Houser, M. and D. Stuart. 2019. An accelerating treadmill and overlooked contradiction in industrial agriculture: Climate change and nitrogen fertilizer. Journal of Agrarian Change doi: 10.1111/joac.12341
In this article we explore if and why farmers are responding to the impacts of climate change with practices that increase greenhouse gas emissions. Our examination focuses on heavy rainfall events and midwestern corn farmers’ nitrogen fertilizer management. Due to climate change, the frequency and intensity of heavy rain events is increasing across the Midwest. These events increase nitrogen loss to the environment and introduces economic risks to farmers. Drawing from a theoretical framework that merges O’Connor’s Second Contradiction of Capitalism and Schnaiberg’s Treadmill of Production, we argue farmers’ responses to these events reflect the second contradiction, increasing contributions to climate change, and are shaped by treadmill-like political-economic pressures. We examine this using a qualitative sample of 154 farmers across Indiana, Iowa, and Michigan. Given profit-imperatives, adapting farmers in our sample primarily used increased nitrogen application rates to reduce their vulnerability to heavy rains. As nitrogen rate is directly associated with nitrous oxide emissions, this adaptive strategy is effective, but increases agricultural contributions to climate change. This preliminarily suggests that the political-economic structure encourages farmers to respond to climate change in ways that accelerates the environmental contradictions of industrial agriculture.
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