Why Don't Farmers Believe in Climate Change?
And does it actually matter?
If it isn't torrential downpours, then it's too dry. If there's one thing US farmers can count on, it's bad weather, and perhaps as a result, many of them don't think humanity is to blame for the long-term shifts in weather patterns known as climate change. But even though agriculture is a major contributor to global warming, it may not matter whether farmers believe in the environmental problem.
Take, as an example of skepticism, Iowa corn farmer Dave Miller, whose day job is as an economist for the Iowa Farm Bureau. As Miller is happy to explain, it's not that farmers in Iowa don't think climate change is happening; it's that they think it's always been happening and therefore is unlikely to have much to do with whatever us humans get up to down at ground level. Or, as the National Farm Bureau's spokesman Mace Thornton puts it: "We're not convinced that the climate change we're seeing is anthropogenic in origin. We don't think the science is there to show that in a convincing way." (Given the basic physics of CO2 capturing heat that have been known for more than a century and the ever-larger amounts of CO2 put into the atmosphere by human activity, it's not clear what "science" he's holding out for.) The numbers back that up: When Iowa State University sociologists polled nearly 5,000 Corn Belt farmers on climate change, 66 percent believed climate change is occurring, but only 41 percent believed humans bore any part of the blame for global warming.
It's not just the Corn Belt: Farmers across the country remain skeptical about climate change. When asked about it, they tell me about Mount Pinatubo and weird weather in the 1980s, when many of today's most established farmers were getting their starts. But mostly I hear about cycles in the weather, like the El Niño–La Niña cycle that drives big changes in North American weather. Maybe it's because farmers are uniquely exposed to bad weather, whether too hot or too cold. Almost any type of weather hurts some crop; the cereals want more rain, but the sweet potatoes like it hot and dry.
Year-to-year variability in the weather dwarfs any impact from a long-term shift in the climate. Consider this: A farmer in Iowa might deal with a 10-degree-Fahrenheit shift in average temperatures from year to year, so why worry about a 3- or even 4-degree shift over 100 years? As the old saying goes: If you don't like the weather, wait five minutes and it will change.
The long-term prediction for the Corn Belt in Iowa says that the weather will get hotter and drier—much like western Kansas is currently. Yet, over the decades of Miller's farming career, conditions have been increasingly wet. "If I had done what climate alarmists had said to do, I would have done exactly the wrong thing for 20 of the last 25 years," Miller says.
Miller doesn't speak for all farmers, of course, and there are few less monolithic constituencies. This is a group whose holdings range from a small farm in the Northeast following biodynamic principles to big agricultural outfits that count farmed land in square miles, not acres. A fifth-generation wheat farmer in Oregon, like Kevin McCullough, might say, "I think it's just normal swings in the weather." But an organic farmer in upstate New York who is the first in recent family history to work the land would say, "There is a scientific consensus that there is a change of climate even in light of the fluctuations that naturally occur."
The latter is my brother, Tim Biello, and part of why he got into farming in the first place was to do something hands-on about climate change. He wanted to farm with less fossil fuel and fertilizers by working with horses and to use locally available resources to provide food for his neighbors. But he also sympathizes with his big farming peers: "People who have to work for a living and make hard choices about using this or that feel like they are up against the wall when other people, who maybe are removed from work like farming, say this is good or bad."
Tim is not a random sample, of course. But big farmers certainly aren't skeptical about all science, particularly the kind of science that makes them money by improving yields. "Last year's drought was in many places as deep as it was in 1933, and yet we didn't see too many stories of blowing dirt storms," like in the "dirty '30s," notes former North Dakota farmer Robert Johnson, now head of the National Farmers Union. Breeding and genetic modification have brought crops resistant to drought and flood, as well as insect pests. Also important are better tilling practices, such as leaving a cover crop or stubble to hold down the soil, which helped the dirt stay in place. Even in the depths of the 2012 droughts, the United States delivered an abundant harvest.