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March 17, 2021

Attention Shifts to Climate Change

On January 27, 2021, President Biden’s executive order sent a loud and clear message regarding his administration’s plans to tackle climate change. Framed in the context of a domestic and international climate crisis, it called for a holistic international leadership of the United States on climate issues. The future political outlook calls the fresh produce sector to pay extra attention to climate change.

Likely, we will be hearing more of the terms “environmental justice” and “net-zero emissions.” But what does that mean to the specialty crop sector? And what are actions should we be taking?

Important aspects of the climate change discussion include the reduction of climate pollution—specifically the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, cost-benefit analysis of regulatory actions, and initiatives to advance conservation and sustainability. Climate-smart agricultural practices are needed. According to the World Bank, climate-smart agriculture is an integrated approach to managing landscapes—cropland, livestock, forests, and fisheries—that addresses the interlinked challenges of food security and climate change.

No clear picture can be painted from what we currently know and don’t know about climate change impacts and preparedness. According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the climate is projected to continue to change over this century and beyond; temperatures are expected to rise, frost-free and growing seasons to lengthen, heavy precipitation to continue, drought and heat waves to increase, hurricanes to become stronger and more intense, flooding to be more intensive in many regions, sea levels to rise, and the Arctic to be free of ice before mid-century.

The roles research and innovation play in agriculture’s response to climate change is critical moving forward. However, currently there is very limited research focused on the impact of climate change on specialty crops as well as limited work on adaptation and potential mitigation strategies. How producers respond, in combination with innovation and policies, will ultimately determine the impact of climate change on growing conditions, food safety, food security, and sustainability.

How do specialty crops fit in the picture?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2013 report titled “Climate Change and Agriculture in the United States: Effects and Adaptation,” included impacts and adaption associated with specialty crops, specifically some vegetables and fruits considered annual specialty crops, for which production data are annually collected by the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. This report highlighted key stressors, such as temperature changes, solar radiation variation, water deficits and excesses as well as extreme weather events that can injure crops and increase their susceptibility to diseases. It also made the point that stronger and new patterns of weeds and pests can present new risks and challenges for food security, food safety, and human health. Therefore, it is critical to understand and study more of the interaction across these stressors.

With climate change challenges, uncertainty but also opportunities are being introduced into agriculture. The USDA’s 2013 report stressed that producers are faced with new types of climate-driven challenges and a lack of knowledge to formulate new management strategies. How producers respond will determine the best adaptation and mitigation response to climate change.

Climate risk management strategies will likely involve both short-term and long-term adaptation planning that takes into account the projected exposures and specific sensitivities of different production systems. Adaptation by the specialty crop sector can include potential strategies ranging from altering planting dates, selecting cultivars with higher tolerances for stressful temperatures and/or resistance to certain diseases and pests, utilizing more water-efficient crops, supplemental irrigation to offset water deficits, or changing cropping patterns.

In general, producers will need to consider changes in crop diversity, irrigation methods, fertilization practices, tillage practices, and land management. Awareness alone is not enough; the specialty crops sector must begin and continue to work on adaptation and mitigation strategies. And, while producers are probably among the most resilient on the planet, planning for the future with climate change in mind could make a big difference on the outcome.

An important component of climate change mitigation discussions is the advancement of market-based cap-and-trade systems as a regulatory instrument. It is critical that such systems are feasible and economically viable for the specialty crop sector. Research and incentives are critical to facilitate the adoption of these systems. A one-size-fits-all system may not allow adjustments based on further research and limit climate change mitigation.

In addition, climate change preparedness is going to require planning and policy considerations that address risk communication within the agricultural community, incentives, and the integration of the specialty crop sector into specific policy development activities related to climate change. Funding specialty crops-specific research as well as promoting incentives and policies that advance innovation is a must to support and develop adaptation and mitigation strategies.