Hotter and Dryer

Second in a series of articles about the current and future impact of The Warming on Mexico

BY DR. LORIN R. ROBINSON

Some 65 million years ago, the Earth lost 75 percent of all plant and animal species during The Fifth Mass Extinction. The land, now known as Mexico, was at the epicenter of the cataclysmic event that caused the global disaster. A massive comet or asteroid 10-15 km (6 to 9 mi)-wide smashed into the Yucatán creating a 180 km (112 mi)-wide crater christened Chicxulub.

The global environment was devastated, mainly through a lingering “impact winter” that halted photosynthesis in plants and plankton, killing animals and marine life right up the food chain—including dinosaurs, the apex creatures of the Cretaceous period.

That was the last “extinction” of any magnitude. Until now.

It is widely believed that The Sixth Mass Extinction is underway—an ongoing event resulting from human activity. In short, global warming.

The term “global warming” can be misleading. Temperature and sea level increases resulting from greenhouse gases are global phenomena. But their impact is local. Global warming is and will affect every nook and cranny of the Earth and all its creatures large and small.

What is and will be global warming’s impact on Mexico, the place where the last extinction began? This investigative series asks and attempts, at least partially, to answer that question.

“I couldn’t plant my cornfield in May because it rained too early. I lost everything,” lamented Marcos Canté, an indigenous farmer, as he recounted the ravages that the warming is wreaking on Filipe Carrillo Puerto on Mexico’s Caribbean coast.

The warming has altered ancestral indigenous farming practices in the Yucatán by disrupting the rainy and dry seasons necessary for milpa—the collective cultivation of corn, pumpkin, beans and chili peppers, the staple crops from central Mexico to northern Nicaragua.

Canté told Inter Press Service recently that “climate change affects us a lot; the climate is changing too much. It’s no longer possible to live off agriculture.” As he talks, he prepares for the new planting season, hoping that the sky will open and water the furrows.

María Eugenia Yam, another indigenous resident, concurred. She said, “The rains are no longer those of the past and it is no longer possible to live off of the milpa.” She said agricultural production is declining, negatively affecting peasant farmers who also grow cassava and produce honey.

Quintana Roo and neighboring Campeche and Yucatán on the Caribbean are highly vulnerable to the effects of the warming, as are Tamaulipas, Veracruz and Tabasco on the Gulf of Mexico. These consequences include rising temperatures, droughts, rising sea levels, more intense and frequent hurricanes and storms and loss of biodiversity.

Within the peninsula, the state of Yucatan has 17 municipalities vulnerable to the warming; Campeche, 10; and Quintana Roo, three. In total, 480 Mexican municipalities are especially vulnerable to the phenomenon out of the 2,457 into which the country is divided, according to a National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change (INECC) report.

In addition, this peninsular region suffers the highest rate of deforestation in the country. Government subsidies have failed to change that, according to the report released last year in by the Mexican Civil Council for Sustainable Agriculture.

The peninsula is home to the largest remaining tropical rainforest outside of the Amazon.

Obviously, the impact of the warming on our climate and agriculture is already being felt. And climate science tells us that temperatures, sea rise and erratic and more severe weather are increasing. Last year was the hottest in Mexico since records began, with average temperatures of 22° C (72° F)

If the past is any indicator of the future, the geologic record tells a frightening story.

Some 800,000 years ago—the last time CO² concentrations in the atmosphere exceeded 400 ppm (the level now stands at 409)—the global average temperature was 6°C (11°F) higher than today. Most climate scientists aren’t quite that pessimistic. Some predict that by the end of the century Mexico could see its average annual temperature rise 3°-4°C (about 5.4°-7.2°F). But there are other more concerning estimates. 

Worldwide, the impact of such temperature increases will be desiccation of now viable cropland and increased desertification. For Mexico, as one of several studies reports, “The principal conclusion of our analysis is that Mexico is likely to be warmer and drier…potential evaporation will increase, and moisture availability will decrease ...”

According to another, “Climate change may lead to a 40-70 percent decline in Mexico’s current cropland suitability by 2030. Worse, this could soar to an 80-100 percent decline by the end of the century. We’re talking about Mexico potentially losing over half its workable farms in less than 12 years—and all of them by 2100. It’s a catastrophe in the making.”

In terms of availability of water, Mexico already falls into the “high-stress category,” the second-highest level on the list, meaning that we consume between 40 percent and 80 percent of our water available water supply in a year. In some areas, of course, consumption is even higher. Overall, Mexico ranks as the 24th most water-stressed of the 164 nations included in the study.

Mexico has always had a vibrant and diverse agricultural industry. Although it accounts for only about four percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), its small family farms are integrally woven into the cultural and economic fabric of the country. An estimated 80 percent of all farms are family-owned and operated.

But government farm policies appear to be sharply biased against these low-volume, low-income producers. Agricultural policymakers are very explicit about giving large growers—many of them corporate—a priority for subsidies. They relegate peasant farmers to social welfare programs, rather than considering them appropriate targets for economic development, according to a report by the Wilson Center at the University of California—Santa Cruz.

As the warming continues, family farms will also become less productive, hence less competitive. Large farms are more highly mechanized and enjoy economies of scale and marketing opportunities not available to small producers.

Because much of the country is arid, semi-arid or mountainous, only about 15 percent of the land can support agricultural production. But that fact hasn’t precluded Mexico from playing largely on the world agricultural stage.

Mexico is among the world’s leading food producers, ranking first in avocados, lemons and limes; third and fourth for grapefruit and corn; fifth for beans, coconut oil, oranges and poultry; sixth for sugar and ninth for coffee beans.

But many of Mexico’s staple crops will increasingly suffer from the warming. Corn, for example, needs a lot of rain or irrigation and doesn’t tolerate heat. Coffee bean production will also be affected.  Arabica beans are the most common crop. These popular beans need cooler environments to flourish, which is why they thrive in mountainous areas.

Temperature increases associated with the warming will reduce Mexico’s viable cropland.

Herds and domestic farm animals will also suffer from increasing temperatures and reduced rainfall. Farming will need to move to higher elevations to escape the heat.  But, with only about 15 percent of the country viable for agriculture, cooler croplands will be at a premium. 

Another option is an increase in dryland farming that applies a set of techniques for the non-irrigated cultivation of crops. Dryland farming is associated with land areas characterized by a cool wet season followed by a warm dry season.

Dryland crop production is already a major feature of agriculture in northern Mexico,  extending southward to the Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, and Coahuila border with San Luis Potosi and Zacatecas.

Corn, sorghum, and millet are some of the cereal crops suited to dryland farming as are legumes like beans, cowpeas, and peas and leafy vegetables. Other fruit and vegetables, including watermelons, okra, dates, papaya, cashew, olives, tamarinds and oil plants like sunflower seed, are usually suitable.

Another approach to watering dry lands is center-pivot irrigation.  Water pumped from reservoirs or aquifers flows through pipes rotated on wheels to create “crop circles.” The technique is becoming widely used in Chihuahua. The circles can be seen from space.

Advocates claim the technique uses less water than conventional irrigation systems. But, of course, a source of water is required.  As rising temperatures increasingly parch the land, reservoirs and aquifers—also used for human consumption—will continue to dry up.

Another potential solution is offered by desalination.

Grupo BerryMex recently announced it’s starting operations of the first reverse-osmosis agricultural desalination plant of its kind in the Americas. The plant is located at San Quintin on the Pacific coast in Baja North.

“Similar projects have been completed in Israel and Spain, but this is the first reverse osmosis plant built in Latin America,” said Ernesto Guevara, director of business development for BerryMex.

“This is not potable water,” Guevara said. It will, instead, be used to irrigate the company’s berry fields.

Electricity for the plant is partially generated by solar panels and the goal is to use 100 percent solar energy. The plant produces 225 liters of water per second and its capacity is expected to rise to 338 liters per second in the medium-term.

But desalination, like the others, is at best only a partial answer. Desal plants are cost-effective if located close to the targeted crops. The cost of pipelines to carry the water too far inland can be prohibitive.

Dr. Lorin Robinson is a journalist, novelist, journalism academic and seasonal resident of El Sargento-La Ventana, Baja Sur. He has written extensively about the warming. His latest book on the subject is Tales from The Warming (2017). He may be contacted at lorinwords@gmail.com.