Letter from Langdon: Climate Change and Food Production

Whether we like it or not, climate change is affecting U.S. food security. And there could be more than price and supply at stake. Farmers need to join the conversation. (Photo by Richard Oswald of the Council Bluff, Iowa, coal-fired steam plant with petroleum tanks in the foreground.)

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Farmers are used to dealing with challenges, not the least of which is weather. That’s why if you ask a farmer about climate change he’ll say, “Sure, it changes all the time”.

But fickle weather masks a growing body of data pointing toward something bigger than the five-day forecast.

A lot of people associate the word climate with another word – politics. It seems these days just the mention of climate is bound to get folks stirred up. That’s too bad, because regardless of reasons why, the planet is warming faster than an overstocked presidential primary in August.

Despite political polarity of climate, agriculture industry leaders like Cargill Chairman Greg Page wrote last year in the Des Moines Register:

“Agriculture is so inextricably linked to weather, it is critically important that farmers and the agricultural community participate in the ongoing conversation about climate change, politically fraught as it may be.”

Independent research free of political ideology supports the fact that climate change is real. It will affect all of us – especially family farmers.

That’s why my organization, Missouri Farmers Union, recently convened a group of some of our most proactive and thoughtful leaders in areas like food production, agriculture, and sustainability to discuss recent research on climate and its potential impact on what we do.

If that goes against your grain, consider just a few of the projections by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Midwest Climate Research Hub in a 2015 report.

For instance:

  • Temperatures are rising. Average temperatures across the Midwest region have risen steadily over the last several decades. The average temperatures since 1990 have been consistently higher than the 1901–1960 average. And the period since 2000 is the warmest on record.
  • The growing season is longer. The growing season in the Midwest is now on average about one week longer than it was in the 1960s and 1970s.
  • Extreme weather events are more common. The number of one-day, once-in-five-year storms has increased by 4 percent per decade since the beginning of the 20th century.
This fall-sewn cover crop couldn’t be planted in spring because of weather conditions. Therefore the land went extra months with protection for soil and water.
This fall-sewn cover crop couldn’t be planted in spring because of weather conditions. Therefore the land went extra months with protection for soil and water.

Hotter temperatures and a longer growing season could fundamentally alter the crops we grow and the way we grow them. It will have an impact on yields and create wide swings in production, which will in turn affect food prices here and around the world.

Plant and insect pests that thrive in hotter areas of the country will pose greater concerns here.

We could experience more “flash drought,” like we saw in 2012 (just one year after record flooding along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers) when all of Missouri was declared an agricultural disaster area.

Water resources will be more at risk.

USDA research and other analyses such as the Risky Business report show how all of us need to be part of a conversation about climate change and its potential effect on Missouri and the rest of the world.

Throughout history, family farmers have adapted to meet new challenges. Fifty years ago when I took over farm work from Dad, our fields froze at least three feet deep and stayed frozen well into March. That’s why he buried water lines leading from the well to our house and livestock pens five feet deep –to keep them from freezing. Corn planting seldom took place before May. These days we begin planting in mid-April or sooner. Some years the soil barely freezes at all.

I’ve seen floods and droughts. But this year here at Langdon, I saw the wettest spring I’ve known. I was unable to plant nearly half my acreage soon enough to assure producing a crop. Parts of planted fields drowned out before young plants could develop. As a result, most of those acres grew nothing but weeds this year.

This is the very first time that has happened here.

The same conditions I experienced spread across a broad band of the Midwest.

climate consultant Chuck Lippstreu discusses climate change and its effects
Climate consultant Chuck Lippstreu discusses climate change and its effects

For most farmers, our changing climate means added risk and more challenge at a time when family farmers and ranchers already face tremendous uncertainty about the future. Foreign corporations are buying up more of our food infrastructure, like the Chinese purchase of Smithfield Foods, because food availability and price volatility threaten governments and world stability. Wealthier, food stressed countries are snapping up arable land in places like South America and Africa, even though people who live there are hungry now.

It’s only going to get worse.

In his New York Times op-ed, Timothy Snyder asserts that Hitler’s justification for World War II was food scarcity following World War I when a naval blockade left Germans deprived. Chief Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels sold genocide and the invasion of Eastern Europe in terms all Germans would appreciate and support. He said war meant “a big breakfast, a big lunch, and a big dinner”.

That’s how dangerous food insecurity can become.

Movement of China and other foreign countries into our own food system today could mean a return to serious food conflicts in the future as even Americans are forced to battle for the food they want.

And what happens when people get hungry?

Everything gets hotter.

Richard Oswald, president the Missouri Farmers Union, is a fifth-generation farmer living in Langdon, Missouri. “Letter From Langdon” is a regular feature of The Daily Yonder.

 

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