The Common Good
November 2012

'Farming in Hell'—the New Normal?

by Aana Marie Vigen and Nancy C. Tuchman | November 2012

Our food system is a cause as well as a victim of climate change.

EVEN AS ELECTION-YEAR news cycles move on, the nation faces the aftermath of a prolonged and dramatic heat wave. July 2012 broke two records: It was the both the warmest July ever recorded and the warmest month—period—ever recorded in the lower 48 states. In our home of Chicago, temperatures crept past 100 five times. Moreover, the extreme drought of 2012 is not a random event, but part of a worrisome trend.

Global climate change has come to the heartland. Unless we take collective and decisive action, 102 could become the new 93. And it’s not just armpits and foreheads that will sweat. We have already glimpsed the future, and it is not pretty: massive forests burned in Colorado; major power outages; thousands of acres of crops lost to drought in Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and elsewhere. These ominous events are indications of the “new normal” unless we make widespread changes in fossil-fuel consumption.

The farming crisis has been acutely severe—and it is directly related to climate change. This summer, the U.S. Department of Agriculture designated more than half of all U.S. counties as disaster areas (1,584 in 32 states). Fred Below, a crop biologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, bluntly summed up the reality: “It’s like farming in hell.”

Ironically, agriculture is the human activity that emits more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than any other source, including transportation and industry. A key reason: Today’s agriculture intensively depends on burning fossil carbons. (Methane emission from cows and rice fields, and deforestation to clear farmland in the global South, are also contributors.) Being so dependent on fossil fuels means that the food sector is the greatest contributor to global climate change—and that rising oil costs increase food costs, squeezing the poor and marginalized.

There are many steps along the path from farm to table where we can and must reduce our use of fossil fuels. Because historically fuel has been inexpensive, and U.S. agriculture has been generously subsidized, our food system has not been motivated to be efficient.

In our growing fields, we can reduce fertilizers and improve the fuel efficiency of our farming machinery. Transporting food around the world also burns an abundance of fossil carbons; eating locally would reduce this unnecessary consumption. Our grocery stores use excessive energy to display frozen and refrigerated food products in open bins—you have to wear a sweater in a grocery store even when it is sweltering outdoors. And, with all that energy that goes into growing, transporting, and selling our food, tremendous amounts are literally thrown away in the form of plate waste and food allowed to spoil; up to 40 percent of U.S. food is never eaten, according to the National Resources Defense Council.

In addition to being much more efficient at every step, industrial agriculture could more aggressively use waste biomass, such as corn stalks, for fuel. Such biomass can be decomposed to produce biogas, most of which is methane (natural gas). Biogas could be used in U.S. agriculture instead of diesel fuel, reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

What we must collectively get through our brains and into our hearts is this: Fundamentally, working to reverse climate change—including creating more thoughtful and efficient food systems—is a matter of survival, for human beings and for myriad other life forms on our planet.

Aana Marie Vigen is associate professor of Christian ethics and Nancy C. Tuchman is a vice provost and professor of biology at Loyola University Chicago.

Image: Drought damaged corn, carroteater / Shutterstock.com

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