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Unsustainable: Scientists and local farmers discuss the impacts of climate change on crops

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‘There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.”

That’s an old saw with a long history and what it means is everything has a price of one kind or another.

And not only is lunch not free, the price has gone up, higher than some people recognize, and that price has nothing to do with a few crumpled bills in someone’s wallet or purse.

And maybe, just maybe, some favorite lunch foods will go missing or decline in quantity and quality as part of that price.

That’s what scientists are saying, and they blame it on climate change caused by global warming, which in turn is created by the emission of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping “greenhouse” gases. They flow from mankind’s highly developed societies all over the world and into the atmosphere.

Some say crops are already being affected.

A New York Times article in April by Kim Severson detailed effects on crops, from organic apples in Washington to wild blueberries in Maine.

Things are happening that didn’t happen before, she said.

“Drop a pin anywhere on a map of the United States and you’ll find disruption in the fields. Warmer temperatures are extending growing seasons in some areas and sending a host of new pests into others. Some fields are parched with drought, others so flooded that they swallow tractors,” Severson said.

A report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change earlier this month said the food supply is already being affected, according to a summary press release.

“The report highlights that climate change is affecting all four pillars of food security: availability (yield and production), access (prices and ability to obtain food), utilization (nutrition and cooking), and stability (disruptions to availability),” the release said.

The summary quoted Priyadarshi Shukla, co-chair of an IPCC “working group.”

“Food security will be increasingly affected by future climate change through yield declines — especially in the tropics — increased prices, reduced nutrient quality, and supply chain disruptions,” Shukla said.

To mitigate current and future effects of greenhouse gases, formerly known as “air pollution,” is clearly a good idea no matter where someone stands on the scale of climate change belief.

And that means all producers of greenhouse gases, which is just about everybody, but includes big industries like power plants, commercial and residential buildings, farmers and motor vehicles of all descriptions, must take measures to reduce the emissions to keep the earth from warming above 1.5 degrees centigrade and hopefully to keep it lower, the summary said.

The source

Just about everything humans do, and that includes breathing, puts carbon dioxide into the air.

But breathing is far from the worst of it. There are plenty of trees to absorb that.

Pretty much everything beyond breathing can be blamed on the Industrial Revolution, which ignited the development of a high standard of living for billions of people on earth. But at the same time it created conditions for what is now known as global warming, which is increasingly being seen as a threat to that standard of living and, for this story, the food supply.

The Industrial Revolution was not a political revolution, freeing humans to do as they please within the confines of law and an organized society, but one that freed humans from excessive want and labor.

It got started in the 1760s when steam engines fired by coal were invented and factories sprang from the ground, belching thick black smoke from coal-burning engines and furnaces.

Before that, the main fuel for everyone was wood.

“The demand for coal skyrocketed throughout the Industrial Revolution and beyond, as it would be needed to run not only the factories used to produce manufactured goods, but also the railroads and steamships used for transporting them,” as put it.

That’s a lot of smoke for a lot of years.

A century later, in 1861, the first American oil spurted from the ground in Pennsylvania, began the process of usurping coal and finally won out when a huge underground lake of oil burst forth from the earth. It spewed the thick black goo high into the air at a place known as Spindletop in Beaumont, Texas in 1901.

After that, oil quickly became the nation’s and the world’s life blood and potential death knell.

It led to a civilization awash in modern conveniences, products and good living.

Among those conveniences was food production unlike anything seen before.

“The discovery of the Spindletop geyser in 1901 drove huge growth in the oil industry,” an author on wrote. “Within a year, more than 1,500 oil companies had been chartered, and oil became the dominant fuel of the 20th century and an integral part of the American economy.”

Natural gas came along with oil.

America and the world went from horse travel to space travel in less than 100 years — the blink of an eye in history.

Oil heats homes and factories and its derivative fuels powers cars, boats, trains, planes and machines of all kinds — all funneling tons of CO2 into the air.

It took a long time in terms of an individual life, 250 years, but not so much in the life of modern man, homo sapiens, as we are known, who have been on the planet for about 300,000 years.

During that time enough knowledge was built up to find ways to destroy civilization in a flash with nuclear bombs or slowly by poisoning the air, water and earth.

Now all many people spend a lot of time trying to correct those problems, so our lunches and our lives will be less threatened.

Many scientists have produced evidence the bill is due and it’s time to pay for all that convenience.

What the scientists say

According to scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2018 was the fourth warmest since 1880 and is in the top five of all time.

They say 2018 was behind 2016, 2017, 2015 and ahead of 2014.

“The past five years are, collectively, the warmest years in the modern record,” according to a press release from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies issued earlier this year.

“Temperatures over the planet as a whole continue the rapid warming trend we’ve seen over the last 40 years,” GISS Director Gavin Schmidt said.

Overall, the average surface temperature has gone up about 2 degrees Fahrenheit or a little more than 1 degree Celsius over the last 100 years, mainly because of the carbon dioxide spewing into the air, the report said.

While 2 degrees doesn’t sound like much, scientists at NASA said it doesn’t take a lot of heat to make a big difference in climate.

“For example, at the end of the last ice age, when the Northeast United States was covered by more than 3,000 feet of ice, average temperatures were only 5 to 9 degrees cooler than today,” according to NASA.

Or looked at in another way, if a person’s body temperature goes up 2 degrees they are likely to feel unwell.

As a result, NASA predicts frost-free seasons will lengthen, periods of heavy rain will increase, there will be more droughts, more heat waves and the sea levels will rise.

Here’s the prediction for our region.

“Heat waves, heavy downpours and sea level rise pose growing challenges to many aspects of life in the Northeast. Infrastructure, agriculture, fisheries and ecosystems will be increasingly compromised. Many states and cities are beginning to incorporate climate change into their planning.”

Anything happening here?

So it seems.

According to statistics provided by the Attleboro Water Department, the three warmest decades since record keeping for temperatures started in 1940 are the last three. The period between 2000 and 2009 is the warmest with an average yearly temperature of 63 degrees.

The lowest average temperature per year came in the 1940s at 56.8.

The latest decade is not done, but so far it’s averaging 61 degrees.

The decade from 1990 to 1999 averaged 60.7 degrees per year.

The decades of the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s ran between 56.8 in the ‘40s and 60.2 in the ‘50s, which was the only period during those years to average 60 degrees or more per year.

The last three decades have also recorded the highest average temperatures for June, July and August out of the eight decades since 1940.

For those three months, the 1990s came in at 82.7, the 2000s came in at 83.9 and the 2010s, with 2019 incomplete, at 81.5.

The other four decades were all under those averages, with the 1940s having the lowest average temperature at 76.9.

On a yearly basis, 13 of the 20 highest annual temperatures recorded here since 1940 occurred from 2000 to 2016.

In addition, 10 of the 20 highest annual low temperatures occurred between 2001 and 2018.

And here are some statistics on rainfall kept by the water department since 1896.

To date, seven of the top 20 annual rainfall totals have occurred since 2003, with the second highest coming last year 64.36 inches.

The greatest annual rainfall in Attleboro occurred in 1972 when 65.98 inches fell in the city.

The third and fourth highest rainfall totals hit in 1998 and 2008.

All of those numbers seem to say heat and rainfall have bumped up in the city in recent decades.

Those numbers are facts.

What they mean is subject to interpretation and we know what the scientist say — they’ll get worse as time goes on.

What do the farmers say?

Some things are different.

George Handy, 82, of Fine Farms in Attleboro has been tilling the soil all of his adult life and took a break from lunch one day last week to provide some anecdotal evidence of climate change.

“It’s more erratic,” Handy said of the weather. “We’ve had colder springs, if we’ve had any spring at all.”

And that has made farming a lot harder, he said.

Weather always varies from year to year, but for Handy it was more predictable in past years, which had gently warming springs and rain fell in fairly predictable or expected amounts.

Handy said he once knew what to plant and when to plant it so he could harvest continually throughout the summer. That allowed him to keep the Fine Farms “Corn Crib” at the corner of Tremont (Route 118) and Anawan streets in Rehoboth well supplied.

Not so much anymore, he said.

Cold springs followed by quick heat throw off the cycle.

Last summer, for example, one of his corn crops matured two weeks early because of the heat.

Different kinds of corn are expected ripen in certain time frames, and for years they pretty much hit the mark.

“A crop can be two or three days off, but not two weeks,” Handy said.

Farmer George Handy

Rehoboth farmer George Handy and his wife Ruth run the corn crib on the corner of Tremont and Peck Streets in Rehoboth. FOR GEORGE RHODES WEEKEND EDITION STORY

Warmer days encourage corn to grow, but it’s the warmer nights that really speed things up.

When those hit, farmers say they “can hear the corn growing,” Handy said.

Dan Cooley, a professor at University of Massachusetts’ Stockbridge School of Agriculture in Amherst, studies plant diseases and the impact of climate change.

He said Massachusetts is beginning to assume a climate more “like Virginia or North Carolina.”

Cooley said warmer nights keep crops growing, but they also make pests that attack crops more active and as a result, they do more damage.

He said last year’s apple crop was particularly hard hit by pests and disease because of warmer nights, which “had never been much of a problem before.”

“The warmer nighttime temperatures have more of an impact on plants and pests than warmer daytime temperatures,” he said.

Cooley said some fruits, including apples, “don’t like to be warm at night.”

“It makes them softer and more grainy, it decreases the quality of the fruit.”

Warmer night temperatures can also change the look of the apples, with some varieties like McIntosh never really turning red.

Cooley also mentioned that weather is more erratic, which can result in badly damaged crops from unexpected frosts.

Cranberry crops in Southeastern Massachusetts are very vulnerable to extremes in temperatures.

“Spring weather is more extreme,” Cooley said. “You can get a slug of warm weather early and the plants start to grow then it can get cold again and really damage the plants.”

“It (the climate) used to be steadier,” he said. “You didn’t get these wild swings in spring when it’s 50 one day and then goes down to 15-20 degrees the next.”

Chuck Anderson, who’s been working his family’s 75-acre farm on Read Street in Attleboro most of his 56 years, said the one thing he’s noticed is an extended growing season.

In times past, the first frost would usually arrive by Sept. 15.

Now it’s not unusual for it to hit around Oct. 15, he said.

That means he can plant more, if he’s willing to gamble, which is the farmer’s constant conundrum, he said.

“You can sometimes get a double crop,” Anderson said. “You can plant beans in May and harvest in July and then plant again and harvest in September. You can extend the season a little more.”

In that case, more food can be produced.

Over in Mansfield at Flint Farm, where the Flint family has been cultivating crops for 150 years, Don Flint said there does seem to be a lengthening of the season.

Flint Farm Food

Don Flint of Mansfield's Flint Farm, seen here among a crop of peppers, said there does seem to be a lengthening of the season, noting that birds decimated about three or four acres of a new kind of corn he planted this year. It’s common for birds to be an annoyance, but they’ve seldom been so destructive, Flint said.

He said he agrees with Anderson that fall frosts seem to be coming later. Meanwhile, he’s been planting crops earlier in the spring.

“I think he maybe right about that,” he said of Anderson’s observation, during a busy morning in which the vegetable stand was thick with customers.

Meanwhile, he noted birds, red-wing blackbirds and starlings, decimated about three or four acres of a new kind of corn he planted this year.

It’s common for birds to be an annoyance, but they’ve seldom been so destructive, Flint said.

What’s being done.

Efforts worldwide are being made to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, which capture heat can nudge the climate in unproductive and sometimes dangerous directions.

The IPCC report said about one-third of food produced is lost or wasted worldwide.

“Reducing this loss and waste would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve food security,” the report’s summary said.

“Some dietary choices require more land and water, and cause more emissions of heat-trapping gases than others,” said Debra Roberts, co-chair of an IPCC working group.

“Balanced diets featuring plant-based foods, such as coarse grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, and animal-sourced food produced sustainably in low greenhouse gas emission systems, present major opportunities for adaptation to and limiting climate change,” she said.

Locally, the state and city are working on the problem.

In 2008 the state’s Global Warming Solutions Act was signed into law. The statute requires “the establishment of statewide GHG emissions limits, implementation of a plan to achieve these statewide GHG emissions limits and mandatory reporting of GHG emissions by larger GHG emitting sources and retail sellers of electricity in the Commonwealth.”

It requires officials “to set an economy-wide GHG reduction target for Massachusetts of between 10 and 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, with targets for each decade after that, culminating in at least an 80 percent reduction by 2050.”

And as of 2016 the state was well on its way, according to the Global Warming Solutions Act 10 Years Progress Report issued earlier this year.

“The latest statewide GHG inventory by MassDEP shows that GHG emissions in 2016 were 21.4 percent below the 1990 baseline level,” the report said. “The decrease in GHG emissions comes despite a 13 percent growth in population and 24 percent growth in vehicle miles traveled.”

In terms of numbers, that’s a reduction from 94 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent being spewed into the air less than 75 million metric tons. (

“The 21 percent decline in emissions is a result of many factors including changing fuel prices, weather conditions, and implementation of energy efficiency measures and other policies,” that report said.

The state has been recognized for its efforts.

In 2018, the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy named Massachusetts the top state for energy efficiency in buildings for the eighth year in a row, according to the 10-year progress report.

The state’s adoption in 2009 of a tougher building code, which demands that energy efficiency be built into new homes and some businesses, has also helped with that.

Communities don’t have to adopt the tougher code, but as of July 18, 272 out of the 351 communities have, including Attleboro. It will take effect in January.

The state is also a member of the Multi-state Zero Emission Vehicle Task Force and is committed to increasing the number of ZEVs on state roads.

Vehicle owners can get rebates from the state on purchases and over $23 million have been handed out since 2014.

In addition, the state has started a grant program that pays for the implementation of practices that “address the agricultural sector’s vulnerability to climate change.”

Massachusetts takes up only one very small speck of space in the world, but appears to be doing its part to cut the emission of greenhouse gases.

“In the last 10 years the Commonwealth has led the nation in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and fueled a new economy built on innovation and technology,” Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Matthew Beaton said in the introduction to the 10-year progress report.

Maybe the rest of the world will follow suit.

In the meantime, we’ll all be paying up.

George W. Rhodes can be reached at 508-236-0432.

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