Paul Malchow

Back in the 1970s, Earth Day was in its infancy and consisted of a day where people would pick up litter and rescue old tires and appliances from our roadways, lakes and rivers. The global day of awareness has evolved over the years as more environmental issues come to light and more scientific data supports those issues.

In recent years, climate change has become the focal point of Earth’s environmental concerns. Some will point to the planet’s past ice age and say the rise of average temperatures is just another page in Earth’s ever-evolving aging process. On the other end of the spectrum, experts claim life is at a tipping point and carbon dioxide emissions are destroying the planet.

April 22 commemorated the 51st Earth Day and my email account was bursting with news releases from a variety of clubs and organizations. Each reassured me they were true stewards of the environment. Most made vague claims of “reducing our carbon footprint.” Many came with requests for money.

Carbon footprints have received a lot of publicity since the Biden Administration moved into Washington, D.C. The general consensus is carbon footprints need to be smaller. There does not seem to be any consensus as to how that would actually be accomplished.

Energy providers and government entities have been busy promising to be “carbon neutral” by 20__ (pick a year). Gas-burning cars will be a thing of the past by 2035. Electrical power will be self-sustainable by 2040. In a country where — after 250 years — we still have issues with casting a vote, we’re going to get this all figured out in a couple of decades.

Electric vehicles are pushed front and center as the sexy cure. They already exist and pose no threat to the way of life of car-crazy Americans. Solar and wind power are leading candidates for generating the electricity required for the vehicle turn-around, but county governments are already placing moratoriums on future solar arrays.

And hold on a minute — what will we do with all of this ethanol? Agriculture is wasting little time hopping on the environmental bandwagon by touting “sustainable practices.” Reduced tillage and cover crops will certainly help preserve what little topsoil our fields have left. Farmers are reporting healthier soils which have an increased capacity to retain water. Yet according to a 2017 U.S. Census of Agriculture, 56 million acres of U.S. cropland is tiled and that number is soaring. What exactly are we retaining water for?

Crop irrigation and large scale livestock operations are depleting aquifers to a point where such operations are no longer allowed in parts of Minnesota. Restoring those aquifers is going to take more than some rye grass and radishes. California’s Great Central Valley is credited with supplying over 25 percent of everything Americans eat, and does so with less than a foot of rain per year. Is this sustainable?

But agriculture is charged with feeding the world, so do they get an environmental pass? Can farmers have it both ways?

On April 21 the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced plans to expand and renews the Conservation Reserve Program “in effort to boost enrollment and address climate change.”

At a time when field crop markets are reaching eye-popping heights, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced USDA will open enrollment in the Conservation Reserve Program with higher payment rates, new incentives, and a more targeted focus on the program’s role in climate change mitigation.

USDA’s goal is to enroll up to 4 million new acres in CRP by raising rental payment rates and expanding the number of incentivized environmental practices allowed under the program.

To target the program on climate change mitigation, FSA is introducing a new Climate-Smart Practice Incentive for CRP general and continuous signups that aims to increase carbon sequestration and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Climate-Smart CRP practices include establishment of trees and permanent grasses, development of wildlife habitat, and wetland restoration.

In 2021, CRP is capped at 25 million acres. The cap will gradually increase to 27 million acres by 2023.

Will farmers take land out of production in the name of sustainability in spite of the sirens’ call of $15 soybeans? Is the USDA turning a deaf ear to warnings of low grain carry-overs and even possible shortages in 2022?

“Under the Biden-Harris Administration, USDA is engaged in a whole-of-government effort to combat the climate crisis and conserve and protect our nation’s lands, biodiversity, and natural resources including our soil, air and water,” The April 21 announcement stated. “Through conservation practices and partnerships, USDA aims to enhance economic growth and create new streams of income for farmers, ranchers, producers and private foresters. Successfully meeting these challenges will require USDA and our agencies to pursue a coordinated approach alongside USDA stakeholders, including state, local, and tribal governments.”

Sounds about right.

Carbon footprints, an increase in extreme weather events, melting ice fields and safe supplies of potable water all lead me to a question I don’t hear asked very often: Can the planet Earth sustain 8 billion people?

Scholars have discussed this topic with (again) a wide spectrum of opinions. A United Nations report from 2012 stated Earth can easily sustain about 2 billion people. More recent studies have that number at 8 billion, providing those 8 billion are judicious in their use of resources.

Americans are the planet’s champion consumers. A 2018 article in Business Insider by Andrew D. Hwang states the average American uses about 9.7 hectares. This data suggests the Earth can support at most one-fifth of the present population, 1.5 billion people, at an American standard of living.

“The Earth supports industrialized standards of living only because we are drawing down the ‘savings account’ of non-renewable resources, including fertile topsoil, drinkable water, forests, fisheries and petroleum,” Hwang said.

It took 127 years for the world population to double from one billion to two. By contrast, it took only 47 years, from 1927 to 1974, to double from two billion to four. Since 1960, world population has grown by about one billion every 13 years.

Environmental experts are quick to say we are killing our planet. I don’t believe this is so. Yes, I believe we are harming our planet — perhaps irreparable harm. But Earth will survive. It’s the human race that’s going to take the pounding. And it’s going to make Covid-19 look like a trip to the dentist.

We can enjoy our avocados and Florida vacations; but Earth will have its day.

Paul Malchow is the managing editor of The Land. He may be reached at editor@TheLandOnline.com.

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