House Ag hearing witnesses: Climate change is a challenge to agriculture
Three witnesses at a House Agriculture Biotechnology, Horticulture, and Research Subcommittee hearing today emphasized that climate change is a challenge to agriculture.
While the Trump administration avoids use of the term “climate change,” Delegate Stacey Plaskett, D-V.I., and witnesses used the term openly in a hearing titled “Increasing Resiliency, Mitigating Risk: Examining the Research and Extension Needs of Producers.”
“As we speak, flooding is keeping farmers out of the field,” Plaskett said in an opening statement.
“These disasters, driven by an increasingly variable climate, pose serious threats to the domestic agriculture industry and the rural communities depending on this sector.
“Unfortunately, I have seen this firsthand in the Virgin Islands. In 2015, the territory suffered a serious drought. In 2017, we were hit by two major hurricanes. Now, the territory is once again facing another drought. Recovery continues to be an ongoing process. My farmers and ranchers need tools that not only help them survive, but thrive, in the face of a changing climate.
“These examples show that farmers and ranchers throughout the country are constantly forced to deal with variables that are outside their control. To remain economically viable and to protect already slim margins, producers seek to create resilient operations by mitigating risks when possible. Advancements in technology and management practices are made possible by robust agriculture research efforts, a topic that is squarely within the jurisdiction of this subcommittee.”
Plaskett added, “To show that farmers have always been climate-focused, I have here the 1941 Yearbook of Agriculture from USDA. It is titled ‘Climate and Man.’ One line from the forward that still rings true today is this: ‘The first step in increasing knowledge is to have a healthy awareness of what we do not know.’ Though farmers have always been acutely aware of climate, their ability to respond to shifts in the climate are changing.”
David Wolfe, a professor at Cornell University, said, “When I became involved in climate change research almost 30 years ago, the evidence for impacts on agriculture was subtle, and we relied heavily on climate and crop model projections to discern future impacts. But unfortunately, this new challenge for agriculture has crept up on us more quickly than some expected. Farmers today are feeling the effects in real-time, and having to make difficult decisions to cope. They can no longer rely on weather patterns that for centuries have been characteristic for their region to determine what crop to plant, when to plant it, or how to grow it. In addition to an increase in drought and heat risk in many regions as one might expect with ‘global warming,’ there have also been many surprises.”
Brise Tencer, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation, said, “Organic producers have developed innovative strategies that support agricultural resiliency and show potential to mitigate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and lessen the impacts of climate change on production. In addition, strong market demand and high prices for certified organic farm products can help reduce economic risks for organic producers.”
Robert Godfrey, director of the Agricultural Experiment Station (AES) at the University of the Virgin Islands, presented a portrait of Virgin Islands agriculture that is rarely heard in Congress and concluded, “I want to say that agriculture in the U.S. Virgin Islands will continue to be impacted by climate change through increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. These types of extreme events only serve to highlight the importance of food security and accessibility in a remote island location such as ours.”
Plaskett and the witnesses also emphasized the importance of publicly funded research. Sam Godwin, an organic fruit grower from the Pacific Northwest, said the “glacial pace” of ARS’s hiring practices and a drafting error in the 2018 farm bill that removed the Agriculture secretary’s authority to waive the 100% matching requirement for the Specialty Crop Research Initiative have slowed research.
“We request that you work with your Senate counterparts to fix this drafting error without further delay so that these – as well as future, valuable projects – are not lost,” Godwin said.
Fred Gmitter, a professor at the University of Florida, said, “An increasingly warming climate means an increase in: disease intensity, mutation rates, and the range of pests and diseases in areas where they formerly didn’t exist. In my state of Florida, the citrus industry has been devastated by citrus greening disease, and production has been dramatically decreased by 75% in less than 15 years. We are running out of time. Citrus growers need long-term, sustainable solutions. There is no question that plant breeding innovation holds the key. Using gene editing, my team and others are working right now on developing citrus trees that are resistant, if not immune, to citrus greening, and the bacteria that causes it and the insect that spreads it. Innovation is enabling us to potentially do in years what would previously only have been possible in decades, or longer. And with this rapidly moving disease, time is a luxury we don’t have.”
Gmitter added, “It’s also important that the U.S. continues to take a leadership role in driving consistent plant breeding policies at the global level. Late last year, 13 countries, including the U.S., joined together in signing an International Statement on Agricultural Applications of Precision Biotechnology. This was a strong and encouraging show of support by governments around the world in recognition of plant breeding innovation, and the critical role that it will play in ensuring a more sustainable and secure global food production system. In order to maintain the United States’ position as an economic world-leader in innovation, it’s critical that we continue moving forward in supporting research in plant breeding solutions to solve our collective global challenges.”
After the hearing, Rep. Neal Dunn, R-Fla., the subcommittee ranking member, said in a statement, “As producers face increasing threats from multiple risks, the need for a strong and robust agricultural research and extension system has never been greater. Farmers, ranchers and foresters need new technologies and adaptive strategies to address these evolving issues, and innovations achieved through biotechnology will be an important piece to the solution. America’s farmers remain the original and best stewards of the land and with the help of research and extension, will continue to provide the U.S. with the safest, most affordable food and fiber supply in the world.”