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Dust Bowl redux? » Yale Climate Connections

In the 1930s, dust and drought enveloped the U.S. Southern Plains, inducing widespread famine. Livestock and crops were choked by storms that killed nearly 7,000 people and caused severe damage to the local ecology and national economy.

Today, climate change is putting the U.S. food supply at risk in ways reminiscent of the Depression-era Dust Bowl. Extreme shifts in weather patterns are altering how crops grow and endangering yields and food security. And as the symptoms mirror the past, so too could the treatment.

In the years after the Dust Bowl, numerous policy measures were passed to improve conservation practices, farming techniques, and regional adjustments to weather-pattern shifts. Federal legislation brought about the farm bill, which helped stabilize crop supply and commodity prices. Drought-related research by the Department of Agriculture and its academic partners improved erosion control, soil moisture conservation, fertilizers, and farm management. When powerful drought patterns next blew in during the 1950s, the adaptations built up by years of agricultural policy and research prevented a repeat of widespread troubles.

Today, smart policy and research can proactively improve climate-impact adaptations and simultaneously treat their cause, as agriculture generates around 10% of U.S. climate-warming emissions each year. Congress could seize this opportunity by including forward-looking policies in the 2023 Farm Bill, and several pieces of pending legislation could also help.

Climate change alters how crops grow, putting U.S. harvests and food security in danger

Global warming is changing the timing of environmental cues that crops and other plants use to trigger developmental stages. In the early spring, warmer days are causing early sprouting, but sprouting plants require long hours of daylight — not yet available in early spring — to induce the next stages of their life cycle, such as flowering. Crops that start growing earlier can become stalled in development or severely damaged by early spring climate shocks such as a late frost or hailstorm. Similarly, fall-sown crops that overwinter in warmer areas — like wheat, broccoli, spinach, cabbage, and garlic — may experience longer growing seasons, undergoing insufficient cold hours to induce subsequent phases.

“Every farmer, from organic to conventional, is experiencing this,” Sedrick Rowe, a peanut farmer in Georgia, told Reuters. Rowe has shifted his planting schedule earlier as spring and summer months have grown warmer, Reuters reported.

The changing climate is weakening yields, in turn endangering farmer livelihoods, cultural practices, and food security. Global crop yields will suffer, though the extent of losses will vary by crop and region and depend on whether farmers and the agricultural industry can proactively adapt to the change.

Farmers adapt, but face barriers

Farmers are adapting to climate change in hundreds of ways. Researchers have classified five categories of management strategies: water, crop, nutrient, technological, and financial management. Often, farmers employ multiple strategies at once; for instance, they plant newer, hardier crop varieties earlier in the season while also installing hail nets to protect them. Growers can also alleviate financial risk by investing in crop insurance to mitigate potential monetary losses following droughts or other troubles.

Still, U.S. farmers face several barriers to adaptation. Many lack up-to-date climate information and training that could inform long-term planning. Many farmers are susceptible to “techno-optimism” that assumes technological solutions will emerge and be sufficient to mitigate future crop losses. Those uninformed about long-term climate trends or disinclined to believe this information could jeopardize their long-term livelihoods as well as widespread food security.

Crop modeling and smart policy

Crop models are an increasingly essential instrument in the toolbox for addressing climate impacts on agriculture. They can help farmers plan for changing environmental conditions and climate. Farmers and decision-makers can use them to inform planting and land management and to foresee food-supply challenges. Unfortunately, the vast majority of climate change adaptation strategies are not well represented in many models. As a result, these models can’t analyze scenarios that portray the full array of adaptation strategies available to farmers.

To improve crop models, planners need more data evaluating the implementation of adaptation strategies on farms. Such an effort would require a standardized, interdisciplinary data-gathering process. Following the Dust Bowl, similar advances relied on research funding and collaboration between farmers, government agencies, and agricultural universities.

One important legislative tool, the U.S. farm bill, due for renewal later in 2023, could help spur such collaborative efforts. Originally enacted in the 1930s to stabilize food prices and supply while sustaining the country’s natural resources, the farm bill still covers many of the same goals.

The soon-to-expire 2018 version of the bill funds agricultural research programs to expand academic knowledge and boost productivity.

Other legislation proposed in Congress this year also aims to help farmers adapt to climate change. The Agriculture Resilience Act would direct funds to food and agricultural research, improving soil health, farmland preservation, and other farm and food management areas. The Seeds and Breeds for the Future Act would advance cultivar research to help U.S. farmers build a more resilient food system. The COVER Act would modernize crop insurance by subsidizing farms that plant cover crops, which protect soil and can reduce the impact of extreme weather events.

Reactive responses to weather like shading crops or changing feeding patterns only treat the symptoms of climate change. Proactive climate adaptation treats the “disease” itself. And using policy to reduce heat-trapping pollution from agriculture can help prevent the worst effects of climate change from ever happening.

Environmental leaders have signaled the farm bill’s potential to have the biggest impact on the climate of any legislation in the remainder of this administration.

“Congress has the potential to counteract the harm caused by certain agricultural practices and ensure that agriculture is part of the climate solution moving forward, and it can also make farms more resilient to the impacts of climate change,” said Michelle Nowlin, professor of environmental law at Duke University, in a news release.

By pairing a strong farm bill with conservation provisions of bills like the Agricultural Resilience Act, which aims to halve agricultural emissions by 2030 and hit net zero by 2040, this Congress could have an outsized influence in helping the U.S. reduce otherwise hard-to-abate pollution.

In other words, there is still time to enact conservation-oriented agriculture legislation that will help keep food on our plates, help farmers grow it, and make our land, water, and air clean for future generations.

Daniel J. O’Brien is a policy analyst at Energy Innovation. Devan Crane is a program associate at Aspen Global Change InstituteBoth organizations are Yale Climate Connections content-sharing partners.

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