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Thursday, November 14, 2013
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USDA Climate Director Sheds Light on the Vulnerabilities of the Global Food Sector

By Guest Author, Verner Wilson, III, Yale F&ES '15

In a recent lecture at Yale, USDA Climate Change Office Director William Hohenstein said climate “extremes” are becoming the new normal. Hotter days, longer heat waves, more drought, intense storms and extreme rainfall will mean more challenges to food growers worldwide, and that will affect everyone.

Mr. Hohenstein’s office is responsible for coordinating a response to a changing climate in the agriculture and food sectors, providing recommendations to America’s top leaders on climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies, serving as a liaison to thirteen federal agencies on climate change, and helping represent the US during international climate negotiations.

The severity of what climate change could mean for agriculture was driven home by a leaked UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report earlier this month. The report, scheduled for release in March 2014, included projections that have the world’s food supply decreasing by up to 2 percent every decade due to more extreme climate conditions. It is a stark reversal from the 2007 IPCC report that stated food supplies could actually improve under climate change. The projections for decreased food supply come as global population is expected to increase to over 9.6 billion people by 2050.

Many places have already witnessed these impacts, and delegates to Warsaw COP, including Mr. Hohenstein, will undoubtedly hear about them. The UN World Food Program estimated that in 2011 alone, countries in Central Africa, such as Mauritania, have lost nearly half of their average five-year crop yield due to severe drought conditions. This means that many poorer communities and developing nations will see increased mortality due to nutrition issues, especially for the elderly and the young.

More intense storms, like Typhoon Haiyan, will also impact food and agriculture. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said Haiyan, which caused huge losses and damage to the Philippines, hit its agriculture and fishing industries hard. More than one million farmers were hurt and thousands of hectares of rice farms were destroyed. The FAO is calling for at least $24 million in relief for the Philippines agriculture sector alone.

During his lecture, Mr. Hohenstein showed a map detailing climate projections for various regions in the US. The Northeast can expect higher temperatures, extreme precipitation and coastal flooding. The Midwest, considered the country’s breadbasket, will see more extreme rainfall, increased heat events, and fewer workable field days. In the Southeast, temperatures will increase, along with drought, sea level rise, and invasive pests. The Southern Plains and Southwest, however, are likely to be the most adversely affected, primarily due to decreased water supplies, less snow, increased drought, hotter temperatures, and more wildfires. The full USDA report on regional climate impacts is available here.

Since impacts will vary by region, USDA is establishing seven regional hubs to help growers with risk assessments and adaptation strategies. Mr. Hohenstein also unveiled a new tool under development by the National Center for Atmospheric Research in collaboration with USDA. The tool will project the Palmer Drought Severity Index in the US for the rest of the century.  The index currently measures real-time soil moisture based on precipitation and temperature, but projections from the new tool showed an alarming prediction of greater periods of drought across a spatial and temporal map of the US.

This week, I am going to Warsaw for the UN Climate negotiations to job-shadow the Red Cross Climate Center and learn about the organization’s efforts to reduce the negative impacts of climate change on vulnerable communities. While there, I will be thinking of a recent blog by Dr. Bruce Campbell, Director of the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS). He advocates for the global food sector to adopt “climate-smart agricultural practices,” such as crop rotation and other proven conservation techniques and increased use of innovative regimes such as livestock insurance.

In Warsaw, I look forward to learning more about this issue, but also helping others understand the outcomes of the climate negotiations.  As we’ve seen in the food and agriculture sector, the stakes are high across the world and there is a lot of work to do. 

Verner Wilson, III, is a first-year Master of Environmental Management candidate at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He is originally from Bristol Bay, Alaska, and obtained a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies in 2008 from Brown University. He previously worked for the World Wildlife Fund, as well as a coalition of Alaska Native tribes, on issues related to sustainable wild salmon fisheries, environmental justice, mining, oil and gas, and climate change.

Posted in: Energy & Climate

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