Book: Climate change and the looming crisis in U.S. food production

In his new book Perilous Bounty, Tom Philpott takes a deep look at perhaps the two most important farming regions in the country, California and the Midwest, and finds that both face what might be called an under-appreciated existential crisis.

In California, recently engulfed in wildfires, the risk comes from extreme drought. In the Midwest, pummeled by extreme weather, the threat is storm-induced soil erosion that is literally washing away the basic building block of productive agriculture. And the common denominator for both: Climate change. 

Philpott, a columnist for Mother Jones who has been covering food and agriculture for more than a decade, said at a recent virtual event for FERN donors that the book grew out of steady reporting on these two regions. 

“I had really started during the California drought and that was a huge story — the hub of fruits and vegetables was suddenly in the grip of this historic drought,” he said. “But as I reported on it, what I was stunned by was just the extraction of resources, and water specifically, that was happening.” And those losses, he found, predated the drought that sharply cut water from 2011 to 2017. 

Farmers depended on the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains to feed the state’s massive irrigation network, but when that dried up in the drought, they simply drilled more and deeper wells, consuming groundwater resources. It had gotten so bad in places that minerals were leaching into these wells, or causing the ground to sink as the water was extracted. 

With climate change, he points out, it will only get worse, as researchers are projecting a more than 50-percent decline in the Sierra snowpack by mid-century. By the end of the century, the snowpack will be only 20 percent of the level it was when California’s agriculture industry took off in the last century. 

But it’s not simply climate. Researchers have found evidence of multi-year droughts etched into the prehistoric record, ones that forced Indigenous people to migrate. If a dry period coincides with the climatic predictions of water shortages, the produce from California upon which our food system depends may become a thing of the past.

“I’m seeing California go over a cliff in water use — literally the ground is sinking [as the aquifer gets pumped out]. And with climate change, they’re going to be relying on groundwater evermore, even as they approach the bottom of the aquifer,” he said.

As in California, Philpott also argues that climate change is pummeling the Midwest. Extreme storms are washing away soil from fields that are barren of any crops in the winter and spring. (A related movement to plant cover crops, protecting the soil and building fertility, have only been adopted by a small percentage of farmers).  

“These are the two nodes of the U.S. food system, actually crucial nodes in the global food system, and here we are watching them basically be abused to the point of collapse,” he said.  

Philpott got to see what the erosion looked like driving down a highway in Iowa with soil scientist Rick Cruse after a punishing rain. “Some of the plots had shoots of corn poking through; here and there, other patches were submerged in a foot or two of water … The landscape’s dominant feature by far: mud,” he writes in the book. 

The USDA estimates that Iowa croplands generate five tons of soil per acre a year, which nearly offsets the 5.5 tons per acre of soil it figures are lost in the 12-month period. But Cruse believes both figures are unsubstantiated. He has put the soil-generation figure at closer to half-a-ton per acre per year, reducing it by a factor of 10 from USDA estimates. He also estimated soil losses closer to 8.4 tons an acre annually, when you include the gullies cut into fields by severe rains. “They’re basically surrendering topsoil at a rate 16-times greater than it is being generated,” Philpott said.

He also reminds us that soil isn’t the only thing on the move when it rains. Iowa houses 23 million hogs — which create the same amount of waste as 83.7 million humans. Add in the additional waste of egg-laying chickens, dairy and other livestock, and one researcher put the “fecal equivalent population” of Iowa at 168 million people, or larger than the combined population of the world’s 11 most populous cities.

“In short, Iowa’s farmers apply way too much plant food, both in the form of manure and industrial fertilizers, for the land to soak up,” Philpott writes. And that farm runoff pollutes the water, tainting drinking water resources and feeding algal blooms in lakes, rivers and eventually seawater, choking off aquatic life. 

The implications of both of these regional trends are enormous, since California provides the vast majority of fruits and vegetables for the rest of the country. The Midwest grows the corn and soybean feed that underpins the livestock industry, as well as many industrially produced raw materials, such as oils, sugars, and thickening and flavoring agents. And 40 percent of the corn crop is turned into ethanol. All of these industries are threatened in this new world. 

“If my book does one thing, I hope it helps push the food and ag conversation to a more central place in the climate conversation,” he said.

The question, of course, is what to do about it? Philpott sees the opportunity, or rather the need, to restructure the food system to reduce the risks these nodes pose. It might happen in a crisis, as areas of the country become increasingly unproductive, or it might happen by government policy. 

“What I want policymakers to take away from the book is: You’ve got to get ahead of this. Whatever your regional foodshed is, you need to figure out what your assets are and how to bolster them,” because in California the trend lines are going to be in decline and the Midwest is following.

But with policymakers largely complacent and stuck in outdated models, Philpott also sees hope in contemporary grass-roots movements that are questioning long-held assumptions about everything from race to corporate power — the latter, especially important to the way the food is produced. 

“Why does the food system have most of the lowest-paid occupations in the country? And why is there so little labor power that people are literally being sacrificed during the pandemic?” he asks. “It’s a shocking lack of labor power and a shocking flex of corporate power. So I think just exposing those things — the energy and activism developed in this pandemic, really since Occupy Wall Street — is the best hope that we have.”

More about the book here.