Although droughts occur because of climatic conditions, the harm they do is largely determined by how people interact with land and water and by how we plan for and react to drought itself. The story of drought isn’t limited to ecosystems and climate. It is rooted in policy, practice, politics and economics. While climate change may be causing longer, deeper droughts, our collective vulnerability to drought is reinforced by agribusiness, export agriculture and international trade agreements.
Background: Trains en route to the Bakken oilfields in North Dakota from the Tesoro Refinery in Anacortes, Washington. Photo Credit: Roy Luck (Used under Creative Commons license).
How uniformity leads to risk
We can see global uniformity in virtually every consumer product we touch, from sneakers to candy bars. Agriculture is no exception. In agriculture, uniformity takes the form of monoculture: growing a single crop (or single variety of crop) in the same way everywhere.
This system of hyper-specialization has significant economic, biological and social drawbacks. It often results in the consolidation of farmland under one corporate owner or, in many cases, alters local economies in such a way that an entire region’s producers begin to raise a single crop or animal to remain competitive. More important, monoculture undermines resiliency and self-reliance, leaving the land and communities vulnerable when disaster strikes.
Economy of Scale
By scaling up quickly, monocultures often reduce prices. But, ironically, those same monocultures can lead to more waste.
Although automation can be a benefit by reducing labor costs, it can also lead to sudden, mass unemployment.
Genetically diverse crops are replaced with a single species or even single cultivar.
Susceptibility to Pests
When pests—insects, fungi and bacteria—find a vulnerability in a genetically uniform crop, they can spread very quickly.
Monoculture is a new form of agriculture, having emerged only after modern technology made it viable. Before this era in human history, communities had to carefully guard against depleting or contaminating their soil and water. But now, when water is polluted or exhausted, technology allows us to ship in or pump up new water. If repeated plantings of a single crop deplete the soil, chemicals are added to support the crop. Animals eat feed that is trucked in, not grasses and grain grown on the same farm.
Monoculture means that fewer and fewer farmers, workers, animals and plants have to produce ever more. For laborers, hours get longer and pay gets lower. For animals, it means shorter lives in more dangerous, far less humane conditions. For consumers, it means fewer choices, lower product quality and more unhealthy food in the marketplace. And, for land with limited access to water, it means more vulnerability to drought.
Workers harvest red and green lettuce in California. Photo Credit: Malcolm Carlaw (Used under Creative Commons license).
CAFOs—confined animal feeding operations—exemplify the concentration of monoculture. CAFOs confine and fatten hundreds or thousands of animals at a time in preparation for slaughter. Setting aside many of the debates that they inspire, CAFOs seek to get as much agricultural product as possible out of each square inch of land. These CAFOs require giant lagoons to hold the enormous amounts of animal manure that is created and unfortunately commonly spills into waterways. CAFOs are also highly vulnerable to the rapid spread of disease. In the last two years, major diseases effecting piglets and poultry have spread rapidly through CAFOs in the Midwest. The stress that concentration places on the land and the animals contributes to an increasingly vulnerable system.
Concentration and drought
When drought hits areas of concentrated agricultural production, it has the potential to obliterate communities. Although droughts typically mean that some farms and businesses close and that some people lose work or become displaced, not all businesses and farms fail and not all workers and families are uprooted. Concentration means that whole regions are decimated overnight.
For example, in Plainview, Texas, a beef processing plant owned by Cargill once processed, according to The New Republic, about 4 percent of all cattle slaughtered in the United States. With no advance notice, Cargill closed the plant because an ongoing drought had made water too expensive. Instead, Cargill was moving operations to plants in areas where water was more plentiful. One sixth of all adults in Plainview were put out of work. The town was socially and economically decimated, all because concentrated agricultural operations had made Plainview and thousands of its residents vulnerable to one company’s decisions.
Chemical Inputs: Fertilizers and Pesticides
Because concentration depletes soil quickly when millions of identical plants extract the same nutrients from the same patch of land, soil quality degrades quickly and there is a constant struggle to maintain appropriate nutrient levels. This is accomplished mainly by adding chemical fertilizers to the land. While these fertilizers work in the short term, they mask the inability of soil to replenish itself, to retain nutrients altogether and to otherwise support healthy ecosystems.
Lessened soil quality leads to more fertilizers which, in turn, further lessens soil quality and the cycle goes on and on. In the end, once-productive soil is virtually exhausted and unable to support much agriculture at all.
Like fertilizers, pesticides are an attempt to recreate with chemistry what nature can do all by itself. The perfect conditions for concentrated agriculture—enormous fields of tightly-packed plants from a single species—are also perfect for insects, bacteria, viruses and fungi that prey on agricultural products.
In less concentrated conditions, there are more barriers that limit the spread of pests. When fields are smaller and adjacent fields contain different species, pests have a more difficult time spreading out. Pests need little time to obliterate large farms that produce homogeneous products. And pests can—and do—adapt to the chemical pesticides and herbicides we rely on to keep things growing.
Chemical inputs and drought
During drought years, it is important for farms to adjust the amount of fertilizer used on land to account for lower yield. However, fertilizer is usually applied to land in spring, before drought conditions have fully emerged, leaving land with an excess of nitrogen and other nutrients. Long-term, multiyear droughts can create conditions that lead to a massive chemical input buildup on land. In both cases, excessive amounts of chemical inputs can contribute to a number of problems, from leaf scorch to increasing the size of the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
Many chemicals used for pest control are non-selective: although they are applied in hopes of combatting a particular pest, they have the capacity to harm any number of species, including beneficial ones. If there is an overload of chemical pesticides on land, it can lead to a broad, wide die-off of many plant and animal species.
Warning sign for a field being treated with pesticides. Photo Credit: Austin Valley (Used under Creative Commons license).
Genetic uniformity causes a range of problems, including increased vulnerability to pests. The cultivation of one variety of corn, even when dozens or even hundreds of varieties might be available, is a good example, as is the predominance of one type of chicken. Compare that with the wide variety of “heirloom” tomatoes you might find at your local market in the summer. The genetic diversity of heirloom varieties means that pests can’t wipe out an entire species.
Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, only intensify the problem of genetic uniformity. Created in laboratories, GMOs are specifically designed to remove any genetic variation. This means that the seeds will grow a predictable crop, but it also means that a single genetic vulnerability can leave a crop’s entire worldwide production defenseless. All it takes is one resourceful bug, spore or germ to figure out a single weakness in the plant.
Genetic uniformity and drought
When drought comes, it places enormous amounts of stress onto plants and animals—and, as we have seen, this stress often comes as a wide range of threats, from depleted nutrients to exploding pest populations. If organisms have not been specifically designed to cope with a drought’s unique mix of conditions, they may not be able to withstand the stress.
How our laws drive drought
By now, it is clear: the key to withstanding drought is flexibility. We need agricultural systems that can quickly, efficiently adjust to a wide range of conditions including drought. What we have built, however, is an inflexible monoculture that requires substantial modifications to meet new—if predictable—conditions.
But monoculture meets one very important demand. For all of its biological and social weaknesses, monoculture is incredibly efficient at generating short-term profits. And defending these profits is at the heart of many of our world’s political and economic decisions. Even at a time when we can see disaster approaching on the horizon, the highest laws we have to govern food production pick fat dividend checks over resiliency.
Trade agreements protect monoculture
In the United States, trade agreements are the legal equivalents of federal statute. That means that, as long as they are constitutional, when provisions in trade agreements conflict with existing federal, state and local laws, the trade agreement wins. Trade agreements and executive orders related to trade seldom contradict the Constitution, so trade agreements essentially preempt any law that contradicts them.
These conflicts often get wide attention when they occur in the areas of consumer protection, labor relations and product safety. But trade agreements also frequently restrict the capacity of countries, states and local government to determine how their communities will use natural resources, including water.
When drought hits, communities must respond rapidly and nations must reallocate resources and revamp production plans to conform to the conditions nature provides. But trade agreements create obligations that countries must keep to other countries and, very often, to large corporations. Trade agreements all too often hinder the kind of flexibility we need to resist drought.
Impeding the flexibility
Trade agreements sometimes lock countries into long-term commitments that cannot easily be changed. In times of drought, nations need as much flexibility as they can get, both in how they produce food and what they do with the crops they harvest. When trade agreements lock in levels of production, countries may have to export crops—or even water—that their own people need.
Placing export agriculture first
Changes to farm policy motivated by trade have eliminated all but the most marginal food and crop reserves in U.S. that until the 1980s acted as a check on drought-induced crop failures and shortages. Without supply management and reserves, we often have overproduction and dumping of agricultural products on global markets.
Export agriculture and drought
Today’s trade agreements are less about trade than they are about guaranteeing the infrastructure for export agriculture. Export agricultural systems are typically water-intensive, while simultaneously vulnerable to weather disruptions. In other words, it locks countries into an economic model and squelches efforts that countries might want to undertake at reallocating resources in a time of crisis.
Export agriculture is one of the chief goals of trade agreements. Indeed, the Word Trade Organization requires rice-producing countries to export 20 percent of their product, regardless of domestic need or the ability of the land to reach that high level of surplus. Trade agreements encourage agricultural production methods that lead to short-term profits through overproduction—regardless of long-term consequences. Such a rigid economic scheme crashes when drought hits.
Furthering climate change
When it comes to energy production, trade agreements encourage some particularly harmful behaviors. As one example, Canada is obliged by the North American Free Trade Agreement to sell tar sands oil to the United States. This doesn’t simply mean that Canada must offer the tar sands oil it wishes to export to the United States first. It means that Canada, by law, must reach and maintain high levels of oil production year after year for the U.S. market. Canada cannot reduce production for any reason.
This assures that there is little to no market pressure applied on energy producers and energy consumers to reduce their consumption of carbon fuels. And it also means that any political pressure Canadians apply to their own government to reduce oil production is futile. No matter how popular new laws may be among Canadians to curb tar sands production and, in the process, curb greenhouse gas output to mitigate global warming, Canada must keep producing oil.
It is easy to see how corporations might meet their quarterly earning projections by ignoring the concerns of drought-stricken regions. Extracting one last quarter of big profits and then abandoning whole communities is a story that keeps repeating itself.
Corporations have the legal right to engage in this behavior due in large part to investor-state provisions of trade agreements. Originally meant to protect private investments against corruption or political volatility, these provisions have been expanded to give corporations the right to sue local and national governments when countries and regions enact regulations that cut into profit margins.
There have been numerous investor-state cases involving water, from a push to privatize a city’s water system to challenging the right of a Canadian province to protect a local river from fracking. Investor-state provisions are meant to guarantee the rule of law, not, as they so often do, to subject democratic decision-making to corporate veto.
In the U.S., trade agreement negotiations are kept secret from the public and, even for members of Congress, access to the text is very limited. Moreover, it is illegal to publically release negotiating texts. The laws prohibiting public disclosure of trade negotiating texts are draconian and drive an undemocratic system, effectively smothering any public deliberation of trade objectives and proposals. This secrecy makes it impossible to fully assess how proposed trade rules might affect our ability to build resilience or adapt to extreme weather. Once the parties come to agreement, Congress is expected to reject or embrace whole agreements outright. Trade agreements, however, are too complex and important to be decided by a simple yes or no vote.
Secrecy and drought
The secrecy of trade negotiations stymies efforts to plan for drought. Trade agreements create legal obligations and limit local self-determination and without a doubt, that impedes our ability to adjust to any new condition, including drought. Communities worldwide are planning for a tumultuous future, but no plan will be adequate if communities have no hand in negotiating their obligations.