Gary Paul Nabhan is an eminent research scientist at the University of Arizona and the author of Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land: Lessons From Desert Farmers in Adapting to Climate Uncertainty.
He recently wrote this article – Our Coming Food Crisis — in the NY Times suggesting strategies that US farmers should adopt to cope with the likelihood of more, and more prolonged, droughts and heat. More on those in a moment.
We think we’ve had it bad recently. In 2012, more than 1500 counties, about half of all the counties in the US, were declared national drought disaster areas. And 2013 could turn out as bad.
In the US, the main government response is to help affected farmers with payouts from federal crop insurance plans. Here in NZ, Finance Minister Bill English has recently observed that it’s “not sustainable” for the government to keep providing financial relief to drought-stricken farmers. Farming practices will need to adapt, he said to TVNZ’s Breakfast.
As we anticipate drier and drier conditions in Hawke’s Bay, what is to be done?
Our Regional Council’s one magical silver bullet is a dam serving at absolute best maybe 150 farmers and 25,000 hectares in Central Hawke’s Bay. Even if it actually works for them – which many, including farmers in CHB, seriously question – this is the one-dimensional answer of a council whose breadth of thinking and innovative capacity is about as wide as a gnat’s eyelash. Reflect a moment upon the current councillors! But I digress.
Back to the rather distinguished Dr Nabhan. Here are some of his observations:
“One strategy would be to promote the use of locally produced compost to increase the moisture-holding capacity of fields, orchards and vineyards. In addition to locking carbon in the soil, composting buffers crop roots from heat and drought while increasing forage and food-crop yields. By simply increasing organic matter in their fields from 1 percent to 5 percent, farmers can increase water storage in the root zones from 33 pounds per cubic meter to 195 pounds.”
Dr Nabhan argues that cities should be mandated to divert and reserve their green-waste for distribution to nearby farms.
“…we need to reduce the bureaucratic hurdles to using small- and medium-scale rainwater harvesting and gray water (that is, waste water excluding toilet water) on private lands, rather than funneling all runoff to huge, costly and vulnerable reservoirs behind downstream dams.”
Our Regional Council dismisses on-farm storage out of hand, despite the fact that many farmers in CHB prefer that approach.
Farmers should “transition to forms of perennial agriculture — initially focusing on edible tree crops and perennial grass pastures … Perennial crops not only keep 7.5 to 9.4 times more carbon in the soil than annual crops, but their production also reduces the amount of fossil fuels needed to till the soil every year.”
The Department of Agriculture (in charge of the national reserve of crop seeds) “should be charged with evaluating hundreds of thousands of seed collections for drought and heat tolerance, as well as other climatic adaptations — and given the financing to do so. Thousands of heirloom vegetables and heritage grains already in federal and state collections could be rapidly screened and then used by farmers for a fraction of what it costs a biotech firm to develop, patent and market a single “climate-friendly” crop.”
And finally …
“Investing in climate-change adaptation will be far more cost-effective than doling out $11.6 billion in crop insurance payments, as the government did last year, for farmers hit with diminished yields or all-out crop failures … Climate adaptation is the game every food producer and eater must now play. A little investment coming too late will not help us adapt in time to this new reality.”
Yes, in NZ, the scale is different, but the underlying challenges our farmers face are the same.
But instead of taking a holistic approach and helping farmers prepare for systemic change in farming practices to adapt to environmental realities, our ‘one trick pony’ of a Regional Council offers its dam … and damn the consequences.
As Dr Nabhan admonishes in the US context: “It’s now up to our political and business leaders to get their heads out of the hot sand and do something tangible to implement climate change policy and practices before farmers, ranchers and consumers are further affected.”