Scenario Planning Series, Part 5: What’s in Store for PNW Farms of the Future?

By: Liz Allen

People standing in a field
In order to be relevant to agricultural decision-makers, scenarios must account for technological innovations and changing farming practices. Here, a group of researchers and growers review direct-seed test plots at a Direct Seed field day in St. John, WA, hosted by the Palouse Rock Lake Conservation District, Cook Agronomy Farm, and the Pacific Northwest Direct Seed Association. Photo by Kay Meyer. Reproduced from the REACCH 2015 Annual Report.

Throughout this blog series I’ve discussed various aspects of scenario planning, from the general philosophy (part 1) to adapting global scenarios to study the impacts of climate change and development on water resources in the Pacific Northwest (Part 4). In this 5th and final installment, we’ll turn to scenarios created specifically to study changes affecting agriculture. I’ll begin by covering the international context in which these agricultural scenarios are being developed and then explore how the Regional Approaches to Climate Change (REACCH) project, a collaborative effort between UI, WSU and OSU, is refining agricultural scenarios for use in studying the possible futures of cereal production systems in the inland Pacific Northwest.

The Agricultural Model Intercomparison and Improvement Project (AgMIP) is an international research effort designed to support agricultural innovation and adoption of sustainable practices. Multiple parallel modeling approaches are being used to consider risks facing agricultural systems under climate change and to consider the potential impacts of adaption and mitigation efforts. Early in the AgMIP effort it was decided that having a set of cross-cutting scenarios was essential to be able to meaningfully compare outputs from different models. These universal agricultural scenarios are called Representative Agricultural Pathways (RAPs). RAPs scenarios were built from the IPCC’s Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs), which specify possible future atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, and from the Special Report on Emissions Scenarios (SRES) scenarios, which describe socio-economic conditions.

Each RAP scenario represents a specific combination of population changes, incomes, technologies, trade patterns, investments, and development of water, energy, and agricultural policies. A key feature that defines the RAPs is that they account for future technological innovations at the farm-scale. Previous widely used scenarios describing future social and economic conditions neglected to consider agricultural innovations specifically, causing them to be viewed as unrealistic and overly pessimistic by most agricultural analysts. In reality, farming practices are continually developing: practices to manage and monitor the application of fertilizers and pesticides continue to be developed and improved, more energy efficient machinery is being used on farms, and crops are being developed with new genetic characteristics. Scenarios that account for these various developments in technology, trade and policy in agriculture enable us to explore specific relationships between global food production and climate.

Meanwhile, at home in the Pacific Northwest, researchers are adapting global RAPs to study how shifting climatic and socioeconomic conditions will affect dryland wheat production in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Oregon State University agricultural economist John Antle—a co-principal investigator in AgMIP and REACCH—and fellow REACCH economists and extension scientists are defining three regionally specific scenarios: 1) business as usual, 2) dysfunctional world, and 3) sustainable development. These scenarios reflect different projections of technological, policy and socioeconomic change, and were developed by the REACCH team using a combination of historical data, global economic model projections, and expert opinions from agriculture industry insiders and decision makers at government agencies. The regional scenarios will allow us to better understand the potential for relocating crops or for altering the planting and cultivation times in order to adjust to changing temperatures and seasonal water availability.


Regional RAPs Scenarios in Detail:

1. Business as usual:

In this scenario, rural development continues, with moderate increases in population in regional centers, larger and more diversified regional economies, and continued trends toward mechanical, chemical, and biological technology. Trends toward environmental regulation to protect air and water quality also continue, but fiscal pressures lead to real reductions in traditional commodity subsidies and other agriculture-specific conservation programs, making conservation more individualized. Agricultural prices increase in real terms due to continued growth in demand, especially for feed grains and for politically mandated production of biofuels. Some rural farm-based communities continue to sustain infrastructure and social cohesion, while others continue to experience net out-migration.

2. Dysfunctional world:

In this scenario, unbalanced rural development occurs, with an almost complete loss of “agriculture in the middle” and consolidation of most commodity production into large corporate entities with contract arrangements for farm management and subsequent effects on rural farm-based communities. Suburban development continues largely unregulated in semi-urban areas as well as in more rural areas. Traditional farm subsidy programs are largely eliminated, conservation and environmental programs are limited due to budget constraints, and social conflict in agricultural communities escalates. Advances in large-scale mechanical, chemical, and biological technology continue, but disruptions to global agricultural research and development and agricultural trade result in substantially higher and more volatile agricultural commodity prices.

3. Sustainable development:

Here rural development continues, with moderate increases in population in regional centers and larger and more diversified regional economies having a positive impact on community and social well-being. Traditional commodity subsidies are replaced by a carbon tax and an expansion of conservation and environmental programs, which slow the consolidation of land into larger farms and support some expansion of mid- and small-scale farms. Recent trends in mechanical, chemical, and biological technology continue, but in response to the carbon tax there is more innovation in technology that helps reduce fossil fuel intensity. Global commodity prices rise moderately along with the increases in fossil fuels due to the carbon tax.

To get a more complete picture of the variables considered in these three pathways, check out the article about Regional RAPS on page 106 of the 2015 REACCH Annual Report. To learn about how these scenarios are being applied to study how climate change along with changes in pest and disease pressures, changes in commodity process, production costs, and agricultural technologies may affect farmers’ profits turn to page 110 of the REACCH report for the article “Economic impacts of climate change on winter wheat”.


Liz Allen is a graduate research assistant in the School of the Environment at Washington State University where she is a member of the BioEarth Regional Earth Systems Modeling team.