It’s a big week in the agriculture world. Just days before Obama signed the new Farm Bill into law, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the locations of seven regional hubs for climate change adaptation and mitigation. These hubs will attempt to address the risks that farmers increasingly face due to climate change—including fires, pests, droughts and floods—by disseminating research on ways landowners can adapt to and adjust management strategies to build resilience.
This is a notable step forward in climate policy and has important implications for rural communities. Many rural communities tend to view large governmental agencies negatively, especially those agencies that regulate the agricultural activities that dominate many of those communities’ economies. However, farmers feel the direct impacts of extreme weather more than anyone. The climate hubs will help by linking a diverse network of partners, including universities, nongovernmental organizations, federal agencies, state departments, native nations, farm groups and more. Broadcasting climate change research and information from this wide array of sources, including sources that farmers trust and regularly interact with, could make climate change adaptation and mitigation a more accepted and commonly desired goal.
Encouraging action on climate change is paramount not only from an environmental perspective, but from an economic perspective as well. The drought of 2012 cost the American economy an estimated $50 billion between 2011 and 2013. It’s too early to assess the costs of the current drought punishing California, which produces nearly half of the country’s fruits and vegetables. Clearly, the risks posed by volatile weather events have implications not only for farmers, but for the economy and society as a whole.
Was it just exhaustion from two-plus years of negotiations that finally produced the Farm Bill that is expected to be signed by the President this week? Or, was it the sense that “it could have been a lot worse” when compared with a mean-spirited, destructive Farm Bill passed by the House of Representatives last year. For whatever reason, there is a sense that a deeply flawed Farm Bill—the terms of which were dictated largely by austerity fanatics from the start—is the best we’ll get under the current political environment.
That’s a problem for all of us. It’s definitely a problem for the growing number of working age Americans who rely on food stamps. This Farm Bill cuts food stamp benefits (about 80 percent of the Farm Bill costs) by $8.6 billion.
It’s a problem for the environment and the urgent need to help farmers shift toward more climate resilient production systems to deal with extreme weather events. The bill cuts about $6 billion from conservation programs, the first time conservation funding has been cut since it became part of the Farm Bill in 1985 (excellent analysis by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition). Those cuts reduce the number of acres for the Conservation Reserve Program (which takes sensitive land out of production to protect habitat and wildlife) from 32 million to 24 million acres. It also limits the new acres of enrollment into the Conservation Stewardship Program (which support conservation measures on working farms) to 10 million per year—a cut of 2.8 million acres per year over the next decade.
The second Rural Climate Network newsletter was released last week, featuring updates on how rural America is responding to the climate challenge. Since the first newsletter, the network has welcomed five new member organizations that represent the diversity of climate work across the country and display how climate change impacts sectors ranging from fisheries to forestry to meat production. The member spotlight this month is Organic Valley, and a featured interview with Sustainability Program Manager Jonathan Reinbold outlines the organization’s views on climate change. Policy that incentivizes this kind of on-the-ground work is critical in supporting the growing rural movement to adapt to and mitigate climate change.
This edition of the newsletter also features a brief interview with Renata Brillinger of the California Climate and Agriculture Network (CalCAN) to better understand how California farmers and ranchers are handling the drought that is currently underway in California. According to Brillinger, “mandated cutbacks in water distributions, along with depletions in available surface water and groundwater, are forcing farmers to dig deeper into their pockets while making tough decisions about crop planting and livestock management.” Some farmers have resorted to pumping groundwater to compensate for the lack of water elsewhere, but that is not a sustainable strategy in the long term should the drought persist and other ideas are needed.
On November 21, the U.N. General Assembly’s Third Committee (The Committee) adopted a resolution on “The human right to safe drinking water and sanitation.” All U.N. member states agreed that the rights to water and sanitation are derived from the right to an adequate standard of living. As a result, these rights are now implicitly recognized as being part of International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).
This means that for the very first time, all U.N. member States affirm that the rights to water and sanitation are legally binding in international law. This is indeed a moment for all of us to celebrate.
Yet this agreement is marred by the reluctance of the United States to join all other nations in a universal agreement on the definition of these rights (as defined in a resolution of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) adopted by consensus in September 2013).
Writing about this, an Amnesty International press release says: “At the time [of the unanimous adoption of the UNHRC resolution] the United States was the only country that disassociated itself from the definition of these rights and stated that it did not agree ‘with the expansive way this right has been articulated.’ However, it has not explained what aspects of this definition it does not accept.” The press release continues: “Such rights are only ‘expansive’ if one adopts a 19th century understanding of hygiene and of government duties to ensure the provision of public services.”
IATP's Shefali Sharma is reporting from the 9th WTO Ministerial in Bali, Indonesia.
2 p.m., Bali, Indonesia
It is supposed to be the final hours of the 9th WTO Ministerial here in Bali but trade negotiators are milling in the hallways, conjecturing whether the meeting will be extended until tomorrow or wrap up by 5:00 p.m., whether there will be a “take it or leave it text” or further negotiations late into the night. There have been several contentious issues, including whether to finalize yet another trade agreement on trade facilitation and a non-committal package for the Least Developed Countries (LDC). However, the issue most critical to poor countries concerns food security. The current WTO framework on agriculture is being tested on its ability to accommodate government procurement for food security programs in developing countries.
India has been in the spotlight the last three days since the meeting began because it has stood firmly against the U.S. opposition to allow such programs from violating existing WTO rules. The existing rules were unfairly crafted in the mid-80s by the U.S. and the EU, but never mind that. The U.S. is insisting that India’s Food Security Act would exceed limits set in the agriculture agreement for “trade distorting” subsidies. Never mind too that the U.S. has negotiated space at the WTO to reconfigure its own domestic agriculture and food security programs.
In the past week, we have had a terrible reminder of what’s at stake in our work with the horrific typhoon hitting the Philippines. IATP Board Member and Director General of the Asian Farmers Association (AFA), Esther Penunia, has let us know that she’s alright, after several anxious days. Some of our earliest work with AFA was working together to build knowledge and capacity on climate change before the Copenhagen talks in 2009, and they continue to be close partners to promote agroecology as a resilient, low-carbon solution to feeding a climate-challenged world.
Esther lives in Manila and was there when super typhoon Haiyan struck last Friday. Esther and her immediate family got through fine, but her sister’s family lives in Tacloban, the hardest hit city. Esther had no news from them for several days. But Tuesday, she reported that her sister and family are safe—despite being in Tacloban at the height of the storm. As Esther told us, “You know how strong you are when being strong is the only choice left for you."
At least 10,000 others were not so lucky.
Haiyan was the strongest tropical storm to make landfall in history. It was almost certainly made stronger by the warming of shallow Southeast Asian seas due to man-made climate change, and its effects were exacerbated by the unusually high degree of sea level rise the region has already experienced in recent decades. The Philippines delegate to the international climate talks in Warsaw issued a strong plea for action, and has gone on a hunger strike to try to spur strong action.
The annual global climate talks are underway this week in Warsaw, Poland. The agenda for the 19th session of the Conference of Parties (COP 19) to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), as the climate talks are formally called, includes discussions on “issues relating to agriculture” with climate change adaptation identified, appropriately, as a primary focus. As anyone who is engaged in farming or in other natural resource related fields or who lives in a rural landscape knows, there are big changes already occurring that are impacting their livelihoods, communities and local economies.
Despite this focus, it is unlikely that there will be many rural voices at the negotiating table in Warsaw. That is unfortunate, because in order to succeed, we believe it is essential to involve rural stakeholders in identifying possible policy and on-the-ground solutions. Sadly, the discussions at COP 19 are more likely to revolve around the promotion of carbon markets rather than the real strategies and investments needed to help rural communities, farmers and others to be more resilient and to help slow the pace of climate change.
To focus and strengthen the U.S. rural perspective on both the problems and solutions associated with climate change, IATP and its partners are excited to announce the launch of the Rural Climate Network (RCN). Formed out of the 2011 National Rural Assembly, the Rural Climate Network was born in response to this identified lack of rural engagement in climate policy development, but also out of a recognition for a greater need of collaboration among rural organizations and leaders regarding relevant climate change adaptation and mitigation resources, information and strategies.
In the midst of worrisome news about droughts, desertification, unreliable monsoons and growing concerns around water security around the world, the announcement by the UNESCO and Kenyan officials at the recent International Water Security Conference in Nairobi was anything but gloomy. The finding of potentially huge groundwater resources in northwestern Kenya is indeed a blessing, not only for the herding communities of drought-prone Turkana, but also for the region as a whole.
Until very recently the region was best known to the global water community both for the lack of access to water that mark the lives and livelihoods of indigenous communities that live there, and for their efforts to save Turkana Lake, the largest permanent desert lake in the world according to International Rivers.
But a recent survey by RTI, a company hired by U.N., found groundwater systems with a potential of storing about 250 billion cubic meters (or about 66 trillion gallons) in the Kachoda, Gatome, Nkalale and Lockichar areas, with the largest aquifer being located in the Lokitipi Basin—all of them in Turkana county, one of the 47 counties in Kenya. Of these, the three smaller aquifers combined are estimated to store about 30 billion cubic meters of water, once confirmed by drilling.
Farmers and the insurance industry have one thing in common: they are both on the front lines of climate change. So far, the U.S. insurance industry has been slow to respond to climate induced risk and is well behind its European counterparts who are outspoken leaders for climate action.
In a small sign of progress last month, Minnesota announced that it will join four other states in requiring its insurance companies to report on climate risk. The companies will have to respond to a survey put together by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners that asks how the industry is reducing its own greenhouse gas emissions, altering its investment strategies, or encouraging policyholders to adapt to new climactic conditions (thus decrease reporting company losses).
Minnesota Insurance Commissioner Mike Rothman should be applauded. When IATP met with the insurance commissioner’s staff last year, we encouraged the state to require climate-related reporting of insurers. We were surprised when they told us we were the first to ask them to do such reporting, or indeed, to ask about the climate risk of Minnesota companies. Maybe insurance commissioners in the other 45 states also just need to be asked in order to act.
In all of the discussions and proposals associated with the current Farm Bill debate, climate change has gotten little official recognition (although we have pointed out that from IATP’s perspective, the singular focus on crop insurance is clear evidence that climate change is the primary concern of farmers and agriculture state politicians). As the Farm Bill debate goes to the Senate floor, we apploaud two amendments that are trying to bring greater recognition of climate change to the farm policy discussion.
The first, Senator Whitehouse’s Sense of the Senate Resolution #1029, is a largely symbolic, yet ultimately very important resolution about the authenticity of climate change science and determined causes. This resolution expresses that it is the sense of the Senate that climate change research is in fact based on sound practices, that a scientific consensus exists that humans are contributing to climate change, and that climate change poses a risk to agriculture and related industries. While “Sense of the Senate” resolutions do not result in any direct legislative actions or laws, passage of this resolution would be an important, if quite belated indicator that the U.S. Congress is finally getting serious about climate change and its impacts, especially as they relate to agriculture and our food system.