Red state rural America is acting on climate change – without calling it #climatechange

One primary concern in rural areas: higher temperatures put strain on water and energy sources. AP Photo/Robert Ray
One primary concern in rural areas: higher temperatures put strain on water and energy sources. AP Photo/Robert Ray

Rebecca J. Romsdahl, University of North Dakota

President Donald Trump has the environmental community understandably concerned. He and members of his Cabinet have questioned the established science of climate change, and his choice to head the Environmental Protection Agency, former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, has sued the EPA many times and regularly sided with the fossil fuel industry.

Even if the Trump administration withdraws from all international climate negotiations and reduces the EPA to bare bones, the effects of climate change are happening and will continue to build.

In response to real threats and public demand, cities across the United States and around the world are taking action to address climate change. We might think this is happening only in large, coastal cities that are threatened by sea-level rise or hurricanes, like Amsterdam or New York.

Research shows, however, that even in the fly-over red states of the U.S. Great Plains, local leaders in small- to medium-size communities are already grappling with the issue. Although their actions are not always couched in terms of addressing climate change, their strategies can provide insights into how to make progress on climate policy under a Trump administration.

‘Deliberate framing’

My colleagues and I did a survey of over 200 local governments in 11 states of the Great Plains region to learn about steps they’re taking to mitigate the effects of climate change and to adapt to them. We found local officials in red states responsible for public health, soil conservation, parks and natural resources management, as well as county commissioners and mayors, are concerned about climate change, and many feel a responsibility to take action in the absence of national policy.

In terms of framing, using wind energy is a way to improve local air quality and save money on energy, while also reducing emissions from fossil fuels.
paytonc/flickr, CC BY-SA

But because it is such a complex and polarizing topic, they often face public uncertainty or outrage toward the issue. So while these local officials have been addressing climate change in their communities over the past decade, many of these policy activities are specifically not framed that way. As one respondent to our survey said:

“It is my personal and professional opinion that the conservation community is on track with addressing the issue of climate change but is way off track in assigning a cause. The public understands the value of clean water and clean air. If the need to improve our water quality and air quality was emphasized, most would agree. Who is going to say dirty water and dirty air is not a problem? By making the argument ‘climate change and humans are the cause’ significant energy is wasted trying to prove this. It is also something the public has a hard time sinking their teeth into.”

In order to address the vulnerabilities facing their communities, many local officials are reframing climate change to fit within existing priorities and budget items. In a survey of mayors, we asked: “In your city’s policy and planning activities (for energy, conservation, natural resources management, land use, or emergency planning, etc.) how is climate change framed?” The following quotes give a sense of their strategies.

“In terms of economic benefit & resource protection. This framing was deliberate to garner support from residents who did not agree with climate change.”

“We frame the initiative as: energy savings (=$ savings), as smart growth/good planning, and as common sense natural resource management. Climate change is only explicitly referenced in our Climate Protection Plan adopted in 2009. Most initiatives fall under the “sustainability” umbrella term.“

“We mask it with sustainability, we call it P3 (People, Planet, Prosperity)”

“The initial interest in climate change came about as a result of concern about the potential for poor air quality affecting economic development in the City. Air quality and climate change were framed as being extremely related issues.”

“Climate change is framed as one of several benefits of conservation measures. Other benefits of conservation, recycling, walking, etc. include it’s ‘good for the earth’ (regardless of climate change), healthful, economical, etc.”

The results show that energy, economic benefits, common sense and sustainability are frames that are providing opportunities for local leaders to address climate change without getting stuck in the political quagmire. This strategy is being used across the Great Plains states, which include some of the most climate-skeptical areas of the country.

Local needs and values

Every region of the U.S. will need to address practical questions of how states and local communities can reduce emissions and adapt to climate impacts. Under the Trump administration, it is likely any progress on U.S. climate policy will continue at these subnational levels. That’s why a variety of experts argue that we should encourage the types of pragmatic strategies now being employed by local leaders in red states.

In the Great Plains in particular, local officials are facing severe impacts from higher temperatures, which will place greater demands on water and energy.

Capturing methane gases from landfill can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and be a local source of fuel for power.
Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, CC BY-NC

In our research we found local leaders focus on regional and local issues such as drought, energy and flooding. These are problems that are tied to climate change, but are already a priority on the local level. And the sought-for improvements, such as energy savings, health benefit and flood management, fit well with local needs and values.

For example, Fargo, North Dakota mitigates some of its greenhouse gas emissions and created a new source of city revenue by capturing the methane from its landfill facility and selling that gas to the electricity company. The city trash is now providing renewable energy for local residents and an industrial facility.

Perhaps the question facing us is: Should we reframe climate change and other environmental problems to fit the Trump administration’s priorities with a strong focus on practical solution ideas? For example, Trump has stated that infrastructure projects will be a high priority. That could easily translate into fixing the drinking water crisis experienced by Flint, Michigan and many other cities where it is likely to happen; Trump has also highlighted mass transit, which could help reduce air pollution and carbon emissions.

With an administration eager to expand fossil fuel development and consumption, the outlook for federal action on reducing climate-altering greenhouse gases is dire. Given that, reframing climate change to address cobenefit issues seems a logical strategy, and we can look for local government leaders in red states to show the way.

The Conversation

Rebecca J. Romsdahl, Professor of Environmental Science & Policy, University of North Dakota

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Mind the gaps: Reducing hunger by improving yields on small farms

Soybean farmer in Malawi. IFPRI/Mitchell Maher via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND
Soybean farmer in Malawi. IFPRI/Mitchell Maher via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Paul West, University of Minnesota

One of the most urgent challenges we face in the next several decades is feeding a growing world population without irreparably damaging Earth’s land, air and water systems. Nearly 800 million people worldwide are undernourished today. The U.N.‘s Sustainable Development Goals call for ending hunger and achieving food security by 2030.

The world is making progress in reducing hunger, but we have further to go. The annual Global Hunger Index, produced by the International Food Policy Research Institute, scores nations based on the proportion of their total population that is undernourished and several metrics that focus on children. Since 2000, the GHI has decreased across all regions of the world, but 50 countries – mainly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia – still have alarming or severe hunger rates.

At the Global Landscapes Initiative in the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, our research focuses on increasing global food security while reducing harmful impacts from agriculture to Earth’s natural resources. We have found that one key strategy to combating food insecurity – lack of access to nutritious foods – is increasing food production on small farms.

There are tremendous opportunities to increase yields throughout South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Increasing yields through new farming practices could triple maize production in sub-Saharan Africa and increase wheat and rice production in South Asia by about 50 percent. Gains on this scale could dramatically reduce hunger and food insecurity in some of the most vulnerable nations in the world.

The importance of small farms

The U.N. estimates that more than 70 percent of the world’s food-insecure people live in rural areas of developing countries where farming is typically the dominant land use and source of income. My colleague Leah Samberg recently led a study that combined household census data with satellite-derived land-cover data of croplands and pastures to map the average farm size in regions of the world dominated by smallholder farmers. In many countries with alarming and severe GHI scores, the average farm size is less than five hectares, or about 12 acres.

Small farms dominate South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, where the hunger index scores are highest. These farms currently produce 41 percent of global calories from croplands, and the majority of crops that are essential for food security in many regions, including rice, cassava, groundnuts and millet.

So why is hunger prevalent in these same areas? The problem is that yield trends for the world’s major staple grains – wheat, rice and maize – have stagnated throughout developing regions.

To address yield gaps – the difference between the amount of food that land is producing and the amount it is capable of producing – we need to quantify them. EarthStat, a joint project of the GLI and the University of British Columbia’s Ramankutty Lab, provides global maps of yield gaps for 16 major crops that account for about 85 percent of all calories produced on croplands. Other valuable resources include the Global Yield Gap Atlas and IFPRI’s CELL5M database.

These global tools are useful for targeting policy and investments for broad strategies. But they need to be adapted for local issues, such as increasing access to seeds, fertilizer and markets.

Increasing yields and protecting the environment

Many institutions working with smallholder farmers have shown it is possible to increase yields and also make production more sustainable and profitable. For example, they have promoted direct seeding in rice fields rather than transplanting nursery-grown sprouts. This practice reduces labor costs and decreases the time required for plants to mature.

Another strategy, modified rice intensification, uses improved mechanization to transplant younger seedlings and use less water. A third strategy is to occasionally dry out rice fields, which reduces water use and increases availability of soil nutrients. These methods, which increase yields with less water use and labor, are becoming widely adopted in India and can be used in other rice-growing regions.

Creating change across millions of farms requires tremendous time investments to understand farmers’ needs and challenges and to gain their trust. There is currently no Silicon Valley-style approach to quickly “hack” food production on small farms.

But more gradual approaches can be very effective. The nonprofit One Acre Fund has helped over 400,000 farmers across six countries in Africa increase farm income by 55 percent by improving their access to credit for seeds and fertilizer and training them in farming techniques.

Key leverage points

We can achieve food security and also promote sustainable agriculture by focusing on a small set of leverage points in the global food system. The two highest-payoff strategies are halting deforestation and changing irrigation management in rice paddies.

Agriculture expansion is the leading global driver of tropical deforestation, which has tremendous impacts on biodiversity and accounts for about 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Every unit of tropical land cleared leads to nearly twice the carbon loss and produces half as much food as a comparable unit in temperate zones. The stark trade-off occurs because lush tropical forests store lots of carbon and the yields gaps are commonly high. This means that increasing yields on existing tropical farmlands is much better for the environment than clearing new land for agriculture.

Many agriculture and development experts believe Africa is overdue for a Green Revolution, similar to the focused research and investments that produced dramatic yield increases in Asia and Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s. But agricultural expansion will likely be part of such an effort in Africa.

This will occur partly to produce more staple crops like cassava and sorghum. Currently, however, global markets for cash commodities like sugarcane are driving land grabs, reducing available farmland and using much more water than staple crops. Many institutions are working to improve seed varieties and soil management techniques to improve yields of staple crops, but these investments are small compared to the money going toward production of cash commodities.

Better irrigation management on rice farms is especially important in Asia, where rice is the main source of calories for many people. Growing it in flooded paddies produces large quantities of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Approaches such as the techniques mentioned above can maintain or improve yields and reduce water consumption, and even small changes can produce large reductions in overall GHG emissions without reducing rice production.

Farmers plant rice in a paddy field in Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia.
IFPRI/IanMasias via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Beyond the farm

Sustainably increasing food production is an important piece of the puzzle, but it does not necessarily ensure that people will have constant access to food or will be well-nourished. As one example, studies have shown that farm households are more likely to have enough food to feed their families if they earn off-farm income in addition to raising crops.

An international group of food and nutrition scholars proposed a new research agenda in late 2016 that shifts the emphasis from calories – that is, feeding people – to nourishment. In their view, we need to organize an international effort as large as global campaigns against HIV/AIDs or smoking to remake global food systems so that healthy diets are available to everyone.

It would be overly optimistic to say that eliminating hunger is within reach, but we have the knowledge and tools to achieve this goal. The biggest breakthroughs likely will come through integrated strategies for producing and increasing access to nutritious food.

The Conversation

Paul West, Co-Director and Lead Scientist of the Global Landscapes Initiative, Institute on the Environment, University of Minnesota

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How Trump’s deportation plan threatens America’s food and wine supply

Grape pickers carry loads of cabernet sauvignon grapes to a trailer bin during harvest at the Clos du Bois vineyard in Geyserville, California. AP Photo/Eric Risberg
Grape pickers carry loads of cabernet sauvignon grapes to a trailer bin during harvest at the Clos du Bois vineyard in Geyserville, California. AP Photo/Eric Risberg

Justine Vanden Heuvel, Cornell University and Mary Jo Dudley, Cornell University

Mass deportations of up to three million undocumented immigrants are expected to begin in January, when President-elect Donald Trump takes the oath of office and begins to turn his campaign promises into government policy.

While Trump claims criminals are his primary target, reports suggest there aren’t enough of them to actually reach his goal. A prominent migration think tank estimates that only 820,000 undocumented immigrants have been convicted of a crime.

So that means Trump would have to deport several million immigrants without criminal records to reach his goal. And that’s likely just a start, given Trump’s promise to deport all 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

What he doesn’t seem to realize is how integral undocumented workers are to America’s food supply. Our scholarship at Cornell combined with research in other areas of agriculture reveal the significant impact his plans would have on the foods we eat and beverages we consume each and every day.

Who’s in the net

To meet the stated goal of two to three million deportations, law-abiding undocumented immigrants will likely be caught up in the net. These people work in a range of industries, accounting for about 16 percent of those employeed in agriculture, 12 percent in construction, 9 percent in hospitality and 6 percent in manufacturing.

Farm workers pick strawberries along a hillside in Oceanside, Calif.
AP PHoto/Lenny Ignelzi

In addition to the humanitarian and logistical issues associated with such a massive deportation, there’s another problem: The American economy relies on these industries and all the people they employ. If all undocumented workers were deported, our economy would be 3 percent to 6 percent smaller.

But the impact on agriculture and related industries, which account for 5 percent of U.S. GDP, is the most alarming, in part because about half of farm laborers are undocumented. They are the ones who toil in the fields and barns to produce the foods and beverages that are integral to the well-being and cultural fabric of our nation, despite the fact that they often can’t afford to purchase the products they help produce.

Last week, many Americans celebrated Thanksgiving with the traditional meal. But did they consider who produced that food? The succulent turkey, potatoes roasted to perfection, seasoned squash: undocumented immigrants produced most of it. Even the wine – or milk – that washed it all down was produced with immigrant labor. The Thanksgiving holiday tradition that holds so much cultural significance for many of us relies on farm workers who are in significant danger of deportation.

Since these immigrants do much of the heavy lifting in American agriculture, preserving the current workforce and ensuring a continuing supply of laborers is a top priority for producers – and should be for consumers who value the foods and beverages we currently enjoy on our dinner tables.

So what would happen if Trump goes ahead with his plans?

Stewards of the land

If you enjoy wine, consider this: The wine industry in the U.S. is heavily reliant on immigrant labor.

Vineyards employ the majority of immigrants who work in the wine industry, and these skilled workers do everything from planting and pruning the vines to hand harvesting the fruit and preparing it for market. They scout for pests and diseases, water and nutrient issues, and are stewards of the land. Their attention to detail in the timing and implementation of various viticultural practices plays a significant role in determining the characteristics of the resulting wine.

Some farm laborers work throughout the year with various tasks in grape production, but at the time of harvest additional workers are needed. Many of these workers have been working in the U.S. in other agricultural operations.

Were the current workers deported, who would harvest the fruit? With fewer workers available, labor costs would skyrocket due to competition among wineries for the remaining workers, and these costs would need to be passed onto consumers through an increase in bottle prices.

Immigration hardliners argue that in the absence of local workers the wine industry could turn to mechanization. Wine grapes can be – and often are – harvested by machines, but the cost of a mechanical harvester is approximately US$300,000, a price tag that is far too hefty for most small producers. Some vineyards are too steep and/or the terrain too rugged to safely operate a mechanical harvester. And mechanical harvest of fruit can change the characteristics of the wine.

Undocumented workers are an important part of the farm workforce.
AP Photo/Alan Diaz

Beyond the vineyard

Wine producers aren’t the only ones who are worried about a potential shortage of agricultural labor.

A study commissioned by the National Milk Producers Federation suggested that if federal labor and immigration policies result in a 50 percent reduction in foreign-born workers, more than 3,500 dairy farms would close, resulting in a significant decrease in milk production and an increase in milk retail prices of about 30 percent. Total elimination of immigrant labor would increase milk prices by 90 percent.

Growers of fruits, vegetables and nuts as well as producers of meat and other dairy products would be particularly hard hit by a lack of farm labor. A report commissioned by the American Farm Bureau Federation predicted a decrease in vegetable production of 15 percent to 31 percent and a drop in fruit production of 30 percent to 61 percent if undocumented workers are deported and the border is closed. The group also predicted a rise in food prices of 5 percent to 6 percent and a smaller supply of fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy available for sale.

Americans unlikely to fill the gap

Some may argue that these laborer positions could – and should – be filled by American workers. But the reality is that these positions are not considered desirable due to the physical demands and the need to work outside in inclement weather.

A stark example of the need for immigrant labor was apparent in 2011, when the North Carolina Growers Association had 6,500 farm jobs available, all of them in or next to counties with unemployment rates greater than 10 percent. Only 268 of the approximately 500,000 unemployed North Carolinians applied for a position. Ninety percent of them were hired, but only 163 showed up to work on the first day, and only 7 workers – of the 6,500 required – completed the growing season.

Clearly, these aren’t the jobs Trump promised, nor are they the jobs Americans want.

But while many Americans will choose to remain unemployed rather than accept a position as a farm laborer, ongoing research by the Cornell Farmworker Program shows that immigrant workers often enjoy this work. An undocumented worker at a dairy farm in New York reported:

“I like the work. I work very hard for many hours at a time and the work can sometimes be quite dirty, but I like being outdoors and with the animals. I worked in construction for a few months, but I prefer to be in a rural location where I can breathe fresh air. It reminds me of home.”

Not only do they enjoy it, but immigrant workers succeed at it too. “They’re reliable,” said an upstate New York dairy farmer. “Their work quality is excellent. They’ll do anything. They are polite. Everything. There is nothing to complain about.”

Time to stock up?

So while kicking felons out of the country is justifiable, it seems to us that deporting the law-abiding undocumented workers who help drive our economy by undertaking jobs that Americans refuse to do is not.

A better solution to the problem of our undocumented immigration, in our view, is to give unauthorized workers an opportunity to obtain permanent legal status – for the good of our economy. Our research shows that 85 percent of New York citizens support either temporary work permits or a path to legal citizenship for undocumented workers.

This election season may have driven many of us to drink, but if Trump’s deportation plan comes to fruition you can rely on one thing: the U.S.-produced food and wine that you enjoy with family and friends at your dinner table will become both more expensive and less available.

That leaves us with two options: writing our representatives to express concern about the deportation proposal or stocking up our cellars to prepare for lean years ahead.

The Conversation

Justine Vanden Heuvel, Associate Professor of Viticulture, Cornell University and Mary Jo Dudley, Director of Cornell Farmworker Program, Cornell University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.