by Mary Fund
Cooler temperatures and the colors of the fall landscape help us forget the extremes of the summer, even if we have not yet had the rains that would signal recovery or back to normal. Unfortunately, the political and economic landscape is much the same— it is uncertain and may prove as extreme as the weather.
Everyone hopes their vote will signal a return to the safety and surety of days gone by. Many are adamantly sure of their candidates and the path forward. But the world is a changing and increasingly complicated place, and regardless of who is elected, solving problems requires us to work together to meet new challenges—not something we have done very well the past few years. Solving problems also requires us to face certain realities and ask tough questions—another casualty of an ever more polarized populace and political leadership.
Frankly, I don’t see any “back to normal” for weather, economics or politics anytime soon. And unfortunately, these all have a major impact on the future of food production and natural resources, and our communities, our lives.
Despite their importance, there has been a general lack of focus on food, agriculture and climate issues in the major campaigns. Sure there are ample stories about the farm bill limbo we find ourselves in (and stories of both sides blaming the other for that). You can find the obligatory candidate-views of agriculture and energy policy in the mainstream ag press. But the politics of food, water and climate are largely no man’s land when it comes to responsible debate and discussion.
Surveys indicate that for farmers and ranchers, talking about climate change is a dead end. The majority don’t believe it, and if they do, they certainly don’t want to hear that they are contributing. And they darn sure don’t want their actions to be regulated. Surveys of the general public indicate that belief in climate change is on the upswing—and this was before the weather extremes and news of accelerated Arctic ice melts of the past summer. I myself have heard farmers and ranchers expressing more doubts about their previous denials after the second year of weather extremes. Yet, the politicians and decision makers play to fears and stick our head in the sand platitudes.
On other food and farming fronts, we hear conflicting stories or we hear nothing at all. Although the direction of Big Agriculture remains full throttle on genetically modified seed and products, studies pointing to problems with GMO’s keep popping up.
A recent French study of the impact on rats given a diet of GMO corn, or given water containing Roundup at levels allowed in our drinking water, found that the rats suffered from tumors and kidney and liver damage—pointing to a need for more research on the health impacts of GMO’s. Emergence of herbicide resistant weeds also creates increasing problems for GMOs; and carry over of herbicides hinders adoption of conservation minded cover crops on farms. All but buried studies of the impacts of GMO crops on soil microbiology raises questions of overall soil health and what long term damage are we inflicting? These are the wild cards of modern agriculture.
Facing certain realities and asking the right questions—real consideration of climate change impacts on agriculture and the impact of our technological fixes like GMO’s -- changes where the money goes (i.e. research, tax credits, farm programs, etc.) But change that is forced upon us by mistakes or disaster is far more painful than if we plan for it.
Farming and food production has always been about adaptation, and whether we accept climate change or not, or question the impact of GMO crops on our soil and personal health, farmers already find themselves adapting. Whether planting earlier in the spring because of warmer spring weather, double cropping behind those early harvests, planting more winter wheat or other small grains to hedge bets on another dry year, planting forage crops to provide fall and extended season pasture to offset hay losses due to drought, or constructing hoophouses with shade cloth and irrigation to produce fruits and vegetables—it is all about adaptation. All of these changes increase diversity on the farm, and in nature, diversity means survival.
Whether or not our politicians and leaders want to honestly look at the problems and issues facing our food, farming, climate and energy future, producers and consumers may be well ahead of them. There will always be wild cards, but asking questions and joining in a continued conversation about these and other issues is critical for a better future.