The New Norm: Food Security in an Age of Change

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Wind turbines (Vendsyssel, Denmark, 2004). Photo © 2004 by Tomasz Sienicki

Every day, we drove past them: acres upon acres of dry corn, blackened by the summer sun, withering where it stood. Summer of 2012 was a hot one, and our farming neighbors in rural southwest Michigan were feeling the heat.

Michigan lost much of its harvest last year – our cherries and apples, corn and soybeans. It was an unusual growing season in that it started out hot – too hot, for March. The early warmth of spring tricked the fruit trees into thinking it was summer; they began to bud and blossom. And then out of nowhere, it seemed, frost descended and killed the crops before they even had a chance; our harvest was effectively “nipped in the bud”. The early heat and freeze, followed by an intensely dry summer, prompted the USDA to declare the whole state – all 83 counties – a natural disaster area due to heat and drought.

The hardship was familiar to farmers across the Midwest. In fact, in late July of 2012, the USDA “designated 1,369 counties across 31 states as disaster areas… making all qualified farm operators in the areas eligible for low-interest emergency loans”. It was estimated that two-thirds of the entire country were experiencing drought.

Scientists and climatologists tell us that such extreme weather may increasingly be the “new norm”. At the 2013 Colorado Farm Show in Greeley, Colorado, Nolan Doeskan, the State Climatologist, told a sobered group of farmers that “if the computer models are anything close to right… 2012 will be an average year in just a few decades”. While many laypeople – about half the American public – say they don’t believe in global warming, in fact 97% of scientists agree that it is happening, and that it is caused by humans.

Whether or not we choose to believe in climate change, the fact remains that we see extreme weather events occurring at increasing rates across our country. Whether hurricanes, tornadoes, drought and other weather events of heightened severity are attributed to global warming, or simply natural fluxes in historical weather patterns – they are happening at an unprecedented rate, and they affect our food security and our economy.  The complexity of our food system is incredibly sensitive to changes in weather patterns: heightened levels of CO2 contribute to these ever more frequent “freak” storms and droughts. Warmer temperatures also invite invasive pests and disease, cause plants to grow faster than the time needed for maturation, and reduce the ability of land to produce adequate amounts feed for livestock. The harm in adamantly denying there is change is that if we continue to do “business as usual,” we risk our very homes and livelihoods. Our inability to adapt and seek mitigation will cost us in terms of our economy and well-being, as we see food grow scarce and prices continue to rise. If we hope to find solutions, we need to pay attention to climate change now.

Climate change skeptics sometimes defend greater CO2 levels in the atmosphere. In an op-ed published by the Wall Street Journal last month, scientists and known skeptics Harrison Schmitt and William Happer argued that “increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will benefit the increasing population on the planet by increasing agricultural productivity.” While it’s true that CO2 is a natural atmospheric gas and that it does contribute to accelerated growth, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. What Schmitt and Happer fail to acknowledge are the detrimental effects of higher CO2 to human agriculture and, more generally, our planet’s natural ecosystems. These adverse effects far outweigh any potential benefits. The EPA states that while moderate warming and more carbon dioxide may be a boon to plant life in the short term, “more severe warming, floods and drought may reduce yields” over time.

This is how: while human agriculture may experience accelerated growth, so will weeds. Warmer temperatures will also create optimal conditions for insects and fungi to flourish. As our planet warms, problematic weeds, pests and disease common to southern tropical or subtropical areas will see a growing geographical range in which they can thrive. This poses new problems for farmers who must quickly learn alternate weed management strategies and invest greater time and energy in protecting their crops from invasive species.

According to the USDA’s February report on climate change and agriculture in the United States, agricultural crops are heavily dependent on a complex set of interactions between temperature, CO2 levels, solar radiation and precipitation. Temperature thresholds specific to individual crops determine the plants’ growth and reproduction. With higher temperatures plants may grow faster but smaller if they do not simultaneously receive the required water or soil nutrients for maximum yield. Moreover, because agriculture depends so heavily and fundamentally on a stable climate, the timing of plant maturation with the lifecycles of pollinating insects has an effect on crop output.

All of these factors together inflict hardship on food producers; they spend more time, energy, and money contending with weeds, pests, and diseases that threaten their crops. In dry areas and when water is scarce, fields require heavier irrigation. Much of the country relies on groundwater to supply irrigation systems; with a long enough drought, the absence of rainfall may inhibit groundwater recharge.

But reduced crop yields are problematic not just for the farmers that grow them; it also hurts consumers’ wallets. As a result of last year’s drought, the US is seeing inflated food prices. Dairy, eggs, beef, poultry and pork prices are driven up because animal feed is scarcer. Food insecurity will force the US to rely on feed and produce exports from abroad – meaning that food is more expensive, and uses more fossil fuels to reach us. The drought last year cost our government, too: in August 2012 the USDA authorized a combined total of $30 million in emergency assistance for “moving water to livestock in need, providing emergency forage for livestock, and rehabilitating lands severely impacted by the drought.” Climate change has a very real effect on our economy.

There are solutions, if we act now. Citizens can write to their legislators to advocate for more investment in wind and solar energy, and less coal mining and fossil fuels, which contribute heavily to atmospheric warming. Support research for agricultural adaptation methods and greater fuel efficiency standards. Eat less meat. Seek out sustainable, closed-loop food systems, or better yet, learn to grow your own food. Reduced food security and food sovereignty do not need to be “the new norm.” But before we can have any hope of stopping climate change, we’ll have to make some changes ourselves.

For further reading, please see “Outgrowing the Earth,” a 2004 book by Lester R. Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, and the USDA’s February, 2013 report entitled Climate Change and Agriculture in the United States: Effects and Adaptation.”

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