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Floods, FEMA, and a sustainable food future — some terrific recent reads

I want to direct your attention, right at the start of another monthly roundup of recent great reads, to an inspiring look at a sustainable future for farming.

Houses in northwest Houston on Aug. 30.
REUTERS/Adrees Latif

Global warming aside, it’s hard to think of a more daunting environmental challenge than feeding this planet’s swelling population without depleting its agricultural resources — and destroying the nonfarm features that make Earth a place worth living.

So I want to direct your attention, right at the start of another monthly roundup of recent great reads, to an inspiring look at a sustainable future for farming. Developed by the Dutch, these methods are simultaneously high-tech and low-input. And they avoid the food fight over genetically modified grub.

Turns out that after the United States, the Netherlands is the world’s largest food producer by dollar value, despite its lacking — in the words of Frank Viviano’s deeply reported, gorgeously illustrated piece for National Geographic — “almost every resource long thought to be necessary for large-scale agriculture.”

For example, massive tillable acreage. The Netherlands’ total land area, I calculate, is about one-sixth of Minnesota’s: just 13,000 square miles, much of it intensively developed for housing and infrastructure that support a population density averaging 1,300 people per square mile.

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Nevertheless, Viviano says, Dutch farmers since the year 2000 “have reduced dependence on water for key crops by as much as 90 percent. They’ve almost completely eliminated the use of chemical pesticides on plants in greenhouses, and since 2009 Dutch poultry and livestock producers have cut their use of antibiotics by as much as 60 percent.”

Typically, this is not being achieved with high-rise vertical gardening of the type that nowadays seems to be capturing Americans’ imagination, if not their industrial-scale investment.

Seen from the air, the Netherlands resembles no other major food producer — a fragmented patchwork of intensely cultivated fields, most of them tiny by agribusiness standards, punctuated by bustling cities and suburbs. In the country’s principal farming regions, there’s almost no potato patch, no greenhouse, no hog barn that’s out of sight of skyscrapers, manufacturing plants, or urban sprawl. More than half the nation’s land area is used for agriculture and horticulture.

Banks of what appear to be gargantuan mirrors stretch across the countryside, glinting when the sun shines and glowing with eerie interior light when night falls. They are Holland’s extraordinary greenhouse complexes, some of them covering 175 acres.

These climate-controlled farms enable a country located a scant thousand miles from the Arctic Circle to be a global leader in exports of a fair-weather fruit: the tomato. The Dutch are also the world’s top exporter of potatoes and onions and the second largest exporter of vegetables overall in terms of value. More than a third of all global trade in vegetable seeds originates in the Netherlands.

Trade is not the only motivator. In  the words of Ernst van den Ender, whom you can think of as Dutch agriculture’s chief engineer, the main driver is the imperative to head off mass starvation by producing “more food in the next four decades than all farmers in history have harvested over the past 8,000 years.”

Many of the techniques are adapted from ancient and/or nonindustrial models of sustainability in places like Bali (and often transported, with Dutch support, to places like Africa’s Eastern Rift Valley): Insect pests are controlled with other insects, synthetic fertilizers are displaced by bacteria that cause crops to create the their own nutrients.

And their DNA is left alone, at least at the level of molecular splicing; instead, the Dutch favor an advanced form of hybridization.

Dutch firms are among the world leaders in the seed business, with close to $1.7 billion worth of exports in 2016. Yet they market no GMO products. A new seed variety in Europe’s heavily regulated GMO arena can cost a hundred million dollars and require 12 to 14 years of research and development, according to KeyGene’s Arjen van Tunen. By contrast, the latest achievements in the venerable science of molecular breeding — which introduces no foreign genes — can deliver remarkable gains in five to 10 years, with development costs as low as $100,000 and seldom more than a million dollars. It is a direct descendant of methods employed by farmers in the Fertile Crescent 10,000 years ago.

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Much is being written about Houston’s struggle to overcome the catastrophic flooding. Andrew Revkin, writing in ProPublica, adds important context by looking both backward to Katrina (which he thinks, in the end, may prove to have done less damage than Harvey) and also to a future in which development continues to put people and homes in harm’s way — and not just from hurricanes.

While some aspects of Houston’s agony are likely anomalous, a similar set of risk factors threatens hundreds of communities from coast to coast and in between. The natural hazards and geography vary, but the dominant dynamic leading to unnatural disasters is the same everywhere: growth and development continue to put people and property at risk, from overdeveloped inland floodplains to fire-prone Western woodlands to crowding coastlines to homes and businesses built in America’s Tornado Alley.

In regions prone to wildfire, the same dynamics and tensions are in play. A comprehensive 2015 federal report found that, as of 2010, the vulnerable “wildland-urban interface” of the lower 48 states includes about 44 million houses — one in every three houses in the country, with the highest concentrations of houses in California, Texas and Florida.

The growth rate in these combustible zones is similar to that in Gulf Coast floodplains, even as climate change, invasive species and other factors boost fire risk. As the land management group Headwaters Economics has shown in detailed maps, there is a vast amount of developable land that, without new policies, will greatly expand a disaster’s bull’s-eye.

But only 18 communities — out of thousands in fire-prone regions — have signed up with a planning assistance program for living with wildfire developed in 2015 by the group with several partners.

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Restricting new development in dangerous places is one strong preventive strategy, and you might think it easier on balance than relocating people from places at high risk. Not so fast.

Writing in Politico, Annie Snider reports that even in flood-prone coastal Louisiana, with Katrina’s destruction still vivid in memory, the questions of when to press for permanent resettlement, and where to put the people, are still very difficult to ask and to answer.

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Permanently relocating people is the third rail of disaster planning, the aspect no one — especially politicians — wants to talk about. Local zoning and development decisions have encouraged millions of people to move into floodplains, and federal insurance policies and disaster aid have bailed them out time and again. But as these storms become increasingly costly, and climate change promises to make them more so, it becomes harder to avoid the bigger topic: There are places where people simply shouldn’t live anymore….

But as the state of Louisiana mounts a massive battle against the rising tide, planning and funding ambitious efforts to restore buffering wetlands and build levees and floodgates, it is also beginning to acknowledge to residents that even their best efforts will not be enough — and is asking them to think about what comes next.

What comes next is identifying nearby destinations situated in sufficient safety to receive the influx. Places like Houma, and oil and gas town about 15 miles inland from the bayous of Cajun country.

This town’s residents — roughnecks, shrimpers, shipbuilders and small-business owners — aren’t typically the joining type. And yet dozens have recently begun showing up for an unusual discussion group underwritten by the state and federal government, and dedicated to a question very difficult to grapple with: What happens when the next hurricane hits, sending bayous rising and inundating the most flood-prone homes, and people start moving here?

With the help of $92.6 million in federal grant money, Louisiana’s Office of Community Development has launched a first-of-its-kind effort to help communities across the state prepare for the tumult to come. Rising waters and escalating flood insurance rates will drive thousands of families farther inland, the state predicts, leaving behind homes they’ve known for generations and places that have fundamentally shaped their identities…. Communities like Houma will experience their own jarring transition as they receive an influx of waterlogged neighbors. Houma sits high enough that it’s less likely to drown in a hurricane, and thanks to its industrial base, could more easily win additional levees and flood protection.

“This is the first time that I can remember that a group came in and said it’s not going to be all right,” said Jonathan Foret, sitting in the living room of the 88-year-old home he pours his weekends into restoring, which was once owned by the wealthy fur trader his grandfather trapped for in the southern marshes.

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Quick, now, which president founded the disaster-response government bureau now known as the Federal Emergency Management Agency: Harry Truman, Jimmy Carter or George W. Bush?

If you said Bush, you might be confusing FEMA with its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, created after the 9/11 attacks, or recalling its prominent if not exactly untroubled response to the Katrina flooding four years later.

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By then FEMA had functioned for a half-century in obscurity, which is what Truman had in mind when creating the FEMA’s forerunner, the Federal Civil Defense Administration, in 1950. The agency’s chief role then — retained today, despite a reorganization under Carter that merged some 100 offices into the modern outfit — was to assure continuity of the federal government by sheltering top officials in nuke-proof bunkers.

But it has picked up other duties along the way, and as a team of Wired writers lays out in “The Secret History of FEMA,” the agency has been perpetually questioned, criticized and challenged over its portfolio of roles that seemed poorly integrated, probably redundant and possibly not so terribly essential.

FEMA has always been an odd beast inside the government — an agency that has existed far from the spotlight except for the occasional high-stakes appearance during moments of critical need. It can disappear from the headlines for years in between a large hurricane or series of tornadoes….

And to this day, the agency’s weird history can be glimpsed in its strange mix of responsibilities, limitations, and quirks. And then there’s this fun fact: Along the way, FEMA’s forefathers created a legacy that is too often forgotten. Inside those bunkers during the 1970s, the nation’s emergency managers invented the first online chat program — the forerunner to Slack, Facebook Messenger, and AIM, which have together transformed modern life.

This is a piece that may appeal most strongly to readers with a taste for governance and bureaucracy, which I happen to lack — but I read to the end anyway because the tale is so well told. Also, I guess, because the prospect of nuclear attack is seeming a little less remote these days.

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In closing out this month’s tip list I’ll return to agriculture, specifically the Georgia peach, and the difficulties of venerable growers who are suffering under patterns of climate change that they still would just as soon call “the weather.”

Meera Subramanian of InsideClimate News writes about three generations of Robert Lee Dickeys in Musella, Georgia, who for 120 years have been producing several varieties of “peaches so juicy they demand to be eaten over the kitchen sink.”

It’s mid-July, what should be peak season, but the only variety on offer is Zee Ladies, almost the last of this year’s fruit. Behind the cash registers, the peach production line is still and silent, lights switched off.

In a normal year, midsummer would be abuzz with workers packing July Prince peaches in boxes they pull from hooks swirling overhead. But this year, about 85 percent of Georgia’s peach crop failed. It wasn’t a freeze, though they did lose some fruit to a mid-March dip into the 20s. And it wasn’t hail, though a hail storm in early April took some, too. The harvest failed because it was a warm winter. A very warm winter, even warmer than the warm winter the year before.

Northerners tend to think of southern fruit crops as being threatened primarily by spring frost and summer drought, but as Subramanian explains, peaches are among the fruits (and nuts) requiring a deep, sustained cold in winter to grow well. And they are not getting it.

When crops are lost to freezes and hail storms, the damage is immediate and obvious. The effects of a low-chill year vary wildly among varieties of peaches, between micro-climates within a single orchard, even from the base of the branch to its tip.

“It was very unusual,” says Robert [son of Mr. Bob and, at 63, the second generation Dickey], recalling how baffled he was by his orchards this spring. “We did not know what some of the peaches on the tree would do.” The sales team made promises they ended up unable to keep. And which 15 percent of your customers do you keep happy?

Just about the only thing peach farmers can do nowadays to try to make up missing chill hours is douse their trees with hydrogen cyanamide. This toxic growth regulator, commonly sold under the brand name Dormex, is thought to simulate chill hours. Growers selectively sprayed this year and got mixed results in terms of fruit, though it did seem to spur leaf growth for tree health. “It can help,” another peach grower, Lawton Pearson of Pearson Farms, told me, “but it’s not going to pull your ox out of the ditch.”

Dormex might address the immediate problem, but looking long-term raises larger questions. When do you begin to consider planting varieties of peaches that need fewer chill hours? When do you decide that Mr. Bob’s great-granddaughter will slip on her boots to go work an entirely different crop, one that might come to define Georgia in the 21st century?