RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Getting Used to Climate Change

One January, I had the chance to visit a tropical nation. We left Missouri where temperatures were below freezing and arrived where it was a comfortable 80 degrees. The biggest surprise, to me, was that people were bundled up. Big puffy ski jackets. Scarves and hats. It was winter, after all, and their bodies said it was chilly.

Flash to here and now, in Missouri, where we’re experiencing weeks of 100-degree weather and severe drought this summer. For the western United States, it’s more like the second or third year of severe drought. And, rather than look for solutions, we’re getting used to it. In fact, the most recent version of the USDA farm bill will provide increased amounts of insurance at government expense for crop failures due to weather.

This means that, rather than working on solutions, we’ll just insure the regular suspects so they’ll continue to make money. Rather than thinking about raising crops that could perhaps help the situation, like, say, food crops to feed the neighbors and take a few trucks off the interstate, we’ll pay for failures in the old commodities, corn and soybeans. Here’s the irony: As much as half of these bushels of commodities are raised to convert to ethanol and bio-diesel. These fuels require gallons and gallons of water, tapping into the aquifers even more drastically so we can ship in the food that we could be raising for each other.

And, if you need more proof that the commodities organizations are controlling the USDA, consider the increasing number of genetically modified crops creeping into the fields. In 2011, GMO alfalfa was approved in February, despite over 200,000 comments against it to USDA. The Supreme Court had even ruled against it, but that ruling was, to Monsanto, just a bump in the Roundup-paved road. The industry just piled into the hearing room, insisted that their financial futures were at stake, and, hey presto! Approval!

This year, the industry’s plan is to gain approval for crops modified to resist 2,4 D (a common herbicide used against weeds). This new freakiness is necessary, according to industry, because of superweeds that can’t be killed with Roundup. The superweeds are a fact. Drive through farm country and you see them popping up in bean fields, ready to menace the innocent combine as it speeds across the rows. In fact, the GMO plants themselves have become superweeds and you see GMO corn popping up in the rows of GMO beans.

But approving another whole class of GMO crops is ludicrous. Just as weeds have become immune to Roundup, they’ll become immune to 2,4 D. In fact, farmers know of 2,4 D immunity already. And, 2,4 D, you might remember, was half the formula for Dow Chemical’s Agent Orange, the defoliant used in the jungles of Vietnam. So, farming and consumer groups have sent comments to Tom Vilsack, USDA director, signed by more than 365,000 people against the new approval.

In response to critics’ comments, Dow distributed a list of organizations that insist that 2,4 D approval is the next great leap forward. The majority of signers on the Dow list have ties to the biotech industry, especially to Monsanto, the company that launched the biotech industry and, by the way, launched the march toward superweeds. According to Ashley Portero, writing for EcoFarm, Monsanto provides financial support to at least three of the groups — the American Seed Trade Association, American Sugarbeet Growers Association and the National Wheat Growers Association.

None of these organizations wants a real solution, for superweeds or for the super hot summer. Never mind that we’re all like the frogs in simmering water … will we know when it’s too hot? And where will we hop to?

And when will we do something to try to stop it? When will the TV newscasters start to say, “Scientists say that global warming is a fact, caused by human activities ...” but here comes the weather man, reporting that we’re getting record heat but not mentioning the possibility that we could change anything. Drive less. Live smaller. Eat local. Stay home and care for our neighborhoods. When will some pundit say, “now that electrical failures due to crazy weather are becoming common, we should de-centralize our electrical service?”

On our farm’s open house days, we’ve changed our tour so there’s more shade and less walking, but I’m amazed that folks show up. And they listen as attentively as ever, and notice as much as they ever did. The only complaints come from teenagers doomed to walk around the fields with their parents, and that’s pretty much how it’s always been. In fact, people (by which I mean grown-ups) are surprised when I say, “thanks for visiting, in all this heat…”

They say something like, “Well, that’s how it is …” Or maybe something about staying hydrated or hiding ice cubes in their neckerchiefs. So, when the temperatures get back to the 80s, will we be searching for our ski sweaters?

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. She blogs at Email:

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2012

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