Environmental Science Seminar

Documented evidence that climate change is affecting agricultural systems worldwide means that adaptations to those systems, conscious or not, are already coming into play.  Simple adjustments to agricultural production such as altering planting dates, changing crop cultivars, or modifying irrigation applications (when irrigation infrastructure already exists) are the first line of defense against climate changes, and they require little additional investment by farmers.  Over time it is reasonable to presume that longer-term crop breeding efforts have introduced a measure of environmental resiliency that has extended the effectiveness of short-term adjustments.  As climate changes accumulate and even accelerate, however, I am concerned that simple adjustments that make food systems resilient in the short term will become inadequate in the long term.  That farmers may start to fall behind climate changes resulting in loss of comparative advantage.  Problems are likely to extend well beyond the farm gate to include all elements of the food system, including transport, storage, and processing.  Transformational adaptations may be unavoidable.  Transformational adaptations are what the name implies—major directed efforts to accelerate the adaptation process and in the extreme dramatically reform production systems to better match the evolving climate resource.  History shows that transformational adaptation is not unusual or necessarily difficult.  The century-old evolution of American agriculture from small farms relying on draft animal power to massive commercial farms relying on mechanical power and sophisticated technology functioning in a global supply chain is a case in point.  I hope to lay out the framework for transformational adaptation and provide some examples of how society may actually pull off the first steps.

About the Speaker

William E. Easterling is the Geosciences Directorate at the National Science Foundation. Dr. Easterling is also a professor in the department of Geography at The Pennsylvania State University. He is the former dean of the Penn State College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. Other previous positions include the Department of Agricultural Meteorology at the University of Nebraska (1991-1997), Resources for the Future, Inc. in Washington DC (1987-1991), and the Illinois State Water Survey at the University of Illinois (1984-1987).