Climate change could destroy our food supply

Climate change could destroy our food supply
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Americans rally around each other in times of devastation, disaster and crisis. From Hurricanes Michael and Maria, to the California wildfires — we rush to help and we see the stories of remarkable heroism unfold, filling us with hope and reminding us that we are — still — the United States.

In recent years, we’ve seen the rise of the social media campaign to harness people’s activism and desire to help out. Campaigns implore people to donate, volunteer, or demand immediate action from Congress. Many rise up and connect after disasters and some continue to participate in the movement. For those of us who aren’t full-time activists, or employed by nonprofits, we soon turn back to our daily lives, as we must, and wait for the next crisis to unveil itself.

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The problem with this phenomenon, and where social media fails, is that most of us are only ever immediately involved. Few of us are able to stick around for the aftermath of devastation. We should know by now that the cliche “the real work begins after the storm has passed” is all too real. But because our society thrives on immediacy, few recognize the long road faced by communities after the news cameras have moved on to the next disaster. 

Take, for example, the recent flooding in the Midwest. It’s easy to believe the situation is under control, that local officials are doing all they can. But what happens when the storms are back to back, and officials are spread too thin without enough resources to address another critical situation in the time needed to avoid permanent ruin? 

With 95 percent of a state’s population affected by a single flood, the issue quickly becomes about scarcity, displacement, and ultimately results in a social crisis. Without serious and continuous relief efforts, these Midwesterners will lose everything — their crops, their wages, their farms…their livelihood and their whole way of life — which means we lose too.

When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, many Americans on the mainland never felt the ripple effect, even though there were some temporary shortages. That’s because the dominant industry on the island is manufacturing, making up about 46 percent of their economy. Much of that is manufacturing of pharmaceuticals, which are sold in a global marketplace. But “Farmers Feed America,” is more than a slogan, it’s a part of our national identity. 

John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union explains, “We’re in a fragile place because once you get through the flood itself and the adrenaline wears off, then the enormity of the flood and the consequences settle in.”

Top soil could take years to return to production, seasons worth of stored grain has been contaminated or washed away by floodwaters — neither of which are covered by USDA insurance policies or disaster programs. You can understand the sense of urgency and hysteria these farmers are feeling.

If Amazon, for example, went out of business tomorrow, millions of Americans would absolutely be affected — but we could largely return to shopping from retailers or on the internet like we used to. People directly connected to Amazon would certainly be displaced. But other companies like Walmart would capitalize on the opportunity and quickly fill the void.

If the agricultural economy collapsed, however, everyone would feel it and there is no “plan B,” just as there wasn’t when the Great Plains experienced the Dust Bowl crisis of the 1930s.

Countless farmers have stressed year after year that one more flood would put them out of business for good. To understand the magnitude of that statement is to realize that when the next flood descends upon them, it will impact you too. As Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandDemocratic presidential hopefuls react to debate placement Democratic presidential hopefuls react to debate placement The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by MAPRx — Biden, Sanders to share stage at first DNC debate MORE (D-N.Y.) recently said in Iowa, “If you allow our farms to go out of business…we’re going to have to get our milk or our fruits and vegetables from someplace like China.” Our economy and our security would shift in a dramatic way.

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The bottom line is that our economic and national security is tied to food, and our food is tied deeply to the climate and weather. The effects of climate change aren’t just happening on the coasts, and they’re not happening 100 years from now. As Nebraska Department of Agriculture director and third-generation farmer, Steve Wellman points out, “We’re talking about an event here of historic proportions, circumstances that nobody recalls ever happening in their lifetime.” 

When we hear about the effects of climate change, we often think of eroding coasts or starving polar bears. We think about storms that affect our homes and businesses. But our food supply is intimately tied to the climate, with floods and droughts impacting our crops and livestock nationwide. We are fortunate to live in a country where affordable food is readily available, but unless we take action to solve climate change, our ability to reliably provide for all Americans could be at risk.

Mike Carr is the executive director of New Energy America, an organization that promotes clean energy jobs in rural America. Previously, he served as principal deputy assistant secretary in the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at the Department of Energy.