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Agriculture and climate change: action instead of argument.

Irrespective of the ideological battle over climate change and its causes, the agricultural community is already beginning to cope with climate change impacts. While debate continues between most climate scientists on the one hand and denial groups such as the Heartland Institute and the Cato Institute on the other, the agricultural community recognizes that climate change will affect where we grow, what we grow, and how we grow it. Over the last decade, the growing season in the U.S. Upper Midwest has lengthened by five to seven days, and we have observed enough corresponding signals from natural systems to indicate that other important changes are occurring, too. In addition, most climate scientists believe that enough greenhouse gas has accumulated in the atmosphere to sustain and extend the changes we've already seen--warmer winters, reduced snow and snowmelt, longer growing seasons, increased temperatures, and changed rainfall patterns.

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The agricultural community is beyond the stage of arguing about the reality or causes of climate change. Instead, it is beginning to anticipate how climate change will affect agriculture's ability to meet national and international food and fiber requirements. The potential consequences of climate change are so great that being unprepared is not an option. The dilemma is how to link what we are learning about climate change with adaptation strategies that will be critical to maintaining production. Both the public and private sectors can provide linkages between our growing knowledge and its adaptation by producers. For example, suppliers are starting to develop products and strategies specifically adapted to climate change, be they seed, nutrient, pesticide, or machinery based. In the public sector, governments and the Land Grant education system are investing in research on climate change and agricultural adaptation.

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Australia's success story

The United States is not facing this challenge alone. Australia has a head start in developing climate adaptation strategies for producers. Some of the reasons for this are: (1) the Australian climate is highly variable and prone to extremes, so producers there already suffer from rapidly changing conditions; (2) the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Organization (CSIRO) has broad responsibility for agricultural research, as well as research in biology, climate, and other areas, and is able to concentrate resources on the problem of climate change; and (3) commodity and producer groups have traditionally played a strong role in the design of research, its applicability, and its delivery to producers.

The Yield Prophet program is an excellent example of a climate-inclusive decision aid for producers (www.yield-prophet.com.au). This program provides Australian producers with probability forecasts that project yield, manage climate and soil-water risk, assist with informed decisions about nitrogen and irrigation applications, align inputs with crop yield potential, assess the effect of changes in planting dates or varieties, and assess the possible effects of climate change.

Yield Prophet's simulation model uses a producer's soil tests, soil classifications, historical and active climate information, farm-specific rainfall data, individual crop details, and fertilizer and irrigation applications as inputs. The simulation then provides probabilities of potential outcomes under various climate and input management scenarios, providing initial guidance as well as opportunities for in-season adjustments. Finally, it provides gross margin returns for different scenarios. From 2004 to 2008, Yield Prophet's simulations accounted for 68 percent of the observed variation in wheat and barley yields for those farmers who paid for and used the decision model. A commonly used water-use-efficiency estimator explained only 50 percent of the variation in these yields.

In the United States, the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture has initiated a number of research efforts that are also attempting to integrate climate change impacts with the needs of agricultural production. The U2U project (Useful to Usable: Transforming climate variability and change information for cereal crop producers, available at: www.AgC1imate4U.org) focuses on corn production in the twelve-state North Central region and may be the closest U.S. analog to Australia's efforts. The program places particular emphasis on determining what would be most useful to corn producers and how to provide tools and information in a way that producers find compelling.

The U2U team is developing knowledge of potential biophysical and economic impacts related to climate change and formulating case studies to identify the impacts of climate and management decisions on yield and farm profitability. Recognizing the advantages that Australia has in getting stakeholder involvement, the U2U team is working closely with the agricultural community to better understand the potential value of climate information in producer decision-making and determine more effective methods for disseminating usable climate-related production knowledge.

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The future of decision tools

There are a number of challenges with decision tools. To be accepted by producers, the tools and adaptation practices must be effective, and they must include some incentive for use. Providing information that has an economic payoff is one such incentive. In Australia, the greater variability in growing conditions can result in greater economic gains or losses. Australian cropping systems also involve some important mid-season input decisions that can affect profitability.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Upper Midwest is likely to remain one of the world's premium corn-growing areas, given the various future climate scenarios. This contrasts with the Western Corn Belt, where major crop and cropping system modifications may be necessary. The farm-level economic impacts of climate change in the relatively stable North Central region may be modest at first, and they may remain modest even after cropping system changes become necessary. However, even in stable regions, climate adaptation tools enhance resilience, which minimizes risk.

In addition to demonstrating an economic payoff, providing timely climate information to producers--such two-week to eight-week forecasts at the farm scale--is a tremendous challenge for developers of decision tools. Producers need accurate information at key decision points, such as variety selection, planting, and nutrient application. We are learning from the Australian approach, but we are not there yet.

The task of creating agricultural decision tools for a changing climate is difficult, but we have no alternative. By working together, with climate scientists and agricultural producers as well as the public and private agricultural sectors, we can find a way to do it. The climate is changing, so we must change with it.

ASABE member Otto Doering, Professor, agricultural economics at Purdue University and former Director of Purdue's Climate Change Research Center, West Lafayette, Ind., USA, doering@purdue.edu.
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Author:Doering, Otto
Publication:Resource: Engineering & Technology for a Sustainable World
Date:Jul 1, 2013
Words:1060
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