'Farming in Hell'—the New Normal?

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.

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