This column originally appeared on 9/9/19 at Agri-Pulse.com, where Agri-Pulse and The Chicago Council on Global Affairs are teaming up to host a monthly column to explore how the U.S. agriculture and food sector can maintain its competitive edge and advance food security in an increasingly integrated and dynamic world.
The farmer fell to his knees, landing hard on the barren soil, and raised his arms to heaven. “God, have mercy on us,” he prayed, opening his palms to embrace his forlorn field.
The supplication of a farmer in the American Midwest this summer? Certainly, many farmers sent prayers heavenward during the relentless spring rains that foiled so many planting efforts, leaving vast stretches of fields empty of crops this summer.
But this particular prayer came from a farmer in Kenya, Francis Wanjala Mamati, who faced not a deluge but a drought. The image of Francis on his knees, under a scorching sun that pushed the temperature toward 100 degrees Fahrenheit, comes to my mind during every extreme weather condition that threatens to destroy a growing season–no matter where it may be. As does what Francis said next as he slowly rose to his feet, grabbed his hoe, and began to strike the earth.
“I think in the U.S.A. there is no drought,” he said, more question than declaration. Is there drought? Or flooding? He wanted to know. He had never been to the United States, or any other country beyond East Africa, but he couldn’t imagine that the farmers in those places – those far off places in the richer world — suffered from extreme weather as he did.
“Oh, yes there is,” I told Francis. Drought, flooding, hail, damaging winds, scorching temperatures, polar vortexes, all seemingly more frequent in recent years. And yes, farmers in the U.S. and elsewhere in the developed world most definitely do suffer the consequences, I added. Francis seemed to take an odd comfort in this revelation.
Well then, he insisted, embracing a kinship with the farmers on the other side of the world, “We must pray for them, too.”
Weather concerns unite farmers all across the world. Be they in the American Midwest, tilling the richest soil in the world, or in Africa, scratching at some of the poorest, all farmers look to the skies, and to heaven. It is the world’s farmers who are the first to feel the impacts and to suffer the consequences of changing climate conditions. They are the canaries in the coal mine of climate change. At the same time, rising populations and higher demands for food, fuel, and fiber have increased pressures on natural resources. In order to meet demand, agriculture often turns to practices which may be productive in the short term, but contribute to the depletion of soil, water, and habitat in the long term. This paradox, long lurking in the background of the global climate discussions, has been gaining more prominence in the findings of recent studies that examine the relationship between the global food system and the planet’s climate, from deforestation to shifting consumer diets.
Rather than sparking arguments about the causes, there should be consensus on solutions. For it is clear that on changing climate conditions, we’re all in this together. We’re all connected on the global food chain. As the United Nations hosts meetings on climate change and adaptability later this month in New York, it is imperative that the discussions include considerations on balancing food production with planetary health; rallying greater investments in agriculture research; reaching out to farmers, fishers, and ranchers to learn from their experiences; and listening to the wisdom of the “canaries” on the front lines of changing climate, be they in Iowa or Africa.
Francis had begun nurturing a grove of eucalyptus trees beside his house in the rocky hills of western Kenya. It was his response to the ever-more-fickle rains; they were less predictable, he complained, and when they came – if they came at all — they were often more intense and more punishing than he remembered. He reckoned Kenyans were cutting down too many trees to use for cooking fires, making charcoal, building structures, or clearing land to expand farms. Trees, he believed, were a major enticement of rain; he had observed during his 30-plus years of farming that the rains were more regular in areas with plenty of trees. He hoped his eucalyptus grove could help his land retain water and also be a source of income, as he culled them for sale and then replanted.
Francis believed he was destined to be a climate warrior. For his mother had given him the middle name Wanjala. Wanjalais the local word in western Kenya for hunger. And that is when Francis was born, during the hunger season, the time between harvests when food stocks run low and meals are skipped.
So heed the warning of this canary and others across the Midwest: When the new crop is ruined, wiping out the harvest, the hunger season has no end.
(Parts of this story are adapted from Roger Thurow’s book, The Last Hunger Season.)
Roger Thurow joined The Chicago Council on Global Affairs as senior fellow for global agriculture and food policy in January 2010 after three decades at The Wall Street Journal. For 20 years, he served as a Journalforeign correspondent, based in Europe and Africa. In 2003, he and Journal colleague Scott Kilman wrote a series of stories on famine in Africa that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting. Their reporting on humanitarian and development issues was also honored by the United Nations.