A Readout from Planet Forward’s Salon on Weather and Food Security
Concerns about climate change are real — just as real as the weather, which is changing agriculture right now. As weather patterns shift and become more volatile, it has become clear that we need to adapt.
At Planet Forward’s Weather Volatility Salon at the George Washington University, we heard steps that government, farmers and business are taking to address these challenges, and what more needs to be done. By convening leading experts, meteorologists, industry executives, farmers, communicators, government administrators and students, we found some common ground, identified key challenges opportunities and solicited recommendations to improve practice and communication.
Here are five takeaways and five recommendations from the group:
1. Investing in Climate-Smart Agriculture
Future investments in agriculture need to reflect how climate change will affect food production, water availability and resilience.
At the recent UN Climate Summit in New York City, the Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture announced an action plan to incorporate climate-smart approaches into food and agriculture systems. Bill Hohenstein, USDA’s Climate Change Program Office Director, shared the importance of the United States’ commitment in joining this alliance:
“For USDA it’s critical. We know that within the U.S. we need to make our farmers more resilient to climate change. We know that they have a role in addressing greenhouse gas emissions, but we also have a critical role in continuing to be able to feed the world.”
This policy commitment will help shape the government's investments in agriculture domestically and internationally. Bottom line — investments are driven by climate change.
2. Forging Innovative Partnerships to Share Data
Climate change opens the possibility of new partnerships to make vital information available to food producers and governments.
During the salon, Jenny Frankel-Reed, Senior Climate Change Specialist at the US Agency for International Development, shared one example of where the government is already doing this.
SERVIR is an innovative joint venture between USAID and NASA that uses satellite-based Earth observation data to help developing countries assess environmental threats from weather-related events and natural disasters.
Frankel-Reed discussed a “technology breakthrough” that helps Bangladesh prepare for severe flooding events. Using data from the Jason-2 satellite, SERVIR can measure within centimeters the river water heights to forecast the likelihood of flooding. What used to be a three-day warning, is now an eight-day warning.
“We used a satellite that was collecting information for all kinds of reasons, in a really new way. I think there’s a lot we can do that we haven’t even discovered. And communications is really the key.” — Jenny Frankel-Reed, USAID
3. Resilience through Technology
Many of the changes we’re seeing due to volatile weather patterns can be offset by smart new technologies. We heard some examples of how farms in the US are adapting, even thriving, in this changing environment.
The 2012 drought Del Unger experienced was the worst he’s seen in 30 years, but his farm’s production was twice what it was compared to a drought in 1988. Unger attributes this to better nutrient management technologies, which he says help farmers reduce runoff and apply nutrients far more efficiently.
“The technology and genetics have helped us, to some degree, mitigate some of this roller coaster that we’ve been on.” — Del Unger, Unger Farms
Tom Linthicum from Seneca Ayr Farms in Laytonsville, Md., told the group he’s seen a big change in the weather. What used to be a soaking spring rain now is more likely to be a torrent — sometimes two inches all at once. The result: serious water management issues and soil erosion. Linthicum said the only way to manage that “is to get real innovative with your conservation measures.” He has built a berm system that slowly releases excess rainwater over a 24-hour period to minimize erosion and release clean water.
4. Communication Breakdown: Climate Change Hostility From a Polarized Public
Climate change has a communications challenge. The challenge is compounded because climate is often seen through an ideological prism. There’s also the challenge of understanding the timeframe. Robin Reed has been the chief meteorologist at WDBJ-TV (Roanoke, Va.) for more than 30 years. Reed emphasized that climate misconceptions are easily found with a public that craves up-to-the-minute information. Reed said the public wants up-to-the-minute information and is skeptical of a forecast that is decades away.
“Yes, it’s a communication problem. But I believe it’s a timeframe problem. Thirty years is a long time from now.” — Robin Reed, WDBJ-TV / Virginia Tech
George Mason University professor Jagadish Shukla suggested that we can change the basic messages to focus on the near term: “fluctuations that are taking place right now are having as big of an impact on society as those we are predicting for the future.”
5. Engaging the public and millennials through powerful storytelling
The conversation also clearly illustrated a generational divide in how we receive our information. The students at the table shared how they receive their news. It wasn’t from the New York Times or the evening news, but through The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Facebook and Bill Nye the Science Guy.
Regardless of the platform, the effectiveness of the story will reflect the power of the storytelling. Dennis Dimick, Executive Editor for the Environment at National Geographic, announced they will extend their food coverage because they discovered their stories around food really resonate with the audience.
Others observed that the best, most powerful storytelling on food and climate should come directly from food producers. They can best describe how they are managing their farms to stay one step ahead of a problem they know very well: the weather.
“We need to try to connect people to where their food comes from.” — Dennis Dimick, National Geographic
Our salon produced a spirited conversation that focused on the challenges and the opportunities ahead, but also a series of recommendations with respect to food production and public communication:
1. When communicating about climate change, be clear, compelling, smart and creative.
Research and understand the topic broadly, but deeply.
2. Use the present tense.
Put climate issues into a present-day context when possible. Weather volatility provides good examples.
3. Make the story real and make it personal.
Use social media to connect people to farmers in compelling and creative ways.
4. Think globally, tell stories locally.
People are more likely to trust information that comes from people and places they know.
5. Don’t give up on policy.
Yes, it may be complicated. It may even be controversial. But climate change is driving fundamental shifts in the way food is grown -- and the way taxpayer dollars are going to be spent. Understand and explain the changes that the Climate Smart Agriculture Alliance will bring.