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Midwest farms may suffer huge losses from intense heat, says climate change report

Drone views of wheat harvest in Sumner County

Jeff Hatfield cuts wheat near Belle Plaine, Kansas.
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Jeff Hatfield cuts wheat near Belle Plaine, Kansas.

The federal government’s latest report on climate change warns of specific dangers to Midwest agriculture production, which comprises a significant portion of the economies of Kansas and Missouri.

Increasing temperatures and more extreme weather patterns such as flooding and drought will have serious consequences on crop and livestock production, according to the Fourth National Climate Assessment that was released the day after Thanksgiving.

“Any change in the climate poses a major challenge to agriculture through increased rates of crop failure, reduced livestock productivity and altered rates of pressure from pests, weeds and diseases,” according to the report’s chapter on agriculture. “Rural communities, where economies are more tightly interconnected with agriculture than with other sectors, are particularly vulnerable to the agricultural volatility related to climate.”

But the report, vetted by 13 government agencies, holds out hope that agriculture can adapt to climate change with “planting decisions, farming practices and the use of technology.”

Blake Hurst, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau, said Monday the report was “pretty disturbing” but agreed that agricultural producers will have to meet the challenge.

He said ongoing research into more resilient hybrid seeds would prove beneficial.

“As farmers, we will do our best to adapt to changes in weather, as we always have,” Hurst said.

But he also said U.S. attempts to respond to climate change will be counterbalanced by countries such as India and China aspiring to Western living standards.

“I’m not optimistic that our trading partners will be willing to do all the things they have to do,” Hurst said.

The report on agriculture distills four key messages:

Food production will decline in areas of more frequent and prolonged drought. Shifting participation patterns associated with high temperatures will intensify wildfires, accelerate the depletion of water supplies for irrigation and expand the distribution and incidence of pests and diseases for crops and livestock.

The degradation of critical soil and water resources will expand with runoff caused by extreme precipitation events.

Increased frequency and intensity of high temperature extremes will contribute to heat exhaustion, heatstroke and heart attacks in people and in heat stress for livestock that will result in large economic losses.

People in rural areas will be limited in their capacity to respond to the effects of climate change because of poverty and limitations of community resources.

The climate assessment’s opening sentence flatly contradicts the skepticism of President Donald Trump, who withdrew the United States from the Paris climate accords.

“Earth’s climate is now changing faster than any point in the history of modern civilization, primarily as a result of human activities,” states the report, which comes after a recent alarm by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that humanity’s opportunity for meaningful action may soon slip away.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, said the Senate Agriculture Committee, which he chairs, would likely hold a hearing on the report’s findings in the near future.

“I think it’s a dire situation anywhere,” Roberts said Monday when asked about the potential impact to Kansas.

“There’s a lot of bad weather we’ve seen in the past, but I don’t think there’s any question climate change has affected things,” Roberts said. “And we’re going to have to take a hard look at that, but agricultural technology is an amazing thing.”

On Monday, Trump told reporters that he had read “some” of the report. As for the findings about global warming hurting the U.S. economy, he said: “I don’t believe it.”

Bryan Lowry, The Star’s Washington correspondent, contributed to this report.

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