The agriculture beat is a crucial lens on a changing climate

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“I have no idea what we have done to Mother Nature,” said Senator Pat Roberts, the curmudgeonly Kansas chairman of the US Senate Agriculture Committee, after the freakish weather events that hit his home state of Kansas earlier this year. “But she sure has taken it out on us.”  

Mother Nature’s wrath brought a March fire that burned up roughly 2 million acres of pasture and wheat fields in Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, and Colorado—an event shaped by drought and gusting winds whose speeds topped 70 mph across parts of the Plains. At least seven people died, as did thousands of cattle. In early May, a snowstorm dropped as much as 18 inches of snow during a critical stage of development for much of the Kansas wheat crop.

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For DC ag-policy wonks, climate change is the fire everyone dances around without really acknowledging its heat. People go to excruciating means to avoid using terms such as “climate change” or “carbon emissions,” and that avoidance can harm agriculture. Leaders of the agriculture committees in Congress don’t hold hearings with climate scientists about potential dangers to farmers, rural America, or the nation’s food supply. Some well-meaning farm groups talk about “soil health” as a way to help farmers deal with “extreme weather.” Out of regulatory fear, farm lobbies maintain that climate science isn’t settled. Some also repeat the usual mantra that “climate change has always occurred”—­a kernel of truth that neglects the reality that Earth has never before been inhabited by 7.5 billion people.

When Hurricane Harvey hit in August, my job as “ag media” was to explain what the storm’s devastation meant for farmers. What were the impacts on crops and livestock? What was the storm’s effect on grain shipments? How did markets react to the destruction? I wrote about the floods impacting ranchers, as well as the devastated cotton crop, which was expected to be the best in years before the storm. (I wrote this piece days before Hurricane Irma hit the US.)

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Fewer and fewer journalists use their beats to report on the natural intersection between climate change, agriculture, and food. This is especially true on the local and regional levels where, much like the environmental beat, the ag beat has largely disappeared.

 

Farms and ranches weren’t entirely left out of media coverage when Harvey hit. There were videos all over social media of cattle swimming through flood waters as ranchers and volunteers tried to herd them to higher ground.

Beyond national disasters, however, fewer and fewer journalists use their beats to report on the natural intersection between climate change, agriculture, and food. This is especially true on the local and regional levels where, much like the environmental beat, the ag beat has largely disappeared. In a country full of millennial foodies, middle-aged barbecue enthusiasts, vegans, organic consumers, and paycheck-to-paycheck grocery shoppers, most newsrooms lack a reporter who is dedicated to telling stories about how their food is produced.

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Food production and the economy around agriculture are both highly susceptible to climate risks. Farms in every corner of the country play a different role in the climate cycle. Farmers face greater exposure to either drought or floods. Farm practices sequester carbon, or else release greenhouse gases. Their crop practices help reduce soil and water runoff, or their topsoil melts into the local streams. The water collecting that runoff is either a little cleaner or is better prepared for creating toxic algae, a function of warmer temperatures. Livestock production is either evolving to warmer climates, or else it is migrating. Warmer weather suits new cash crops while others are pushed out.

If newspapers want to teach a little climate science to readers, they should look at what the pests are doing. Pests enjoy warmer climates; they damage yields, cost farmers money, and lead to more chemical use. A bug or fungus may move north because the winters aren’t as cold, or the nights are too warm. Southern corn rust can now be found in Wisconsin. The Hessian fly, the red-banded stink bug, and the wheat streak mosaic virus are just a few examples of pests thriving and expanding their range with the changing climate. The wheat streak mosaic virus is transmitted by an insect called the wheat curl mite, which survives longer and infests more wheat each year. Wheat streak mosaic also defeats any genetic tolerance when nighttime temperatures remain warmer, which increasingly happens earlier in the spring and later in the fall.

 

American journalism is just scratching the surface of potential climate hazards to national and global stability. Our food supply must support a planet with a population that has doubled since 1970, and is projected to add a couple billion more mouths to feed by midcentury.

 

These impacts are verifiable. Reporters dedicated to covering agriculture could provide another critical window to the impacts of climate change in their communities. But agricultural reporters are fewer and farther between.

Reporting on climate change to a rural audience can also be a risk. Readers are as likely to treat climate change as a reason for regulatory mandates on their lives rather than a societal challenge. And reporting on climate issues has become more complicated since Donald Trump took office. Now, to write about climate change in agricultural media is to essentially tell farmers that President Trump is wrong. Reader complaints to the DTN/The Progressive Farmer newsroom, where I work, have increased over what they see as “anti-Trump” reporting.

And yet American journalism is just scratching the surface of potential climate hazards to national and global stability. Our food supply must support a planet with a population that has doubled since 1970, and is projected to add a couple billion more mouths to feed by midcentury. To demonstrate the broad impacts of climate change, newsrooms need to send reporters out into the countryside to rediscover the farm and food beats.

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Chris Clayton is ag policy editor for the Omaha, Nebraska-based DTN/The Progressive Farmer. He is also the author of an ebook, The Elephant in the Cornfield: The Politics of Agriculture and Climate Change, available on Amazon.