Fumetti. Iowa and other areas of the U.S. have varied from getting too much rain and having flooded fields, to being burned by excessive heat and drought.
Some farmers still don't believe climate change is occurring. They say this weather variability is something that happens naturally, is cyclical over the long term, and we're now experiencing one of those periods in the weather cycle where we have excessive variability. Other farmers think a shift to more extreme weather is indeed occurring—and climate change is real. And some, like Schipper, are on the fence and are undecided as to the cause of these extremes in the weather.
"It can't be denied that farmers have had to adapt to recent weather extremes," says Schipper. "But we don't know for sure what is causing this extreme weather variation in rainfall and temperature; we don't know why it's happening. Is this increase in weather variability manmade or is it a cyclical event? I don't know. But I do know to be a good Christian farmer we need to be good stewards of the land. I see the effects of the weather we're experiencing and I don't know what's causing this extreme variability, but we need to learn to adapt to it."
Panel shares thoughts, opinions on climate change
Here's a summary of the panel's comments and thoughts.
Russell: This issue is not about saving the planet. It's about saving people. Agriculture is critical to feeding humanity. We know what climate change looks like—it's the wrong weather at the wrong time and it's happening more often. It's difficult to feed a growing population if the current widely adopted agricultural practices become unavailable or become not as productive due to adverse climate.
Anderson: In Iowa climate change has more to do with water than with farming practices. Iowa receives rainfall from humidity from oceans. If Iowa farmers haven't already adapted to wetter springs, they need to do so. We're going to have mostly wetter than normal springs for maybe the next 20 or 30 years. Farmers and communities need to reshape investments and practices, to save the spring moisture we receive for use in summer.
Fumetti: Do we really want our current agricultural system to continue or do we need to modify it? Having served and worked with farmers, I see a huge disconnect between some of them, when we're really all in this together. I see climate change as a huge potential danger to being able to feed the world if we don't adapt. I'm concerned farmers aren't as involved in conversations about climate as they need to be.
Schipper: Some changes are already being made by farmers and companies serving farmers. New corn hybrids are now available with improved drought tolerance and efficiency of water use. More such hybrids will be available in the future. Genetic improvement is one piece of the puzzle to deal with extremes in weather.
We grow a lot of corn-on-corn, and that helps build organic matter in our soils thanks to the increased amount of crop residue produced. That's good. Crop residue creates a sponge to help rain soak into a field rather than run off. Tile drainage is another practice to help us cope with weather extremes, as it helps drain the wet spots in fields where wetness is an issue.
Cover crops are increasing in popularity. Seeding a cover crop in late summer or in fall protects soil from erosion, after corn and beans are harvested. Having cover crops growing on fields and having roots in the soil year-around improves soil health and allows more water to soak in.
Fertilizer management is improving too, with an increasing effort to reduce nutrient runoff from fields and protect water quality. We apply anhydrous ammonia in the fall with a nitrogen stabilizer added. We also apply some liquid 28% N with herbicide before planting. You can use encapsulated urea nitrogen in the spring to reduce N losses. Technology is helping too. Auto-steering and precision farming practices using GPS save fuel and place nutrients where needed, for most efficient uptake by the crop.
Fumetti: Climate change is a multiplier around the world, affecting poor people who have limited access to better seeds and technology. That's a concern. People in Africa and other impoverished areas are choosing to migrate to cities because small farming systems aren't economically viable anymore.
In the U.S. and elsewhere, people want to know more about the food they eat, where their food is coming from and how it is produced. In response to what consumers want, we're seeing more social adaptation from field to market by producers and by the food industry; sustainability labels on food products are telling consumers how their food is produced and what it contains.
Anderson: We're seeing companies couple precision ag equipment with data collected from farms, including weather data and production data field by field, to help farmers make better crop management decisions. For example, some firms are now offering services and equipment to help farmers use precision agriculture data more effectively, data the farmer gathers from each field. For example, they can use this data to help place the right corn hybrids in the right locations within fields. They can vary the seeding rate or plant population accordingly—so the corn hybrid will give the best yield results based on soil type, soil productivity, water holding capacity of the soil, etc.
Russell: We're lucky in the U.S. to have access to technology; farmers here also have risk management services available such as crop insurance and USDA farm programs that provide a farm financial safety net. Challenges of climate change will be navigated best by farmers using the resources and programs available to deal with significantly adverse changes in weather.
As a farmer from a Christian faith perspective, I see this as the challenge of my lifetime—to help supply nutritious, affordable food for people. We must look at the moral issues involved in farming. Farmers are amazing innovators. We need to get farmers engaged and talking about how we can innovate and develop solutions to meet the challenges that face us, including the challenge of extremely variable weather.
Schipper: Agriculture is moving into a very data-intensive era in farming. Not only can the new precision ag technology help us make decisions for the current growing season, but we will accumulate data from similar years to look at and see how our fields and crops reacted to past weather conditions. New developments in equipment and precision technology can help us make better management decisions such as knowing where a certain soil type is located that has less water-holding capacity in a field. A farmer could apply lower nitrogen application rates or seed lower plant populations in those field areas.
SUMMING UP: The panelists spoke about the impact climate change and increased weather variability, drought and floods, will have on food prices and food availability. People with higher incomes will be able to adapt to the effects climate change will have on global food production better than people with lower incomes. The panel agreed people around the world must react to help those who will be most affected. We can use technology and innovation to help feed the world. We can do tremendous, amazing things for humanity so we don't fall into a human-created inequality that has serious consequences for people all over the globe.
The late Dr. Norman Borlaug, Father of the Green Revolution, was mentioned a lot recently in the news—as his statue was installed in the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. on March 25. Borlaug always said "We must remember the voices of the truly needy. They are whispers compared to the powerful."
For more information: A recent survey conducted by Iowa State University examines what farmers think about climate change and agriculture. Drought, extreme rains and flooding over the past five years have had the greatest influence on farmers' beliefs about climate change, according to the 2013 Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll.