The Black Sheep of Climate Change

There's a good interview at NPR's The Salt with Chris Clayton, ag and policy reporter with DTN/The Progressive Farmer, who has become the Cassandra of climate change in the farming community. For those unfamiliar with the general attitude about the subject inside agriculture, it should be an informative read. The impolitic rollout of the Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule by the Obama EPA will have lasting cultural effects among farmers and their perception of government regulations and agency overreach. There's a treatise on energized elitism in that. 

But producers who do not embrace climate change as a reality are taking a dangerous and, sometimes, outright fatuous position. In the first place, planning for environmental variability and thinking long-term about water availability are simply good risk management strategies. The bigger issue is the lost opportunity for farmers to portray themselves as a solution to climatic disruption. If they push the narrative that conscientious farming can sequester carbon, limit emissions, and lead to cleaner water, it's a marketing coup. But it also might lead, eventually, to policy that puts money in their pockets for building soil and the productive quality of their farms. 

It's fascinating and nearly unbelievable to read that, 20 year ago, American Farm Bureau was a primary advocate of cap-and-trade carbon policy:

During the Clinton administration, Farm Bureau was really one of the leaders in helping pitch the concept of a cap-and-trade plan that also partially would have paid farmers for sequestering carbon in soil, using the kind of practices that build organic matter. Farm organizations helped pitch this idea to the Clinton administration. By the time you get around to the debate in 2009, Farm Bureau takes a very skeptical attitude, and then starts inviting some of the strongest climate critics to become speakers at its convention.
— Chris Clayton

Georgia's Drought Impacts Cattle Production

If you want to see a clear sign of the effects of the 2016 drought, look no further than livestock auction receipts for the week of November 11. Georgia cattlemen took 3,600 more cattle to the sale than they did during the same period in 2015. That's an increase of over 46 percent. For the year as a whole, 5,600 more head have hit the auction, obviously a large part of that coming in the latter half of the year as pastures quickly degraded.

Chart, forage conditions, and November 22 drought map are below. Praise the Lord we've had some rain in December.

Cattle and Calves Receipts

Data from 20 Georgia auctions. Source: Georgia Cattleman, December 2016

Pasture Conditions Weed Ending 11/13/2016

Georgia Drought Nov. 22

Envisioning the future of agriculture today

Allan Savory and Will Harris at White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Georgia.

Allan Savory and Will Harris at White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Georgia.

If we begin with the right context, we can settle any dispute.

That was the message of Allan Savory, the founder of holistic management, as he spoke to a crowd studying a weedy field in southwest Georgia last December.

Savory has been a crusader against desertification of the planet since he was game research officer in southern Africa in the 1960’s. His ideas are unorthodox, if not outright paradox. But it can’t be denied that he’s identified perhaps the root cause of the challenges facing all human endeavor and continued prosperity: the inability to deal with complexity, whether it’s the blasted inertia of the American political system or the sudden climatological shifts of a warming planet.

Of course, agriculture—with its draws on natural resources and beggar-thy-neighbor economics—is the fundamental and primarily important complexity of human existence, entwined with water and air to our continued habitation on earth.

As Savory illustrates, the solutions to thorny and wicked problems first require all parties to realize their common interests. Once a baseline of consensus has been established, a practical roadmap to approach and overcome our challenges can be worked out. But without context, without self-identification in your opposition, the debate is all sound and fury.

No industrial and cultural issue in America today has more idiotic ranting and needs context as much as agriculture. The current debate in farming prefers to fixate on means rather than goals—GMO versus organic, for example. Advocates, who are generally not farmers themselves, would rather stand in their corners and accuse each other of poisoning the earth or living in agrarian fantasies. In truth, each side would do good to take a long, hard look in the mirror, tone down the rhetoric and see how a little humility fits. Ancient wisdom tells us only fools believe they’re absolutely right. We’ve tried segregating ourselves before, and we know that doesn’t work. 

The context for farmers—for all human beings, really—is that we must develop more resilient, renewable and ultimately sustainable agricultural systems in order for the species to flourish on this earth. To say it should enable mere survival is a failure of our own expectations. To flourish should mean nothing less than our farms produce an abundant and nutritious food supply, create vibrant rural towns and economies, preserve clean water, and live within a thriving terrestrial fabric of marsh, coast and forest.

There’s not much to argue with here. Savory might add an item to the list. But who can say he or she really wants farms that do any less? Who wants a world where the water has been made undrinkable and the forest empty for the purpose of growing food, one that sucks the oxygen out of the Gulf of Mexico while it encourages the burning of the Amazon?

We should have an agricultural system that goes farther even. It should replenish the soil, filter rainfall, sequester carbon and protect the tapestry of strange and marvelous creatures on the planet. It should shun costly inputs and hold the promise of lasting profitability.

Our farms currently fall well short, and this is not an outright indictment of conventional agriculture or a vindication of organic farming. The latter is still trying to achieve scale and customize an economically successful model, converting dreams into a production system that can be realistically implemented. But the former, propelled by technological innovation and the motivation to feed a growing post-war population, has pursued the efficient production of cheap carbohydrates and protein with ruthlessness. Those fat and flightless chickens are now coming home to roost. The effects are visible in the forgotten and crumbling main streets of rural America. Over nine percent of the population now has diabetes, and over one-third of adult Americans is obese. Due to the prevalence of obesity in today’s children, it has been hypothesized that they will be the first in 200 years to live shorter lives than their parents.

The emphasis on efficiency and yields above all other concerns has also brought us recently to the brink of extinction for the Monarch butterfly. Had this beautiful and iconic creature or its food source, the milkweed plant, performed an economic service on the farm, we might never have gotten to this point. Instead, we took the name milkweed literally and considered it an impediment to our insatiable desire for maximized yields. With conservation efforts by the USDA and private organizations, it seems we have averted disaster. But it’s appalling to think that we almost eliminated an entire species because of the way we farm. Shouldn’t the farm be a symbol for life? Could we have told our children that we killed off the Monarch butterfly in part to produce ethanol?

Our current farming system is a victim of its own success. We wouldn’t have the leisure to ask these questions (or carry some of the extra inches on our waistline) if we all had to spend our days growing food. To date, in the discourse about food and farming, no one has thanked farmers enough for providing Americans with an abundant and safe food supply and supporting the nation’s rise to global preeminence in the Twentieth Century. But now that we have achieved it, it’s time to pivot to improving that farming system to meet the needs of the Twenty-First Century.

Farming in America is changing. The internet has brought both scrutiny and new value propositions that are still evolving. The objective is no longer calories alone. But we can farm in a way that not only feeds us but also produces the kind of world we want to live in.

Let’s work together the visualize the farms and the world we want. Sure, it might be completely aspirational. Sure, the results might be farfetched. But we’re not going to get anything if we don’t ask for it. And we’re not going to make any progress without talking.

Genetically modified crops on the rise

The June 30 crop progress report, besides signaling the smallest U.S. corn crop since 2010, had some interesting data about actual plantings of GM crops in 2014. Despite calls from consumer groups and activists across the country to label genetically-modified organisms or ban them altogether, farmers continue to purchase and plant these crops to the point of almost complete market saturation. Planted acreage in each of the major commodities with herbicide tolerance and/or insect resistance increased over 2013:

  • Corn: up 3 points to 93%
  • Soybeans: up 1 point to 94%
  • All cotton: up 6 points to 96%

Cotton's surge in 2014 places it ahead of soybeans in total percentage of planted acres for the first time ever. The data doesn't suggest whether this jump owes to good marketing or Southern farmers' attempts to combat herbicide-resistant pigweed (more on the circular logic of controlling superweeds at another time). 

The charts from USDA ERS below track the rapid adoption of GM crops since their introduction. The data does not include information from 2014. Note that crops with stacked traits--Bt (insect resistance) and herbicide tolerance together--comprise the majority of planted acres in both corn and cotton.