What To Do About Predictions of Imminent Food Collapse

Midwest flooding of agricultural land
The current Midwest flooding will have far-reaching effects on soil health that may last many years. | U.S. Department of Agriculture
Sandra Lindberg | System Change Not Climate Change | June 5, 2019

As a member of System Change Not Climate Change, this morning I received links to a couple of YouTube videos about stresses on 2019 crop production. Produced by climate scientist Paul Beckwith, the videos portray the world as teetering on the brink of a profound food shortage. Like so many articles and videos these days, Beckwith’s videos suggest that we’ll all be starving come September. Beckwith describes how the majority of US farm acres have not been planted this year, a reality that is reflected in what I see in Central and Southern Illinois. According to the University of Illinois Extension report, only 10% of Illinois acres have been planted as of May, 2019. Fields are bare or still under water in many areas. It's a strange sight in a part of the country where usually the corn is about a foot high this time of year.

One big issue I have with Beckwith’s reporting though: he makes no distinction between commodity grain crops versus actual human food crops. For example, worldwide only 55% of crops are directly consumed by humans. The rest of the crops are devoted to production of animal feed, food additives and ethanol. (See “Redefining Agricultural Needs: from tonnes to people nourished per hectare.”)  Climate change profoundly threatens conventional agriculture, but cold season vegetable crops and fruit production in Illinois on very small farms (that can't hope to meet all Illinois food needs, I recognize) are actually doing well this season. I want to speculate about the reason for that a little bit below.

In the Geology section of my Master Naturalist class I learned that all of Central Illinois was primarily low-lying marshland and wet prairie when European settlers arrived here. For example, when Abraham Lincoln's family tried to settle in Central Illinois along the banks of the Sangamon River, the area was too low lying and marshy. The Lincoln family got malaria that first year, a reality that led them to abandon the Sangamon site for higher lying acreage near Springfield IL. Malaria was a big problem in this part of the country when Europeans first got here.

In the 19th and into the early 20th centuries, the settlers drove out indigenous populations and then proceeded to do what Trump has not been able to do: drain the swamps--using massive amounts of drain tile to do so. Since 1818, Illinois has lost 90% of its wetlands. What scientists in the prairie states are starting to talk about is the possibility that these acres will return to wetlands as existing drain tile can no longer adequately move all the water from the huge storms into area creeks and rivers. For some organizations such as the Wetlands Initiative, convincing farmers to restore wetlands on some of their acreage will be one way to lessen farmland flooding. The strategy will also provide habitat for endangered plant and animal species.  For example, that yellow-flowering plant Beckwith talks about in one of the videos, a "new weed" the farmers haven't seen before, has a name: yellow rocket. It's a native plant in this part of the country that was used frequently by indigenous people as a food and medicine source. Industrial agriculture neither knows its name nor its worth. Instead, for many a year industrial ag has suppressed the seeds of this plant, as it has done for most native plants in this part of the country. Climate change is bringing back many native plants whose seeds have waited in the ground for just such events as these extreme storms to bring them to the soil surface. And sprout they will when industrial ag finally is forced to cease its operations for a season or two. But let me return to the subject of industrial field runoff.

The water from fields that does make it into ditches, creeks and rivers carries huge amounts of agricultural runoff, including soil (a precious resource that takes thousands of years to replace!) and agrochemicals washed off the fields. The runoff ends up in the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, further enlarging that body of water's so-called "dead zone"--the result of too high nitrogen and agro-chemical pollution.

All of these current problems are exacerbated by industrial agriculture's approach to crops: huge expanses of field, no wind or erosion breaks at the edge of fields or along waterways, and a tendency to site farms on the most flat (and often lowest) ground because that's where the large farm machinery functions best--at least when mud doesn't get in the way of the machines.

There are glimmers of hope in Central Illinois, though, thanks to the efforts of an organization that I've provided links to on SCNCC.net posts a couple of times recently. The Land Institute, based in Kansas, is researching and promoting the use of perennial crops such as a perennial wheat called Kernza, perennial sunflowers, perennial grasses (for animal feed and other agricultural uses) and perennial oats. Cascadian Farms is producing a breakfast cereal using Kernza, and other companies are using Kernza for flour, bread and beer. These efforts are miniscule in terms of plains and central Midwest agriculture, but farmers are starting to take notice. They can make good money with these crops that require far less in terms of cultivation and chemicals, and whose 12 ft. deep roots can weather the extreme weather events that prairies have known for thousands of years. Other projects the Land Institute promotes relate to land erosion. The perennial grasses they champion can be planted along ditches, streams and creeks to filter out agro-chemicals and prevent soil runoff.

We need orders of magnitude more projects like those promoted by The Land Institute, Wetlands Initiative and Regenerate Illinois. And we need people to do more than protest climate change--which is what I want to write about next. We need people to champion efforts to reinvent how crops are grown. We also need people to plant home gardens, whether it's a few pots or a vegetable bed or an entire backyard. If Beckwith is correct and a food shortage is coming, we're idiots if we don't do what we can to protect our families. And it's June. Two weeks from the Midwest’s optimal last planting date for many vegetable crops. There is still time to plant many things. Including potatoes, sweet potatoes and beans--crops that can take the place nutritionally of the cereal crops that Beckwith suggests may be in short supply. For ideas on what to plant, consult sources such as the USDA’s “Climate Risks in the Midwest.” Another protest against climate change will not put food on the table. We need to pursue both protests and local agricultural projects if we are going to effectively address the realities of climate change.

Contributors to the System Change Not Climate Change forums and web page often grow a significant amount of food in our yards or land. In fact, I think those of us who grow food should write about this part of our work more often for SCNCC. This spring, I've tried to further that work by supporting efforts of African American organizations in Decatur to build and plant ten 4' X 16' X 12" raised beds sited in the central city where a food desert keeps low-income folks and people of color from having access to organic produce. While I've been to two protests at the state capitol in Springfield this spring, I garden daily, usually for two or more hours every day. I am constantly figuring out how to keep my crops going in the face of terrible storms and too much water, inventing strategies as I go. That is an approach I have the freedom take. Industrial agricultural farmers do not have such freedom.

I am not hamstrung by banks that would seek to dictate how large my farm is and how expensive a piece of farm equipment I must buy (even what crops I must grow) before the bank will give me a loan. Unfortunately, that hogtied existence is what central Illinois and plains states farmers experience every year. How do I know this? Because I talk with farmers. Every time I visit a local farmer's market. Because when a struggling actor in Chicago, my survival job was working for Farm Journal Magazine and my boss was a man who grew up on a farm in Indiana. When I worked for him, he rented his farm to an Indiana farming family. In the 1980's I learned from him and from many other farmers how the cruelties of our economic system were driving US farmers to financial ruin and, in way too many cases, suicide. Farm Journal ran a page at the back of its magazine where farm widows and widowers, many of whom had lost partners to suicide, could advertise for new 'partners.' A lonely hearts column for farmers devastated by the 1980s economy! I also learned from this Indiana farm boy that in the 1980s the University of Iowa had conducted research demonstrating that the optimal size for a farm was 250 acres. The size was best for the land, for the economics of the operation, for crop yields, and for promoting crop diversity that would help a farmer to cope with extremes in weather. Unfortunately, the news about optimal farm size failed to persuade the economic system's big boys of its efficacy. And today, as farmers try to compete in a global commodity market, suicide rates and bankruptcy rates are rising again. For more details about conventional agriculture’s harsh hold on US farmers, read “Regenerative Agriculture Can Make Farmers Stewards of the Land Again,” by Stephanie Anderson.

Farmers who engage in what are termed alternative farming methods find loans are difficult to get, which is a big reason that industrial agriculture isn't changing. Do you think farmers want to play Russian roulette every season, borrowing money to pay for this year's seed in the increasingly vain hope that the crop will pay off the loan and leave them just a little money to live on? Do you think farmers want to grow only corn and soybeans? It's that they are in so deep financially with industrial ag and have been struggling for decades to make it work, that they cannot see a way out of the system. Now these last two sentences are about the relatively small operators. The megafarms are another story. They weather (no pun intended) the current climate and its economics better than the small operators, but recent statistics suggest that even these big boys are often on the edge of collapse these days.

To sum up all of the preceding, I offer the following suggestions:

1. Don't rely on analysis that uses a broad brush when describing the effects of climate change on farming. Instead, trust writers who do distinguish between commodity crops and food crops.

2. Don't trust that another protest against climate change can or will stave off food shortages we are likely to face. Only changing how and what we grow and eat will do that. Reducing the effects of climate change will happen slowly. People need to eat each year of this struggle if they hope to be able to march in the streets.

3. Do grow food. A little or a lot. Do support local food growers. Do work with local organizations to build community food programs.

4. If you are an economist or socialist or a combination of the two, provide analysis of how capitalist systems are exacerbating the farming crisis.

5. Don't buy pre-packaged or processed food products, which rely on commodity crops for the additives they use. Buy real food. If active with a local school, press for the school to plant a food garden, to buy its cafeteria food from local growers, and to eliminate processed foods from its campus.

6. Do talk with farmers to learn the details of their lives, visit their farms when invited, support the restaurants and businesses that carry their fruits and vegetables, or buy direct from these growers.

A revolution is a kind of army, and armies must eat in order to march. What are we doing to make sure that our army can eat?

Yes, the way of life we’ve known is coming to an end. Yes, civilizations fall. I for one will fight for our species and our planet’s survival until I can no longer do so.

Grow food.

In solidarity,

Sandra Lindberg

Decatur IL

The Paul Beckwith videos that sparked this essay are:  Food, Glorious Food. Never Before Has Earth Needed More, Part One and Part Two