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Climate Change

Agriculture and Food Supply

Adaptation Examples: Agriculture and Food Supply

Photograph of tractor and crops.

Adaptation Examples in Agriculture

Key Points
  • Farmers and researchers can breed new varieties of crops that are more resilient to droughts and floods, as well as diversify existing crops to adjust to changing temperature and rainfall patterns.
  • Satellite imagery may help farmers and ranchers understand climate change impacts and improve their response to decreased crop yields and water shortages.
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides grant support for agricultural producers developing plans and researching adaptation options to respond to climate change impacts on agriculture.

Climate change will likely impact agricultural practices in the United States through more frequent water shortages, extreme weather events, flooding, and shifts in growing seasons. To learn more about how climate change can impact agriculture and food production, visit the Agriculture and Food Supply Impacts section.

Farmers and ranchers have always had to cope with variability in the weather. But climate change will likely produce more permanent shifts in temperature and precipitation. Climate change impacts on agriculture and food production will vary by region. In some places, warmer temperatures may extend the growing season, while in other regions more heavy downpours may increase crop losses. Regardless of whether shifts in climate are ultimately beneficial or harmful, the agricultural industry will have to modify certain practices to adapt to new conditions as a result of anticipated changes in weather patterns. Specific adaptation approaches [1] include:

  • Diversifying crops to adjust to changing temperature and precipitation patterns
  • Adopting water and soil moisture conservation measures that minimize the impact of potential seasonal water shortages
  • Changing livestock breeding practices and shifting grazing patterns
  • Developing and using disease-resistant crop and livestock species [1]

The following case studies, examples, and related links are illustrative and not intended to be comprehensive.

Tools are being developed to make the food supply more resilient to climate change

Montana Department of Environmental Quality (2011)

Farming in Montana. Source: Montana Department of Environmental Quality (2011)

While strategies for responding to climate change will continue to develop over time, some options have been identified: [1]

  • Aerial and satellite imagery can be used to monitor broad-scale patterns, such as changes in plant mortality and the spread of invasive plant species. Farmers can then use this information to make decisions about adjusting agricultural practices.
  • Federal agencies can modify support and subsidy programs to encourage the planting of more diverse sets of crops or the adoption of innovative agricultural practices in areas where yields are threatened.
  • Government agencies and the private sector can distribute and encourage the use of technologies to harvest rainwater, conserve soil moisture, and use water more efficiently. "Dryland farming" is a technique that uses soil moisture conservation and seed selection to optimize production under dry conditions. For more information about this practice, visit the adaptation section of the Great Plains Impacts & Adaptation page.
  • Ranchers can reduce the loss of livestock during extreme heat events by improving ventilation in barns and increasing shade.
  • Farmers and researchers can work to develop and breed crops that are more tolerant of droughts or to increased precipitation and flooding.
  • Farmers can select crops that can best take advantage of increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
  • With earlier springs and warmer winters increasing the risk of disease to crops and livestock, for example, by increasing the survival rate of parasites, farmers and ranchers can develop and use disease-resistant crop and livestock species. Also, to minimize the spread of disease among animals, ranchers can modify livestock breeding practices so that animals are living in less densely packed conditions, and move grazing herds to new areas.
  • To combat potential increases in polluted agricultural runoff from heavier precipitation events, farmers can use buffers and modify or reduce fertilizer and pesticide application.

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USDA works to address climate change impacts on agriculture

The USDA Climate Change Program Office was created to address the climate change impacts on agriculture and food production. The details of USDA's overall adaptation plan to address climate change will continue to be refined over the next several years, and USDA has already sponsored several activities aimed at minimizing the risks of climate change to agricultural activity throughout the United States. For example:

  • USDA Agricultural Research Services (ARS) is placing climate change impacts high on the list of priorities for upcoming research. Specifically, ARS will be researching how to build better models that simulate crops' responses to changes in weather and water and how to bolster the resilience of agricultural systems.
  • The Risk Management Agency funds partnerships with states, universities, and other organizations to develop risk management tools to assist agricultural producers in minimizing risks, like those associated with climate change.
  • In 2010, USDA released a report that analyzed the impacts of climate change on crop insurance. Although the report does not provide any definitive recommendations about crop insurance programs, it recognizes that past climate conditions may not fully represent future climate, which may require new modeling tools to be used as part of insurance programs.

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USDA works with farmers to improve water-use efficiency

The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), run by USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service provides financial and technical support to agricultural producers. Several projects supported by EQIP employ water-use efficiency strategies to help farmers increase yields with less water. In 2010, 28 projects in nine states assisted agricultural professionals to shift practices to react to the projected change in resources. [2]

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1. NRC (2010). Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change . Exit EPA Disclaimer National Research Council. The National Academies Press, Washington, DC, USA.

2. Interagency Climate Adaptation Task Force (2011). Federal Actions for a Climate Resilient Nation: Progress Report of the Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force (PDF). U.S. White House, Washington, DC, USA.

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