The climate is changing—and with it, escalating disruptions to the US food system. Extreme weather events are already impacting agriculture, from the megadrought parching the West to destructive heatwaves, flooding, and tornadoes in the Midwest and South, deep freezes in the Northeast, and water shortages and aridification in the Southwest. The US government’s most recent National Climate Assessment forecasts intensification of all these issues in the decades ahead. As extreme weather events strengthen and spread, what can be done to safeguard the viability of American agriculture and protect the US food supply?
Identifying interventions that are both effective and feasible will require understanding US agriculture’s vulnerability to climate change and extreme weather, as well as the key trends reshaping agriculture. This means considering the implications of current agriculture-related research in science and technology, legislative and policy shifts, societal attitudes, and how the changing values of today’s rising generations might open new paths forward.
Finding solutions also means evaluating how the agricultural system could adapt to ensure an adequate and sustainable food supply in the face of climate events. Today’s dominant food-production system—industrial agriculture—is one of the world’s most climate-damaging sectors, accounting for one-fourth to one-third of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Moreover, industrial agriculture itself is highly vulnerable to climate impacts. The US simply cannot avoid climate catastrophe without reforming the industrial food system.
Fortunately, agriculture may be the sector with both the most to contribute and the most to gain in the fight against climate change and severe weather. Climate-adaptive farming offers a multitude of opportunities to reduce extreme weather events—and even to mitigate global warming itself. Along the way, transforming our agricultural system toward climate resilience will also significantly improve the lives of animals and the livelihoods of farmers while making healthier diets more accessible nationwide.
Achieving this vision will not be easy. But it is vital—both to ensure a secure US food supply in the years ahead and to prevent the worst effects of global climate change.
HOW SEVERE WEATHER THREATENS AGRICULTURE
The U.S. Global Change Research Program’s Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA) projects that agricultural productivity will be increasingly disrupted by extreme weather events—heat, drought, wildfires, and flooding—between now and 2050.
While a few US regions (for example, the Northern Great Plains) and certain crops (wheat, hay, and barley) may see short-term expanded productivity as average temperatures warm and growing seasons extend, most farming areas will face increasing risk of various kinds of severe weather:
- Extreme temperatures can disrupt crop growth and reduce yields. Heatwaves also threaten livestock—both directly with potentially lethal heat stress and indirectly with losses of fertility, milk production, and resilience to disease.
- Droughts will further dry out soils already depleted by industrial growing methods, threatening not only food crops but also animal feed crops, pastures, and the animals that rely on them. Satellite images have revealed increased browning of the land in the Southwest.
- Wildfires will become more likely in the context of high temperatures and extended drought conditions. Wildfires can leave severe impacts on agricultural land, killing crops through both burning and smoke damage.
- Floods and the damage they cause can be extremely costly. High water can devastate crops and livestock, accelerate soil erosion, pollute water sources, and damage the infrastructure of farms. The costs of recovery burden farming communities and disrupt food distribution.
WHAT IS AT STAKE?
Climate change is likely to impact US agriculture in complex ways. In the Midwest, which grows much of the nation’s corn, soybeans, and wheat, climate forecasts predict rising daily average temperatures and more frequent extreme weather events such as droughts, heatwaves, and heavy rains. By 2050, Midwest agricultural output could fall to 1980s levels. Because crops grown in the Midwest support farmed animals and processed foods produced nationwide, losses in the Midwest will contribute to overall declines in US agricultural productivity.
The Southwestern US is projected to see an overall much hotter and drier future, punctuated by occasional heavy rainfall events with the potential to cause intermittent flooding. Intense heat and drought will disrupt the production of the majority of the nation’s fruits, nuts, dairy products, vegetables, and wine.
The Southeast will face more frequent and more severe hurricanes, as well as higher temperatures. Large swaths of the South—already today’s hottest counties—will be unable to maintain any production of soy, wheat, corn, rice, barley, peanuts, and cotton.
The Future of California’s Megadrought
According to US Drought Monitor, in August 2021 more than 95% of the West—home to 74 million people—was in states of severe, extreme, or exceptional drought, conditions that are predicted to continue through at least October 2021. The West has entered a “megadrought” (a severe drought of 20-plus years) that could be the worst since 800 AD—with particularly harmful effects in California, one of the nation’s top agricultural producers.
Drought unleashes a cascade of harmful environmental effects: reduced snowpack and streamflow, drier soils and vegetation, and mass die-offs of trees. Together these heighten the risk of large-scale wildfires, such as the 2020 combined August Complex Fires and the 2021 Dixie Fire, the largest single fire in California’s recorded history. Drought also reduces soil’s ability to sequester carbon, a crucial bulwark against further climate warming.
Economic impacts will mount as the megadrought advances. In California, prices are rising for water-intensive crops like tree fruits and nuts; avocado prices were up 10% in August 2021. Feed crops like alfalfa will follow, making animal husbandry more expensive. Local dairy and meat production will likely fall, causing prices of cheese and other animal byproducts to increase.
Since California produces more than one-third of US vegetables, two-thirds of US fruits and nuts, and a nearly one-fifth of US dairy products, changes to production in California will increasingly affect the national food supply.
WHO WILL BE AFFECTED?
Who will be most affected as extreme weather events and industrial agriculture spiral into a mutually reinforcing cycle of harmful effects?
- Farmers face changing growing environments, unpredictable yields, and unstable futures. In the West, snowmelt is no longer a reliable source of summer water supplies. This has led the federal government to cut water allocations to California farmers and ranchers by 75%, driving up their costs. In response, some farmers have torn out their highly valuable but water-intensive almond trees—a sign of their certainty that this drought is here to stay. Increasingly, farmers nationwide will need to step up expensive insurance coverage to offset crop losses.
- Farmworkers, who number 2-3 million in the US, face increasingly dangerous outdoor harvest conditions and potential lost income. As climate change intensifies, working outdoors will expose farmworkers to unsafe levels of air pollution from worsening wildfires as well as increased risk of insect-borne diseases like dengue fever, which are moving into the US as temperatures rise. Farmworkers may also face more toxic exposures as farmers change spray schedules or increase their use of chemical herbicides and pesticides, which become less effective—and more toxic—in high heat.
- Farming communities will face polluted or depleted water supplies due to nearby farms’ increased use of herbicides and water. Wilting farm incomes will heighten financial stress in already vulnerable rural communities.
- Animals—especially those living in industrial confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs)—will be increasingly vulnerable to potentially fatal heat stress.
- Fisheries and downstream communities near industrial farms will face scarcer and more polluted water supplies, with wide ripple effects for lives and livelihoods.
- US consumers nationwide will face higher prices and reduced abundance of food. Studies predict that with each degree-Celsius rise in global temperature, US yields of soy will decrease 7%, corn 10%, and wheat 5.5%. Actual decreases could be doubled, as the 2021 IPCC report, Climate Change 2021: the Physical Science Basis, finds that limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius may already be beyond reach.
Fortunately, a handful of achievable, thoughtfully executed interventions could steer US agriculture toward very different outcomes. Chief among these are reducing meat production and consumption. This intervention by itself could go very far toward fulfilling the US’s commitment to limiting global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius.
Second, shifting US agriculture away from today’s industrial overproduction and toward sustainable farming could deliver powerful benefits—including improved climate resilience, environmental protection, carbon sequestration, enhanced farming livelihoods, humane animal treatment, and increased access to healthy, affordable nutrition. While this shift will not be easy, the US food system is already facing an unavoidable transition. Industrial agriculture-as-usual is becoming impossible to maintain due to mounting pressure from pests and weeds that have adapted to bypass synthetic agrichemicals. A new, sustainable agricultural paradigm may be the only way to bring food production back into balance and mitigate climate change.
Time is short, and large-scale, controversial decisions need to be made. But with concerted effort, these and other key interventions can shift the futures of climate change and food security toward sustainable, multi-benefit outcomes for humans, animals, and the planet.
CALLS TO ACTION
Governments at the federal, state, and local levels can be powerful agents for the rise of a climate-resilient US agricultural system, primarily by promoting a nationwide reduction in meat production and consumption. Such efforts will need to include both comprehensive consumer education and a shift of federal subsidies away from today’s climate-damaging animal agricultural industries, toward sustainable models of agriculture that inherently feature less—and less industrial—meat and dairy production.
Governments can also stop driving climate change by replacing subsidies to industrial agriculture with policies and funding that promote sustainable agriculture and climate-resilient crops and farming practices. Much research and development is needed, for example, to understand how much carbon can realistically be sequestered by agricultural soils under climate predictions, or the long-term social and environmental impacts of farm transformations.
In addition, governments should consider using policies and funding to support millennial-generation farmers. Millennial farmers, who currently account for 8% of US agricultural producers, are much more likely to grow organically, limit pesticide and fertilizer use, diversify crops and animals, and sell directly to customers through farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture (CSA). They are essential allies in the transition to a secure food future.
US consumers with easy access to alternative proteins can consider diet changes like reducing or eliminating meat consumption, de-emphasizing industrially-produced processed foods, and—where possible—selecting foods from sustainable agriculture. Many consumers are already moving in this direction: in 2020, 65% of US consumers said they look for food products that can help them live a more sustainable and socially responsible life, while approximately 54% have said they are willing to cut back on red meat consumption.
Funders from many issue areas can recognize food system transformation and sustainable agriculture as mission-critical topics with intersectional impact. It is now evident that issues including poverty, environmental justice, and public health are deeply connected to the food system. It is critical for funders to adopt a longer and more systemic view of funding priorities, recognizing intersectional linkages and the power of transformational solutions. Funders may also support campaigns for reduced meat consumption, youth movements in their demands for more aggressive climate action, or NGOs that are pursuing agricultural transformation.
Farmers can engage with the Farm Transformation movement to convert industrial animal operations and conventional commodity cropland into sustainable and ethical alternative farms. To enable more farms to transition, new market relationships must be forged, supply chain infrastructure strengthened, and financial and technical assistance must be made more available through public investment. A developing alternative protein industry, along with supportive policy, will spur the transformation toward a more resilient and inclusive farming economy.
Farmers can also be leaders in resilience by adopting climate-resilient food crops and agroecological methods, which are able to withstand rising heat and the other extreme conditions brought on by climate change. Such crops and methods will become crucial in the decades ahead; for instance, the vegetable Salicornia can be irrigated with seawater rather than with precious freshwater; millet and some edible cactus can withstand extreme temperatures. Farmers with access to alternatives can experiment with different crops in their own operations—and, vitally, they can help to ensure that innovative crop varieties are adopted within a rigorously sustainable context, instead of trading the chemical treadmill of hybrid corn and soy for similarly gene-edited industrial neo-crops touted as climate change survivors.
Extreme weather events are a sign that the climate crisis is here, and our food system must adapt. The increasingly damaging impacts of extreme weather on agriculture signify that the US food supply is at risk.
The farming methods that brought the US food system to this point cannot offer solutions for what is to come. Instead, the solution lies in dismantling and replacing the current system. Agricultural transformation is a strategic fulcrum for enabling a better future. It is critical to divert US agriculture away from its business-as-usual downturn under worsening climate disruption and toward a vision of food production that is more sustainable, inclusive, and humane. A systemic transformation toward sustainable agriculture and drastically reduced animal production is one of the most powerful interventions available today to both mitigate climate change and protect US food security in the decades ahead.
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