Drought of Sight, Drought of Mind: Agroecology, not Amnesia, to Survive the Droughts of the Future

July 31, 2015
Marcia DeLonge
Research Director and Sr. Scientist, Food and Environment

Do you remember: (a) Where the Olympic Games were held in 2012? (b) the name of the hurricane that devastated the East Coast that year? (c) who won the 2012 World Series? (d) What percent of the US was covered by the 2012 drought? or (e) out of the top 100 costliest US disasters recorded, where that drought ranked? (check your answers below)

Houston, we have a problem


Eastern Washington, July 2015. Currently, 99.99% of Washington is experiencing at least Severe Drought. Let’s not forget that it’s never too early to start thinking about mitigating the next big drought.

How did you do? If you got (d) and (e), I’m impressed. But, my guess is that many people either never knew, or can’t remember, the scope of the 2012 drought. Unless, perhaps, you are from Texas, where a three-year drought kicked off in 2011, when 97% of the state was in at least extreme drought by October. But, here is my point: with a costly, record-breaking, near-nationwide drought in our recent past, combined with an on-going record-breaking, media-drenched drought in California, I’d like to see more evidence that we’re getting at the roots of this problem. And not just in California.

Duck and cover (and, condolences to the ducks)

Confronting the actual cause of the problem is one option. Another is crisis management. We should be working on both (in fact, California is making strides—stay tuned to their sustainable groundwater legislation and Healthy Soils Initiative). However, as a nation, we put a larger share of our resources into the latter.

For example, in 2012 the total payments for losses through crop insurance reached $16 billion. Yes, $16 billion. Enough to build nine space shuttles. Or, nine times NASA’s Earth Science budget which, notably, funds critical investigations of groundwater supplies, storm forecasts and drought predictions (but might be cut by millions of dollars this year – find out more here and here). In addition to crop insurance, in 2012 the federal government responded with other important relief, including purchasing $170 million of livestock and fish products.

Recently, President Obama announced funding of $110 million for current drought and wildfire relief. These funds are certainly needed, and boost the $190 million already spent this year on related topics. Fortunately, at least a fraction of these funds have actually been directed to conservation-based research and practice, but it seems to me that we could be paying a lot more up front to minimize the risk (and costs) of future droughts.

An account run dry, an uncharismatic monster?

It’s hard to get excited about the droughts of the future, and it’s no wonder. Other natural disasters are menacing enough to have sports teams named after them: the Carolina Hurricanes, San Jose Earthquakes, Miami Heat… you get the idea. On the other hand, nobody even wants to think about drought. To make matters worse, predicting drought is a little bit like accounting: expect “normal” rain, subtract water loss and consumption, and hope to have enough water in the account to avoid bankruptcy. That accounting is important, yes, but admittedly not the most confidence-inspiring business model in which to invest your livelihood (at least not for most), and can lead to destructive debts. So what’s to be done?

Farmers, ranchers, and a solution the size of Niagara Falls

It might be hard to get revved up about the droughts of the future but, nevertheless, we have solutions! As it turns out, the very folks who suffer the most from droughts—farmers and ranchers—can help to mitigate them. How? Well, the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service has illustrated the solution quite neatly in an infographic which reads “For each 1% increase in organic matter, U.S. cropland could store the amount of water that flows over Niagara Falls in 150 days”. WOW. This means that helping farmers and ranchers acquire the tools they need to increase their soil organic matter can actually help to mitigate drought, which brings us to the next question:

If organic matter matters, how do we build it?

There are many ways that farmers and ranchers can build their soil organic matter. To name just a few: planting cover crops—crops that protect soils between seasons—adding organic amendments (like compost) to soils, reducing tillage to keep organic matter intact, and by applying other tried and true tenets of agroecology. These practices tend to add or protect organic matter in soils, allowing soils to act like a sponge, soaking up and holding onto more water whenever they get it. Of course, the proof is in the pudding. Just for one example, a study (Al-Kaisi et al. 2013) from Iowa evaluating the consequences of the 2012 drought found that the impact of drought on crops was lowest (and yields were highest) on fields that were managed to build their organic matter, such as no-till fields, or fields that were in crop rotation (e.g., as corn one year and soy the next, rather than just corn year after year).

Just add water…

Of course, the only thing that can really mitigate drought is water. However, investing in research and programs that discover the best ways to optimize our use of water when we have it is a no-brainer. Let’s keep these things in mind, even on rainy days.

 Trivia, but not trivial

Posted in: Food and Agriculture

Tags: Drought

About the author

More from Marcia

Marcia DeLonge is a senior scientist in the Food & Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). Dr. DeLonge conducts scientific research and analyses identifying practices that lead to healthy, sustainable food and farming systems. Her work seeks viable opportunities within agriculture to both adapt to and mitigate climate change.