Over Halloween weekend I had the privilege of being able to travel to Mobile, Alabama with the tennis club. It was a wonderful weekend but as I gazed out of the window of my plane I could not help but look down upon the earth below me. At first, it was gorgeous as we departed from Boston’s Logan Airport. The scenery was covered with orange foliage and spotted with yellow trees that were assorted randomly throughout. It was a privilege to see with my own eyes and it grew ever more impressive as we passed over the Appalachian mountains in West Virginia.
But anyone who is familiar with American geography knows that once you move west of the Appalachians you are immediately met with the almost unimaginable flatness of the Midwest. As if a super flat Minecraft render came to life, this geographically homogeneous part of the United States is only broken up by intermittent rivers, making this area a truly easy location to farm and has since earned this part of the United States the title of “America’s breadbasket.”
This area, despite its seemingly endless plains, is one of the most vital agricultural regions not just to the United States but to the world. According to the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative, a group that advocates for environmental protections which will protect farmers’ yields and ability to grow certain crops, the midwest is a key producer of major food staples. On their website they make note of the fact that, “The U.S. produces around a third of the world’s corn and soybeans, and more than 80 percent of those corn and soybeans come from the Midwest, making the region a key node in the global food system.”
As reported by the “WorldAtlas,” in the United States the states which produce the most food are Texas, Iowa, California, Illinois and Nebraska. The only non-Midwest state on that list is California, which goes to show just how vital this region is in American farming and agriculture. However, I am not here simply to marvel at the work our farmers do (despite it being some of the most demanding work and them deserving so much more praise than they are given currently), I am here to also express my shock at one key component of the farming process—crop burning.
I suppose that in the back of my mind I was aware of crop burning and knew why it was important to agriculture. In my own lifetime, my family was offered a deal to join a blueberry farming collective in Canada but we rejected the deal as we did not want to partake in crop burning for a number of reasons. But, I suppose I never really took the time to ponder what happens when farmers set their fields ablaze. This all changed when I was on my flight to Mobile. As we passed over the Great Plains I looked out my window to see what I thought was originally a very low and single cloud in the sky.
But as I looked closer it was evident that it was not a fluffy cloud of water vapor but rather a heavy cover of smoke. While my knee-jerk reaction was to wallow in sadness and disgust that we could do such a thing to the planet, I became increasingly perplexed as I thought about it more. Because environmentally it is clear to see the issue with the process: it directly adds tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The United States Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 11% of all greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture. While this is only a small portion compared to transit and industry, it is still overwhelming to be face-to-face with. Countries such as China have reported that up to 46% of their agricultural carbon dioxide emissions come from crop burning.
It is terrifying to think about, and even see, the billowing plumes of smoke coming from farmers’ fields. As it creates cloud-like shadows over the properties of their neighbors and fellow farmers it is clear to see the negative impacts of such a practice. These were my initial thoughts as I began to sink into my environmental depression sitting on a jet which was also greatly harming the earth. But as I thought more and more about it, I began to think about why crop burning is done on such large-scale farms.
The quick and easy description of the practice and its benefits is that it makes replanting easier, thus allowing for the faster growth of crops and higher yields for farmers. This all equates to more food for more Americans! The more nitty-gritty details are certainly less obvious but stated very well by the University of Arkansas which wrote, “Crop residue burning is an inexpensive and effective method to remove excess residue to facilitate timely planting and to control pests and weeds.”
When weighed against other methods of large-scale pest and weed control, such as pesticides, it becomes less obvious which method is less harmful to both the Earth and us as humans. One method releases large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and the other puts poison into the food we eat and into the water cycle which we so desperately rely on. There are no clear answers when our desire for environmental protection becomes intertwined with our need for food security and safety.
Now I do not write this to depress any interested readers of our wonderful YOCA column. I write this article to express the nuances when it comes to environmental justice. This field is a complicated mess of interests which makes it seemingly impossible to navigate. But what we can all agree on is that we do all want to protect our Earth and ensure that it remains for the generations of tomorrow. However, some of our problems are not as simple as taking the train or riding your bike to work. The major issues which will really aid us in limiting and controlling climate change will be made in gray and uncomfortable areas such as this.
I do not have the answer to this question of crop burning. I am not sure where we go to ensure that farmers are able to produce all that they can, I am not sure where we go to ensure that our food is not poisoned or infested with pests and I am most certainly not sure on how to protect the world I so deeply love and admire. All I know is that if we desire to protect the beautiful sunsets which kiss our Great Plains with fiery red skies, the future will require leaders with endless fortitude and limitless gumption to operate in those gray areas! So to the environmental justice advocates of today and tomorrow, do not be afraid to operate in the unknown or the uncomfortable—embrace it! That is where our most indispensable solutions to our most pressing issues are waiting to be discovered.