Research Needs

Given the challenges noted in the previous section, it is clear that expanded research efforts will be needed to help farmers, development planners, and others engaged in the agricultural sector to understand and respond to projected impacts of climate change on agriculture. There may also be opportunities to limit the magnitude of future climate change though changes in agricultural practices; it will be important to link such strategies with adaptation strategies so they complement rather than undermine each other. Identifying which regions, human communities, fisheries, and crops and livestock in the United States and other parts of the world are most vulnerable to climate change, developing adaptation approaches to reduce this vulnerability, and developing and assessing options for reducing agricultural GHG emissions are critical tasks for the nation's climate change research program. Focus is also needed on the developing world, where the negative effects of climate change on agricultural and fisheries production tend to coincide with people with low adaptation capacity. Some specific research areas are listed below.

Improve models of crop response to climate and other environmental changes. Crop plants and timber species respond to multiple and interacting effects—including temperature, moisture, extreme weather events, CO2, ozone, and other factors such as pests, diseases, and weeds—all of which are affected by climate change. Experimental studies that evaluate the sensitivity of crops to such factors, singly and in interaction, are needed, especially in ecosystem-scale experiments and in environments where temperature is already close to optimal for crops. Many assessments model crop response to climate-related variables while assuming no change in availability of water resources, especially irrigation. Projections about agricultural success in the future need to explicitly include such interactions. Of particular concern are assumptions about water availability that include consideration of needs by other sectors. The reliability of water resources for agriculture when there is competition from other uses needs to be evaluated in the context of coupled human-environment systems, ideally at regional scales. Improved understanding of the response of farmers and markets to production and prices and also to policies and institutions that affect land and resource uses is needed; incorporation of that information in models will aid in designing effective agricultural strategies for limiting and adapting to climate change.

Improve models of response of fisheries to climate change. Sustainable yields from fisheries require matching catch limits with the growth of the fishery. Climate variation already makes forecasting the growth of fish populations difficult, and future climate change will increase this critical uncertainty. Studies of connections between climate and marine population dynamics are needed to enhance model frameworks for fisheries management. In addition, there is considerable uncertainty about differences in sensitivity among and within species to ocean acidification (NRC, 2010f). This inevitable consequence of increasing atmospheric CO2 is poorly understood, yet global in scope. Most fisheries are subject to other stressors in addition to warming, acidification, and harvesting, and the interactions of these other stresses need to be analyzed and incorporated into models. Finally, these efforts need to be linked to the analysis of effective institutions and policies for managing fisheries.

Expand observing and monitoring systems. Satellite, aircraft, and ground-based measures of changes in crops yields, stress symptoms, weed invasions, soil moisture, ocean productivity, and other variables related to fisheries and crop production are possible but not yet carried out systematically or continuously. Monitoring of the environmental and social dynamics of food production systems on land and in the oceans is also needed to enable assessments of vulnerable systems or threats to food security. Monitoring systems will require metrics of vulnerability and sustainability to provide early warnings and develop adaptation strategies.

Assess food security and vulnerability in the context of climate change. Effective adaptation will require integration of knowledge and models about environmental as well as socioeconomic systems in order to project regional food supplies and demands, understand appropriate responses, to develop institutional approaches for adapting under climate variability and climate change, and to assess implications for food security (NRC, 2009k). Scenarios that evaluate implications of climate change and adaptation strategies for food security in different regions are needed, as are models that assess shifting demands for meat and seafood that will influence price and supply. Approaches, tools, and metrics are needed to assess the differential vulnerability of various human-environment systems so that investments can be designed to reduce potential harm (e.g., through interventions such as the development of new crop varieties and technologies, new infrastructure, social safety nets, or other adaptation measures). A concerted research effort is needed both for conducting assessments and to support the development and implementation of options for adaptation. Surprisingly, relatively little effort has been directed toward identification of geographic areas where damages to agriculture or fisheries could be caused by extreme events (hurricanes, drought, hypoxia); where there is or will be systematic loss of agricultural area due to sea level rise, erosion, and saltwater intrusion; or where there will be changes in average conditions (e.g., extent of sea ice cover, and warming of areas that are now too cold for agriculture) that could lead to broad-scale changes—positive or negative—in the type and manner of agricultural and fisheries production.

Evaluate trade-offs and synergies in managing agricultural lands. Improved integrated assessment approaches and other tools are needed to evaluate agricultural lands and their responses to climate change in the context of other land uses and ecosystem services. Planning approaches need to be developed for avoiding adaptation responses that place other systems (or other generations) at risk—for example, by converting important conservation lands to agriculture, allocating water resources away from environmental or urban needs, or overuse of pesticides and fertilizers. Integrated assessments would help to evaluate both trade-offs (e.g., conservation versus agriculture) and co-benefits (e.g., increasing soil carbon storage while also enhancing soil productivity and reducing erosion) of different actions that might be taken in the agricultural sector to limit the magnitude of climate change or adapt to its impacts.

Evaluate trade-offs and synergies in managing the sea. The oceans provide a wide range of services to humans, but conflicts over use of the oceans are often magnified because of the absence of marine spatial planning and relatively weak international marine regulatory systems. Efforts to limit the magnitude of climate change are causing society to consider the sea for new sources of energy (e.g., waves, tides, thermal gradients), while the opening of ice-free areas in the Arctic is encouraging exploration of offshore reserves of minerals and fossil fuels. Without analyses of the looming tradeoffs between these emerging uses and existing services, such as fisheries and recreation, conflicts will inevitably grow. New approaches for analyses of such trade-offs are needed as an integral component of marine spatial planning.

Develop and improve technologies, management strategies, and institutions to reduce GHG emissions from agriculture and fisheries and to enhance adaptation to climate change. Research on options for reducing emissions from the agricultural sector is needed, including new technologies, evaluation of effectiveness, costs and benefits, perceptions of farmers and others, and policies to promote implementation. Technologies such as crop breeding and new cropping systems could dramatically increase the sector's adaptive capacity. Research on the role of entitlements and institutional barriers in influencing mitigation or adaptation responses; the effectiveness of governance structures; interactions of national and local policies; and national security implications of climate-agriculture interactions are also needed.


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