Extreme weather brought on by climate change will affect each community differently. Rural communities face particular challenges, as they often have higher transportation and energy costs, and their economy is frequently linked to agriculture—a sector directly impacted by a changing climate. But as we learned at the first Rural Climate Dialogue held in Morris, Minn., last week there are effective community-level options to respond to these climate concerns—as well as important opportunities for rural communities to be part of the climate solution.
The small town of Morris lies in west-central Minnesota along the Pomme de Terre River. This town of 5,000 is surrounded by farms, and is also home to the University of Minnesota-Morris. Last week, 15 Morris-area citizens came together for a remarkable conversation about climate change, how it is affecting their community and what can be done for the future. The citizens were part of a Citizens Jury process perfected and run by the Jefferson Center. The Citizens Jury is a randomly selected, but demographically representative group, who, over the course of three days, had access to independent resources and experts to produce their own recommendations that respond to the Morris-area community’s needs, priorities, concerns and values. As we reported earlier, Morris High School students played a critical role in assembling data for the meeting through a series of local energy surveys.
This week, IATP and the Jefferson Center will host the first Rural Climate Dialogue in Morris, Minnesota. This dialogue will convene a randomly chosen but demographically representative jury of 15 Morris citizens to discuss how they would like to handle the impacts of changing weather patterns and extreme weather events.
An important part of the work leading up to this dialogue took place at the Morris Area High School, as described in an earlier post. Students heard from University of Minnesota climatologist Mark Seeley (see picture) and other experts, disseminated surveys to their families and neighbors to create a map of Morris’ energy use patterns and gauge interest in renewable energy solutions, and discussed climate impacts and how they would like to see the Morris community respond.
Natasha Mortenson, the high school Agricultural Education teacher, said that “the whole experience changed the student’s outlook on climate change and sparked great conversation.” The students were excited as well, and a ninth grader stated, “I really thought about how climate change is going to affect my generation and those who will come after me so I am ready to do something.”
The public is welcome to attend the Rural Climate Dialogue later this week. Although participation is limited to the 15 citizens on the jury, anyone is invited to sit in on the conversations. The event will be held at the West Central Research and Outreach Center (46352 State Highway 329, Morris, MN) from June 12–14 from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. each day. Please email email@example.com for more information.
Jump straight to IATP’s new report, Measuring Success: Local Food Systems and the Need for New Indicators.
In agriculture, policymakers, analysts and researchers often use a set of indicators to assess whether a farming system, or new technology, is succeeding. The most common indicators focus on increasing “yield,” often of a singular crop or animal unit, within large-scale production systems. The use of indicators focused almost exclusively on production helps to shape scientiﬁc research and public policy. But just as weight alone is not a good measure of human health, a single-minded focus on production is an inadequate measure of the health of a farming system. So long as yields are high, this narrow focus supports the illusion that our agricultural system is meeting the nutrition, health, environmental sustainability, rural development and other needs of the population.
Farming produces multiple products. The most obvious are food, feed, ﬁber and raw materials for conversion into other food and non-food products (such as energy, materials, etc.). Done right, farming also contributes to better soil health and water quality, wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities and carbon storage. Unfortunately, less desired products are often produced as well, such as pollution to ground and surface water and air, with detrimental impacts to human and animal health.
Negotiating text on the EU-U.S. trade agreement leaked by the Huffington Post exposes the European Union’s hypocrisy when it comes to renewable energy and climate protection. Despite the moral and economic leadership that Europe claims around these issues, trade positions outlined by the E.U.’s negotiators (which are shared by their U.S. counterparts, as discussed previously) makes clear that these globally critical goals are less important than the potential profits of transnational companies. As explained in an excellent analysis of the leaked text by Sierra Club and the German organization PowerShift, the E.U. negotiators are very clear about their support for expansion of fossil fuel extraction and trade and imposing limits on national policies for and local benefits from renewable energy policy. The direct result is that renewable energy and green jobs programs around the world and here in the U.S., such as the Made in Minnesota Solar Program, are now at risk.
The U.S. Global Change Research Program released their Third National Climate Assessment on May 6; compiled by over 300 experts and peer reviewed by members of the public, climate change experts, federal agencies, and a panel of the National Academy of Sciences, the report details the impacts of climate change on the United States, including impacts on water, energy, transportation, agriculture, and human health, among other sectors.
One chapter of the report focuses on rural communities, which are at-risk to be disproportionately affected by the direct impacts of climate change because of their high dependence on natural resources. At the same time, rural communities have a limited capacity to invest in public infrastructure, decreasing their preparedness for climate impacts. The National Climate Assessment says it best: “Responding to additional challenges from climate change impacts will require significant adaptation within rural transportation and infrastructure systems, as well as health and emergency response systems. Governments in rural communities have limited institutional capacity to respond to, plan for, and anticipate climate change impacts.”
When my kids were young, one of our favorite nighttime books was Fungus the Bogeyman, a story about a subterranean bogeyman who spends his waking hours scaring humans. The kids and I loved all the disgusting bogeyman slang like pus and muck. As life would have it, the notion of fungus that frightens people has become only too real and instead if putting children to sleep, it has become the kind of story that really does keep us awake at night.
Recent news of the fungus wiping out shade-grown coffee in Central America was preceded earlier this month with reports of a wheat fungus in Africa that could wipe out this essential food crop. Major varieties of bananas in Asia and Africa are already being decimated by the deadly fungal Panama disease. Many important commodities are being plagued by fungal diseases and this increase in fungal diseases is not limited to plants. Just this week spores of a soil fungus that causes valley fever, or coccidioides, were discovered in Washington state. This fungus is normally found in regions with dry, arid climates.
Tomorrow, Thursday, April 17, the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) will release over 29 seed varieties into the global commons and humanity's “moral economy.” This new initiative hopes to provide a counterweight to private patenting of seeds, which has undermined farmers’ rights around the world.
OSSI is composed of faculty, breeders, students and supporters from Washington State University, Oregon State University, High Mowing Organic Seeds, Lupine Knoll Farm, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Wild Garden Seeds, and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, among other members and allies. The group has sought a way to support the innovative efforts, traditions, and rights of those who breed seeds, by pioneering a system whereby plant varieties could be released into a “protected commons”: a commons populated by those who agree to share but effectively inaccessible to those who do not—a necessary tool in light of private corporate interests' persistent and too-often successful attempts to lock away elements of humanity's common agricultural heritage behind patents and other forms of kleptocratic intellectual property.
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.
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.
The comment period recently closed on the USDA’s Research, Education, and Economics (REE) Action Plan Draft, which responded to informal and formal consultations with internal and external advisors and stakeholders, and “lessons learned from implementation of Farm Bill provisions.” It refines the initial REE Action Plan, which was released in February of 2012.
Why should we care? Well, the action plan is meant to identify and outline the core organizing efforts of the USDA’s science agenda, including how the USDA delivers on its the scientific discovery mission through The Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Agricultural Statistics Service. In other words, it is setting the priorities for the work of 1,200 research projects and thousands of staff within the USDA, the priorities for over $1.2 million in projects and research funds distributed to Land-Grant universities and other partners, and the priorities around what kinds of data the USDA works to collect and how it disseminates it. This document will strongly influence what kind of science is supported, what kinds of things we can find out about our own food system and what possibilities and alternatives are explored. As a former academic, I can say the USDA is a very important funder for academic work on the food system and their statistics are vital to allowing us to figure out what’s going on in our own food system.