Climate Change and Agriculture in the United States: Effects and Adaptation
Agriculture in the United States produces approximately $300 billion a year in commodities with livestock accounting for roughly half the value. Production of these commodities is vulnerable to climate change through the direct (i.e., abiotic) effects of changing climate conditions on crop and livestock development and yield (e.g., changes in temperature or precipitation), as well as through the indirect (i.e., biotic) effects arising from changes in the severity of pest pressures, availability of pollination services, and performance of other ecosystem services that affect agricultural productivity. Thus, U.S. agriculture exists as a complex web of interactions between agricultural productivity, ecosystem services, and climate change. Climate change poses unprecedented challenges to U.S. agriculture because of the sensitivity of agricultural productivity and costs to changing climate conditions. Adaptive action offers the potential to manage the effects of climate change by altering patterns of agricultural activity to capitalize on emerging opportunities while minimizing the costs associated with negative effects. The aggregate effects of climate change will ultimately depend on a complex web of adaptive responses to local climate stressors. These adaptive responses may range from farmers adjusting planting patterns and soil management practices in response to more variable weather patterns, to seed producers investing in the development of drought-tolerant varieties, to increased demand for Federal risk management programs, to adjustments in international trade as nations respond to food security concerns. Potential adaptive behavior can occur at multiple levels in a highly diverse international agricultural system including production, consumption, education, research, services, and governance. Understanding the complexity of such interactions is critical for developing effective adaptive strategies.
The U.S. agricultural system is expected to be fairly resilient to climate change in the short term due to the system’s flexibility to engage in adaptive behaviors such as expansion of irrigated acreage, regional shifts in acreage for specific crops, crop rotations, changes to management decisions such as choice and timing of inputs and cultivation practices, and altered trade patterns compensating for yield changes caused by changing climate patterns. By midcentury, when temperature increases are expected to exceed 1°C to 3°C and precipitation extremes intensify, yields of major U.S. crops and farm returns are projected to decline. However, the simulation studies underlying such projections often fail to incorporate production constraints caused by changes of pest pressures, ecosystem services and conditions that limit adaptation that can significantly increase production costs and yield losses.