Business Leaders Say Midwestern Agriculture Threatened by Climate Change

By Alison Rice – Ag Web
January 26, 2015

‘Heat in the Heartland’ report suggests corn production in Illinois, Iowa could be at risk from rising temperatures.

Even with a bumper crop in the bin, Midwestern farmers can’t afford to ignore the risks that climate change poses to their industry, according to the latest from the Risky Business Project.

The group of high-profile business leaders, including former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Cargill executive Greg Page, on Friday released a study detailing the potential effects of climate change on agriculture in the Midwest. A sequel to the Risky Business Project’s previously released national look at climate, the “Heat in the Heartland” takes a more targeted approach based on the trends revealed by the national report.

“The conclusions, which shouldn’t have been surprising, but I think they were to me and a number of others, were how local some of the impacts are and the disproportionate impacts hitting certain industries and certain communities and certain regions,” said Paulson during a live webcast discussion with Page.

“If you looked at the nation … one of the more likely cases showed a 4 percent decline in agricultural yield," Paulson said. "But when I looked at southern Illinois and Iowa, there was a very good likelihood they wouldn’t be major corn producers as big shifts in climate zones and growing patterns” occurred.

It troubled Paulson, who, as a farm-kid-turned-treasury-secretary, could appreciate both the micro and macro consequences of climate change.

So could Page, thanks to his years at Cargill, the Minnesota-based global agribusiness company. During the Friday conversation, he pointed to the challenges faced recently on the Mississippi River, which transports crops to market for many farmers.

“Just the last three years, we’ve seen times when the Mississippi was so low it’s not navigable commercially,” said Page, currently executive chairman of the board at Cargill. “And there have been times when the water was so high we couldn’t get our barges under the spouts. What we’re talking about is more volatility, more extremes in terms of temperature or precipitation.”

Here are some of the other climate-related concerns for Midwestern farming raised in the report:

More crop losses due to heat, especially for corn.“The corn crop is strongly heat sensitive and responds less to the beneficial impacts of carbon fertilization than do wheat or soybeans. As a result, the lower half of the Midwest region—the states of Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa—will likely suffer significant corn yield losses by mid-century absent adaptation,” the report says.

More problems with weeds and pests. “Warmer winters will also extend the geographic distribution of weeds northward, exposing farms in northern latitudes to new or enhanced threats to productivity. This can increase the cost of weed control, which already has an $11 billion price tag per year in the U.S. alone … Moreover, many invasive species, both plant and insect, may actually benefit more than crops from the increased CO2 and temperatures brought about by climate change, though the relative effect of these factors on crop-weed competition is likely to be species-specific,” the report says.

Less healthy and less productive livestock. “For many livestock species, increased body temperatures of 4°F to 5°F above optimum levels can disrupt performance, production, and fertility, limiting an animal’s ability to produce meat, milk, or eggs. Higher temperatures can also increase animal mortality. In addition, climate change can affect the price and availability of water, feed grains, and pasture, and change patterns of animal diseases,” the report says.

Given the importance of agriculture in Midwestern states’ economies, such climate-related events would obviously have a financial impact. Illinois, in particular, could be especially hurt if rising temperatures push down corn and soybean production as estimated in the report. “The state stands to lose an estimated $1.5 billion to $13 billion per year from crop losses by the end of the century,” according to “Heat in the Heartland.”

As sobering as these worst-case scenarios can be, the Risky Business Project leaders hope that the report doesn’t paralyze businesses, but rather spur them to take action and incorporate climate issues into their strategic planning.  “Start now, be thoughtful, and plan now for what we think are probable outcomes,” said Page, whose words were amplified by the former Treasury secretary. “We’ve got time to avoid the worst outcomes if we act soon,” Paulson said.