Victim, Contributor, Solver

I was at a Climate Convening yesterday in a small city in Southern Minnesota (Owatonna). I was invited to facilitate a small group discussion on agriculture and climate change. I was talking with one of the conference organizers before the meeting about agriculture and climate change and she came up with the line that agriculture is victim, contributor, and solver when it comes to climate change. I think it describes the situation well.

Victim: Victim is easy to see. There is no doubt about the connection between agriculture and climate. Changes in climate will impact agriculture. Fires in the western US impacting rangeland and cattle production is one current and obvious example. At the meeting Dr. Mark Seeley, a climatologist at the University of Minnesota, did a short keynote presentation on climate trends in Minnesota. Here in the Midwest there are some very clear statistically significant climate trends in temperatures, dew points and precipitation. He offered a clear statement on the impacts of these changes. He said “our design and management of resources and infrastructure is predicated on historic climate conditions (averages and extremes) and we are quickly moving outside of those design and management criteria.” He offered this in reference to how we design buildings (including livestock buildings) roads, sewer systems, runoff control, etc.. Agricultural production is indeed vulnerable to climate change.

Contributor: In a past blog post I reported on animal agriculture’s very real contributions to GHG concentrations in the atmosphere. We know about methane from ruminants and manure storages, nitrous oxide from soils, and CO2 from various sources agricultural sources. Yes, in return agriculture supplies food to the world. One twist on the conversation at the meeting was a discussion about local and regional climate impacts of corn production on our landscape. Soil erosion with row crops is one thing but also the impact of irrigation and evapotranspiration on local and regional dew points. The exact contribution of this landscape change is challenging to study but, as per Dr. Seeley, is a very relevant topic being discussed among climate scientists.

Solver: There is also a clear picture emerging of how agriculture can be a bigger part of the solution. Primarily through healthier soils sequestering more carbon and helping with water retention through cover crops, rotational grazing, conservation tillage, etc. In my small group discussion the topic of regenerative agriculture was brought up as more integrated approach to agriculture that may be more resilient to climate changes and result in less environmental impacts. The suggestion was that the economics of these alternative agricultural systems is currently challenging but would become more favorable if agricultural policy began placing greater emphasis on reducing carbon emissions, soil loss, and nitrogen pollution.

All good stuff to think about!

Always Considering Climate– David

David Schmidt MS. PE is a researcher and educator in the Department of Bioproducts and Bioysystems Engineering at the University of Minnesota and regional project coordinator for the project Animal Agriculture in a Changing Climate, a national project of the Livestock and Poultry Environmental Learning Center and funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

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