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High-Value Crops: Sustainability and Climate Change (4)

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 7:38 PM GMT on September 21, 2011

High-Value Crops: Sustainability and Climate Change (4)

In the past three articles (Sustainability 1, Sustainability 2, Sustainability 3) I have been exploring the relation between climate change and sustainability. I have focused on the interface between different communities and the conflicts that arise as people push and shove different agendas. There are many issues at play, and when you think about climate change and sustainability, and bring in population and consumption, there are many things that are done in the spirit of sustainability that don’t address climate change – and are, perhaps, not really sustainable.

It is my belief that disentangling the issues at the interfaces will, ultimately, lead to more people engaging in the pursuit of solutions to the challenges of climate change – rather than dismissing the climate issue as unimportant – at least, to me, right now, for this problem. For this final entry in the series I want to start with a local discussion about genetically modified sugar beets. (Bet you did not see that sentence coming.)

First, I don’t know exactly where I sit on the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). There are many complex issues, including serious issues of ethics and social justice. Within the realm of climate change, some argue that one of our major adaptation strategies will be new GMO crops that are more heat and drought tolerant. Or, perhaps, to counter the spread of malaria by GMO mosquitoes. Enhanced removal of carbon dioxide by GMO plants? We could argue perhaps GMOs are some sort of fast evolution.

I want to talk about something far smaller. Beets. The arguments around here, Boulder County, Colorado, center on Roundup Ready Beets (for and against). Roundup is an herbicide, and the genetically modified beets definitively allow both less use of herbicides and fossil fuels – hence, cost reduction. According to the articles I linked above, the vast majority of the commercial sugar beet farmers have quickly embraced the GMO sugar beets. The argument in Boulder County is whether or not these beets should be allowed on county land that is leased for agricultural use. This leads, naturally, to discussions of local agricultural, organic farming, sustainability and things that are “good for the climate.” (Some local press coverage Boulder Weekly, Letters in Response)

The place I want to bring this blog is specifically, “high value crops.” One of the arguments that came forward is that rather than allowing GMOs, that local farmers could grow high-value crops, such as organic vegetables. It is argued that this supports local farmers and sustainability. (I cannot resist pointing out that the farmers who desire to plant GMO beets are also “local.”) It is pointed out that since, at least to some extent, that organic farming replaces the use of herbicides and fossil fuels with jobs for crop tenders. Hence it is good for the local workforce and, well, climate change.

The key to this argument is “high-value” crops. The organic and local vegetables that flow from Boulder County, definitely, require a population that can pay a high cost. This does not mean that the small local farmers are getting wealthy. It also does not mean that a large local workforce is being supported – many of the local farms have aggressive volunteer and education programs. The high cost represents a price that is indicative of the cost of raising crops in a region that is water-stressed, with a short growing season, with shifts between too hot and too cold, with more than its share of grasshoppers, magpies, rabbits and coyotes. And, the local farmer also needs to either be able to live in the region that can afford high-value crops.

High-value: High-value implies wealth, and in the here and now, wealth is correlated with energy use which is correlated with burning fossil fuels. The wealth that supports the ability to buy high-value crops follows, directly or indirectly, from the use of fossil fuels. Therefore the ability to buy high-value crops comes with a large carbon footprint. Therefore the argument that the small, local farm that generates high-value produce is climate friendly is, in the here and now, a hollow argument. In fact, if I wanted to make a climate-based argument, anything that requires less fossil fuel is more climate friendly. Perhaps, GMOs.

When I teach climate change problem solving, I advocate that my students try to organize the problem along three axes: time, is it near-term or long-term; space, is it local or global; and wealth, rich or poor. Wealth is the difficult axis. It represents consumption, how you think about mitigation and adaptation, and environmental justice. Earlier research shows that the wealthier a country is the less concerned they are about climate change. That’s a useful sociological consideration.

There are many issues that we conflate to support what we believe and what we want. (I also teach how do we separate what we know, we believe, we want.) We link things casually that make sense. When we think about sustainability and climate change, we have to think about our imperative to succeed, to consume. We live in a world where economic growth is required by policy, demanded by people, and economic growth means consumption. It gets back to energy and fossil fuels. To have a sustainable planet with more than 7 billion consuming humans, we have to decouple energy from carbon dioxide emissions. To address climate change we will have to figure out how to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. We might even need GMOs.

Climate Change Sustainability

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.