Our food system’s reckoning with nature is coming

A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future.​ This Article Was Originally Published June 5, 2019 in Environmental Health News.

On a pleasant spring afternoon nearly five decades ago, I accompanied my father as he walked through our peach and cherry orchards near the Wasatch mountains of Utah.

The bright colors of pastel blossoms in full display did little to ease the anxiety in his face. The cold and snow of winter had given way to warming temperatures announcing an early spring. As swelling tree buds transformed into blossoms, they became vulnerable to freezing temperatures when colder weather returned.

The recent hard spring frost worried him. The reckoning about to happen was unavoidable.

As we walked between rows of trees, he plucked random blossoms for further inspection. Peeling back the petals he looked for the tiny ovary nestled at the flower's base. A still green color brought a sigh of relief. A brown or black color foretold the loss of fruit.

Experiences like these taught me no matter how hard we worked as farmers, food availability always comes down to nature and the environment.

Reckoning with warming

Such memories are never far from the surface when I see images of farmland and farm equipment submerged under water, stranded cattle with no place to go and nothing to eat, or fires raining destruction across vast landscapes.

Farmers today are having to reckon with the unwanted consequences of a warming planet.

From global records first kept in 1850, 17 of the 18 hottest years happened after 2000. In the U.S. alone, since 1980, there have been 241 extreme climatic events, each exceeding $1 billion in losses. In the past three years, the average number of billion-dollar losses has more than doubled the long-term trend.

Severe flooding in the Midwest, where much of the nation's grains and meat animals are raised; intense drought followed by fires then torrential rains in California, the country's number one agricultural state; a record-challenging tornado season — all serve notice that the new normal is anything but normal.

After each event, the reckoning always follows.

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