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Climate change focus heightens

USDA defends public release of information on climate variability for farmers.

Jacqui Fatka

July 10, 2019

6 Min Read
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FARMER-FRIENDLY CLIMATE BILL: Senate passes by a 92-8 vote the Growing Climate Solutions Act to help solve entry barriers for farmers who want to participate in carbon markets.MacXever/iStock/Thinkstock

The focus on climate change will only continue in the months ahead, so members of Congress took steps to declare a climate emergency in the U.S. and put a renewed focus on finding solutions. Meanwhile, under attack for suppressing climate change information, the U.S. Department of Agriculture continues to defend its 500-plus research papers released in 2018.

Similar to the increased focus on creating the atom bomb during World War II, presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) noted how after getting attacked on two fronts, it took only three years for research to create something necessary to win the war. Sanders said of climate change, “I think the issue is not that we cannot address this problem; I think we can, and we know exactly what needs to be done.”

Sanders, along with Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y) and Earl Blumenauer (D., Ore.), introduced a concurrent resolution in Congress to declare a climate emergency in the U.S. “The resolution recognizes the need for a massive-scale mobilization to halt, reverse and address the consequences of climate change,” they said.

The legislators claim that the tipping point in the effects of global warming is only 12 years away.

Fred Yoder, an Ohio farmer who has been outspoken on the need to focus solutions for farmers on economics and managing the increased weather cycles, said when there is a definite need to fix a problem and a solution is sought, it’s much easier to get something accomplished.

“It’s a shame we’ve politicized this discussion,” Yoder said. Farmers have been made to choose based on politics whether they can talk about climate change. If you look at soil resilience and weather pattern changes and what the science is telling us, there’s a greater response from farmers.

“To me, risk management comes down to economics. Build your soils with organic matter and, at the same time, sequester tons of carbon,” Yoder said. The agriculture industry has made many successful efforts to reduce carbon, like showing how grass-fed beef sequesters carbon from the field as it takes a low-value grass crop and turns it into beef or touting the benefits of cover crops.

USDA under fire

USDA continues to come under fire for suppressing climate change research. Democrat leadership of both the House and Senate agriculture committees wrote to USDA in recent weeks calling on the agency to publicize past and future climate research.

In a June 25 letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) expressed strong concerns that stifling research on climate change will have a negative effect on farmers and the agricultural economy.

“USDA research, whether focused on climate change or any other topic, benefits farmers, ranchers and families in rural America,” Stabenow wrote. “It would be deeply irresponsible for the department to suppress research that helps USDA customers and the agricultural economy as a whole.”

Stacey E. Plaskett, chair of the House Agriculture Committee's subcommittee on biotechnology, horticulture and research, and the subcommittee's Democrats wrote a letter June 28, stating, “Any effort by USDA to prevent the sharing of scientific information, particularly related to climate change, is an affront to the long-term success and economic viability of domestic farmers, ranchers and rural communities.”

On June 12, the subcommittee held a hearing focused on the research and extension needs of producers in a time of greater climate variability. According to the letter, the message from the witnesses was “resoundingly clear: Farmers and ranchers need more resources and stronger extension services to better mitigate climate change and increase the resiliency of their operations.”

As underscored by their testimony, agricultural operators are already experiencing increasingly volatile weather patterns and shifts in pest pressures that can be contributed to a changing climate. Cornell University professor Dr. David Wolfe told the subcommittee that when dealing with climate change, “farmers today are feeling the effects in real time and having to make difficult decisions to cope.”

The House subcommittee letter also noted that this is the second time in recent months that scientific integrity at USDA has been questioned. Prior to a reversal on May 9, 2019, internal USDA guidance required researchers to identify their work as “preliminary” when presenting or seeking publication.

“Despite these researchers being leading professionals in their fields, this policy by USDA actively undermined their credibility and inhibited their ability to share their research findings within the broader agriculture community. While we appreciate your efforts to correct this unnecessary disclaimer, we are concerned about a potential pattern of behavior that appears to disadvantage career agricultural scientists within your department and prevent the sharing of research findings,” the Democrat representatives noted.

Internally, USDA has also had to defend its actions related to climate change research. In a letter to USDA Research, Education & Economics (REE) employees, Scott Hutchins, USDA deputy secretary for REE, reiterated that USDA has “no policy, practice nor intent to minimize, discredit, de-emphasize or otherwise influence the climate-related science carried out by USDA scientists and agencies.

“Scientific integrity is of paramount importance in USDA, and the USDA Scientific Integrity Policy specifically states that ‘scientific findings and products must not be suppressed or altered for political purposes and must not be subjected to inappropriate influence.’ We all must continue to reflect this policy and uphold the very highest standards of integrity, including scientific integrity,” he wrote.

Hutchins told the USDA employees that, thanks to the work of the REE mission area, more than 500 articles related to climate science projects were published in scientific journals in 2018. “In addition to journal articles and press releases, USDA has utilized many options and platforms for communicating with our climate science stakeholders. This includes posting information on our external websites, maintaining a robust and strategic social media presence and cultivating a sustained community outreach effort that engages farmers and ranchers throughout our nation,” Hutchins said.

Risk of not educating farmers

Former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack expressed the importance of educating those in agriculture about the impacts of a changing climate as well as capturing a revenue stream to move the needle in on-farm efforts to improve the sustainability of agriculture.

During his tenure, he surveyed farmers and found that they were very interested in information that would allow them to be more resilient, to be able to adapt and mitigate the consequences of weather changes or climate change. So, regional climate hubs were set up to allow for dissemination of that information, and he believes that partnership between different agencies continues today.

Vilsack does question whether there is enough publicly financed research in the agriculture sector and said it is also important to let science, not politics, direct the research. Disseminating that research to farmers remains crucial, he added.

The risk, Vilsack warned, is that farmers will not be prepared for what Mother Nature may bring, such as drier weather or more severe floods or rainfall events. “Farmers have to be able to make the decisions within their operation that will prepare them to best deal with those things,” he said.

The other risk is that people in the agriculture industry may miss opportunities to create additional income that may result from having a better understanding of how to utilize their land and operations in a way that provides both societal benefits and access to new revenue streams.

About the Author(s)

Jacqui Fatka

Policy editor, Farm Futures

Jacqui Fatka grew up on a diversified livestock and grain farm in southwest Iowa and graduated from Iowa State University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications, with a minor in agriculture education, in 2003. She’s been writing for agricultural audiences ever since. In college, she interned with Wallaces Farmer and cultivated her love of ag policy during an internship with the Iowa Pork Producers Association, working in Sen. Chuck Grassley’s Capitol Hill press office. In 2003, she started full time for Farm Progress companies’ state and regional publications as the e-content editor, and became Farm Futures’ policy editor in 2004. A few years later, she began covering grain and biofuels markets for the weekly newspaper Feedstuffs. As the current policy editor for Farm Progress, she covers the ongoing developments in ag policy, trade, regulations and court rulings. Fatka also serves as the interim executive secretary-treasurer for the North American Agricultural Journalists. She lives on a small acreage in central Ohio with her husband and three children.

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