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Published June 25, 2014, 09:46 AM

Cargill exec: US ag can weather global warming

Climate change might shrink the ice caps and devastate the coasts, but here in the farmlands of Minnesota and the Dakotas, a milder climate could bring some benefits, a new report suggests.

By: Tom Webb, St. Paul Pioneer Press

WAYZATA, Minn. — Climate change might shrink the ice caps and devastate the coasts, but here in the farmlands of Minnesota and the Dakotas, a milder climate could bring some benefits, a new report suggests.

That was one twist in a report issued June 24 by a group of top corporate and political officials, including Greg Page, executive chairman of Wayzata-based agribusiness giant Cargill.

While the group’s other notables warned June 24 about possible devastation ahead, Page delivered a conflicted — even hopeful — view of how food production would adjust to a changing climate.

For instance, a warming climate is expected to shift the Corn Belt northward — a disaster for farmers in central states, even as farmers in the northern tier take advantage of a longer growing season and more cropping options.

“Being a child of North Dakota, I can say from first-hand reflection” that a less-severe winter “has been a positive for productivity,” Page says. When he was growing up in the border town of Bottineau, raising corn or canola wasn’t even a possibility. It is now.

“The only decision you had in the spring was which wheat you plant,” says Page, who served as Cargill’s CEO until he stepped down last year.

Given such changes, Page says he had “a lot of optimism” that agribusinesses such as Cargill and the world’s farmers can adapt to a changed world.

Yet the overall tone of the report, “Risky Business,” was hardly optimistic.

It depicts an alarming future of extreme weather, where killer heat waves will become commonplace and melting ice sheets will raise ocean levels that devastate the coasts. The costs of ignoring those perils will be immense, the report warns, and it urges officials to “act aggressively” to prevent the worst from happening.

Agriculture will be greatly affected, the report suggests, but the impacts will vary by region.

As a result of extreme heat, “by the end of the century, some states in the Southeast, lower Great Plains and Midwest risk up to a 50 percent to 70 percent loss in average annual crop yields (corn, soy, cotton and wheat), absent agricultural adaptation,” the report says.

But in other spots, more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could boost crop yields.

“Warmer temperatures and carbon fertilization may improve agricultural productivity and crop yields in the upper Great Plains and other northern states,” the report says.

Page says he hopes the report will foster a discussion about the risks, while reassuring the public that the world’s food chain can adapt.

“It really calls for discourse,” Page says of the report. In the coming months, “There will be hearings and there will be discussions, and I’m sure that everything from carbon taxes to cap-and-trade and mandates” will get a hearing.

But that doesn’t mean Page is fully persuaded about the dangers ahead. Nor is Cargill, the nation’s largest private company.

The view of “whether this is happening or it’s not, whether it’s man-made or it’s not, varies around the company,” Page says. “We jokingly refer to ourselves as the world’s largest debate society.”

Cargill is also being pressured to reduce greenhouse gas emission by its corporate customers, such as Walmart, which itself is being pressured by the public.

“This is incredibly important to our most important companies … (and they share) very specific expectations around this issue,” Page says.

Even as it publicized the June 24 report, Cargill belongs to groups fighting President Barack Obama’s initiative on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. And Cargill has come under attack for promoting agriculture production in the world’s rainforest regions.

Page was hesitant when asked if he thinks carbon dioxide is changing the climate and whether the change is because of human activity.

He called himself “perfectly suspended (in) mid-air between being a full believer and a full denier.”

The report is available at RiskyBusiness.org.

Editor’s note: The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.

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