Climate Change and Farming

The earth's climate has been relatively stable for thousands of years. We know that it is hot, humid, and rainy in the Amazon, and that corn grows well in the Midwest. We know that at a particular altitude we should plant a crop on a certain week of the year because conditions for it are just right then. For most of our memory as humans, our climates have closely oscillated around predictable patterns, and this has allowed us to feed ourselves and flourish.

When a stable climate system is modified beyond its "tipping point" it gets out of balance and loses its equilibrium. While the system searches for a new set of patterns to stabilize around, variability and uncertainly are the norm. This, in essence, is the nature of the challenge that we are now facing.

Agriculture is one of the most weather-dependent of all human activities. It is ironic, then, that a significant percentage of greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture. Industrial agriculture plays a significant role in the generation of these gasses. The "Green Revolution" of the 1960s and '70s allowed us to increase yields by "borrowing" solar energy from the past in the form of petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides. Add the oil used for trucking foods for long distances, and on industrial processing, packaging, and refrigeration and it is easy to see how the food industry consumes about 20 percent of all the oil used in the U.S.. Moreover, about 1 percent of the world's annual energy usage goes into the production of fertilizers. This might not seem like much, but it ties the price of food to that of natural gas, and will make food prices shoot up once energy supplies start to dwindle. Fossil fuel-intensive agriculture is contributing to the creation of unpredictable weather conditions that all farmers will need to battle in the not too distant future.

We are seeing some climate changes that may be indicative of what's to come for agriculture. Maple syrup production in the American Northeast is already suffering. The climate in which maple trees thrive is expected to move about two degrees north to Canada. Maple production is already down by about 10 percent because of warmer and shorter winters. The Southwestern United States is already experiencing a lack of water, and serious desertification is expected to happen within the next few decades. Conditions similar to the 1930s Dust Bowl are expected to be the norm in the area by the 2030s. All over the country, we are seeing earlier bird migrations and northward shifts in the ranges of crops and pests. We're also seeing increased peaks in spring run-off from glacier melt and snow-fed rivers. These are affecting farming in myriad ways.

The snow pack in California's Sierra Mountains has been gradually declining for the last 50 years, and the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report says that it could be reduced by 60 to 90 percent. This will result in very serious lack of water for Central Valley farmers during the summer months. Southern California will be particularly hard hit. A Colorado State University study shows that warming will cause Colorado's grazing lands to become less productive. Florida is expected to get heavier rains and flooding, which will be hard on citrus and other crops. Most importantly for the U.S. economy and for the "mainstream" industrial food system, which is primarily corn-fed, the latest climate models predict that it might become too hot and dry for growing corn in what is now called the Corn Belt.

More globally, yields for many of the world's main staple crops are bound to decline. A new study by researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Labs and at Stanford University, comparing yields for the world's six main staple crops - wheat, rice, corn, soybeans, barley and sorghum - found a three to five percent decline for every one degree temperature increase. Those six crops account for at least 55 percent of non-meat calories consumed by people, and more than 70 percent of the world's animal feed. The IPCC's latest report estimates an average warming of between three and 11 degrees by the end of the century.

The good news is that we can still do something about it. Supporting sustainable agriculture by buying from your local organic farms is a significant action to take. Many small farms are now developing highly productive farming systems with low environmental impact. These are the right kinds of farms for the future. We are likely to achieve better results by learning to collaborate with nature instead of brute-forcing it into bending to our will, as has already been tried.

Indeed, the how we grow our food is as important as the what we eat: eating lower in the food chain, eating less meat and more vegetables and grains, can make a huge difference in our energy consumption and land use.

Regardless of what many savvy marketers will tell you, we cannot "save the world by shopping." The overconsumption binge of the last 50 years will have to come to an end. Changes in our eating habits and food systems need to be a part of much larger changes in our culture. Adapting to the coming changes and stopping further harm will require us relearn to be frugal, to conserve our resources, and to think and act in terms of generations ahead, and not just focused on immediate gratification.

Changing your diet to eat healthier and more sustainable foods is not as hard as you might think. As the author Michael Pollan says: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Add to that: "Buy local and organic whenever possible," and you will be contributing to a healthier environment and a better future.

Back to the April 2007 Newsletter