Perspective: Mercury rising? Agriculture and climate change


Like many agvocates, I leverage social media as an educational tool.

There’s the requisite spots on anti-GMO hysteria, chemophobia, and the organic hustle — and increasingly, the climate change (CC) conundrum. As the fervor over other issues thaws (thanks media fatigue), it seems to be getting catapulted to the lead.

We’ve heard the talking points. We’ve (maybe?) seen “Soylent Green” and “The Day After Tomorrow,” dealing with extreme climate shifts and the societal repercussions.

CC is no doubt framed as the defining issue of our generation. Ag’s carbon caricatures are belching cows, rice production, fossil fuels for tractors, and fertilizer production. All are said to enrich (or pollute, depending on your vantage point) the atmosphere with potent greenhouse gases.

Farmers are the callous architects of our own destruction, unworthy of the public trust amassed over multiple generations!

Or so the narrative goes. Farmers are exhausted (pun intended). It’s time to air our grievances — a long overdue manifesto on climate change. While I can’t speak for everyone, I do profess a certain level of agreement with my peers. This includes acknowledging the underlying science, and a healthy skepticism of most proposed “solutions.” We are realists after all.

So what about the science? CO2 is a greenhouse gas. It blankets, insulates, and retains solar heat. That prolonged residence time can impact weather (short term) and climate (long term). From heatwaves (or ironically, bitter cold), to drought, to torrential rain, the only certainty is uncertainty. Unprecedented levels of human generated CO2 are being released into the atmosphere in a comparative geologic blip. It’s basically a one-time withdrawal of carbon stashed away piecemeal eons ago — like depositing a dollar a year for millions of years, and then closing the bank account with a hasty teller visit. While an infusion of accrued cash would be a boon for the economy, the same can’t be said of carbon. And yes, CO2 is a “plant food” (thanks photosynthesis), but enriching the atmosphere does hit a point of diminishing returns. And many important food crops are already oblivious to additional CO2.

While many farmers do have questions about the severity of the effects that CC will render on their operations — CO2’s role as a greenhouse gas is not in dispute.

Most skepticism centers on proposed solutions, particularly from the “gubmint.” Here’s where decades of mistrust boils over in a teakettle of trepidation. We’re told that earth is imperiled and faces thermogeddon. We must take radical and immediate action!

Yet in the end, the solutions are poised to hurt rather than help us. Sound policy must have measurable outcomes. Specifically, it should weigh the three pillars of sustainability — economics, environment, and social. This represents a delicate balancing act, a valuation of each component.

So practically, what does that mean? If an aggressive posture saves the environment from runaway climate change (staying below a certain threshold of CO2 in the atmosphere that would irreparably snowball), but tanks the economy and culturally plunges us into a new Stone Age, that fails the litmus test. Maybe the misanthropes win?

There’s this constant sense of dread that’s insinuated itself into the climate change dialogue.

But the sky isn’t falling, and the constant admonishments that we’re going to baste in our own juices unless we do something — no matter how ineffectual in practice — is off-putting. The earth is remarkably resilient in the face of adversity. Moreover, tiptoeing around the harsh realities of policy implementation doesn’t bolster the case for decisive action.

There’s little we can do to immediately stem climate change, short of draconian limits on fossil fuels (you’d be hard pressed to find a more energy dense package). If you want to ensure energy poverty and misery for the masses (particularly the developing world — why can’t they have their inexpensive “dirty energy” phase?), by all means, let’s implement a “nuclear” option (bad pun intended) and fully transition to renewables. Clean energy is tantalizing on the surface, but it’d require a wholesale restructuring of our society — at sticker shock prices. Make no mistake, they have their place in a portfolio, but it takes energy to extract the necessary raw materials. That energy necessarily comes from fossil fuels. And the extraction process has its own slate of environmental impacts. Don’t bank on fully electric tractors or combines any time soon.

So do we mitigate or adapt to CC? The gutsiest move would be both, within the parameters of emerging technology. Obviously, I’m enamored with agricultural approaches. Regreening would sequester carbon above and below ground. It’s an antidote to desertification. And it’s refreshingly simple — plant a boatload of trees. Or more precisely, carpetbomb the landscape with saplings in biodegradable, missile like casings to passively plant.

No-till is also a sound strategy. It encourages root and fungal stores of carbon in an undisturbed environment. No-till locks carbon in, tillage frees it up. Plant herbicide tolerant crops and spare the plow. Can agriculture approach carbon neutrality?

To contend with shifting production “belts,” we’ll have climate adapted, drought resistant cultivars, perennialized varieties, improved irrigation delivery, and precision agriculture to optimize resource use.

Call me an entrepreneur, but market driven innovation is the best strategy to meet our needs for food, fiber, and fuel in the coming decades, while being mindful of the climate change question. Agriculture naturally crisscrosses with CC. There’s no reason why this can’t be a constructive intersection.


Tim Durham’s family operates Deer Run Farm — a truck (vegetable) farm on Long Island, New York. As a columnist and agvocate, he counters heated rhetoric with sensible facts. Tim has a degree in plant medicine and is an Associate Professor at Ferrum College in Virginia.

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