What's Going On?
It's time to destroy America's Green Monster. Not Fenway Park — rather, the monster that guzzles three trillion gallons of water, 200 million gallons of gas, and 70 million pounds of pesticides each year and covers three times as much land as corn (the country's largest irrigated crop). We're talking about the ecological McDonald's, the monoculture on which the US spends more than foreign aid each year (around $50 billion) — lawns.
What's Wrong With Lawns?
In addition to being fuel-hungry and massive consumers of water, your typical lawn doesn't provide any environmental benefits. The turf grasses that make up lawns are not native to America, and constitute a barren habitat for crucial pollinating insects and other animals. Rainwater runoff carries artificial fertilizer through sewers into bodies of water (damaging aquatic ecosystems), and Americans collectively spill around 17 million gallons of gasoline onto their lawns every year — roughly equivalent to the Exxon-Valdez calamity.
The lawn typifies the American relationship with the environment. It takes no account of what might thrive an area — rather than working with the landscape it imposes its oversimplified will, annihilating all sense of locality and place.
How Did Lawns Become A Thing?
In short, the lawn's ubiquity is the product of suburbanization. In post-Renaissance England wealthy landowners maintained well-manicured grass on their estates as a status symbol — a way for Mr. Darcy to display that he was quite wealthy enough to forgo growing food on his land and could afford peasants to manually scythe-crop the grass on a regular basis.
Andrew Jackson Downing, the father of American landscape architecture, viewed lawns as a way of establishing order and culture. The invention of the lawnmower served to democratize these plots of grass as America spread outward into the "borderlands" of early suburbia, and Downing's puritanical protege Frank J. Scott spread the gospel, exhorting Americans to "Let your lawn be your home’s velvet robe, and your flowers its not-too-promiscuous decoration." The concept of lawn as patriotic symbol of collective "American-ness" continued to grow over the decades, and, like much of the country, eventually became cheap, efficient, and mass-produced.
What Should I Do Instead?
There are plenty of options and so much potential! And you don't have to tear it up all at once. Above all, take your surrounding environment into account. Add some native plants or cover an area with wildflowers. Plant a tree or two, along with some shade-loving shrubs. Grow a garden — which, as Wendell Berry says, involves "reclaiming responsibility for one's own part in the food economy." Make some compost with your food scraps and use that instead of pesticides and fertilizer. If you live in a drought-prone area, you could convert your lawn into xeriscaped rock.
Some states even have incentives for people that decide to go the no-lawn route. California has several turf-replacement rebates and Minnesota is planning to kick off a program in 2020 that pays homeowners to replace their lawns with pollinator-friendly alternatives.
What's Going On?
A series of rain storms hammered the Midwest this Spring, delaying farmers' ability to plant corn and soybeans on time — cropland in Iowa, South Dakota, Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan is still sitting under inches of rainwater.
How Bad Is It?
Planting season for corn varies by region, but generally begins around April. By the beginning of June, 90% of a farmer's corn should be planted. But late May this year saw only 58% of corn acreage planted, making it the slowest corn planting season on record. Farmers have had to deal with flooded fields, tractors stuck in the mud, seeds washed away, and eroded soil. On Twitter, this season has been deemed #NoPlant19. The US supplies 25% of the world's grains, so this shortage could have a large effect on the global market.
What Does This Mean for Farmers?
They face a major question: to plant or not to plant? The deadline to file for crop insurance has already passed in most regions, and insurance only pays out 55% of the crop value — it also requires farmers to leave their land empty. Some farmers have chosen to plant late in hopes that there are enough hot days this summer to allow the corn to mature and dry out before frost comes in the fall.
The other option is to plant more soybeans since they do well in the summer, but there's a surplus of soybeans due to ongoing trade wars, and China is no longer a big buyer. Around 31 million acres of corn will remain unplanted this year (1/3 of the usual total).
How Does This Affect Consumers?
Even though a majority of the corn and soybeans grown in the Midwest doesn't end up directly on your dinner plate, it indirectly affects consumers. These commodity crops are used for animal feed, ethanol (corn) enriched gasoline, and the profusion of processed foods that line the middle aisles of grocery stores. So you'll likely have to pay more for all the stuff you shouldn't be eating anyway.
Will We See More Of This In The Future?
Experts expect more rain to hit the Midwest each year as the Earth continues to warm. Much of the precipitation results from warmer water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico — that extra atmospheric moisture has to dump somewhere.
Heavy rainfall is just as detrimental to crops as severe drought or heat — in addition to preventing planting, it can damage roots, wash away soil, and inhibit growth.
How Do We Protect Against This Kind Of Thing?
These problems are not the sole result of extreme weather events. The degraded soil and huge swathes of monocultures on the industrial farms that produce these crops are completely unequipped to handle shocks of this kind — we need a system-wide transition to regenerative agricultural practices to have any hope of feeding the world and avoiding collapse in the decades to come.
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