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How Farmers Are Adapting to Climate Change

Posted on Thursday, February 7th, 2013 at 3:13 pm

Author: s.e. smith

As irrefutable evidence that the globe is getting hotter mounts, eyes are starting to turn to the global agricultural system, especially with Earth’s human population at seven billion and counting. Climate change will have long-lasting and irrevocable effects on agriculture with serious potential implications, particularly in the global south, which is already starting to be hit hard by changing conditions. The planet is getting too hot, too fast, and normal adaptation can’t move at that speed.

Agriculture has always been a highly risky business, although many people in the west may not think of it that way. When food comes readily packaged at prices that remain steady in the grocery store, without a meaningful connection between consumer and farmer, people don’t often stop to consider the conditions, and factors, that go into food production. This has been illustrated by the general lack of interest in farm labour and the abuses that take place in the agriculture industry, and in the lack of understanding about how fragile farming can be, and how susceptible it is to climate change.

Farmers are utterly dependent on the weather for their crop. If it’s too cold, too hot, too wet, or too dry, they can experience radical declines in yield and quality, or lose a crop altogether. Seasonal changes that occur too early can also be a culprit in destruction; an early frost, for example, can destroy a harvest, while floods may wash away crops. In addition to affecting crops directly, changes in weather patterns can also create ideal conditions for pests, creating a secondary problem that needs to be addressed. An increase in weeds is projected to be one of the major problems associated with climate change, for instance.

Climate and weather projections have thus always been of acute interest to farmers, who rely on accurate forecasting and models to make decisions about what to plant, when, and where. With the climate changing, shifts in temperatures and weather patterns are already disrupting farming practices worldwide, especially when paired with loss of arable land due to a variety of factors. Farmers are being forced to give up their land, flooding and drought conditions are destroying usable land, development is eating farmland, and land is being rendered useless by shifts like desertification, which is a consequence of poor land management.

Many conventional western agricultural practices contribute to these issues; there is a premium in the west on high yields at the cost of long-term soil health and general environmental well-being. Researchers at agencies like the Environmental Protective Agency are starting to point out that farmers could actually directly contribute to the fight against climate change with better practices, like managing crops and soil to sequester carbon, using renewable fuels, and taking other measures to increase efficiency.

Notably, these tactics mark a return to more traditional farming techniques in many regions of the world, and in some cases represent traditional uses of farmland that were preferred by indigenous populations before the imposition of western agriculture. Just as the west swept into the Global South to dictate farming practices in what became known as the ‘green revolution,’ effectively telling people to stop using traditional farming methods that actually preserved the integrity of the soil and traditional ways of eating, the west is now slinking back to tell people to return to what they were doing, presenting their original practices as novel inventions rather than admitting that it was wrong. A classic example of colonialism followed by appropriation.

For farmers, adapting to climate change is going to require more than crop rotation, the use of cover crops instead of continuous production farming, renewable energy, and the occasional chicken tractor. It’s also going to necessitate a fundamental shift in what is farmed and where as the climate forces changes in temperatures and weather patterns, because most crops grow in a very narrow range of acceptable conditions.

Corn, for example, is a very water-intensive crop that requires warm temperatures, but not too warm. That makes it less than ideal for many regions affected by climate change, because it’s sensitive to disruptions in water supply such as the massive drought that devastated the US Midwest in 2012, and it doesn’t like increases in average annual temperature. With corn growing in a narrower range, this heavily-subsidised crop will become more expensive, and competition may arise between corn for fuel, food, and animal feed purposes as farmers struggle to meet a demand that will only grow with time.

Tragically, this didn’t have to be the case. Corn is perhaps one of the single greatest illustrations of the problems with modern western agriculture, reflecting a confluence of circumstances that’s led to a resource dilemma. This crop was once incredibly diverse, with hundreds of cultivars in question across Latin America in communities that relied on maize as a primary component of their diet.

However, this diversity wasn’t ideally suited to western agriculture, which prefers monocropping, the production of high volumes of a single cultivar of a specific crop. High production also means the generation of numerous uses for crops; corn is in a vast number of products in the US, some of which (corn syrup, for example) have been developed specifically to come up with uses for the overrun of corn produced.

Monocropping allows farmers to use standardized equipment and standardized seed and supplies, but it also creates extreme vulnerabilities. Even as corn has been developed into a few very specific strains for particular purposes, each strain becomes more vulnerable to infectious organisms, pests, and other problems.

If, for example, a fungus that attacks a given corn cultivar develops, it can spread like wildfire across a farming region, utterly destroying the corn crop for that year and putting immense pressure on the food system. Were farmers growing a diverse array of corn cultivars, the fungus would be limited to a small proportion of the crop: a problem for those affected, but not something that would bring the industry to its knees.

A similar situation has occurred with the Cavendish banana, which has become the cultivar of preference throughout the industry. (If you have bananas sitting on top of the fridge to ripen, chances are high that they’re Cavendishes.) A fungus that causes a condition called Panama disease has slowly spread worldwide, threatening the global banana supply; it makes for funny headlines (‘Yes, we have no bananas’) but illustrates how vulnerable the global food system has become with a preference for monocropping.

Thousands of heritage cultivars of crops like tomatoes, apples, potatoes, maize, and more have been utterly lost to time, and in addition to being a source of sorrow to committed foodies, this is also a serious problem for agriculture, especially with climate change looming overhead. More cultivars mean more chances to develop crops that can withstand greater ranges of temperatures and more adverse conditions, and a chance to combine genes in creative and effective ways to keep crops healthy and diverse. The loss of these cultivars is a net loss to the gene pool and society in general, and should be viewed as a cause of grave concern.

Yet, many people are blissfully unaware of the threats facing the biological diversity of the crops they buy without thinking about it at the store. When they see a limited range of potatoes, onions, and apples on display, they don’t consider the implications of this, and the risks created when we rely on limited genetic sources for the bulk of our food supply.

And when these foods are produced primarily in conditions that are not environmentally friendly. Western agriculture relies heavily on practices like the use of pesticides and herbicides, which in addition to acting as pollutants and causing problems with herbicide resistance in the future can also contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. It relies heavily on equipment from tractors to long-haul trucks that runs on non-renewable fuels and emits pollution, and it relies on soil use practices that are truly appalling, from the perspective of those concerned about the overall health of the globe.

Traditional farming practices naturally condition the soil, sequester carbon, and prevent problems like erosion, water waste, and pollution. When soil becomes stripped of its nutrients and the microorganisms that normally inhabit it, it becomes a wasteland, not suitable for crops (requiring more fertilizers, which can in turn run off and cause nutrient pollution). And the thin, grainy soil holds water like a sieve. More water than before is needed for farming, which contributes to water loss, while crops struggle to survive in the harsh soil, which erodes quickly in any rainy weather. This is a recipe for disaster, as it can take decades to rebuild the soil, yet the agricultural community has been slow to act on bringing some of its worst abuses in check.

Changing lifestyles are also creating added pressures. More people are demanding meat as part of their diets, precisely at the moment that animals are being adversely affected by climate change. Raising livestock tends to be more intensive than raising crops, because they need fodder, and they’re also extremely sensitive to heat waves and water shortages; in Texas, for example, cattle and horses died in the hundreds during the drought that gripped the United States in 2012, because farmers couldn’t afford to feed them and they couldn’t cope with the high temperatures.

Fisheries aren’t exempt from this problem either; as the oceans warm and acidify in response to climate change, it’s going to drastically affect the supply of food from the sea. Some species may die out altogether while others may migrate and be subject to more diseases. Already, many species are starting to move to colder northern waters to cope with changing ocean temperatures.

As the west exports a very specific lifestyle worldwide, pushing people to adopt the increased consumption of animal products as a status symbol, it creates even more pressure to produce these intensive products rather than relying on crops. This, too, is a combination that could lead to trouble, as many nations in the global south are devoting their energy to producing meat for export along with fad crops that fetch high prices on the western market, and are having difficulty feeding themselves.

Look at the case of quinoa, for instance, a crop which has been traditionally consumed in Bolivia for centuries. As quinoa consumption has risen worldwide, the nation has been forced to export more and more of its crop, while at the same time limiting production space to make room for pasturing livestock, particularly cattle, in order to meet the demand for meet. Within Bolivia, the cost of quinoa is rising to the point that many people cannot afford it, highlighting another problem the world can expect to face with climate change: increasing food inequality.

The west is determined to adapt, and it has the money, technology, and space to maintain a steady supply of food; while food insecurity is a problem for numerous people in the west, the issue is not agricultural but political. The food is there, it’s simply not reaching the people who are hungry. This is not the case in many regions of the Global South, where food resources are flowing to the west as people starve. Subsistence farming is much less sustainable in these regions than it once was, and in regions like Mexico, many people are abandoning it altogether to seek their luck elsewhere.

Economically, the Global South is not prepared to cope with the agricultural effects of climate change, a problem primarily created by the west. As usual, people in these nations will bear the brunt of western arrogance while the west saves itself.

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