Food Security Challenges - 1

Food Security's Fragile Balance

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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(Photo illustration by Donovan Harris and Barry Falkner/Thinkstock Images)

PORTIS, Kan. (DTN) -- Jared McCoy isn't endangered, but he should be considered threatened. The 40-year-old farms in north-central Kansas, an area climate scientists predict will get hotter and drier in the coming decades.

In early July, when farms in parts of the Corn Belt were dealing with too much rain, McCoy was looking for any at all. The last precipitation the dryland farmer received was in early May. The rain shower wasn't enough to save his winter wheat crop, so he terminated it, took the insurance claim and planted forage crops in June for his cattle. More than a week into July, he still waited for rain to get those plants to emerge.

His farm then got 6 inches of rain over a three-day period in the first part of August. Getting that much rain in such a short time is often a hindrance, but McCoy said the way the rain fell was good at the time and sorely needed. Since then, however, the rain has again shut off.

"It's been hot and dry and you can't tell we've had 6 inches of rain," McCoy said. "It's bone dry again. A lot of people are sitting on their hands, waiting to plant wheat, and a lot of them are thinking about changing plans to plant wheat."

McCoy instead planted some winter barley as a grazing crop. The barley is growing in sporadic areas.

"We're just back to that elephant in the room about inconsistent rain. We might have been better off if that 6 inches had been spread out over more time."

Feast or famine is a good description of what long-term climate change means to American farmers. It also illustrates the fragile balance between food security and changing climate. The National Climate Assessment (NCA) report ( shows growers in some parts of the country will benefit from a longer growing season because of climatic shifts, for example, while others will contend with more challenging conditions. Eventually, however, the report concludes combined stresses associated with climate change are expected to decrease agricultural productivity in crops and livestock across all regions.


In the central and Southern Plains region, where McCoy farms, the report sheds doubt on whether the area will be able to keep up with growing water demands because climate change is already making the region drier and hotter. McCoy now generally sees an average of 34 days a year with temperatures above 95 degrees Fahrenheit. In 25 years, forecasters predict that's likely to grow to 60 days. Weather volatility will increase, creating a greater risk of yield declines.

McCoy worries constantly about moisture. "You just don't know when that 2-inch rain is going to come," he said. "I would feel really bad looking out the window at a 2-inch rain that did not fall on a growing crop. That's almost wasted moisture that I didn't convert into any kind of useful product. That's the climate change I'm dealing with; it's just feast or famine with rainfall and heat."

Growers will have to adapt their farming practices to minimize yield declines brought on by warmer climate. McCoy isn't waiting. He no-tills to preserve moisture and has diversified his rotation to ensure crops mature at different times. To balance out the crops, McCoy also has 65 Red Angus cow/calf pairs. One reason he prefers red to black is that they handle extreme heat better. McCoy plants a forage sorghum crop for grazing to reduce the energy and expense it takes for baled hay. He will also graze his cover crops, which is a growing practice on his operation.

Another area where McCoy thinks science gives him a slight edge is exploiting the different genetic traits in seeds and crops. For instance, for his cattle, McCoy looks for brown midrib brachytic dwarf sorghum. The cattle like brown mid-rib varieties because they will eat nearly the entire plant.

"I am really choosing forage crops with those particular traits before anything else," he said. "I know they won't eat a conventional plant as well as a brown mid-rib."


Most farmers look at climate change with a heavy dose of skepticism. At the heart of the debate is whether human activity is accelerating the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which, in turn, is warming the planet and wreaking havoc on climate.

Farmer misgivings on climate change only intensify when discussions of potential solutions center on regulations and government oversight. These and other unknowns make the topic a polarizing issue.

"What's particularly relevant in this whole climate story is the issue of uncertainty," said John Antle, an economist at Oregon State University. "That's a hard one to deal with in any field, but it's really important in this area." Antle has studied the links to climate change, agricultural vulnerability and food security, and published multiple papers on the topic. He acknowledges the difficulty talking about long-term projections.

"It's hard to predict the weather tomorrow," Antle continued. "It's really hard to talk about the climate 30 or 40 years from now and all of the other things that are changing at the same time."

Climate models, however, collectively show increased risks of major shifts in climate patterns disrupting food production. Yield losses, though, won't be uniform. A 2012 USDA Economic Research Service report looked at different scenarios for climate change through 2030 and concluded the Corn Belt could see losses ranging from $1.1 billion to $4.1 billion annually. Overall, though, the risks are unclear. Crop farmers across the country could see a wide economic swing, with losses of up to $4.5 billion to net gains of $2.1 billion.


Like McCoy, changes in rainfall are causing some shifts in cropping patterns for Bill Bridgeforth. The Tanner, Alabama, grower sees more precipitation problems around fall harvest than earlier in his farming career. "Here lately, it's just as likely to rain in October as it does in March, and that didn't used to be the case," Bridgeforth said. "It just doesn't seem like there is any kind of seasons anymore."

Climate experts expect the Southeast to face more extreme heat in the years ahead. Under a hotter scenario, Alabama could see the number of 95 degree Fahrenheit days double by midcentury and crop yields decline nearly 24%. A more likely scenario still translates into warmer days, but yields could range from losses of 12% to gains of 14%, depending on the adaptation strategies of farmers.

Bridgeforth, his brother and their sons are shifting their crop rotations somewhat in response to weather changes they're experiencing. "We're going to more winter crops. We're growing wheat and canola now to help spread the risk some," Bridgeforth said. "We're diversifying to get at least 30% to 40% of crops as fall-seeded crops rather than just grow everything in the summer."


The NCA report points out food production will be able to cope in the near term. A higher yield bump for some crops is projected for the next 10 to 20 years because of the positive response of carbon dioxide. The problem later on, however, is that the higher temperatures in the latter part of the century overwhelm the benefits of the higher carbon.

"It is beyond midcentury where ag systems will begin to fail," said Jerry Hatfield, director of USDA's Midwest Climate Hub and one of the lead authors of the National Climate Assessment chapter on agriculture. "It is that horizon where we are trying to understand the dynamics and also work on adaptation strategies to help producers stabilize yields, even in the short-term."

While yields may fall or stagnate in prominent growing regions around the world, global demand for food won't slow down because of a hotter planet. Every five years, the Earth adds more people than the current U.S. population. By 2050, the world is projected to be at about 9.6 billion people. That population will require increasing global food production by 60%. Yet global yields are projected to decline 2% every decade.

The Global Harvest Initiative is finishing its sixth Global Agricultural Productivity (GAP) report, which breaks down the gap between global crop production and feeding the global population in 2050 ( The gap marries well with the risks cited by global scientists regarding yield declines over the decades. The report will be released at The World Food Prize Symposium later this fall.

The GAP reports continue to show that agricultural improvements around the world aren't happening quickly enough. Still, there are positive signs within U.S. agriculture, even with the vulnerabilities, said Margaret Zeigler, executive director of the Global Harvest Initiative.

"Despite these challenges with the climate, we are still seeing pretty good productivity," she explained. "It's obviously going to vary from crop to crop, and you have yearly variability, but the productivity, even in the 2012 drought, was pretty impressive."

Zeigler said there are concerns about U.S. farm productivity moving forward, including underfunding of agricultural research and development needs. The Global Harvest Initiative, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the policy group AGree have all called on policymakers to focus more research priority on food and agricultural production.

Former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman has gotten heavily involved in the push for Congress to recognize the future risks to food production during the next 20 to 40 years by conducting a top-to-bottom review of agricultural research gaps. He doesn't foresee cataclysmic events for U.S. agriculture, but he notes certain parts of the world could.

"Somehow we have got to elevate the discussion of food and agriculture so it is kind of viewed equivocally to these other challenges so the public gets it, as well," Glickman said. "It's just not inside the world of food and agriculture that we are doing this for."


Currently, the risks of food insecurity globally are in a reprieve. Most of the world is being fed, and hunger is on the decline. Since 2012, the number of hungry people globally has dropped from 870 million to around 795 million, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The FAO's food price index is down 15% from last year and at the lowest level since June 2010.

The number of malnourished has fallen even as the planet has added about 230 million mouths to feed in that three-year span. Also, global stocks for wheat, corn, rice, soybeans and wheat are all higher than 2010-11. U.S. production rose in 2014, as it did in Australia, Russia, South America and Ukraine, thanks to favorable weather.

But the fragile balance remains. Changing weather patterns are blamed for the four-year drought that continues to grip California's farm production and the state's overall water supply. Farmers there fallowed 600,000 acres in 2015, which was 30% more than they fallowed in 2014. With a $46-billion agricultural sector, California farmers grow more than 400 crops in a diverse array of soil types, irrigation possibilities and microclimates.

Throughout this past spring and summer, roughly 94% of the state's farmers were under severe, extreme or exceptional drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The University of California-Davis reported in August that the drought cost California agriculture $18.4 billion in 2015 and a loss of 10,100 jobs.

Chris Clayton can be reached at


Chris Clayton