July 30, 2014

Ag business is no longer business as usual, says expert

Mike Hoffmann
Hoffmann

For Mike Hoffmann, it’s business as unusual: Plant hardiness zones are moving north. Northeast springs are arriving early, summers are hotter, winters are getting warmer, and the region suffers 74 percent more rain events than a half-century ago. And farmers who neglect these emerging climate patterns, caused by warming, could imperil their own livelihoods, he says.

Hoffmann, director of the Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station and associate dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, discussed these issues July 29 for the Agricultural Working Group of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) in Washington, D.C. In 2013 Hoffmann established the Cornell Institute for Climate Change and Agriculture to communicate climate change adaptation and mitigation measures. The institute is supported by funds from the USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture, and Allison Chatrchyan serves as the group’s inaugural director.

The institute will be a clearinghouse for research, climate monitoring, decision-support tools and applications at the intersection of climate and agriculture. It will soon develop a website for disseminating and gathering information on farm-level impacts and trends, losses and gains resulting from warming and extreme weather.

“With climate change, agriculture has some challenges,” Hoffmann said. “Climate change adds risk to growing food. With more chances of flooding, frost and climate variability, the business of agriculture is no longer business as usual.”

At Gillibrand’s working group, Hoffmann explained the role of the institute and the partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Regional Climate Hubs. Climate change calls for “all hands on deck,” and the climate hubs are bringing all the partners together to help tackle this grand challenge.

Although climate change brings challenges, Hoffmann said, it also could provide some opportunities. “With longer growing seasons and adequate water in the Northeast  we have the potential to expand and diversify agriculture but farmers will need know the best time to make changes like adding cooling capacity to dairies or changing crop varieties. These changes need to be based on sound economics,” he said.

Hoffmann pointed out that carbon dioxide levels are smashing new records. NOAA’s Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii now regularly records 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the global atmosphere. By 2100, carbon dioxide levels could reach more than 900 parts per million.

The years 2001 through 2010 were recorded as the hottest decade. With an 8 degree Fahrenheit rise possible by 2100, the “rate of warming is very fast,” he said.

These changing conditions pose serious challenges but do offer the opportunity for expansion and diversification of what is grown in the region and potential job and economic growth, Hoffmann said. “To succeed under these changing conditions, those who grow our food will need to have the necessary tools to both mitigate and adapt to climate change,” he said.