FERN’s Friday Feed: God and climate change in farm country

Welcome to FERN’s Friday Feed (#FFF), where we share the stories from this week that made us stop and think.

Can religion overcome resistance to action on climate change?

 FERN and Mother Jones

America’s farmers have the ability to take a giant bite out of greenhouse-gas emissions by adopting practices that leave more carbon locked in the soil. But farm country is considered hostile territory to anyone sounding the alarm about man-made climate change. That may be changing, as Brian Barth reports in FERN’s latest story. Matt Russell, who runs the Iowa chapter of Interfaith Power and Light, a nonprofit that promotes a religious response to global warming, says: “‘When I have a private conversation with a farmer, they are generally not skeptical about human-caused climate change. They just know they can’t talk about it publicly,’ he says. He views faith-based workshops as a ‘safe space’ where growers can discuss the issue. As TV crews and pundits descend on Iowa for the 2020 caucus season, Russell’s goal is to round up a 100-strong squad of farmers who are willing to speak publicly about agriculture as a climate solution.”

An investigation by Nathan Rosenberg and Bryce Wilson Stucki debunks USDA’s claims that it helped black farmers during the tenure of Secretary Tom Vilsack. “[Vilsack] claimed to have resolved the discrimination complaints brought under previous administrations, while also reducing the number of new complaints,” they write. “He said he had provided better funding for black farmers than President George W. Bush’s administration had. Finally, he said that his work to secure settlement funds for Pigford, a class-action discrimination suit brought by black farmers against USDA, had ‘helped close a painful chapter in our collective history.’ But nearly all of Vilsack’s claims — echoed by high-ranking USDA officials and taken at face value by the press — are extremely misleading or false.”

The limits of robot farmers


Are robot farmers coming for the heartland? B.R. Cohen says the vision of an AI-assisted, data-intensive agriculture system is in some ways already here — and it isn’t the savior some tech boosters make it out to be. “This robotic farming future is not the unalloyed good the venture capitalists would have us believe. It may, in fact, take us further down the road that got us into our agricultural problems in the first place, encouraging more monocropping and land expansion while reducing the resilience of diversified planting schemes,” Cohen writes. “What’s more, it perpetuates a long lineage of fashioning the future of farming without actual farmers or their knowledge.”

The new frontier of genetic engineering: Chestnut trees

Pacific Standard

Chestnut trees were virtually wiped out in the U.S. in the middle of the 20th century. But now, a genetically engineered version is posing questions about whether and how to move forward with GE trees. “Before it can be released into the wild, the transgenic chestnut has to pass a battery of ecological tests,” writes Rowan Jacobsen. “Then it must be approved by the United States Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency. So far the tree has aced all the tests. Approval is looking likely. And that is why, to those who are concerned about GMOs, it is the most dangerous tree in the world.”

The Prairie Preacher’s quest to restore the grasslands of the Southeast

Yale Environment 360

Dwayne Estes leads the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative, “launched last year to bring back the region’s imperiled grassland habitats through science-based regional partnerships and community engagement,” writes Janet Marinelli. From Maryland to Texas, the “Southeast is one of North America’s great, but forgotten, grassland regions. Its native prairies and savannas have been reduced by more than 90 percent since the first Europeans arrived … Yet the remaining scraps include more grassland plants and animals than the Great Plains and Midwest combined.