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Have You Tasted Climate Change Yet?

by Fariya Khan
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Climate Change Texas

After a year of facing a civilization-altering crisis, the last thing anybody wants to hear is that there is another equally catastrophic event lurking in the shadows. But the severity of climate change is difficult to overstate. Much like the pandemic, finding the solutions to climate transformation is limited by several factors on individual and global levels. It has now come to a do or die stage, where not doing anything will most definitely cause a calamity graver than COVID-19.

Yet here we are-only accelerating it with every plane ride we take and every unsustainable steak we eat. A new UN climate report documents that the world is ‘nowhere near’ meeting the 1.5 degrees centigrade to two degrees Celsius target called for by the Paris Agreement in 2015. It also notes 2019 was the second warmest year recorded and that the last decade has been the hottest.

While it may seem like the lockdowns have benefited the world in reducing the load on the atmosphere, it is clear that we cannot fight climate change with just a virus. Meanwhile, the pandemic has effectively distracted people from the efforts needed to battle against the lasting climate crisis.

Another interesting fact is that the preemptive steps taken by governments, civil societies, business leaders and individual citizens in dealing with the coronavirus are exactly what environmental experts have been pleading for.

This proactiveness means we have the global capability to take swift and stern action but have lacked the power to do so until now. Looking at how America has dealt with the pandemic, the glimmer of hope that we can beat the climate crisis is pretty bleak.

Change is Coming for All of Us

Texans have gotten far too accustomed to record-beating dry weather over the past century. The 1950’s saw a seven year long dry spell, and again the drought of 1996,98,99 and 2000 dealt a severe blow to statewide agriculture and ranching, with water shortages creating losses in the ranges of $5 billion. Tropical storms of 2001, 02 and 04 brought much needed respite and finally an end to the dry bout. Then came the cataclysmal drought of 2011, which was the driest year  in Texas, recording only 14.8 inches of rain. In 2017, climate change brought along Hurricane Harvey to Texas and that went on to be the wettest cyclone ever  in the United States with several areas receiving over 60 inches of rainfall. In the summer of 2019, some areas of Texas beat 60-year-old heat records of temperatures close to 106 degrees.

climate change drought texas

Climate change will get us all, but disruptions due to the need for food and water will be profound. Even with the most favorable growing conditions, growing food is a tricky art. Add to the mix climate volatility, erratic rainfall and increased drought, and food producers stand to lose it all after tedious cultivating seasons. With not many strategies in place to tackle the threat of climate change to the food system, many effects are already apparent in the nature and quality of food we have been eating.

What Does That Mean for Our Plates?

Food production accounts for about 30% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. If not checked immediately emissions from food alone will miss the ‘below 2 degrees Celsius’ Paris agreement target. This latest study reports that reducing emissions from multiple sources, including deforestation, production of fertilizers, methane from livestock, methane from rice production, and fossil fuels used for food production and supply chain, will be crucial to meet the critical temperature point.

The report goes on to say that even if we stop all non–food system GHG emissions immediately until 2100, emissions from the food system alone would likely exceed the 1.5°C emissions limit between 2051 and 2063.

What will it mean for our plates? For starters, we have to consider what we eat as a factor in the climate crisis equation. Some may assume that warmer weather means lasting and better-growing conditions with the planet warming up. The former may be accurate, but not the latter. Lack of rainfall or scarce cold weather could stunt even the best-laid seeds and plans.

Several of our favorite foods stand to diminish in supply and nutritional value in the coming decades, while some will become increasingly expensive due to reduced crop yields. Here is a look at some native foods of Lone Star State that face the danger of climate change.

Grapes And Wine

Today Texas is the country’s fifth-leading wine state, with 40 wineries, six designated varieties of wines that distinguish themselves on national and international platforms. Muscadine and Vitis Mustangensis are among the native species of Texas. The Trans-Pecos Region in Far West Texas and the Texas High Plains Viticultural Area on the South Plains provide 80 per cent of the state’s wine grape acreage. Pecos County near Fort Stockton ranks first among counties with more than 1,000 acres of wine grapes at Ste. Genevieve Winery and Lubbock County are second, with about 560 acres. The Texas Hill Country, north of New Braunfels and Boerne to San Saba, west to Menard and east to Austin, has approximately 600 vineyard acres, with some 250 acres planted in the state’s north-central region.

texan vineyards

Grapes are a finicky crop at the best of times; a recent study showed that with a 2-degree Celsius global temperature increase, suitable grape growing regions in the world could shrink by as much as 56 per cent. Make that 4 degrees, and we’d lose 85 percent. Warming temperatures and frequent polar vortex events like Uri can decimate vines, and excess rains will expose grapes to fungi, pests, and fruit rot. More chemicals and sturdier bred varieties will be needed to achieve high yield vines that are resilient to drastic climate changes. Such developments will need to keep in mind a sustainable relationship with the climate or face the crop’s shrinkage over time.

Peanuts

While peanut butter is plenty available on most pantry shelves in American homes, peanuts need certain growing conditions. In Texas, those conditions might not last as the climate gets warmer.

Texas peanut producers experienced a challenging 2020 growing season due to drought as dry weather from April to September led to below-average yields. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service November report, Texas peanut producers planted 190,000 acres compared to 165,000 acres in 2019. The report also mentioned that despite the increase in planted acres being more than 13%, yields on the acres went down 11.5%.

The cause for reduced yields? Lack of moisture.

Despite the best irrigation efforts, some West Texas producers experienced worse drought conditions than those in 2011. As harvest time came round, the extreme dip in temperatures caught some producers off guard and added to an already difficult season. While soil temperatures didn’t drop low enough to cause significant damage to peanuts still in the ground, but some producers had already dug up peanuts, which went bad. Once dug up, peanuts need to dry out for a week. The unexpected frigid climate caught the farmers unawares and hurt much of the already less than desirable yields. With each passing year, with rising temperatures, peanut production in Texas will face serious threats.

Pecans

Texas is one of the top producing pecan states in the country. If you have noticed, the native nuts were slightly on the pricier side last year – and it’s because of the weather. Like the peanut crop, too dry early in the season and too wet in the fall meant the weather this last growing season seemed to conspire against pecan growers. Last November, the dramatic drop in temperatures damaged trees and caused premature leaf drops that likely stunted crop performance in many areas. Freezing temperatures “caught the trees off guard” because temperatures swung from warm to cold so quickly. The combination of dewy mornings and extreme foliage drops were causing some issues with harvesting nuts on the ground. Early leaf loss due to the cold was also noticed as trees went bare before Thanksgiving. While 2020 turned out to be a good enough year for the pecans, with drier summers and harsher winters, who knows what’s in store for Texan pecans next year?

Citrus

The freeze of February left a devastating loss for Citrus farmers in the Rio Grande Valley, after the extended freeze killed millions of pounds of citrus. The annual average for grapefruit produced in the Rio Grande Valley is about 460 million pounds, out of which more than half is destroyed. Valencia oranges, which are considered late-season harvests, are a total loss.

citrus orchards in texas ruined due to uri

When climate changes are so rapid and drastic, extraordinary weather events become a frequent reality. Many times, this spells lasting harm for food crops, as blooms that are ruined cannot turn into fruit for the next season either. And so, we have a minimum of two years without a decent harvest due to one short-lasting adverse reaction brought along by climate change. Will the Texas grapefruit ever recover from the polar vortex of 2020? Or will Texas be hit with another Uri before the native grapefruit can have a bountiful season?

Beef

America’s love of hamburgers contributes to up to 1023 pounds of greenhouse gas per person per year. Its roughly equivalent to the annual carbon output from 7,500-15,000 SUVs, if we assume, 300 million Americans consumed three burgers a week. In Texas, from an emissions standpoint, reducing beef consumption makes a lot of sense since Texas rears more cattle than any other state; 13 per cent of American cattle live there. This also matters because, for too long, as a state, Texas has had its head in the ground about climate change, since the topic remains a highly partisan issue, both at the public and state level. At the state level, despite being the top emitter of CO2 emissions in the country in 2019, none of the multiple climate change planning bills filed by Democratic lawmakers were scheduled for public hearings.

Publicly, only 66% of Texan voters under 29 years of age agree that the federal government needs to be doing more to curb climate change, whereas the statistic is even worrisome when it comes to voters aged 45 and over where only about two out of five believe any action is required from the government’s side. 

There is a need for more Texans to be involved in non-profit climate advocacy groups that can rally for change in laws and support the general public in the halls of government.

One significant effect of climate change in Texas is increasing water stress. Beef is a very water-demanding industry. Producing one pound of beef takes about 1,800 gallons of water. Texas has been a boom-and-bust area when it comes to water, but the last decade has been especially rough. The multi-year drought from 2010 to 2015 was the second-worst in the state’s record. The deficit was broken by three years of catastrophic flooding, culminating in the destructive Hurricane Harvey. Soon after, the state was facing drought again.

These worrisome cycles are getting shorter and more intense. Ranchers rely on nature for their livelihood, and they have seen the changes in the climate, many struggling to keep their ranches running. Although livestock farmers lost sight of good grazing practices for a while, of late, there has been a push toward diligent land management. As a solution, some ranchers are becoming more innovative in investigating new water technologies. Regenerative farming is spreading widely as Texan ranchers turn towards developing ecosystems that sustain and thrive while reducing their load on the environment.

Texas needs a multifaceted approach that balances cutting carbon emissions. Native grasslands are central to that process and well-suited to carbon sequestration because they are drought- and fire-resistant. When treated well, prairie grasslands are excellent water filtration systems and are highly effective at pulling carbon out of the atmosphere.

For an extensive list of regenerative Texan ranches, follow this link.

Not just foods, native Texan trees, flowers and birds too, are feeling the wrath of climate change. The planet is changing, and plant species seen in the state are starting to show signs of despair. The American Beech Tree that grows in some of the milder spots of East Texas is at its upper limit of tolerance. Any more increase can prove too much for its survival. It is even possible that the species may disappear from the Big Thicket and East Texas. Losing a plant species in Texas can greatly damage animal life like butterflies, bumble bees and birds that rely on the specific plant for food.

For example, the golden-cheeked warbler, native to Central Texas is an endangered species, under extreme duress due to loss of habitat, and more occurrence of trees and plants that are prone to pests that threaten golden-cheeked warbler’s breeding patterns. Similarly, numbers of the Red-cockaded Woodpecker are on the decrease due to the decline in the quality and quantity of pine forests, primarily due to short harvest cycle and poor timber management.

golden-cheeked warbler

But this delicate relationship between plants and animals can be broken merely by their timing being thrown off as summer heat arrives earlier in the year and lingers longer into the fall. This has been demonstrated perfectly this year by the early bloom of Texan native, Bluebonnets.

Bluebonnets Arriving Early is a Sign of Global Warming

climate change effect on bluebonnets

The wildflower season that stretches into June began prematurely for Texas. For a large part of Central and East Texas, this is record-setting early. With a drier than usual South Texas and a wetter than average North and West Texas, and the evident rise in temperatures, the pre-season wildflower can soon become the standard.

Late winter and early spring temperatures in the region are gradually moving up an average of 2 degrees compared to early 20th century averages. Many species of wildflowers across the North American continent are blooming earlier because of higher temperatures. This, in turn, impacts pollinators, as they depend on the bloom of these flowers to survive. Experts predict that if the climate continues to rise at this rate, we may live to see bluebonnets springing up in January or even December.

Climate Control Strategies Crucial for the Post-Pandemic World

In Texas, a good yardstick for extreme heat is the number of 100+ °F days in a given year. The number of 100-degree days is closely connected to the average summertime temperature. At rural and semi-urban index stations, where July-August average temperatures are around 83 °F, there are typically about 12 days annually that go beyond 100 °F. If summertime temperatures rise at the rate projected, the typical number of 100-degree days would double, to about 21 per year, by 2036.

In a new report published by Nielsen-Gammon and Texas A&M, researchers evaluate what Texas’ climate conditions will be like when the state turns 200 in 2036. Using historical meteorological data, the report explains future extreme weather risks facing the state.

The report’s analysis shows that:

  • Compared to the 2000-2018 average, the number of 100-degree days will double by 2036.
  • The expected average temperature in 2036 will be about 3 degrees warmer than what it is now.
  • By 2036, extreme rainfall will be more frequent than the 1950-1999 average, causing more flooding — especially in Houston and cities where impervious surfaces increase rainwater runoff.
  • Higher temperatures and erratic rainfall will cause more intense droughts.
  • For some parts of the Texas coast, the storm risk may double due to sea level rise and more intense hurricanes.

hurricane harvey texas

In a post-COVID-19 world, people in the state of Texas need to think about how other factors make us vulnerable to extreme environmental threats. Water-supply planning, urban planning and flood control measures are few of the other factors that policymakers will need to consider as Texas’ natural risks change.

We have been feeling good about the temporary reduction in GHG emissions during the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown phase, but this decrease is extremely limited and not enough to stunt the temps from going up. According to the World Meteorological Organization,

“COVID-19 may result in a temporary reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, but it is not a substitute for sustained climate action. We need to show the same determination and unity against climate change as against COVID-19.”

Post- pandemic, global governments and leaders have to come up with green recovery plans that may be slower in getting economies back on track, but will work in the long run, to heal and recover the more graver crisis looming over us. It could be looked at as a new way to regenerate businesses and life in a post-pandemic world.

Impact of Food Production and Food Systems on the Climate

Changes in temperature and precipitation due to climate change may strongly alter regional climates causing potential shifts in crop production. For example, by the end of the century summer in Illinois may more closely resemble the current climate in east Texas, and Michigan summers may reflect that of current day Arkansas This is occurring with an increase in food production to meet the demand of 9.1 billion people by 2050.

Did you know that our food system is responsible for 1/3 of our greenhouse gas emissions?

Food production plays a massive role. It uses 70 percent of global freshwater sources for irrigation. Food production also contributes to methane emissions. Livestock alone add up to 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. The food we eat has to be considered when talking about the planet’s future.

A multi-pronged tactic to reduce unprecedented changes to the global food system is needed to deal with climate change. Some options here are to:

  •   Adopt a whole food diet such as a Mediterranean diet containing moderate amounts of dairy, eggs, and meat.
  •   Reduce the amount that we eat, getting our caloric consumption down to healthy levels.
  •   Improve yields through crop genetics and agronomic practices.
  •   Reduce food waste and loss by 50%
  •   Reduce use of nitrogen fertilizers.

By adopting these changes, we may stand a chance of minimizing GHG emissions, slowing species extinction, stopping the expansion of farmland, and preserving water.

However, none of the recommended options on their own are enough, but even 50% adoption of all five could slash emissions by 63% and going all the way could actually have negative emissions.

Furthermore, how do we eat nutritiously, in a way that does not exploit resources or damage the environment, and do so frugally? These questions weigh heavily on scientists, policymakers, and conscientious eaters the world over. Another question that raises eyebrows, especially here in Texas is if we should stop eating beef?

The Role of Livestock and Beef Consumption in Climate Change

According to an Environmental Protection Agency report tracking emissions in the United States —— the agriculture industry generated 9% of emissions annually between 1990 and 2017. But 62% of those agriculture industry emissions came from cows, including dairy heifers.

Cattle, and all ruminant animals, belch out methane gas and their excrement produces both nitrous oxide and ammonia. Likewise, growth and production of their food and transportation to feed lots and slaughter facilities also emit pollutants.

All of these pollutants need to be drastically reduced, the U.N. report says, in addition to other adjustments in food production.

It is true that there is much argument against the way the beef industry works, the current beef supply chain, and the topics of animal welfare, and environmental health.

However, regenerative farms and ranches in Texas like Pure Pastures, Parker Creek and Behind the Oaks are some of the many, where ranchers and farmers defy the common practices of livestock rearing and agriculture, to adopt sustainable, environment building techniques. Here, bison are treated more like wild animals than like typical livestock. Cows aren’t artificially inseminated, and the bison graze in herds, moving as they do, hence avoiding over grazing.

regenerative farming in texas

This system creates a natural cycle. As the bison move through the fields in compact herds, they leave behind their manure, which fertilizes the soil and attracts dung beetles and earthworms, who spread the stuff around and amplify its impact. Then birds eat the insects and seeds, and an entire robust ecosystem begins to come take shape. As underground microbial life increases so does the amount of carbon stored in the soil—which enhances its water retention capacity.

It was a Zimbabwean ecologist named Allan Savory who popularized the idea that ruminants, if grazed in high densities and moved frequently, could restore overgrazed lands and begin to reverse climate change. His core idea has now become a central tenet of a growing global movement called regenerative ranching.

By using adaptive multi-paddock grazing, ranches and farms are able to sequester carbon, at a rate that more than offsets the emissions of their grass-fed cattle during their finishing stage. In other words, the ranch, along with its cattle becomes a carbon sink.

Texan farms like the GrassField Farm are returning to farming the ‘old fashioned’ way, where the grasslands, sequester carbon from the atmosphere and help keep the earth cool. Cattle flatten seeds into the earth and fertilize with their manure, and the grass filters rainwater that enters underground aquifers.

Regenerative farming and ranching are also an economically strong option for owners as returning the land to natural grasslands, feeding cattle a grass diet and frequently switching up grazing areas is more economically feasible than conventional livestock farming techniques.

texan ranches

TexasRealFood aims to promote the idea of sustainable and regenerative methods of agriculture and livestock rearing. We believe our food systems need to be regenerative, collective, and resilient, with a focus on caring for our planet at all stages of business and interaction. It’s just this simple: the strongest food system is the one we build. 

Our directory is a detailed resource where you can connect with family farmers, ranchers, artisan producers and people who have a passion for building and promoting an ecologically viable solution to the food they produce. TexasRealFood believes we, as Texans, have the power to create the food system we want. Therefore, we exist to empower the businesses in our communities to become active participants in what they grow, raise, and sell by building relationships directly with the consumers who support them. And, in return, we connect those local consumers with the highest quality, all-natural, farm-fresh food they depend on to feed their families and support their local economy.

We need a significant overhaul, changing the global food system on a scale not seen before. While this is unchartered policy territory and these problems are not easily fixed, the goal is within reach and there are opportunities to adapt international, local, and business policies.

How to Navigate the Topic of Climate Change with your Children

earth day 2021 texas

If you haven’t spoken to your kids about the impacts of climate change yet, you should start right away; that is if they haven’t already initiated the conversation. Not surprisingly, children are far more responsive to the situation and their sense of urgency is something we need to take inspiration from.

Instead of enjoying carefree childhood hobbies, young climate leaders like Greta Thunberg, Alexandria Villaseñor, Autumn Peltier, and Xiye Bastida are protesting, litigating, and speaking about the importance of policy-based climate solutions. Our kids need us, parents to engage, too. But not just be engaged in small actions — cleaning up parks, recycling, carpooling — hoping to make a difference, as these solutions obviously are not enough to counteract the government’s failure to act boldly and swiftly on the issue.  Kids need parents to engage in order to reach the ‘critical mass’ needed for climate action. A report from Yale Program on Climate Change Communications in 2020 found that even though 66 percent of Americans are “somewhat worried” about global warming, around the same numbers said they “rarely” or “never” discuss it with friends or family. The climate crisis is already here, but many of us still find it, too daunting to talk about.

But just because talking about it makes us uncomfortable, doesn’t make our families immune to its effects. To acknowledge our ambivalence about reducing our carbon footprint, we must ask ourselves tough questions like:

Why is changing our habits, comforts, and the way we live so difficult?

How can we hold elected officials accountable in light of the climate mission at hand?

What sacrifices and compromises must we make to avoid the worst effects of climate change?

There are many ways for parents to encourage positive climate discussions with children. To avoid climate fatigue, seek out narratives about promising climate policies, laws, and proposals; reflect on and write down your deepest hopes as it can increase pro-environmental behaviors, inspiration, and community engagement.

Instead of horrifying over rhetoric that induces feelings of doom and gloom, connect with other constructive parent-centric climate organizations like Moms Clean Air Space Texas Chapter, Climate Dads, Our Kids Climate, and HERE in Houston. Spending time on the right platforms might help you find the right words to talk to kids — and other adults! — about our rapidly warming world.

Future generations and our vulnerable earth depends on our ability to act now. Parents have a unique responsibility because they have someone they love to answer to. Our own kids will hold us accountable.

The critical lesson we should pick from here is that we shouldn’t wait for more evidence before acting to protect the climate. Because of the lag between action and effect, we need to take steps now to reduce our carbon footprint.

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