The climate crisis and agriculture

Date01 February 2022
This Article begins by describing how the climate
crisis threatens to disrupt agricu ltural production
at immense cost to society. We then outline agri-
cultural emissions at the global, national, and state levels,
demonstrating the need for quick and ambitious action
to change agricultural practices. We explain why ocial
gures signicantly u nderestimate agricultura l emissions
and why, compounding the problem, a gricultural emis-
sions are dicult to estimate with precision. We conclude
by explaining the need to transform agriculture from one
of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases into a
net sink.
I. Climate Change’s Impact on Agriculture
Weather—the patterns of which make up the climate—
profoundly aects our food system. e growing of crops
requires certain a mounts of water, heat, and sun; tempera-
ture and other conditions inuence the growth and health
of animals. Yet, climate change is dramatically altering the
weather patterns in the United States. Figure 1 (next page)
shows a few categories of harm out of many possible exam-
ples.1 Floods, droughts, and heat waves a re more frequent
1. Figure 1 sources: U.S. EPA, Climate Change Impacts on Agriculture and
Food Supply,
climate-impacts-agriculture-and-food-supply_.html (last visited Jan. 23,
2021); G C R P, I, R,  A-
   U S: F N C A-
and more extreme; wildres are increasing due in part to
climate change. e range of many pests is expanding as
warmer weather moves nor th.
ese changing weather patterns and increased extreme
weather events are exacting a heav y toll on American agri-
culture. e 2016 droughts in California led to more than
$600 million in losses. Hurrica ne Maria attened farm
elds throughout Puerto Rico in 2017, causing almost
$800 million in losses. e 2019 ooding in the Midwest
left 5 to 10 million bushels of corn and soy to rot and
19 million acres unable to be planted. Heat stress causes
kidney disease and other harms to farmworkers and can
weaken animals and slow their growth. As climate change
gets more severe, so will these impacts.
, V II 391-437 50-174 (2018); J M-A 
., C  W S, E A   2016
C D  A (2016); Curtis A. Deutsch et al.,
Increase in Crop Losses to Insect Pests in a Warming Climate, 361 N
916-19 (2018); Matthew R. Smith et al., e Impact of Rising Carbon
Dioxide Levels on Crop Nutrients and Human Health, F  F
(2018) (GCAN Policy Note 10); Deepak Ray, Climate Change Is Aecting
Crop Yields and Reducing Global Food Supplies, T C, July 9,
and-reducing-global-food-supplies-118897; Tom Polansek, U.S. Disaster
Aid Won’t Cover Crops Drowned by Midwest Floods, R, Apr. 2, 2019,
cover-crops-drowned-by-midwest-oods-idUSKCN1RE0BU; John Schwartz,
A Wet Year Causes Farm Woes Far Beyond the Floodplains, N.Y. T, Nov.
21, 2019,
by Peter H. Lehner and Nathan A. Rosenberg
Peter H. Lehner is Managing Attorney of the Sustainable Food & Farming Program
at Earthjustice. Nathan A. Rosenberg is a visiting scholar at the Food Law and Policy
Clinic at Harvard Law School and an attorney consulting for Earthjustice.
Agriculture’s contribution to climate change is much more substantial than off‌icial f‌igures suggest. We will
not be able to achieve our overall mitigation goals unless agricultural emissions sharply decline. Farms and
ranches can be a major part of the climate solution, while protecting biodiversity, strengthening rural com-
munities, and improving the lives of the workers who cultivate our crops and rear our animals. Agriculture
climate solutions are critical elements both in ensuring our food security and in limiting climate change. This
Article, excerpted from Farming for Our Future: The Science, Law, and Policy of Climate-Neutral Agriculture
(ELI Press 2021), provides the current state of emissions in the agriculture sector, and argues that we must
transform agriculture from one of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases into a net sink.
Copyright © 2022 Environmental Law Institute®, Washington, DC. Reprinted with permission from ELR®,, 1-800-433-5120.

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