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Vilsack addresses role of agriculture and climate change

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack highlighted the role of agriculture in climate change at the University of Copenhagen as part of this week’s Copenhagen Climate Summit. Climatic stresses could have significant consequences on farmers and food production, dramatically affecting the yields of staple crops and, thus, the global food supply, he said. He called on agriculturalists to help mitigate climate change.

Globally, agriculture is responsible for about 15 percent of emissions, Vilsack said. He emphasized the need for more climate change research, wind power advancement and stress-resistant, heat-tolerant and saline-resistant crop development.

But organic agriculture is the best way to promote sustainability, according to Tim LaSalle, chief executive officer for the Rodale Institute, a Kutztown, Penn.-based nonprofit focused on organic farming solutions. “Organic agriculture that builds soil also builds climate stress resiliency by creating biological soil systems that buffer against droughts and too wet of conditions with heavy rainfall events. Organic gives the best chance to avoid total crop failures,” he said.

Certain features of climate warming will affect farmers and ranchers and others who make their living off the land, Vilsack said. “Higher temperatures, changing rainfall patterns and more frequent and extreme events like droughts and flooding threaten to reduce yields and increase the occurrence of crop failure.”

Another consequence of higher temperatures is a possible increase in pests and weeds, according to Vilsack. But increased pesticide application might not be the answer, according to LaSalle. “As more pesticides have been used over the years, pest attacks on crops has kept pace, and there has been an increased total pesticide use in the U.S. When we build healthy soils, we build plant strength to fight pests and disease, and by organic methods we rotate crops to break insect and disease cycles. Organic provides an affordable and safe management system to control most pests and diseases.”

“According to Food and Agriculture Organization [of the United Nations], food production will need to double by 2050 to keep up with demand,” Vilsack said. “This will take place in a system already under duress from climate stress, where increasing temperatures are known to erode crop production.”

But LaSalle points out that “the assumption that world food production will have to double by 2050 might be reconsidered since we already produce enough food for the world's populations today, and the increase in human population by then would only be a one-third more maximum, probably less.”

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