Wednesday, March 30, 2011

It's Hot Out There

Okay, not really. Well, it is kind of warm. I have been overheating in my favorite winter garb lately, which is an encouraging sign: we have spring temperatures even if the sunshine hasn't arrived.
But when I say "hot," I'm talking in a grander sense... yep, I'm going to talk about that oft-divisive subject: climate change. Mostly, I want to give you a heads up about a really great book that recently came out on the topic.

Mark Hertsgaard is a well-respected environmental journalist with more than a decade of experience reporting on climate change and its numerous effects across our planet. His most recent book, Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth, is a superbly written treatise on the current climate situation, and the ways we can and are approaching the threat it poses to our present way of life. It covers everything from water, to soil, to air, to human beings struggling both in America and across the world to come to terms with the changes we are seeing in our environment.

The chapter in this book on food, aptly titled "How Will We Feed Ourselves?" maneuvers and explains the complicated annals of modern agriculture, traveling from the African Sahel to Central California and beyond. It also explores the resiliency of modern food systems in the face of climate pressures. The news, honestly, isn't great: soils are wearing out and blowing away, water tables are over-tapped, pollution is rampant, GMO crops aren't living up to their promises, biodiversity is threatened, and hunger remains widespread. Depressing much?

This is where Hertsgaard's book sets itself apart though: he finds reasons to hope! In his travels in Africa, he meets rural farmers who are reclaiming their lands from the desert by employing simple techniques that fall under the imposing title "farmer-managed natural regeneration." Basically, they dig small depressions around the bases of their plants, which helps the soil at the base of the plant retain water. Adding manure to these depressions further increases production, and as a bi-product, reintroduces native tree species to their land. When they allow these trees to grow, water retention increases even more, again increasing their crop yields. By allowing native tree species to co-habitate with their crops, these farmers are recharging their water table, tying down precious topsoil, increasing biodiversity, and achieving a degree of food security that they have never known. A beautifully simple solution, an effective grassroots movement, and it has reclaimed 1000s of acres of land that previously was wasteland. Amazing.

In Northern China, where almost 80% of that nation's grains are grown, it is expected that the groundwater will be totally depleted by 2030. In less than 20 years, if nothing changes, they will be out of water. Terrifying, right? Well, a few brave scientists in that region are teaming up with students on university-run farms to test centuries-old inter-cropping and fertilization techniques, hoping (and proving) that those techniques yield just as much food as modern, industrial farming techniques, and will also help replenish the water table, rebuild soils, absorb atmospheric carbon, etc. Could this be the start of an agricultural revolution in China, the world's most populous nation? Perhaps.

By now you're probably wondering what this all has to do with our food systems. The answer is, it has everything to do with them. It is expected that by 2050, the Mid West will experience scorching summers 3 years out of 4, putting immense pressure on what is the United States' and the world's bread basket. California's central valley, which produces something like 40% of America's vegetables with experience unprecedented and increasing drought. Increasing temperatures will make life easier for pests and weeds, threatening crops everywhere. The threat is very real, and conventional agriculture systems are not up to the task. They are too rigid, too reliant on fossil fuel inputs, too draining on already scarce water resources, to last.

The good new is, as Herstgaard so kindly delivers to us, that we already know what to do to control a lot of these problems. The knowledge and technology already exists to remake food systems across the world to be more resilient and sensitive to natural resources and rhythms. What stands in the way is our modern, dominant, and monolithic agro-economic paradigm.

What can we do? Grow our own food. Shop in our foodshed. Support sustainable agriculture practices. And put pressure on the companies and policies that are doing so much damage to our present and future food sources. Start locally. As Hertsgaard writes, "[a]griculture is one of the few tricks humanity still has up its sleeve in the race to avoid the unmanageable and manage the unavoidable of climate change."

Slow Food and you can both help in this fight to save our food systems.

Join us!

And if you want to learn more, I highly recommend you read and realize that it's Hot out there.

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