Local experts who helped write climate report: Future's grim for farmers

Local experts who helped write climate report: Future's grim for farmers

CHAMPAIGN — If nothing is done about climate change by 2050, Midwest farmers could see their productivity decrease to a level not seen since the 1980s, according to a new report from 13 federal agencies.

Yields could drop by 5 to 25 percent for corn and more than 25 percent in the southern half of the Midwest for soybeans, said the latest National Climate Assessment, which is released every four years and required by law.

Even if yields don't drop, farmers will likely be paying more to control increased disease, pests and soil erosion, the report said.

The government report said climate change will likely lead to more disease, more extreme weather events and hundreds of billions of dollars in annual losses for some sectors by the end of the century.

One of the report's authors, University of Illinois climate scientist Donald Wuebbles, said he hopes the report leads to more action.

"Our climate's changing very, very rapidly, about 10 times more rapidly than the climate tends to change naturally, making it very difficult for society to adapt and making it very difficult for ecosystems to adapt," Wuebbles said. "It's important to recognize that we can do something about it, but we need to start thinking about it now."

Midwest farmers will face hotter temperatures and more rain, which will likely lead to more soil erosion, plant diseases and pests, the report said.

"Up until now, probably the biggest headaches have been from too much rain. There've been several springs where they had problems with delayed planting and having to re-plant," said state climatologist Jim Angel, the author of the report's chapter on the Midwest. "Temperatures haven't really changed that much up until now but are expected to warm up in the future."

While higher carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere may help corn and soybeans, the benefits are expected to be outweighed by the negatives of increased rain, disease and pests, soil erosion and hotter summers.

And "if you get warmer, milder winters, as we're already seeing in some cases, there's more overwintering of pests," Angel said.

The report said that without "major technological advances," productivity will likely suffer.

"Yields may increase, but at the cost of substantial increases in inputs," the report said.

While the yield models used in the report have high uncertainty, "all point to agriculture futures that fail to maintain upward historical trends," the report said.

Angel said he also expects the Corn Belt to shift north a bit, though corn and soybeans should continue to dominate in central Illinois.

"We're seeing decreases in the southern edge of the Corn Belt," Angel said.

Besides its impact on agriculture, Angel said the increased frequency of heat waves and 100-degree days could put pressure on rural areas in the Midwest.

"They don't have easy access to medical facilities," he said. "Rural areas can struggle with heat and drought and flooding just as much as Chicago can because they don't have support mechanisms in place."

The report also highlighted some of the ways farmers are adapting to climate change, including with grassed waterways, strips of prairie vegetation between row crops and cover crops grown in the off-season that keep nutrients in the soil.

"We're seeing them start to respond to this," Angel said.

Angel and Wuebbles both said they volunteered to help author the 1,600-page report.

"We had a team of writers, all scientists, doing research in these areas for the Midwest," Angel said. "It goes through many reviews. We probably spent a year writing it, a year getting it reviewed, then a public review period."

The report was released on Black Friday, an apparent attempt to bury the news, which runs counter to many of the Trump administration's policies promoting fossil fuels.

"I don't think it was a good choice. I have no idea why they made that decision," Wuebbles said, though he thinks it may have backfired.

On Monday, President Donald Trump said he doesn't believe his administration's report.

"It's pretty strange," Wuebbles said of Trump's comment. "It's one of the most important issues facing humanity."