Perspectives on Agriculture in a Changing Climate – It’s complicated!

Pacific Northwest agricultural industries where urgency meets win-win solutions. Credits: Shellfish – Flickr user NH567 under CC BY-NC 2.0; Irrigation – Henry Alva under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0; Vineyard – Flickr user under CC BY 2.0.
Pacific Northwest agricultural industries where urgency meets win-win solutions. Credits: Shellfish – Flickr user NH567 under CC BY-NC 2.0; Irrigation – Henry Alva under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0; Vineyard – Flickr user under CC BY 2.0.

“Agriculture” in the Pacific Northwest encompasses a lot—dryland and irrigated systems, beef and dairy production, grains and other field crops, vegetables, fruit trees, pastures, other perennial crops, commodity and specialty markets, from local to global—so there’s no getting away from the fact that talking about climate change and agriculture gets complicated, really fast. This point came across to me very strongly at the Agriculture in a Changing Climate workshop in Kennewick in March, when invited industry representatives shared their perspectives on climate change and agriculture during a panel discussion.

The panel was diverse, and so were their views. Here’s a flavor of the points that struck me most. Bill Dewey with Taylor Shellfish Farms described how they partnered with agency and university researchers monitoring sea water chemistry when ocean acidification seriously affected their shellfish seed production. Melissa Hansen from the Washington State Wine Commission highlighted how the wine industry needed better information on how climate extremes and grape quality may change as the climate changes. Scott Revell, Roza Irrigation District, and Urban Eberhardt, Kittitas Reclamation District, discussed the importance of snowpack for irrigated agriculture in their districts, and the impact that low snowpack years—like 2015—have on tree fruit production. And both Patrick Kole, Idaho Potato Commission, and Blake Rowe, Oregon Wheat Commission, talked about the challenges producers face as they respond and adapt to daily, seasonal and year-to-year changes in weather and markets, about the burden that climate-change related regulations could pose, and about the role that breeding and new varieties play in giving farmers tools to adapt to longer-term changes. Despite this diversity of views, a few themes emerged, one of which I’d like to focus on here: how urgency coupled with win-win solutions has led to meaningful adaptations to an already-changing climate.

There are some agricultural industries that are already feeling the impacts of increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide and a changing climate, or are clearly foreseeing such impacts. This was particularly clear for the shellfish industry, where higher carbon dioxide in the atmosphere translates pretty directly into more acidic ocean waters, leading to loss of their shellfish larvae. It was also clear to water managers, who recognize that the 2015 conditions—warm and with low snowpack—will occur more and more frequently in the future. And there is urgency for industries such as vineyards, where investment decisions now have decades-long implications. That’s the “urgency” part.

These industries also have examples of successful adaptation ideas, thanks to that urgency converging with win-win solutions. The shellfish industry has partnered with NOAA (the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and university researchers to monitor sea water chemistry and share those data in real time, allowing shellfish producers to adjust the pH of the water in their hatcheries in response to ocean conditions, mitigating the impact of acidification. The wine industry has made significant investments to improve irrigation efficiency, which can mitigate the impact of water shortages during key periods, and can also lead to improved fruit quality and disease management as well.

Meanwhile, water managers are looking across large areas for solutions to changes in irrigation water availability. From collaborating with environmental groups wanting to ensure water is available to support fish, to collaborating across irrigation districts to effectively distribute water and invest in reducing loss of water during transport, there are multiple examples of working with others to find the best available solutions.

So yes, understanding climate change impacts on agriculture is complicated. And adapting to those impacts is even more complicated. But that complexity also leaves room for innovation, for finding win-win solutions that fit the particular set of factors and conditions in an area, a particular crop, under specific market forces and policies. And though the complexity also makes it hard to transfer these win-win solutions from one place or one crop to another, sharing these success stories can help spark others—different ones—in other places. As we hear and see more of these win-win success stories, I hope to do my part in sharing them, to foster further innovations. And as we evaluate these new ideas, we may well find commonalities that research can explore, in efforts to identify broadly applicable lessons that can help producers, industry, and consumers support climate-smart and climate-friendly agriculture across the Pacific Northwest.


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