The USDA has been keeping close tabs on the weather lately. Persistent high temperatures coupled with extreme dry weather have resulted in horrible conditions for crops across the U.S., especially in the Upper Midwest. Heavily affected by the drought is the corn crop, which has analysts scrambling to predict how the expected shortage will influence everything from corn futures to the cost of milk. It has also turned the public eye towards talk of — dare I say it? — climate change.
Jon Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment and head of the Global Landscapes Initiative, studies the intersection of land use and climate through the lens of “environmental pragmatism.” Recently, Foley was asked to pen a short opinion piece for the New York Times on whether this drought is signaling the beginning of a new Dust Bowl, and if so, how it might be prevented.
Is the current drought so exceptional to warrant fear of another Dust Bowl? Recent popular media pieces have pointed to the extreme weather conditions in the U.S. as an indication of things to come. Bill McKibben, environmental activist, writer, and arguably the most vocal proselytizer of global climate change, wrote in Rolling Stone,
Sandra Postel, founder of the Global Water Policy Project, was interviewed for a short piece by National Geographic. Postel’s take is a bit less gloomy than McKibben’s, but it still gives a warning:
If a warming world is what we can expect, that means more extreme weather events, and potential for more destructive crop losses. The USDA map above indicates that 88% of the U.S. corn crop is within the drought zone. Let that sink in for a minute: eighty-eight percent. How do we feed our growing world with the threat of frequent, extreme weather phenomena looming over us if these are the repercussions we can start to expect? Foley recommends that the current practice of planting in monocultures must change. “It is hard to imagine a system more susceptible to bad weather than the American corn and soybean belt,” he writes. He also encourages changes such as diversifying crop types, no-till farming (otherwise known as direct planting), and organic practices to sustain soils and buffer against future droughts.
What do you think about the weather in the U.S.? Is it cause for alarm, or cause for reflection?
Farming Changes Can Limit Risks
- Jon Foley, New York Times, 25 July 2012