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A dried up pond in Illinois, used as a cattle watering hole.

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Photo: STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald  —  Jonathan Patcheck herds cattle toward the sale barn at Hi-Country Cattle Auction in Breen, Colorado. Many ranchers are selling their cattle as hay prices remain high and poor irrigation forecasts indicate a bad year for hay production.  The record drought will push food prices up by 3 percent to 4 percent next year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has predicted.

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Parched corn crop in Nebraska, ruined.  The nation’s widest drought in decades is spreading, with more than half of the continental United States now in some stage of drought and most of the rest enduring abnormally dry conditions. The corn crop is in the greatest danger; corn cannot pollinate without moisture. The U.S. ships more than half of the world’s corn exports.

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The New York Times
By GARY PAUL NABHAN, Published: July 25, 2013

 

TUCSON, Ariz. — THIS summer the tiny town of Furnace Creek, Calif., may once again grace the nation’s front pages. Situated in Death Valley, it last made news in 1913, when it set the record for the world’s hottest recorded temperature, at 134 degrees. With the heat wave currently blanketing the Western states, and given that the mercury there has already reached 130 degrees, the news media is awash in speculation that Furnace Creek could soon break its own mark.

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Graphic: Angie Wang

Such speculation, though, misses the real concern posed by the heat wave, which covers an area larger than New England. The problem isn’t spiking temperatures, but a new reality in which long stretches of triple-digit days are common — threatening not only the lives of the millions of people who live there, but also a cornerstone of the American food supply.

People living outside the region seldom recognize its immense contribution to American agriculture: roughly 40 percent of the net farm income for the country normally comes from the 17 Western states; cattle and sheep production make up a significant part of that, as do salad greens, dry beans, onions, melons, hops, barley, wheat and citrus fruits. The current heat wave will undeniably diminish both the quality and quantity of these foods.

The most vulnerable crops are those that were already in flower and fruit when temperatures surged, from apricots and barley to wheat and zucchini. Idaho farmers have documented how their potato yields have been knocked back because their heat-stressed plants are not developing their normal number of tubers. Across much of the region, temperatures on the surface of food and forage crops hit 105 degrees, at least 10 degrees higher than the threshold for most temperate-zone crops.

What’s more, when food and forage crops, as well as livestock, have had to endure temperatures 10 to 20 degrees higher than the long-term averages, they require far more water than usual. The Western drought, which has persisted for the last few years, has already diminished both surface water and groundwater supplies and increased energy costs, because of all the water that has to be pumped in from elsewhere.

If these costs are passed on to consumers, we can again expect food prices, especially for beef and lamb, to rise, just as they did in 2012, the hottest year in American history. So extensive was last year’s drought that more than 1,500 counties — about half of all the counties in the country — were declared national drought disaster areas, and 90 percent of those were hit by heat waves as well.

The answer so far has been to help affected farmers with payouts from crop insurance plans. But while we can all sympathize with affected farmers, such assistance is merely a temporary response to a long-term problem.

Fortunately, there are dozens of time-tested strategies that our best farmers and ranchers have begun to use. The problem is that several agribusiness advocacy organizations have done their best to block any federal effort to promote them, including leaving them out of the current farm bill, or of climate change legislation at all.

One strategy would be to promote the use of locally produced compost to increase the moisture-holding capacity of fields, orchards and vineyards. In addition to locking carbon in the soil, composting buffers crop roots from heat and drought while increasing forage and food-crop yields. By simply increasing organic matter in their fields from 1 percent to 5 percent, farmers can increase water storage in the root zones from 33 pounds per cubic meter to 195 pounds.

And we have a great source of compostable waste: cities. Since much of the green waste in this country is now simply generating methane emissions from landfills, cities should be mandated to transition to green-waste sorting and composting, which could then be distributed to nearby farms.

Second, we need to reduce the bureaucratic hurdles to using small- and medium-scale rainwater harvesting and gray water (that is, waste water excluding toilet water) on private lands, rather than funneling all runoff to huge, costly and vulnerable reservoirs behind downstream dams. Both urban and rural food production can be greatly enhanced through proven techniques of harvesting rain and biologically filtering gray water for irrigation. However, many state and local laws restrict what farmers can do with such water.

Moreover, the farm bill should include funds from the Strikeforce Initiative of the Department of Agriculture to help farmers transition to forms of perennial agriculture — initially focusing on edible tree crops and perennial grass pastures — rather than providing more subsidies to biofuel production from annual crops. Perennial crops not only keep 7.5 to 9.4 times more carbon in the soil than annual crops, but their production also reduces the amount of fossil fuels needed to till the soil every year.

We also need to address the looming seed crisis. Because of recent episodes of drought, fire and floods, we are facing the largest shortfall in the availability of native grass, forage legume, tree and shrub seeds in American history. Yet current budget-cutting proposals threaten to significantly reduce the number of federal plant material centers, which promote conservation best practices.

If our rangelands, forests and farms are to recover from the devastating heat, drought and wildfires of the last three years, they need to be seeded with appropriate native forage and ground-cover species to heal from the wounds of climatic catastrophes. To that end, the farm bill should direct more money to the underfinanced seed collection and distribution programs.

Finally, the National Plant Germplasm System, the Department of Agriculture’s national reserve of crop seeds, should be charged with evaluating hundreds of thousands of seed collections for drought and heat tolerance, as well as other climatic adaptations — and given the financing to do so. Thousands of heirloom vegetables and heritage grains already in federal and state collections could be rapidly screened and then used by farmers for a fraction of what it costs a biotech firm to develop, patent and market a single “climate-friendly” crop.

Investing in climate-change adaptation will be far more cost-effective than doling out $11.6 billion in crop insurance payments, as the government did last year, for farmers hit with diminished yields or all-out crop failures.

Unfortunately, some agribusiness organizations fear that if they admit that accelerating climate change is already affecting farmers, it will shackle them with more regulations. But those organizations are hardly serving their member farmers and ranchers if they keep them at risk of further suffering from heat extremes and extended drought.

And no one can reasonably argue that the current system offers farmers any long-term protection. Last year some farmers made more from insurance payments than from selling their products, meaning we are dangerously close to subsidizing farmers for not adapting to changing climate conditions.

It’s now up to our political and business leaders to get their heads out of the hot sand and do something tangible to implement climate change policy and practices before farmers, ranchers and consumers are further affected. Climate adaptation is the game every food producer and eater must now play. A little investment coming too late will not help us adapt in time to this new reality.

 

Gary Paul Nabhan is a research scientist at the Southwest Center at the University of Arizona and the author of “Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land: Lessons From Desert Farmers in Adapting to Climate Uncertainty.”

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The Greening of Canadian Campuses

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Photo: Owen Egan, via McGill University  —  McGill University students working on a site outside Montreal where vegetables are grown for dining halls in the city center.

 

The New York Times
By ELAINE SMITH
Published: July 25, 2013

 

TORONTO — Athletes at the University of Toronto shower with water heated by solar panels. Hundreds of elderly Montreal residents eat meals prepared from food grown by students on a McGill University campus.

Sustainability has become more than a fashionable buzzword on Canadian campuses; it has become enshrined both in university policy and in daily student life.

McGill’s Sustainability Projects Fund, for example, imposes a student fee of 50 Canadian cents per credit that is matched by the university.

“That’s an amazing level of support at a time of economic hardship when everyone is cutting back,” said Martin Krayer von Krauss, manager of the McGill Office of Sustainability. “Students stepped up and put their own money into it.”

“There is a general sense that as one of Canada’s leading universities, we have a responsibility,” he said. “Manifesting excellence means finding solutions to Canada’s most pressing problems.”

McGill Feeding McGill has responded to student demand for more organic, locally sourced food by bringing together dormitory cafeteria services and the Plant Science Department.

The agriculture program, based at the Macdonald campus in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, about 40 minutes outside the city of Montreal, produces 40,000 kilograms, or more than 88,000 pounds, of vegetables annually for student dining halls downtown. Meanwhile, downtown students taking part in the Edible Campus project grow vegetables that are used by a Meals on Wheels program that serves mobility-impaired residents in a low-income neighborhood.

At the McGill Life Sciences Complex, students spearheaded a Shut Your Sash program, which encouraged lab users to close their fume hoods when they were not in use.

“The students set out to create behavior change in one campus building and they reduced energy consumption per hood by 80 percent,” said Dr. Krayer von Krauss, adding that the change saved 77,000 Canadian dollars, or $75,800, a year.

Students are now considering how the project can be rolled out in other laboratories, with the potential for another 1.3 million dollars in savings if they achieve the same rate of success.

Susanna Klassen, a fourth-year environmental science student, has been involved with sustainability projects since her freshman year, when she became one of the coordinators of the McGill Farmers’ Market, which is held on campus during the autumn. It offers a program in which shareholders preorder a weekly box of food before the harvest, with the funds going to farmers during the time of year when their expenses are the highest.

“You share in the risks of agriculture,” she said. “Some crops aren’t as available in some years, depending on the weather. But you always get your money’s worth, are introduced to new varieties and eat more seasonally.”

The program also helped broaden the appeal of the market. “It has been a way to reach out to professionals in the city,” Ms. Klassen said.

Neil Connelly, director of the Office of Campus Planning and Sustainability at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, said he saw increased interest in environmental matters among young people. “We were the first in Western Canada to offer a transit pass for all students, and we’ve seen a major shift in travel patterns and a reduction of cars on campus,” he said. In 1996, about 75 percent of the faculty, staff and students arrived on campus by car; today 50 percent do, according to campus transit surveys. Now, former parking lots are being transformed into new buildings.

“We have 1,000 fewer parking spaces than a decade ago, and new buildings have shower facilities for cyclists,” Mr. Connelly said. “There’s more awareness at the high-school level, and students coming onto campus have higher expectations of how the campus operates.”

At the University of Toronto, students are encouraged to take simple energy-saving measures, like turning off the lights when they leave a room.

“The projects we lead are on the behavioral and cultural side of sustainability,” said Tyler Hunt, a project coordinator at the university’s Sustainability Office.

The university is celebrating 25 years of sustainability initiatives. But Paul Leitch, director of sustainability for the facilities and services department at the central St. George campus, says that energy conservation on campus dates back a century.

“In 1977, the university brought on board its first energy manager, which was way ahead of its time,” Mr. Leitch said. “But 100 years ago, the university converted its coal-fired energy system to a district heating-cooling loop, which was leading edge at the time and still is.”

The university created an automated system to control building temperatures. It also has one of the highest recycling rates — 74 percent — of any institution in Canada.

“We recycle paper, glass and metals and it’s very successful all across campus,” Mr. Leitch said. “When you conserve resources, you have to sustain that.”

Sustainability has gone beyond ad hoc student projects to become a part of official university policy.

At McGill, there is a 2010 sustainability policy, with work under way on Vision 2020: Creating a Sustainable McGill.

It is a core element of the 2007 strategic plan at the University of Victoria, whose president was one of the original signatories to the University and College Presidents’ Climate Change Statement of Action for Canada in 2008.

Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, which signed on in 2010, will issue a president’s sustainability plan every five years. The University of Alberta has created a sustainability commitment and guiding principles.

The focus is on encouraging a new generation to think about the environment before they hit the workplace.

“Why education, when it includes only 3 percent or so of environmental users in the world?” said Niles Barnes, senior programs coordinator for the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, which counts 61 Canadian colleges and universities among its 892 members.

“We may have a small energy footprint, but we have a 100 percent educational footprint. All of our future teachers, doctors and other professionals pass through the educational system.”