National Press Club

Climate change threatens agriculture 'as we know it,' Agriculture secretary says

June 5, 2013 | By Lorna Aldrich |

Agriculture Secrtary Tom Vilsack speaks at June 5 NPC luncheon as Club President Angela Greiling Keane listens

Agriculture Secrtary Tom Vilsack speaks at June 5 NPC luncheon as Club President Angela Greiling Keane listens

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack described the effects of climate change on agriculture and detailed three new steps his department is taking to mitigate them at a National Press Club luncheon June 5.

“We have a climate that clearly is warming,” he said, adding that the consequent changes “threaten the future of agriculture, long term, as we know it.”

The United States is experiencing an increasing number of severe storms, invasive species and intense forest fires, he said. He noted that last year produced the second-most severe weather and the warmest year on record.

Effects -- and steps to mitigate them -- vary by region, he said. In the Northeast, he reported, extreme precipitation has reduced crop yields; in the Midwest, the growing season has lengthened two weeks in his lifetime; and in the Southwest, increased drought threatens irrigation-intensive fruit, vegetables and nuts.

In the first of USDA's three steps described by Vilsack, the secretary announced that the department will establish seven new regional climate hubs to develop strategies with farmers and foresters. He called the hubs “service centers for science-based risk management” and an extension service for the 21st century. (The Agricultural Extension Service is USDA’s traditional outreach program for farmers.)

In the second step, he said that the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a USDA agency, has created a soil-sample data base that will boost the ability of agriculture to sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Calling the data base, “the largest soil sampling effort in history, he said it could help researchers “unlock the secrets in the soil” to mitigate climate change.

In the third step, he said that USDA agencies are working to provide new methods to create cover crops (rotation crops planted to replenish soils for cash crops). This, he pointed, out can not only sequester carbon, but also enrich soils. One such method, he said, is setting the optimal time to leave cover crops on the field. Four cover crop termination zones have been established across the United States, he said

Because the cover crop recommendations have been in some cases inconsistent with farm commodity programs, the initiative is working to provide consistent guidelines across USDA programs, he said.

Vilsack assigned a fourth program to the population as a whole. He cited estimates that a third of the U.S. food supply is wasted and that it is largest single component of land fill, which, in turn, is the third largest source of methane emissions into the atmosphere. He deplored the waste of resources in producing uneaten food, and called attention to the amounts left on plates at the luncheon.

He said that EPA and USDA, as well as companies across the food industry, are issuing a Food Waste Challenge, to conserve, recover and recycle food.

In response to a question about the Farm Bill, major legislation currently in Congress, he said the difference between the House and Senate versions are the sizes of cuts in food assistance. He spoke against large cuts in the programs, saying that 92 percent of participants in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (formerly known as Food Stamps) are elderly, disabled, children and working parents of those children.

He advocated a guest worker provision in immigration legislation that is also currently in Congress. Without it some crops will be left unpicked in fields, he said.