Saturday, August 24, 2013

Agriculture in the Rochester NY region during Climate Change


TomatoesMany expert reports conclude that in New York’s Rochester region, agriculture will fare well as Climate Change kicks in. One study says, “…though there will still be risks of early-season frosts and damaging winter thaws, warming is expected to improve the climate for fruit production in the Great Lakes region.” (Page 73, Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States) By the end of this century our growing season could lengthen by a month. If we manage our incredible water resources properly, studies suggest there’s hope that the $4.5 billion dollar agricultural sector of our state’s economy will thrive.

That bodes well for our (thus far) Frack-less region, despite contentions that we cannot be saved financially unless Fracking is allowed to proceed. Let this be a warning: Fracking in Texas portends catastrophic issues we here in New York State might have if we lift the moratorium on Fracking. Because climate models predict more droughts occurring near the end of our summers and early autumns, we could be pitting our agriculture and the Fracking industry against each other for our fresh water. (See: “Drought-Stricken Texas Fracks Its Way to Water Shortages”)

Other regions of world will not be as lucky as ours in food production:

“All of the studies suggest the worst impacts will be felt by the poorest people. Robinson, the former Irish president, said: "Climate change is already having a domino effect on food and nutritional security for the world's poorest and most vulnerable people. Child malnutrition is predicted to increase by 20% by 2050. Climate change impacts will disproportionately fall on people living in tropical regions, and particularly on the most vulnerable and marginalised population groups. This is the injustice of climate change – the worst of the impacts are felt by those who contributed least to causing the problem." But from Europe to the US to Asia, no population will remain insulated from the huge changes in food production that the rest of the century will bring.” (Climate change: how a warming world is a threat to our food supplies, The Guardian, April 13, 2013)

But the rosy projection for our region is no reason for us to get complacent. For one, those without will come to those who have. We cannot just talk about agriculture in our Northeast region, but must talk about agriculture around the world. Food demand, because of dramatic population increases in the next few decades, will increase at the same time many regions are severely challenged by Climate Change. Even genetically modified foods (GM foods, or biotech foods) cannot increase food production in areas where the soil has been destroyed by lack of rain and continual floods that will wash away all the over-fertilized dirt. There will be incredible moral, political, and economic pressure for our region to clear our lands for food production—as there will be for all potential farming sites around the world. This restructuring of our region for food could be a great economic boom for us if we haven’t already Fracked our waters, failed to cleanup all those Brownfields, or compromised critical ecological features like wetlands and forests.

Secondly, there’s no guarantee that we’ll be able to handle the myriad issues that will confront our own region’s agriculture—which include our state’s predominant role in the dairy industry. Cows, a cold weather animal, fail to produce milk as readily when it gets hot or the humidity rises. If we want to stay number one in dairy production, the public will have to help farmers keep those cows cool—you know, subsidies.

But overheated cows aren’t the half of what may befall our agriculture. We’ll get more rainfall in the spring, which may come in the form of frequent flooding that will challenge soil retention efforts, and make it more difficult to keep fertilizers and other toxins out of our water. Agricultural pests like weeds and bugs will thrive in a higher CO2 environment causing us to dump more pesticides and herbicides on our crops, which will in turn wash away into our rivers, lakes, and streams causing more public health problems. Daily weather patterns will become more radical, putting more stress on crops. Along with all this comes the problem of biological timing, where the timing between plant development and pollinators and between pests and pest eaters (like migrating birds) will get thrown out of whack causing unforeseen issues with plant development. Most of these ecological relationships that keep our environment in tune took thousands of years to come about—but Climate Change is happening on a much more rapid schedule.

In future heat patterns, where night time temperatures will remain high, one of our favorite crops, tomatoes, may not have such a happy time of it.

Temperature extremes will also pose problems. Even crop species that are well-adapted to warmth, such as tomatoes, can have reduced yield and/ or quality when daytime maximum temperatures exceed 90°F for even short periods during critical reproductive stages For many high-value crops, just hours or days of moderate heat stress at critical growth stages can reduce grower profits by negatively affecting visual or flavor quality, even when total yield is not reduced. (Page 75, Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States | The U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) 2009)

Agriculture itself causes the release of greenhouse gas, and only works as a carbon sink if our crops stay in the ground. “Recent global assessments conclude that agriculture accounts for about 10 to 12 percent of total global human emissions of GHGs. With the intensification of agriculture that will be required to feed the world’s growing and increasingly affluent population, these emissions are projected to increase.” (Page 61, Advancing the Science of Climate Change (2010)

Even in our endemic region it is not going to be all peaches and cream for one of our most important and historically solid industries. If we intend to not only survive Climate Change but prevail, we need to get busy restoring our region’s environmental resiliency with comprehensive climate plans that the public will accept.

Assuming that our region will do well during Climate Change is a dangerous delusion that can only be combated by doing our due diligence. Start by reading climate studies to get a sense of the complications coming. We’ll need to stop wasting food and start using food waste for composting, renewing our steadily compromised soil. We’ll need to anticipate all the issues our food production systems will face in the looming warming world that our environment has no time to adjust to.

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