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We’re All in the Same Lifeboat Now: Climate Change Comes for Farmers, from Mozambique to Iowa

September 2019

A version of this piece originally appeared on Medium.

It felt ominous when I was in Iowa in March that both Iowa and Mozambique were underwater from cyclone-induced flooding widely attributed to climate change. I’d studied and written about both places in my recent book. These farming communities are as distant from one another — geographically and developmentally — as they could be, yet there they were in the same metaphorical lifeboat trying to save their families and farms from the floods.

I saw the devastation in central Mozambique in June — houses still missing their roofs, schools barely functioning, and farmers without seeds for the coming rainy season. The March cyclone wiped out crops that were nearly ready for harvest, leaving communities dependent for the present on food aid and without seeds for this year’s planting.

Parts of Iowa were underwater when I was there in March, and today Iowa and much of the Midwest is still suffering periodic flooding from the wettest year on record. Many farmers couldn’t plant because the ground was too wet, or they got their crops in late, reducing yields. There were only three reported deaths from the flooding; Iowa had the lifeboats to get people out of danger. But they are not out of the destructive path of climate change, and I sensed a new awareness of that danger, suddenly clear and present.

With farmers on opposite sides of the globe suffering the same types of severe storms provoked by a changing climate, I imagined them all in the same lifeboat. They would have a lot to learn from one another. The Mozambicans might tell their Iowan boat-mates that U.S. farmers, with their greenhouse-gas-emitting industrial-scale farms, bore at least some of the responsibility for the rising waves of climate catastrophe. But those African peasants might also share their secret to surviving climate change, one that could help reverse Iowa’s own self-destructive agricultural path. Listen closely, Iowa, can you hear it? Diversidade, whisper the Mozambicans. Diversity. It may just be the key to climate resilience, from Africa to Iowa.

A tale of two cyclones

The U.S. and African storms were both described as “devastating,” and they were. But devastation looks much, much worse in a place as poor as Mozambique, on the east coast of Southern Africa. And they don’t have many lifeboats.

Cyclone Idai struck the central Mozambique coastline March 15 as one of the most powerful storms ever to hit Sub-Saharan Africa. That is, until Cyclone Kenneth slammed into northern Mozambique six weeks later as a Category 4 storm with winds of 140 mph.

Cyclone Idai delivered the more crushing blow. It came ashore in central Mozambique near Beira, the country’s fourth largest city and its most important port. Idai then took a destructive path inland to Malawi and Zimbabwe. A weaker version of the storm had already dumped heavy rain on the region a week earlier before heading out to sea and gaining strength to make another pass through the already-ravaged landscape. The nine-day rampage left at least at least 1,300 dead across the region, but many remain missing, feared lost in floodwaters that swept many out to sea.

Climate denial may sit in the U.S. White House, but few in Africa seem to doubt that the intensity of Cyclone Idai, the worst ever in the area, was related to climate change. Rising water temperatures in the Indian Ocean are increasing the severity and duration of cyclones. They are also dumping more rain on affected areas, exactly as we saw with Idai and then Kenneth. Storm surges are also more damaging with sea levels an estimated eight inches higher due to global warming.

Climate change: A clear and present danger

Indeed, climate change is no looming future threat for farmers in Southern Africa. It is a clear and present danger. Over the last five years, I’d heard story after story from farmers in the region about erratic rains, severe storms, rising temperatures, and long droughts. I’d also witnessed their climate resilience, which many attributed to their ecological farming methods.

The town of Marracuene lies about 45 minutes up the coast from Maputo, both mercifully south of Idai’s path. There, some 7,000 farmers affiliated with UNAC, the national peasants union, have ridden a climate rollercoaster over the last five years. For the last seven years, rains have been inconsistent, and two severe droughts have wiped out food crops. Temperatures have climbed to unprecedented highs, topping 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Irrigation water from the Incomati River dried up, then rising sea levels drove salt water back up the dried streambed and into farmers irrigation channels, poisoning their fields. Severe storms have brought flooding rains, washing away newly planted seeds from the fields.

I call drought and floods the evil twins of climate change, from Mozambique to Iowa. These farmers were under assault.

I asked how they were surviving, how their families were eating. One after another told me things were hard but they were okay for now. They credited ecological farming for their climate resilience. How could farming practices save them from such a wide range of calamities? They recounted the ways.

They inter-plant a variety of crops in wide raised beds instead of planting only corn in rows. They nourish it with composted manure rather than synthetic fertilizer. The soil has gained fertility, including the addition of rich organic material. That helps retain moisture when rains fail. And soils don’t wash away so quickly in a flood since they are held in place with well-rooted crops.

Most important for food security, crop diversity gives them not only diet diversity but climate resilience. If drought kills the corn crop, they have cassava, sweet potatoes, or sorghum that survive to get their families through the hungry season. Their organizations’ seed banks provide insurance against crop losses, so last season’s crop failure doesn’t turn into this season’s seed shortage.

As farmer Florentina Samuel told me, taking a break from preparing her two acres of land: “We are still suffering, but if this next crop is good we will be okay…. The soil is better now, softer, and good for different crops.” She crumbled some dark, rich soil in her fingers.

They have eschewed the prevailing advice from their government and international donors to use high-yield commercial corn seeds and synthetic fertilizers, part of the push for an African Green Revolution and what donors call “climate-smart agriculture.” Marracuene’s farmers call monocultures of seeds that can’t be replanted, fed by fossil-fuel-based inputs, “climate-stupid agriculture.”

In Buzi, one of the areas hardest hit by Idai, they were living on food aid in June and worrying about eating tomorrow, because they lost this year’s seeds, which they would have saved from the last harvest. They had nothing to plant and they feared that the only seeds aid agencies would provide would be commercial varieties of corn and rice they would then have to buy every year, since those seeds are bred to produce well for only one season. They can’t be saved. That leaves farmers dependent on purchased inputs they can scarcely afford. And it robs them of the kind of crop diversity that makes them more resilient in the face of climate change.

Cyclone Idai struck on the Ides of March, a date in the Roman calendar considered a deadline for the settling of debts. This year, it served as a painful reminder that industrialized countries have yet to settle the climate debt they owe the rest of the world for having disrupted Earth’s life-support systems.

As Amnesty International’s secretary general Kumi Naidoo told the BBC, “There is one inescapable and burning injustice we cannot stress enough. The people of Mozambique are paying the price for dangerous climate change when they have done next to nothing to cause this crisis.”

Iowa: implicated in climate change

You can’t say the same about Iowa. Every part of Iowa’s industrial model of agriculture is implicated and threatened by climate change. Implicated because industrial agriculture is a major emitter of greenhouse gasses; 14 percent are attributed directly to agriculture. That jumps to 23 percent, according to a recent UN report, when deforestation from agriculture-induced land-use changes, is taken into account. High rates of nitrogen-fertilizer applied to Iowa’s corn fields contribute to emissions of nitrous oxide, more potent than carbon dioxide. The state’s factory farms add to that problem when concentrated manure is sprayed on farmers’ fields.

Threatened because the evil twins of climate change are coming for Iowa’s farmers too. NASA modeling for Iowa shows a high probability of more intense storms, like the recent cyclone, with a growing threat of long droughts. Rising temperatures are making nights too warm for optimal production, and high daytime temperatures are drying out the plants in soil no longer rich enough in organic matter to retain much moisture. Summer rains are less consistent; farmers can’t count on rain in that critical two-week period after the corn tassels.

Many years it is now just too hot and too dry, depressing yields. A University of Minnesota study estimated that by 2075 Iowa corn yields could be 20–50% lower than they are today.

Like their Mozambican counterparts, some Iowa farmers could face the loss of two years of production to the recent flooding. Many lost this year’s crop to late planting, and some lost last year’s as they watched storm waters destroy last year’s stored crops to water damage. They hadn’t sold their corn and beans because prices were so low and President Trump’s trade war had destroyed the export markets they have come to depend on.

Many farmers now fear losing their farms. Debt levels are rising and farm prices remain low despite the flooding. Most vulnerable are those who owe on mortgages or farm equipment, purchased in the boom years when ethanol drove crop prices to unprecedented highs. Those who rent land are also struggling, and more than half of Iowa’s farmland is now rented. Many expect the floodwaters will add to a wave of consolidation as large landowners and outside investors buy up distressed farms at auction, further hollowing out rural areas.

Losing Iowa, little by little

Because of the way they farm, even those who keep their farms are losing them — little by little. Iowa has lost half its topsoil to erosion, from excessive row-cropping with little attention to soil-saving measures like cover-cropping. Half-a-million acres of land came out of conservation in the last decade as farmers planted every inch of land trying to cash in on high corn prices from the ethanol boom. When the cyclone hit, most agricultural land lay bare, with no cover crop to hold the topsoil in place. The sediment-filled floodwaters flowed straight into rivers and streams with no conserved grasslands to filter the run-off. Eventually, the soil and chemicals run all the way down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.

Experts estimate that Iowa is losing topsoil four times faster than it can create it. Soil is only a renewable resource if you farm it in a way that protects and renews it.

Same with that other renewable resource — water. Iowa’s agriculture is mainly rain-fed, but meat and ethanol production is draining the Jordan and Dakota aquifers. It takes five gallons of water a day to raise a hog, three to distill a gallon of ethanol from corn. Experts predict that those huge aquifers will run dry If ethanol and meat production grow at projected rates.

Meanwhile, Iowa’s drinking water is contaminated with agricultural pollutants. The state’s streams and rivers flow with nitrates, threatening drinking water in Des Moines and other urban areas. Well-water may be no safer. A recent report showed that barely one-quarter of the nearly 300,000 private wells in the state have had the water tested, and many of those that have show unsafe levels of nitrates and bacteria. Nitrate contamination nearly doubled between 2002 and 2017. The report’s authors cite fertilizer from agriculture as the cause.

In diversity lies strength

Proposals for a Green New Deal have focused welcome attention on the unsustainable nature of Midwest agriculture, from climate emissions to vulnerability. The question is what to do about it. Iowa’s farm landscape will never resemble Mozambique’s, but Iowa may well have something to learn from those small-scale farmers on the other side of the globe when it comes to climate resilience.

One key lesson: In diversity lies strength.

Iowa’s farmers won’t be intercropping their corn and soybeans; their machines are designed for monocultures. But they could add diversity to their two-crop rotations by letting some of their fields go to grasslands and by letting those grasses feed cattle. That was the norm on a lot of farms before Iowa’s agriculture overspecialized into corn, soy, hogs, and then ethanol. It could be again.

Iowa State scientists have demonstrated that extending the corn-soy rotation to include grasslands could have dramatic environmental and economic benefits. Their Marsden Farm project shows an 85% reduction in fertilizer use, a 97% drop in herbicide use, the elimination of soil erosion and water pollution from runoff, and improved soil fertility over time. Those grasslands would not only sequester carbon in the soil, they would do wonders for climate resilience, rebuilding stable, moisture-holding topsoil instead of washing it away.

The economic benefits are huge as well; this is no trade-off between economics and the environment. Marsden researchers report no loss in productivity with reduced input use, and the farm is as or more profitable than a conventional farm. The added economic benefit, if such practices were widespread, would be a rise in farm prices for corn and soybeans, as reduced corn and soy acres cut into today’s chronic oversupply of both crops. If farmers grazed cattle on their renewed grasslands, they would not only get more for the crops they grow, they would also diversify their incomes with the production of grass-fed beef, which now gets a nice premium price.

Sounds like the kind of “win-win-win” solution we’re all looking for, right? Not if you’re agribusiness. Public (and farmer) gains are company losses. Reductions in fertilizer use cut into sales and profits. Seed and chemical companies lose sales if land is pulled out of corn and soybeans. So do equipment manufacturers. And higher crop prices for farmers? Those look like higher feed costs for Smithfield, Tyson, and other factory farmers. Higher corn prices increase operating costs for Archer Daniels Midland’s ethanol refineries.

“The answers are at hand”

Art Cullen, Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the tiny Storm Lake Times in northwest Iowa, says the time has come for the U.S. government to mandate and pay for the kind of shift implied by the Green New Deal. He argues that Iowa is currently growing about 30% more corn and soybeans than anyone wants, and chasing competitive export markets won’t change that, even if President Trump somehow wins his trade war.

The U.S. government used to condition participation in its subsidies and farm programs on better land stewardship. Such measures were a sound and effective response to the economic and environmental devastation of the Dust Bowl, the drought-induced soil storms that plagued the prairie states in the mid-1930s. Key to the effectiveness of those programs were measures to curb market incentives for individual farmers to overplant and over-fertilize their land. Farmers were rewarded with higher prices for their crops and with conservation payments, what we now refer to as payments for environmental services.

New studies show that as much as one-third of Iowa’s corn and soybean land is of low enough quality that it is unprofitable to cultivate, giving farmers yet another reason to diversify. Why farm land that loses money?

Cullen is not naïve about the challenges of winning government support for a shift to more sustainable, climate-resilient policies. He won his Pulitzer, after all, for uncovering a secret agribusiness fund, bankrolled by Monsanto, Koch Fertilizer, and other companies, to defeat a lawsuit seeking to control water pollution from agricultural fields around Storm Lake and other districts along the Upper Raccoon River.

“Nature will demand that we comply, or else,” Cullen writes in his post-Pulitzer book, Storm Lake. “The good news is that the answers are at hand…. Instincts are awakening in Iowa. We all know we have a problem. We know what is true and what really works.”

By moving back toward diverse farming, Iowa’s agro-industrial complex can stop spewing its own greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Those eventually rain down on poor farmers on the other side of the world, farmers who are just doing their best to grow food — and resilience — on their small farms in the face of an increasingly angry climate.

As Iowa’s own farmers are realizing, climate change rains on them too, in torrents, and it’s only going to get worse. They have a lot to gain by listening to what their fellow flood victims from Mozambique are telling them: Diversify. For our sake and your own.

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