Climate change poses a real risk to agriculture and it is time for ag to take part in the conversation and make plans to deal with the consequences, Cargill's executive director Greg Page told an overflow audience that filled McCain Auditorium at Kansas State University on Oct. 12. The large crowd spilled over into an additional watch room at the student union and a watch party location at the Salina campus.
Page was a guest lecturer in the Henry C. Gardiner Global Food Systems lecture series, a new series launched this year to bring the best and brightest minds to a conversation about meeting the challenge of feeding a growing world population with increasing pressure on resources.
Page's topic was "The Impact of Climate Change on the Future of Production Agriculture."
Cargill is the world's largest privately held company, with a substantial footprint in Kansas, including its soybean crushing operations and the headquarters of its Meat Solutions division in Wichita.
Page told the assembly that America's farmers have already made huge strides in combatting world hunger.
"Today we are further from famine than ever before," he said. "That is thanks in large measure to land grant universities such as K-State. Today, we can grow a bushel of corn with 33% less nitrogen than was needed just 30 years ago."
No-till farming, better varieties and biotechnology are all credited with helping make that happen, Page said.
But a changing climate is presenting added challenges to meeting the need to feed a world population of 9 billion by 2050. Page said he now believes that climate change is real and that agriculture needs to be part of the conversation about how people should deal with it.
For agriculture, he said, it is a risk management problem.
It could mean gains for farmers in northern regions, but losses for farmers in the south or Midwest.
"Without adaptations and planning by farmers, North America could lose as much as 14% of corn, soybeans, wheat and cotton by mid-century, and 42% by late century," he said.
But, he went on, that is without adaptations.
"I believe the most severe risks can still be avoided," Page said. "There is ample evidence that we have already adapted. Farmers today are not farming like their parents did."
He went on to say that his home state of North Dakota has 2 inches more rain and nine more frost-free days than it did 30 years ago. That has enabled the state to grow more than 30 different crops, far more than it did in 1960.
Cargill just opened a canola processing plant north of the 53rd parallel, something that wouldn't have even been considered 30 years ago, he added.
"We can now grow canola that far north," he said. "That's thanks to adaption by Canadian farmers, and research into new varieties."
With planning, he said, changes to the North American climate can be managed.
"The changes in the hottest weather are not hotter than we see today in corn-growing regions in Brazil and Thailand." he said. "So in a sense, we are already testing varieties that can be used to help North American farmers deal with a warming climate."
An outline for global food security
Page provided an outline for what he thinks need to be done to ensure food security globally.
First, he said, is embracing the signaling power of price. Farmers need to have money to invest and innovate but they also need consumers to have money to buy their products.
"Ag needs the urban population to have money, so we need to embrace profitability in urban areas," he said.
Second, he said, is honoring comparative advantage and embracing trade. "Self-sufficiency is tempting but it is not a path to food security," he said. "Some areas are natural exporters: they have more land than people. Other areas are natural importers: they have more people than land. Everybody does better when they produce what grows best in their region and import those things that do not do well.
Growth in trade is also a natural buffer against regional crop failures and natural disasters, he said.
"In 2012 and 2013, for example, the U.S. imported soybeans and corn from Brazil," he said. "The severe drought in the Midwest left us short of filling our needs. So, you see, it's not just a third world issue; it can apply to large producers as well."
Third is pursuing sustainable intensification.
"We need to increase productivity with less land, water and inputs," he said. "Since 1975, we have doubled production of grains, rice and oilseeds. In the future, we will need to deliver even more to prevent destruction of our native forests and wetlands. We need not to turn our backs on the technologies that allow us do that."
Finally, he said, we need to tackle climate change head-on.
A wag once said that climate change is the perfect problem politics is uniquely designed not to solve, he said.
He cited statistics from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that say 90% of what wealthy nations are spending on climate change is being spent on things that won't make a difference.
"How much is the right amount to spend against an uncertain outcome?" he asked. "What we need to be doing is increasing yield growth, continue to reduce our environmental impact, protecting soil and water quality, discouraging protectionism, encouraging fuel industry flexibility and promoting collaboration and cooperation by assuming good intent even on the part of people with whom we disagree."