As temperatures plunged below zero in the Midwest over the past few weeks, I have heard more than once someone say, “I could use a little of that global warming.” The proper term today is “climate change” because the so-called experts cannot agree if the planet is getting hotter or colder. So they agreed to just call it climate change because that is something they agree could change. Another thing most experts on climate change agree on is that the effects will be bad. Report after report and study after study paint pictures of massive ecological and environmental disruptions because of changes in the climate. When Jason Clay, Senior Vice President of food and markets for the World Wildlife Fund, addressed the recent Indiana Governor’s Agricultural Conference, he too painted a disturbing picture of what Midwestern agriculture would be like as the climate changed.
He suggested that yields on current crops would decline dramatically and that farmers would have to learn to grow entirely new crops. In addition, he suggested that, due to the increasing world population and sky rocketing food demands, governments should mandate crops that provide more calories with less environmental impact be grown on the ever-declining land base. He also implied that governments and food companies would begin to make food choices for consumers, especially in the area of sustainability.
But, like a fresh spring breeze, Greg Page, Executive Chairman of Cargill, one of the world largest food companies, gave some perspective to Dr. Clay’s presentation. In addition to challenging the underlying assumptions that led to Dr. Clay’s prediction, Mr. Page discussed something often not heard is discussions on climate change: the good things that will happen. He pointed out that there will be impacts on farming from climate change but, at this point, we are not sure what those will be. He stated some models show a dramatic increase in Midwestern crop yields while other show a decline. He pointed out that this is the same scenario farmers face each spring: there are chances I will have a good crop and chances I will have a poor one.
This is the kind of agronomic evolution that has been taking place for centuries. Farmers will make adjustments in their operations and their crop rotations based on their experiences in the past. In more modern times, market forces have become a factor, and farmers will make adjustments in crops and practices based on market forces and profit opportunities.
This is already happening in the Midwest. During the 2012 drought, several famers in Indiana were unable to plant corn because it was too dry. So they planted sorghum. It performed well, and some have continued to plant it. Page told the conference that Cargill has invested millions of dollars in processing plants in Canada where canola can now be grown at about 50 degrees north latitude. He told me a study has shown that climate change could provide weather in Southern Indiana and Southern Illinois that could produce a crop of corn and a crop of soybeans — all in the same year. “The idea that all change is bad change is not is not a take away people should have,” Page said and added it is not all about new technology but also about adapting current agronomy to meet changing climate conditions.
Clay and Page agreed that science needs to be at the center of the debate and that less time should be spent on talking about who is causing the change, but rather talk about how we can adapt to the change. Many in agriculture fear climate change because they are afraid it will bring the kind of government mandates Dr. Clay described. Yet, there are opportunities for those who can adapt to whatever the climate of the future turns out to be.
By Gary Truitt