Rising Water, Dwindling Rain: Our Food System Challenged by Climate Change

by Kelly Halpin

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Climate change is not the same everywhere, but it will affect us all.

Last week’s public forum, Rising Water, Dwindling Rain: Our Food System Challenged by Climate Change, featured a collaboration between Oxfam (an international NGO focused on human development and poverty reduction) and the Sierra Club North Star Chapter.  The panel brought together selected farmers and scientists from the U.S. and abroad to explore the visible effects that climate change has made on our food system.  Focusing on the need to secure food systems, the major takeaway of this discussion called upon the responsibility of both individual citizens and local/global institutions to act against climate change .

Mark Seeley, University of Minnesota climatologist, began the discussion with his witness of climate change through his research in Minnesota’s climate.  He brought to attention the risks of disparity and weakened community  connectedness under future changes.  Climate change will not equally affect us, he claims, as those with less access to proper infrastructure, ecosystems, services, and secure food/water supplies will see the worst of the effects.  He does believe though, that all will face some consequences, especially in Minnesota and the Midwestern U.S., with its large dependendence on the agricultural sector for business.  It is this prominence that requires a mitigation plan and adaption strategies, as climate change is occurring and will continue to do so without necessary action.

Following Seeley, International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scientist Jerry Hatfield presented a series of slides focusing on the direct and indirect effects of climate change on food/plant growth and soil health.  Heavy, severe storms in the spring and limited summer rainfall in the Midwest changes the growing season of food productions, depleting supply and food security. In order to secure these food systems, Hatfield places focus on the health of the soil used in agriculture systems.  He explained that Iowa loses ~2.4 lbs of soil per lb/ of corn throughout its growing season. In order to create a secure food system in the U.S., increased soil health through no-till farming and other practices must be used.

Missouri Farmer and writer Richard Oswald, continued with an account of the increased flooding in the area and his efforts to utilize better farming practices such as no-till farming and using solar panels/wind turbines on his fields.   As a part of the Missouri Farmers’ Union, Oswald has worked to promote carbon sequestration programs and the implementation of Prop C, a state-based effort to promote the use of renewable energy in Missouri.  Both these local and statewide efforts are a result of the visible climate change effects on food production.  While progress is visible through the individualized efforts of Oswald and others alike, they must be in conjunction with institutionalized efforts such as Prop C in order to be the most successful.

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And finally, Oxfam presented one of its most successful representatives, Virginia Ňuñonca, a small-scale farmer and producer in Perú. With the help of a translator, Virginia brought forth a very personal account of her efforts to ensure a livelihood under the challenges posed by climate change.  Many of Virginia’s previous approaches to agriculture, practices that have been passed down along family members for generations, are no longer effective with the changes in rainfall and soil health.  With the help of Oxfam, Virginia is beginning to adapt to “el cambio clima” and create a more sustainable, small agro-business establishment for her community.  Her efforts stand as a model for success and empowerment in rural communities that face the worst of climate change.  Both individuals and institutions must work against these challenges when securing food systems and livelihoods, as deemed necessary by the knowledge that climate change will affect us all.

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