WASHINGTON – Climate changes in the Midwest over the next 30 to 40 years could disproportionately raise the cost of food,a panel of experts told a Senate committee Monday.
The cure? People must learn more about how the weather affects crops and devise new ways to control pests and plant diseases,the experts said.
“If the cost to feed the cattle and chickens goes up,the cost of meat will go up,” said X.B. Yang,associate professor of plant pathology at Iowa State University.
He was one of five experts who briefed the Senate Committee on Agriculture,Nutrition and Forestry about the effects of weather on agriculture.
William E. Easterling,director of the Penn State Institute of the Environment,said average temperatures and rainfall in the Midwest are likely to rise over the next few decades. Even with the added rain,he said,there could be more severe droughts.
“Crop adaptation will be crucial,” he said.
Yang talked about the weather's effects on plant diseases and pests and how farmers need to manage the risks they bring. He also discussed the spread of crop pests and diseases since the 1970s to new areas.
“Outbreaks of pests and diseases are associated with extreme weather events,” Yang said.
For example,he said,the number of soybean pests and diseases has doubled since 1980.
And Yang detailed how the 1970 outbreak of southern leaf blight destroyed more than $1 billion in corn. Through storms and air currents,the disease spread from small portions of the South to many areas of the Midwest and East.
“Unpredictable outbreaks and extreme weather events make sound long-term and mid-term farming decisions very uncertain,” Yang said.
Rain promotes the reproduction of crop-attacking fungi and bacteria,he said,and warm winters aid the population of pests and disease agents that attack during droughts.
“Farming right now is so challenging. It's becoming more complicated,” Yang said.
The climate changes affect more than just crops and animals said Eric Chivian,director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School.
He said fast-rising nighttime and winter temperatures have “a lethal effect for vulnerable [human] populations and livestock,” citing the recent heat wave in Europe that caused more than 14,000 human deaths.
There is a need to get carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere because of its negative effects on the climate and environment,said Charles W. Rice,director of the Consortium for Agricultural Soils Mitigation of Greenhouse Gases at Kansas Sate University.
He said one way to do this is by “carbon sequestration,” a way of putting carbon dioxide into the soil.
Dan McGuire,chief executive officer of the American Corn Growers Foundation,said another way to clean up the atmosphere is by using alternative energy sources such as wind and ethanol.
The panel concluded that educating farmers about extreme weather is the first step in saving agriculture in the United States.
Yang said that,in addition to education,support of research is fundamental in understanding weather's impact on agriculture. But researchers are often unable to catch up with the constant changes in climate,he said.