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Climate Crisis Brings Historic Delay to Planting Season, Pressuring Farmers and Food Prices

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Climate Crisis Brings Historic Delay to Planting Season, Pressuring Farmers and Food Prices
A Midwest farm impacted by recent "bomb cyclones." U.S. Dept. of Agriculture

By Eoin Higgins

Farmers in the Midwest are watching the spring planting season shrink due to the climate crisis as damaging storms and flooding are making fields from Oklahoma to Arkansas impossible to sow, a situation that is driving grain prices up in futures markets in a way that could have devastating consequences.


A lower yield of corn and soybeans is already jacking prices for the staple cereals up, which could lead to a ripple effect across the economy. And farmers can lose crop insurance if they don't hit growing planting deadlines, most of which are in late May and early June, a major source of recovery for struggling farmers in an already volatile economy.

Per Reuters:

Excessive rain has caused U.S. planting to fall seriously behind schedule. Farmers still had 116 million acres of combined corn and soybeans left to plant as of May 19, far more than they ever had on the date. The previous high was 91 million acres in 1995.

U.S. Corn to be planted, May 19. 2019 marks the highest amount of unplanned acreage in American history.


Image: Reuters / USDA

As Common Dreams has reported, the increasingly dangerous and damaging storms and flooding are likely due to the climate crisis, the sign of what environmental activist Bill McKibben calls "a hot new world."

There's a direct connection between climate change and the Midwest deluge, according to Wired. And it's only going to get worse.

More recent work, published in February by scientists at the University of Notre Dame, shows that floods aren't just getting more frequent — they'll also get more powerful in the future. Using a statistical method to blend data from global climate models with local information, the researchers predicted that the severity of extreme hydrologic events, so-called 100-year floods, hitting 20 watersheds in the Midwest and Great Lakes region will increase by as much as 30 percent by the end of the century.

Rain, tornadoes and melting snow have combined over the past two months to make the ground in the Midwest unusable for planting corn and soybeans.

And the weather doesn't appear anywhere near letting up.

Per brokerage firm Allendale, Inc.:

Above-normal rainfall is expected across most of the Midwest and Plains farm belt over the next 15 days, further delaying planting of corn and soybeans and potentially damaging the quality of the developing winter wheat crop, forecasters said.

The delay is becoming a serious issue for the U.S. farming industry.

"Last year at this time, we would have been done," Illinois farmer Jimmy Ayers told Fox 55/27 Illinois. "So, it's been a drastic difference from last year to this year."

And, for planting that is done, the water is making it difficult for planted seeds to grow.

"Any of this land that gets planted now is starving those plants of oxygen," Ayers said.

In a tweet, western Minnesota farmer Jonathan Mikkelson showed the difference in crop growth from year to year.

For most Midwestern farmers, planting has been stalled out for most of May. As AccuWeather staff writer John Roach reported on May 26, the yield for 2019 is now projected, at 14.2 billion bushels, to be lower than 2019's yield of 14.3 billion bushels and far lower than the initial projection of 15 billion bushels.

The window for planting is closing quickly, wrote Roach:

Corn planting as of May 20 in 18 key U.S. states is off 38.75 percent compared to the five-year average; by now, 80 percent of corn in those key states is planted, but this week's report shows that just 49 percent is planted.
Soybean planting is off 59.5 percent of its five-year average with just 19 percent of soybeans planted in the 18 key states, compared to 47 percent by May 20.

An analysis from futures forecaster firm RMB Group laid out the numbers in more detailed and stark terms. Noting that Iowa is currently the only state with over 50 percent of its crops planted, at 70 percent, the firm pointed to a more dire picture in the rest of the region:

Illinois had 95 percent of its corn and 79 percent of its soybeans in the ground at this time last year. This year it has planted only 24 percent of its corn and 9 percent of its soybeans. Indiana had planted 86 percent of its corn and 70 percent of its soybeans this time last year. This year's plantings are 14 percent and 6 percent, respectively. Ohio had 69 percent of its corn and 40 percent of its soybeans in the ground last year. This year it has 9 percent and 4 percent, respectively.

The slow season has farmers in a bind, Indiana farmer Ronnie Mohr told his local Fox affiliate. Unplanted fields don't stop costing money just because they're sitting empty.

"You're spending the same per acre," said Mohr. "You're just not getting the same dollars for it."

Reposted with permission from our media associate Common Dreams.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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