Same goes for the days of 100 degree highs so early in the year, and the droughts and floods that have ravaged farms and everybody else across the state, causing $75 million in insured property losses.
Veteran farmers have noticed that it’s not just that the climate is getting warmer, it’s getting weirder.
“We had three snowfalls this past winter. I lived in Georgia most of my whole life and I don’t ever recall having that many. The one we had in January stayed out here [on the fields] for three weeks,” says Jonathan Szecsey, of A&J Farms in Winston, Ga. “The weather runs in cycles but I have never seen it like this. I’m not saying it has anything to do with global warming, but it’s strange that all this has occurred.”
And that’s the trouble with climate change. No one can say whether or not the strange weather we’ve experienced can be directly linked to the effect greenhouse gas emissions have had on the atmosphere.
The science of climatology just doesn’t work that way. As any climate scientists will admit, computer modeling forecasts for the earth’s future climate is not an exact science. The simulations look at general trends of the effects
of greenhouse gas emissions. They can forecast that we’ll see more storms and droughts, but not where or when.
Nor can we predict with absolute certainty how climate change will impact Georgia and its No.1 industry, agriculture. But few dispute that agriculture will be one of the earliest and most impacted industries.
Some of the more grim prognostications include droughts, floods, decreased crop yields due to higher temperatures, higher rates of soil evaporation, and increases in fungal and bacterial diseases and insect pests.
The good news, however, is that that several key Georgia officials now acknowledge that climate change is happening, and is caused by human activities.
“We will see change? Yes. Are we to a large extent responsible for that change? Yes,” says State Climatologist David Stooksbury.
Until recently, it was a no-no to admit that climate change was happening, let alone that it’s caused by mankind, and many elected officials in the state still believe that climate change science is a hoax.
Stooksbury, a professor of engineering and atmospheric sciences in the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, has the perfect background to keep the state’s agriculture industry abreast of our changing climate. He has two undergraduate degrees, one in agriculture and plant genetics, the other in physics. His Master’s degree specialized in disease resistance and small grain crops, and his Ph.D. in Environmental Sciences concentrated on atmospheric sciences. Much of his research has been on climate impacts on crop yields in the Southeastern United States. Stooksbury says there are more questions than answers when you’re talking about the long-term possibilities of climate change.
Short-term forecasting isn’t as vexing. For instance, last July Stooksbury correctly predicted that the state would experience a drought this year. Stooksbury says that predicting what climate change will mean for Georgia is made even more difficult because the state is close to the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, which exacerbate moisture and rainfall forecasting.
On a global level, however, climatologists are witnessing more and more of the type of weather events climate change is likely to cause. Weather disasters, such U.S. floods, Australian droughts, and European heat waves decreased crop yields, and many scientists believe that human-induced climate change was partially responsible.
“Now, the latest scientific research suggests that a previously discounted factor is helping to destabilize the food system: climate change,” says a June 4 New York Times article.
Scientists have since acknowledged this error and are scrambling to catch up. The media, to their credit, have made this recent revelation a front-page issue. But even as the issue of climate change gets more attention and is better understood, consumers continue to pay the price with every meal.
Demand for the staples – like wheat, rice, corn and soybeans – that supply most humans with their daily calories is surpassing supply, due mostly to population increases. This has lead to unstable prices. Until recently, conventional
wisdom held that fluctuations were solely market-based. Not anymore.
“A rising unease about the future of the world’s food supply came through during interviews this year with more than 50 agricultural experts working in nine countries,” the New York Times article says.
Citing the violent storms of April and May, and the heatwave of June, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture reduced its June estimate of planted corn acres by 1.5 million acres, which has contributed to a rise in the cash price of a bushel
from $3.20 this time last year to $7.75.
Food companies such as Kraft, Kellogg, Sara Lee and Smuckers, as well as restaurants such as McDonald’s, have also raised prices, according to National Public Radio. Most U.S. food prices in 2011 are already between 8 percent and 15 percent higher than last year. The average price of meat (beef, chicken, turkey, pork, lamb, and veal) in the U.S. is 7 percent higher this year.
If this trend continues, and scientists and agriculture researchers expect it to, the price of food on our plates will rise much faster than global temperatures.
“There’s hardly any discussion in Georgia ag circles on climate change,” says Georgia Organics Executive Director Alice Rolls. “With substantial changes squarely in our future, will consumers have to spend more of their daily budget on food because of rising prices? And if so, how much more? Should farmers seek new training for the northern migration of crops?”
117 degrees. That was the record-high temperature of the soil two inches deep at Dr. Carroll Johnson’s experiment station in Tifton on a recent May Saturday.
“It is abysmally dry and hot,” says Johnson, an agronomist researcher with the U.S.D.A. “The situation is the soil is way hotter than what it ought to be this time of year and it’s way drier than what it ought to be this time of year.”
Legumes such as peanuts and soybeans can’t germinate when the soil is as hot as it has been. “When it gets this hot, there’s not much organic or conventional growers alike can do,” he says. “And it’s not going to get better anytime soon.”
In June, Gov. Nathan Deal began seeking a federal disaster designations for 22 counties for farmers whose crops were charred by the heat. Johnson doesn’t think that global climate change is to blame for the baking of his experimental plot experiences.
“It’s hard to prove,” he says. “There’s some clear observations that we could make and they are obvious, but at the same time, is it just normal randomness, fluctuation of weather patterns or some sort of longterm trend? I don’t know.”
Another skeptic is Phil Worley, the Superintendent of UGA’s Northwest Georgia Research and Education Center in Gordon County, who has studied beef cattle production for decades. Worley is a witness to what a Cambridge University report considers to be a beneficial outcome of climate change.
Pastures are predicted to see an increase in productivity, giving a boost to grassfed beef operations, according to the Cambridge University report, “Agriculture: The Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change for the United States.”
Although it’s a few decades ahead of schedule, Worley has seen his pasture shift from one kind of grass to another with a tolerance for heat. For most of his career, Worley has used fescue for his pasture grasses, as have most cattlemen from Atlanta to Virginia. A cool season grass, some fescue stands can last years. That is, until recently.
“To me, the closest thing I can say to seeing anything different weather wise is that fescue is not as reliable,” Worley says. “We’re having more Bermuda grass come into fescue pastures than we did before, and it’s a warm season grass. From that aspect, we’re seeing that the last decade or so has been a bit hotter or drier than the previous decade or two … But I’m still in the ‘I don’t know’ camp about climate change.”
There are multiple studies, reports, and theories on Georgia’s future climate. Sometimes they contradict each other. Some of them try to predict crop yields in 2050, while others look at water availability and temperature increases.
Almost all of them acknowledge that sea level rises will drastically, perhaps catastrophically, impact Georgia’s coast and the transportation and energy industries there. Taken as a whole, academic research and interviews with Georgia’s top experts on climate change paint an unsettling image of the state’s agriculture future.
“It may be a situation where we have fewer rain events, but each rain event will be heavier, which will have a tendency to increase flash flooding,” says Stooksbury.
“[C]limate change has the potential to decrease the availability of water resources due to probable changes in rainfall distribution,” says the Georgia Tech report, “Climate Change Impacts on Georgia Agriculture and Irrigation Demand.”
Most climate models and studies consistently forecast more storms, or, as the scientists prefer, “heavy precipitation events.” Already, “there has been a 2 to 4 percent increase in the frequency of heavy precipitation events … influencing among other things erosion, water quality and agricultural productivity,” according to the University of Maryland study, “Economic Impacts of Climate Change on Georgia.”
Another study, by the American Security Project, estimates that temperatures in Georgia could rise by 4.5 degrees F in winter and 5.4 degrees in summer, accompanied by a 5 percent increase in annual precipitation.
Farmers are used to uncertainty and worrying about the weather. It comes with the job. Longterm predictions aren’t precise, but there’s a consensus among climatologists regarding a few things. Call them informed guestimations.
“The thing we can be pretty confident about is that there will be more extremes in weather,” says Marc Boudreau, UGA, Dept. of Biological and Agricultural Engineering. “It’s safe to say we’ll see large fluctuations outside what we typically see: record hot days, record cold days, more hurricanes, more rain coming rather than in sort of nice showers that occur over long periods of time, we might get much more concentrated heavy downpours, which in general is a bad thing in agriculture.”
Boudreau’s statement syncs exactly with what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have predicted for the agriculture industry in America.
He also points out that growers who’ve embraced organic farming practices are more prepared for the types of changes Georgia is likely to see, especially when it comes to efficient water use and erosion control.
In addition to being more buffered from climate change’s impact, it turns out that organic farms also mitigate the severity of change. Natural agriculture systems, rich and alive with microbes, bacteria, fungus, nematodes, hummus, and roots, soak up carbon dioxide and keep it from wreaking havoc in the planet’s upper atmosphere.
“The biggest role that [organic] farmers have is in sequestration of carbon. They are taking carbon dioxide out of the air by growing their crops and the healthier the crops, the more that is happening,” says Boudreau. “If a crop is overrun by disease or insects, it is not taking CO2 out of the air.”
If the nation’s cropland were converted to organic agriculture, there would be enough carbon sequestration to offset 25 percent of America’s total fossil fuel emission, according to The Rodale Institute.
But in Georgia, the challenge, or opportunity (depending on how you look at it) is that less than one percent of the state’s farmable land is Certified Organic. This doesn’t include the farmers who are growing organically but haven’t jumped through the hoops to become certified, however, it does demonstrate the enormity of Georgia’s agriculture problem.
Moreover, climate change is still a controversial concept to millions of Georgians.
“When you get outside the scientific community, there’s a lot of growers that really aren’t too concerned with [climate change],” Boudreau says. “I hope that in the near future that the non-scientitsts will accept a lot of the findings and the the very, very strong evidence that shows we are really going to save ourselves a lot of trouble if we
act now to both adapt and mitigate.”
“The longer we wait, the more expensive it will be,” Boudreau says.
Georgia Organics would like to know what you think the organization should be doing for its members and the rest of state about climate change. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with your suggestions.