We all know climate change will affect Americans. Rising seas, turbulent weather and rising temperatures are some of our biggest problems to look forward to. Hotter weather isn’t just something in the future, though — it’s already here, as evident by last week’s heat wave.
Those heat waves are going to have rippling effects through the US economy, and hurt agriculture in particular. A 2-degree Celsius increase in temperature could cut U.S. corn yields by nearly 18%, global wheat yield by up to 12% and sorghum by 20%. That spells bad news for Kansas farmers, especially sorghum farmers — Kansans produce over 45% of sorghum in the United States.
On top of climate change, we also have to worry about pesticides affecting wild bees and global reserves of phosphates running out, among other issues. There’s no easy way to fix everything while accounting for the future. So what can we do?
Some environmentalists believe smaller farms are the answer to a few of our issues. They don’t use environmentally damaging chemicals, they don’t use pesticides and they ultimately grow healthier foods. But how can we account for temperature-related cuts in crop production?
That’s a problem we can only solve through either heat-resistant GMOs or planting more crops to make up the difference. Subsidies could help with the latter, but we would need to structure them differently. The United States needs to incentivize farmers to switch to smaller, sustainable farms by subsidizing the cost differences between running the two.
That change could fundamentally change our agricultural economy. Since smaller farms require more labor, more farming jobs would open up — far outweighing the amount of agrochemical jobs lost from companies like DuPont and Monsanto.
This shift would directly reduce fuel consumption since smaller farms could be built closer to the communities they service. This is particularly important as fuel prices could rise from future shortages or potential carbon pricing, making it even harder to import and export food.
Ultimately, this could revitalize U.S. agriculture, boost the economies of crop-producing states like Kansas, redistribute wealth to poorer communities and supply Americans with healthier food. But massive subsidies like these beg the question: How much will it cost? To which I would say: Does it matter?
I’m not dismissing the fact this would cost a ridiculous amount of money. It would take either steep tax hikes or massively increasing the federal deficit. But if we don’t act now, we’re heavily discounting the future. Not our future, but the future of our grandchildren.
We may be dead by the time our agricultural problems come to a head, but to enrich ourselves at the cost of future generations is not only selfish but extraordinarily dangerous.
We don’t know how long it will take governments to react to accelerating temperature rises, if they’ll be able to mitigate the damage or if they’ll even begin to price externalities. We can’t afford to see how things develop before we take action — by that point, it could be too late.
In the meantime, we can still support the sustainable farms we have. Lawrence has a farmer’s market that’s open two days a week for most of the year. If you’re an environmentalist with some extra money, it’s a nice way to help the earth.
Jack Waters is a Senior from Avon, Massachusetts, majoring in economics and physics.