For decades, any time the media discussed farming and climate change, agriculture was addressed as a culprit to be blamed for its contribution. This put farmers dealing with the daily realities of a changing climate on the defensive. Instead of helping us adapt to the challenges, it appeared likely that the government was going to force new regulations on us that would make it even harder to survive economically.
Yesterday on NPR, I heard a story that finally addressed the reality facing farmers in a changing climate: in 50 years, all crops currently grown will be obsolete for the areas they are grown in. This is not just a problem for farmers, but for eaters as well. Farming is not an occupation that rewards frequent relocation.
As the story states, the most recent federal farm bill did not even mention climate change a single time: the term is still politically toxic, which is unfortunate. Because without massive government funding, most farmers will not be able to adapt to the changes that are coming, or even the ones already happening.
So far, all the adaptation that has taken place has been privately funded. Farmers have been slowly transitioning to different crops. But some of the biggest adaptations have come from seed companies. They have been developing varieties that are less sensitive to heat, take less water, and are vigorous enough to outgrow weeds and insects that actually thrive in hotter weather.
Broccoli is a good example. As recently as ten years ago, most of the broccoli varieties available performed poorly here. It was too hot in the summer and fall, and too cold in the winter compared to the coastal areas where most broccoli is grown. But as the climate has warmed, those areas are getting hotter too. The seed breeders have responded by developing new varieties that can better handle the changing weather.
We now have several varieties of broccoli that seem to enjoy the heat up to a point. Still, once it gets close to 100 degrees, the heads start to act and look strange. You may get some of this weirdo broccoli in your boxes this week, as temperatures have been hovering right around the century mark most days.
It’s easy enough for a farmer to switch from one variety of broccoli or another annual crop to another. But any number of fruit and nut varieties are also becoming “climate obsolete” due to warmer winters. Removing and replacing entire orchards is an expensive and long-term process that is fraught with uncertainty.
Then there is the issue of processing facilities. Most crops grown in the world require timely local processing at large, expensive, highly specialized and permanent facilities — food factories, essentially. Moving or re-tooling this infrastructure as the climate changes will cost billions of dollars.
(An aside: California’s Proposition 15 would dramatically increase property taxes on food processing facilities including dairies, wineries, and even small farmers’ packing sheds. Farmers need more local food processing options in California, not fewer. Prop 15 is a vote against locally grown food.)
One thing that is unlikely to change along with the climate is humanity’s need to eat. So it’s good news that both “sides” seem to finally be acknowledging that it’s time to stop blaming climate change on farmers and start helping agriculture keep feeding the world while also reducing the carbon footprint of everyone’s food.
Farmers can’t do it alone.