Big Ag on climate change: “What, me worry?”
Once again, topics covered at length in the pixels of Grist are slowly percolating out into the wider media world. Newsweek over the weekend posted an article by Jeneen Interlandi about the grave effects of climate change on agriculture, summed up as the triple threat of “droughts, bugs and big storms.” And once again, we learn the future is now:
Farmers on both coasts are already starting to reap some of what the nation’s fossil-fuel addiction has sown. Crops in those regions (cranberries in the East and almonds in the West) require a certain number of colder days, or “winter chill” before they break dormancy and begin flowering. Too few cold days disrupts the plants’ flowering schedule which in turn affects pollination and hurts yield. A UC Davis study found that winter chill has already declined by 30 percent in California’s Central Valley, and almond growers report that yields are down 20 percent from last year. Shorter winters have had a similar effect on cranberry yields in Massachusetts and New Jersey.
As usual, we see the initial effects of a largescale phenomenon on the margins. As Nathanaiel Green of the NRDC puts it, “it hasn’t really hit the breadbasket yet,” which is why Big Ag, focused as it is on grains and commodity crops grown in the Midwest and South, can so easily dismiss it. So it’s nice to see Interlandi ably handling the science while neatly dismissing Big Ag’s mostly specious counter-arguments.
There’s even a swift, effective takedown of Big Ag’s favorite climate mitigation technique (the one for which they expect to be paid millions in carbon credits) — chemical no-till farming:
…a practice in which farmers control weeds with pesticides instead of tilling (tilling releases CO2 from the soil into the atmosphere). But numerous studies, including ones conducted by the Department of Agriculture, show that in some soils, no-till farming increases emissions of nitrous oxide—a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent—so much so that it’s actually worse for the environment.
See. That wasn’t so hard. Again, this isn’t news to Grist readers, but it is likely the first time most readers of Newsweek have heard of no-till farming — and Interlandi associates it with environmental damage. Neat!
Also, well played was the observation that plants are not necessarily flawless carbon capture machines, as many friends of Big Ag try to convince us:
As Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss put it, “Every farmer in America that goes out and plants a field of corn, cotton, soybeans or produce captures greenhouse gases.” This is only theoretically true. Photosynthesis takes place in a plant’s leaves. The rest of a plant—its stems, roots, and the soil around it—all respire; that is, they consume oxygen and produce CO2, just like all other living things.
The fact is, scientists have no firm understanding of whether or how much traditional row crops in and of themselves sequester carbon — so basing one’s entire approach to mitigation on them is pretty much useless.
But the capper was, no doubt, American Farm Bureau chief Bob Stallman’s comments on climate change. Stallman is Big Ag’s point person in the fight against the federal climate bill and it’s the AFB’s talking points that echo throughout the halls of Congress thanks to Big Ag allies like Rep. Collin Peterson, Sen. Blanche Lincoln and most of their colleagues on the House and Senate Ag Committees.
Stallman clearly believes that farmers’ demand for fossil fuels is — as the economists would say — perfectly inelastic in that no matter how high the price for oil, farmers will use exactly the same amount as they did at a lower price. As a result, he likes to go on about how cap-and-trade will do nothing but increase costs for farmers, since they won’t change their use of fuel, fertilizer or pesticides. But Interlandi then asked a follow-up:
What about all those studies showing that climate change could cost farms even more in the long run? Stallman says most farmers aren’t worried. “We are used to dealing with extreme weather variation,” he says, pointing out that his Texas farm has seen 20 inches of rain in a single day, in the middle of a drought. “We’ve learned to roll with those extremes. If it gets a little more extreme down the road, we can deal with it.”
Bob Stallman, meet denial. Perhaps he should familiarize himself with the fascinating work former USDA economist Michael Roberts has been doing on the actual effects cilmate change will have on commodity crop yields:
When we use the estimated relationship to predict yield outcomes under projected climate change scenarios, we find that between 2070 and 2099 nationwide average yields on corn, soybeans, and cotton are projected to fall 30–46% under the slowest Hadley III warming scenario and 63–82% under the fastest Hadley III warming scenario. Predicted declines are substantial even in the more immediate future (2020–2049).
Talk about an inconvenient truth — business as usual emissions will lead to cuts in yields up to 80%. How, Bob, do you propose to “deal” with that? Of course — and I’m trying to put this delicately — the average age of American farmers is 57 and, according to the 2007 USDA census, the fastest growing farmer age demographic is 65+. Perhaps the AFB and folks like Bob Stallman just figure it’s simply not their problem. Bob Stallman grew up well after the game “Kick the Can” was a favorite pastime for kids. But apparently, and much to our societal detriment, it’s all the rage at the AFB.