A recurring theme of last fall's Kaw Valley Farm Tour was the terrible, killing freeze of the preceding spring. Now, scientists are suggesting that climate change may mean more of the same, and that's bad news for local food in places with four seasons, a.k.a. most of the country.
The March issue of BioScience magazine includes an article by Lianhong Gu and others that points out the irony of milder winters that result in frozen plants. I gather that the possibility was hypothesized 20 years ago and hasn't been adequately studied, but we certainly got a fine example of the possibility last spring. The hypothesis, quoted from the abstract:
...is that mild winters and warm, early springs, which are expected to occur as the climate warms, may induce premature plant development, resulting in exposure of vulnerable plant tissues and organs to subsequent late-season frosts.
That's what we got, and that weather is still on my mind, as I remember the utter absence of local fruit last year (except for some late everbearing raspberries). Oh, how we reveled in the warm days of March last year — until April came along and ruined everything. It makes me a bit wary about wishing our endless-seeming winter away too quickly.
And then there's the inevitable, to my mind, "corn shock" that the Los Angeles Times' Jerry Hirsch wrote about on Sunday. Even in the absence of climate change, it's pretty amazing that anyone would bet the national wellbeing on weather in the Great Plains, which is infamous for its changeability. (Most recent example: Sunday's temperature fell from 72 degrees around noon to 43 by 6 p.m. here in Lawrence, Kansas.)
What does this all add up to for us as eaters? For starters, it's another reminder that our sustenance is intimately intertwined with the climate and environment, and it's something we ignore at our peril. "Eat local" may be fashionable, but there's far more to it than fashion.
As consumers, we may feel helpless in scanning the grocery aisles for real food (that's the kind that Grandma — or Great-Grandma for Gen X and the Millennials — would recognize), but consumers do affect the market. So put biodiversity on your plate — not just those delectable heritage tomatoes, but also oddball native species like pawpaws or those gritty pears that make fine jams and greens that you might ordinarily bypass. And when you're at the supermarket, read labels; skip the produce from another hemisphere or anything where high-fructose corn syrup is a prominent ingredient. (It's difficult to skip it entirely.)
Take Wendell Berry's advice: Know food, grow food, prepare food, know growers, learn production practice. These practices, when embraced by millions of people, can cumulatively reduce carbon emissions, oil consumption, water pollution and, not coincidentally, just might reduce the diseases of overeating.
In short, if we want farms to produce healthy food, we're going to have to stop buying the unhealthy stuff. It's going to cost more up front, but it may save our agriculture in the long run. Yes, as Berry said, eating is an agricultural act, but it's a political, economic and ecological act, too.
Photos (c) courtesy Susan Wolfe, Lawrence, Kansas