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Changing climate focus of USDA event series

by Tim Linden | July 21, 2010
The U.S. Department of Agriculture held the fifth in a series of listening sessions Monday, July 19, designed to help the Obama administration understand how different sectors of the economy can be assisted in helping to adapt to changes in the climate.

Titled Helping Agriculture Adapt to a Changing Climate, the event was held in Denver. It was organized by the Council on Environmental Quality and the American Farmland Trust.

A federal interagency task force has been given the job of presenting a report to the administration by October detailing how climate change might affect different sectors and enlisted to help develop strategies to deal with those changes. The task force has held sessions all over the country inviting representatives from different sectors to discuss the climate change issue.

Rob Neenan, vice president of environmental affairs and sustainability for the United Fresh Produce Association, was one of the panelists at the July 19 event. He said that the session was divided into two parts, with the climate change experts laying out the science in the early part of the day and representatives from industry giving their perspectives as the day wore on.

Ken Barbic, director of federal government affairs for the Western Growers Association, who was also in attendance, said, "Western Growers is pleased to see USDA and other agencies considering industry concerns in terms of research focus and programs that will help growers adapt to adverse climates, particularly in the western region of the U.S., where energy price volatility, heat, drought and pest pressures pose constant challenges to the competitiveness of our growers in the world market."

Mr. Barbic told The Produce News that Amy Kunugi, who manages Southern Colorado Farms, spoke as a grower-producer on behalf of the Western Growers Association. She spoke about the increase in weather incidents and the need for techniques and resources to adapt to those conditions including the development of heat, drought and pest-resistant seed varieties; more efficient irrigation systems; more efficient application of fertilizers to reduce cost and environmental impacts; and retooling of federal crop insurance programs to allow more specialty crop growers to effectively mitigate risk from adverse climate.

Officials from USDA, including Harris Sherman, USDA's undersecretary for natural resources and environment, and Bill Hohenstein, director of USDA's climate change program office, spoke about the work the agency is doing to address challenges faced by agriculture. Undersecretary Sherman spoke about the types of assistance USDA can provide in the future including work on new seed varieties, more efficient irrigation systems and redesigning crop insurance.

Mr. Neenan said that while there is still uncertainty about the exact changes the climate will go through over the next 40-80 years, the researchers presented "compelling evidence" that changes are occurring. "Most of the science does show that both the Southwest and the Southeast [areas of the United States] are already seeing higher average temperatures, prolonged heat spells and less rainfall." He said that the science presented shows that this will continue to be the case, while at the same time, other areas of the country will have more rainfall and cooler temperatures.

Mr. Neenan said that most of the presenters representing agriculture pointed to some of the adverse effects this could have, including increased pest pressure because of longer growing seasons and continued difficulty finding sufficient water to irrigate crops.