Tom Vilsack to deliver lecture on agriculture and climate change

Madeline Mcgarry

Former governor of Iowa Tom Vilsack is returning home to deliver a presentation in the nation’s second largest agricultural producing state.

At 7 p.m. Thursday in the Great Hall of the Memorial Union, Vilsack will present “Agriculture and Climate Change” as part of Iowa State’s national lecture series, “When American Values Are in Conflict.”

Vilsack is no stranger to the world of agriculture. He served as governor of the state of Iowa from 1999 to 2007, and in 2009 he became the Secretary of Agriculture under President Obama, making him the longest serving cabinet member of the president’s administration.

In January 2017, Vilsack resigned from his secretarial post to pursue a career with the U.S. Dairy Export Council. He currently serves as the organization’s president and CEO, and he was drawn to the industry’s inclusive and family-oriented nature.  

“The U.S. dairy industry is one in which the smallest producer who might have as few as 20, or 30 or 40 cows, can still be at the table making decisions for the industry with the largest producer,” Vilsack said.

Combined with Iowa being held as the twelfth largest dairy producing state in the nation, Vilsack’s experience in the dairy industry has allowed him exposure to the conversation related to agricultural production and climate change.

“The dairy industry is very aggressive and very progressive when it comes to the issues involving climate,” Vilsack said.

Changes in rainfall, humidity and temperature are the factors that predominantly characterize climate change. In the past six decades, Iowa has seen a 31 percent increase in the frequency and overall intensity of heavy rainfall events. In addition to the effects of excess water intake, crops can become compromised by pronounced soil erosion.

On the flip side, statistics aggregated by the USDA have shown that U.S. agricultural production itself contributes 10 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. Complementary to these findings, Vilsack believes agriculture plays a dual role in the evolution of climate change, serving as both a contributor and subject of the fluctuating environment.

“I think agriculture has a role to play in addressing issues involving climate, and agriculture is impacted very significantly by the changing patterns in weather, so it is a good topic for people in Iowa to hear about,” Vilsack said.

Of the 66 percent of corn-belt farmers who believe climate change is occurring, most are concerned about seeing an increase in drought conditions, heat stress on crops and heavy rainfall events.

The former head of the USDA hopes to highlight both the domestic and international impact of climate change on accessibility, humanitarian issues, political stability and the economy.

“Changing climate can impact and affect places that are critical to the overall production of basic food items,” Vilsack said.

The lecture is co-sponsored by the Environmental Law & Policy Center, the Iowa Environmental Council and the Committee on Lectures funded by Student Government, among other organizations.