Greg Page sees benefit in farmers and agribusinesses taking a practical, pragmatic approach to dealing with climate change.
Executive chairman of the board for Cargill Inc., Page leads the outreach to production agriculture for the ad hoc group Risky Business. Since last year, the group has issued various reports on the economic risks of climate change in the U.S.
Risky Business is spearheaded by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former treasury secretary Hank Paulson and California businessman Tom Steyer. Page is among seven business and government leaders who play key roles with Risky Business.
Page acknowledges that agriculture, even in its own tent, has been unwilling to talk about climate change. His talks to larger ag groups have resulted in relatively unfriendly reactions. However, in smaller groups, the conversation is more informed and encouraging.
“What we’ve seen is (that) there is a perception that agriculture is in denial about this, but in point of fact, the big concern is about regulatory overreach,” Page said. “On a farm level or on a regional level, everybody acknowledges they are being confronted with different weather patterns than their fathers did in their periods running the family farm.”
WEIGH THE RISKS
Just as the name suggests, Risky Business reports assess the economic risk of climate change across the U.S. through 2100. They show projected shifts in weather patterns from climate change will tax the resiliency of the nation’s food-producing systems. That’s why the reports urge people in agriculture to examine ways to avoid the most severe potential outcomes. Page doesn’t point fingers at anyone regarding who’s responsible for climate change. Instead, he sees the necessity of getting ag leaders to focus on climate adaptation.
“Some of it is building resilience into the infrastructure,” he explained. “Some of it is related to the way we manage our soils, the way in which we prepare it to hold more water. Are we going to have to start thinking about more retention? You can make a whole list of things where people are farming differently. Clearly the degree of precision and precision agriculture — and farmers who are actually practicing it — that is going to change.”
While climate reports often highlight the prospects of longer growing seasons, they also point to the growing struggles in parts of the Corn Belt to get crops planted and harvested. Such challenges played out this past spring as heavy rains swamped parts of the Midwest.
“A lot of these big farmers are looking at seven- to 10-day windows for planting activities and probably 15 days or less for harvesting. That’s got big implications for the amount of machinery they need to own or the kind of labor they need access to,” Page explained.
That increase in precipitation also has longer-term effects for local government trying to keep roads and bridges operating for the ag economy. Such elements are risk factors that need to be considered as a changing climate shifts cropping patterns and eventually the flow of grain delivery.
“We just had some rain events here in Minnesota that are incredible,” Page said. “Whether it is some farm-to-market roads that need to be rebuilt, should they be rebuilt contemplating more 100-year floods than we’ve had in the last 100 years?”
Climate scenarios regarding weather volatility and drought raise different questions for businesses, such as Cargill, John Deere or Monsanto. Then there are the roles required for land-grant universities or federal agencies, such as the Department of Transportation or Army Corps of Engineers, which help keep the supply chain moving.
While farmers may face different weather challenges than their fathers or grandfathers, they are largely unwilling to engage in a policy fix that could help mitigate further risk in the future. That view reflects growing frustration and fear about higher environmental standards coming to the farm.
“On the political side, they are just not willing to give an inch because of the level of distrust with the EPA,” Page contended.
Part of the resistance also is due to people who believe farmers and agribusiness must base their decisions on what the climate may be like 50 years out. It’s tough to get traction with producers, or almost any businessperson, regarding a challenge the industry may or may not face in half a century. Thus, Page said producers are skeptical of talk about climate change, while environmentalists are skeptical that Risky Business leaders aren’t calling for specific actions.
“It’s been frustrating because clearly, with Risky Business, we interacted with some people who were climate-change zealots, if you will,” Page explained. “They found our approach pretty unsatisfying.”
Page and other business leaders have sought to make the case that changes to businesses and farms need to be based on economics that will provide an appropriate rate of return to meet the costs of the capital investments associated with climate change.
“We don’t do those things if they don’t achieve our cost of capital,” Page pointed out. “They lower our carbon footprint, and we have goals to do that, but we are trying to use innovation and creativity to do things that make economic sense. Clearly, some of those people think you should do some of those things because it’s ‘the right thing to do.'”
Still, one of Risky Business’ goals was to create a more reasonable discourse in the agricultural community on the issue by diving into the science, politics and economics of climate change.
“We’re saying this is something we can act on now,” Page said. “We don’t have to wait 50 years to create resilience.”