Farming and Climate Change
Welcome to Iowa.
In Iowa, where we hold the first in the nation political caucuses, we view political discourse as a talent. I heard Mitt Romney speak down the hall from here in 2010, so this argument remains an open question. Whether political discourse is talent will be for our out-of-state guests to determine tonight. My subject is farming and climate change.
One can’t help but notice the bucolic setting in which we find ourselves tonight at this first ever national meeting of Physicians for Social Responsibility in Iowa. Within walking distance, the spring images of agribusiness play out in real life: plant genetics, row cropping, fertilizers made from natural gas and associated nutrient runoff— a chemically intensive food production system developed in the industrial era. It features enormous single-crop farms and animal production facilities based on a misguided hope of feeding the world from these fields.
Expand the circle several miles, and a few dozen small farms engage in sustainable practices, have crop diversity, use cover crops to enrich the soil, muck out barns for manure to spread on fields, and produce pasture fed meat and dairy products along with vegetables. The contrasts between the two models couldn’t be more different even if they have the same roots in Iowa’s fertile soil.
In Iowa, agriculture connects us to the rest of the world. When Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan suffered a drought in 2010 and stopped wheat exports, neighbors of mine planted winter wheat almost immediately on the news. The dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico can be traced directly to our land. When Iowa trade missions visit China, South Korea and Japan, the framing is export of commodities that include pork, beef, corn and soybeans. When our cultural missions visit Africa it is partly to propagate plant genetics and row crop methods, displacing native staple foods with corn and soybeans in the ersatz colonization we call international development.
It’s all good… or is it?
More than most people, Iowa farmers deal with the reality of the effects of climate change and I want to spend the rest of my time on their resistance to mitigating the causes of climate change.
During the drought of 2012, more than 6,500 daily heat records were tied or broken in the United States, including in Iowa. July 2012 was the hottest month on record in the United States. I was engaged as a political consultant that summer, and the work took me out among farm fields on a daily basis. I learned what stressed corn looks like and came to understand what drought means to crop production. That year, U.S. corn production decreased by almost 20 percent.
Conditions were so bad the governor called a meeting in Mount Pleasant to discuss the drought. Invited speakers included farmers from Iowa agricultural groups: the Cattleman’s Association, the Pork Producers, Corn Growers Association and the Iowa Soybean Association. None of my sustainable farmer friends were invited.
Their comments were similar: the way farmers would deal with the effects of the drought would be to plow the crop under, capitalize the loss over five years, and start planting again the next year. Not once during the meeting were the words climate change uttered by anyone. Iowa agriculture doesn’t connect the dots between extreme weather and how it is made more frequent and worse by global warming. They just deal with it as best they can.
Iowa Farm Bureau economist Dave Miller provided some clarity about where farmers are coming from at a recent conference in Des Moines. Miller is a farmer who also ran the now defunct Chicago Climate Exchange, a company that made a market in carbon with companies who voluntarily adopted a cap on CO2 pollution and traded carbon credits toward that end.
“If there is no profit in farming, there is no conservation in farming,” said Miller. “You can’t pay for conservation out of losses,” he added. Farming economics drive farming behavior and what he said to close his remarks has broader significance:
“Capital investment horizons are three to 20 years, but my farming career is 20 to 40 years. The climate conditions and those things are millennial.”
There it is, the Iowa resignation that climate change may be real and happening now, but what’s a person to do about it since it is much bigger than my life?
From the perspective of a single life of economic struggle, it is difficult to raise our heads and connect the dots between an industrial society that includes farming and its production of greenhouse gases that contribute to the droughts and extreme weather that make our lives worse.
This is where Physicians for Social Responsibility must step in and connect the dots. With education, by framing actions, by pointing to the health consequences of global warming and the changes in our climate it is producing.
We must do this with an eye toward the future, and an avoidance of alarmist rhetoric that deniers use against us. We must make it a tangible behavior in our daily lives. The words are familiar. We must use our standing as health professionals and recommit to preventing what we cannot cure in every action we take in constant vigilance of the gravest threats to humanity.