Coauthored by Aimee Delach
In a disturbing trend of attacking the government’s ability to prepare for climate risks, the House passed an amendment to the fiscal 2012 Agriculture spending bill that would prohibit the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from implementing its new departmental regulation on climate change adaptation. This amendment puts the nation at increased risk of food disruptions, forest fires, and huge economic losses.
Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), who introduced the amendment, bizarrely claimed USDA’s climate adaptation policy was somehow a “backdoor door attempt to put a cap-and-trade program in place in the Department of Agriculture.”
Far from it. The commonsense 2-page USDA policy (pdf) says only that agencies should plan for that future in a way that will prevent food disruptions, massive forest fires and economic hardships. It reads, “Through adaptation planning, USDA will develop, prioritize, implement and evaluate actions to minimize climate risks and exploit new opportunities that climate change will bring.”
Tying the USDA’s hand with respect to preparing for climate change seems like a particularly bad idea while the nation is immersed in intense weather and climate-related disasters that are impacting agriculture and forestry– from the Mississippi River flood, to the Texas drought, to the Arizona fire.
“It’s as dry as I’ve ever seen it in my lifetime,” said Farmer, 51, a plainspoken Texan not given to hyperbole. “I don’t remember a drought this widespread. I’ve got a lot of country that’s blowing, but I can’t do a thing about it.”
And the irony of Congressman Scalise’s amendment is that he is from Louisiana, which is not only bearing the brunt of much of the record Mississippi River flooding, but is simultaneously under a state-wide severe drought. Some farmers are getting hit with both extremes at once:
“I can’t get my crop out of one side of the levee because it’s too dry and I’ve lost my crop on the other side of the levee because it’s floating away,” said George Lacour, 48, of Morganza, [Louisiana] another farmer trying to juggle the seeming paradox.
The conditions we are seeing this year are breaking records around the country. While La Niña is probably partly to blame, this year’s events are also consistent with the conditions researchers project are coming with climate change. Looking at the past record would not have prepared anyone for the events this year – and the future is going to be different yet.
USDA’s climate change adaptation policy would have required agencies to plan for future changes in climate variability and extreme events on USDA programs to prepare for and adjust to anticipated changes. The regulation is designed to ensure that “taxpayer resources are invested wisely and that USDA services and operations remain effective in current and future climate conditions.”
The USDA itself is well aware of the challenges climate change will pose for its mission. They lay the problem out quite clearly in their 2010 Climate Change Science Plan:
As the climate changes, those responsible for managing land and water resources will need new information to help with their decision-making. For example, producers will need information to guide them on what to plant, when to plant, and what management strategies to employ during the growing season. Foresters, farmers, and ranchers will need information for management of risks posed by pests and fire. Water resource managers will need information for allocation of water resources between the demands of urban and rural populations, industry, biofuels, agriculture, and ecosystem services. USDA policymakers will need information to guide them in implementing or retooling programs impacting or impacted by climate change. At all levels, global food production data and projections will be necessary for anticipating large-scale socioeconomic feedbacks into U.S. production systems.
Here are some examples of the agencies in USDA and how they are responding to climate change and variability.
Agricultural Research Service (ARS) is USDA’s principal in-house research agency. ARS has a wide-ranging research program, including:
- the effects of heat on wheat growth http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/pr/2011/110224.htm
- how temperature and carbon dioxide affect the growth of corn and soybeans, and the weeds that compete with them http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/pr/2009/091110.htm
- the impacts of climate change on forage quality in rangelands http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/pr/2007/070530.htm
- how parasites and diseases behave under changing climate conditions http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/pr/2008/081014.htm
These and other research questions are vitally important for the maintenance of crop, livestock and human health under a changing climate.
Farm Service Agency (FSA) As the manager of disaster assistance and other commodity programs, FSA is on the front lines of the impact of weather and climate on our nation’s agricultural producers. Just last month, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal wrote to the USDA to seek Secretarial disaster declarations for 26 parishes, on the grounds that “Agricultural producers in the basin will face significant damage and loss to cropland and livestock as a result” of record flooding that forced the opening of the Morganza spillway.
Louisiana Rep. Salise’s amendment would prevent FSW from properly fulfilling its mission as administrator of these disaster programs if it can’t take climate change into account. The separate but related Risk Management Agency, which makes disaster declarations and determines insured cropland eligibility in disaster situations also needs the capabilities to anticipate and respond to climate change and variability.
Forest Service (FS) administers 193 million acres of forests and grasslands that belong to all Americans and also provides research and technical assistance to all forest landowners. In order to protect forest resources, species and ecosystems, and human life and property on and adjacent to forest lands, the Forest Service needs to be able to evaluate, prepare for and respond to climate change impacts on fire frequency and severity, invasive species, forest pests, and other ecosystem dynamics.
Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) NRCS provides leadership in a partnership effort to help people conserve, maintain and improve our natural resources and environment.
NRCS conservation programs assist producers and rural communities to reduce erosion, use water resources more efficiently, protect and enhance wildlife habitat, and more. These conservation investments will produce better results if they are done in a climate-smart fashion.
Don’t we want our government agencies to doing this important work to prepare for the changes ahead?
In a statement issued in response the amendment, Jamie Rappaport Clark, executive vice president for Defenders of Wildlife, said, “America’s farms, forests and ranchlands not only feed our country, but also help support abundant and diverse wildlife populations. Our food security, property and wildlife heritage are all at risk from increased frequency and severity of heat waves, droughts, floods, fires and pests.
“Rep. Scalise and the 237 other members of the House are inhibiting the USDA’s ability to help farmers and forest owners and managers prepare for a future that includes more of the extreme weather events we have just experienced this spring. The future is not going to be the same as the past. This commonsense USDA policy says let’s plan for that future in a way that will prevent food disruptions, massive forest fires and economic hardships.”
The Senate should do right by the country’s farmers, forests and the people and wildlife that rely on them, and reject this amendment.