How dry we are: Adapting to climate change with Gary Paul Nabhan

Santa Fe * New Mexican
Updated: 11:06 pm, Thu Sep 5, 2013
Written By: Staci Matlock

Ethnobotanist, seed saver, and author Gary Paul Nabhan says he’s not a “doomsday” kind of guy. But even his optimism took a dive for a little while as he watched climate change affect the environment. He saw the impact of drought on his own land and that of other farmers.

“It was tough visiting my brother-in-law on his pecan orchard near Las Cruces and learning that Elephant Butte reservoir is so low that farmers are being allowed to irrigate once instead of six to eight times each year,” Nabhan said. “The Río Grande was dry as it passed by his home.”

Not one to stay down for long, Nabhan tapped into his considerable knowledge of traditional farming and a lifetime of experience to write his latest book, Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land: Lessons From Desert Farmers on Adapting to Climate Uncertainty (Chelsea Green Publishing).

“I listen to farmers in deserts around the world who know what they are doing,” he said. “Fear can paralyze us from doing what we should have been doing with respect to growing our food, even if climate change was not occurring at an accelerated rate. It’s not so much ‘how to survive it’ as how to adapt to the challenges and opportunities of living in a hot dry land, taking pleasure and interest in the foods growing around us.”

His book is a realistic yet hopeful action manual in the face of climate change. It is an ode to farmers still practicing or reviving traditional practices and a how-to book for people who want to keep growing their own food as the temperatures rise and moisture vanishes. The foreword is by Bill McKibben, founder of www.350.org, who has long sounded the alarm about climate change.

Nabhan is known for his earlier works about deserts, farmers, seeds, and pollinators. Altogether, he’s written more than two dozen books since the early 1980s, including Desert Terroir: Exploring the Unique Flavors and Sundry Places of the Borderlands (2011), Where Our Food Comes From: Retracing Nikolay Vavilov’s Quest to End Famine (2008), Singing the Turtles to Sea: The Comcáac (Seri) Art and Science of Reptiles (2003), The Forgotten Pollinators (with Stephen L. Buchmann) (1996), and The Desert Smells Like Rain: A Naturalist in O’odham Country (1982).

Nabhan begins his latest book with a story about a visit with visionary farmer and businessman Aziz Bousfiha near Fez in Morocco. Bousfiha has been reclaiming a once-thriving oasis that had been neglected and was returning to desert. He told Nabhan and other visitors that he envisioned a chain of such reclaimed oases around the world to shore up food production in the face of climate uncertainty. “For me, the idea is to go somewhere into the desert,” he tells Nabhan in the book. “We’ll arrest all activities and uses of chemicals that deplete diversity. If pesticides have been shown to kill any species, we’ll eliminate their use. Next, we will return to the adapted seeds of the region, for they play multiple roles, whereas a modern hybrid seed plays only one or a few roles.” Bousfiha goes on to describe this as an endeavor of people working together as members of “the same community.”

Asked if these efforts might be an answer to climate change, Bousfiha relays an Arab proverb that suggests that if it looks like the world is about to end “and you realize this moment while you are planting trees, well, don’t stop planting!”

Nabhan writes that, after the visit with Bousfiha, “I have never been able to think about our fate in the face of climate change in the same way. I realized that this is a time ripe for creative action, not just for scientific analysis.”

Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land lays out a variety of practical ways to prepare for a changing climate by paying attention to soil, water harvesting, types of crops planted, and ways to protect pollinators. Nabhan outlines steps both backyard gardeners and commercial farmers can take. Like Bousfiha, he sees heirloom seeds — developed from naturally pollinated plant strains that have become endangered by the rise of commercially produced and hybridized seed stock — as a key to surviving and thriving through climate change, and not just because it makes environmental and economic sense.

“You know, a thousand heirloom varieties can be put out in our gardens and fields as a buffer against climate uncertainty for far less economic, ecological, and cultural cost than breeding, marketing, patenting, and licensing a single GMO,” Nabhan said. “It’s just common sense that in the face of uncertainty, we shouldn’t put all our eggs — or seeds — in one basket.”

One practical problem for gardeners is that the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone map is no longer as accurate a planting guide as it used to be — because of climate change. This change is reflected in a variety of severe-weather anomalies. “The new map is out on USDA web sites, but growing conditions are so rapidly changing that there is no formula for dealing with climate uncertainty,” Nabhan said. “We don’t simply need heat-tolerant plants; in fact, at my own orchard, the last two winter’s catastrophic freezes were more disruptive than heat and drought.”

Nabhan has long sought out the wisdom and experience of farmers around the world. Through geographically specific practices handed down and refined through many generations, these farmers have learned to adapt and survive. They gave him nuggets of information that made their way into the book. “For three decades, I have been blessed by the opportunity to meet and listen to Arab, Jewish, Berber, Uyghur, Native American, and Mexican farmers talk about what works for them,” he said. “We cannot and should not imitate their own place-based techniques, but we should be inspired by them and seek to understand the underlying principles which guide them.”

Food consumers, gardeners, and farmers will need patience, creativity, and attention to land and watersheds to guide them through the changes that are coming. Nabhan said the most critical lesson he hopes people will glean from his new book is understanding what is happening on their land. “Watch what is happening on your home ground to the edible plants and animals,” he said. “Do not expect a top-down solution; grow one locally that fits your own place, culture, and dietary needs.”

While acknowledging the realities of the challenges climate change will bring, Nabhan remains optimistic about the future. “Each day I am home, I plant, I compost, I harvest rain, and I watch,” he said. “I try not to harm, disrupt, or simplify the natural world but let it flow into my fields, orchard, and garden. That and the many fine farmers, ranchers, foragers, and orchard keepers I’ve met give me hope.”

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