UCS Blog - Food & Agriculture (text only)

Floods, Droughts, and Soil: The Movie (or, Why I Destroyed a Small City for Page Views)

Photo credit: Rich Hayes

Our new report, Turning Soils into Sponges: How Farmers Can Fight Floods and Droughts, is a serious scientific analysis that documents how soil-covering farm practices can help farmers and communities better withstand rainfall variability. It took me the better part of two years to complete. But—lucky you!—we also made a quirky little movie about it that you can watch in less than three minutes:

Okay, yes, the video has an element of silliness, but as I said, this is a serious topic with a lot of research behind it. So I thought I’d use the blog as an opportunity to write more about the science and science communication behind our masterpiece.

An aerial view of the research site in Iowa where our soil came from. Agronomy field experiments feature side by side plots with different treatments to test effects on similar soils. Long-term research sites like this one allow for important trends to be studied over time.

The star of the show—the soil—comes from a real live research site

The soil used in the side-by-side demonstration comes from a long-term research site maintained by US Department of Agriculture (USDA) scientists in Ames, Iowa, where I collected the primary data for my dissertation research. It’s a site that grows corn one year and soybeans the next, varying practices like tillage (plowing), use of cover crops between crops, and addition of nitrogen fertilizer to measure their impacts on soil and water quality.

In the video, we call them “healthy soil” and “unhealthy soil,” and these descriptors are quite accurate in relative terms: the healthier soil came from some of the first plots established at this site back in 2000, the first year a winter rye cover crop was planted, and there has been no plowing on that plot since 2002. The unhealthy soil in the video comes from a nearby plot that does not include a cover crop (so the soil is bare from roughly October until April or May), and it has been plowed repeatedly within the last six years. Although soil properties can vary from one spot on a field to the next, these two samples were taken from very close to each other (just about 40 feet away); so we can assume that they are not very different, beyond the plowing and cover crop practices.

In the video, you can see how differently the two soil samples respond to a heavy “rain.”

Our film crew: myself, Rich Hayes (UCS Deputy Communications Director), Karen Perry Stillerman (Senior Communication Strategist), Audrey Eyring (the filmmaker extraordinaire and UCS producer) AND Godzilla, who makes a guest appearance in the video. I’m grateful to work alongside communication gurus and those with artistic and film expertise who helped me bring this soil science lesson to a wider audience.

How do soils on real farms measure up?

In the video, I say that “much of the nation’s farmland” is treated like our unhealthy soil sample. That’s because data from the USDA tells us that very little farmland across the country uses practices that protect it with living plants year-round.

Let’s start with the data on cover crops. The 2012 agricultural census estimated that approximately 2% of the major corn-producing states in the country were using a cover crop, although that number could be as high as 3% across the United States (approximately 10 million acres of the 300 million cropped acres).

Cover crops are not the only way to avoid bare soil on farmland. Perennial crops (crops that have deep living roots in the soil all year long), agroforestry (integrating trees into croplands) and even double cropping (growing two crops during one year) are other options. However, these things are also not the norm.

I was sad after flooding our faux farmland and city. This demo was meant to capture imagination and be a bit humorous, but reducing storm water is an idea that many municipalities are taking seriously.

It isn’t easy to get a solid number on the total land planted to perennial crops in the US, but the value for hay grasses is one indicator. These perennial grasses, which include crops such as alfalfa, comprised less than 18% of total harvested cropland in the United States last year.

Estimates from the Economic Research Service from 1999-2012 find that just 2% of farms are double cropping. Limited numbers for agroforestry acres exist, although USDA has estimates for the acres its programs support, and while those numbers are incomplete, they would equal well less than 1% of harvested crop acres. It’s good news that some researchers and non-profits are working to quantify and map agroforestry and other perennial practices.

If we add those numbers up, we’re talking about less than one-quarter of all agricultural land in the United States, so it seems fair to say that much of the nation’s farmland is farmed “naked” for extended periods of time during the year.

Our data show soil can be a solution

If you’re curious about the numbers from the new report that we included in the video, here is the Cliff Notes version.

In 70% of the 150 field experiments we examined, the soil’s “spongy” properties were improved by farming methods such as no-till practices, crop rotations, cover crops, perennial crops, and better grazing management. The properties we analyzed included infiltration rates, pore space and water available to plants. In our examples of how to get healthier soils on farms, we focused on those practices that we found to offer the largest and most consistent improvements: cover crops, perennials and improved grazing management.

This little demo became a regular trick of mine because it works so well – every time! Here I demonstrated infiltration with the same soils for a class of 7th graders that I taught from 2014-2015 in Des Moines public schools. I found that the infiltration rate test serves as a powerful visual and communication piece for how human management affects the soil.

The flood frequency number was calculated from the number of months reaching flood stage with current land use, and how many fewer months amounted when there was a shift to more ground covering crops and healthier soils. The 1/5 value came from our calculation for one specific watershed in Eastern Iowa impacted by flooding during the last several decades.

We also found there to be a 20% reduction in runoff when we evaluated specific areas impacted by historic flood events, and this number comes from a watershed in western Iowa hit by heavy flooding in 2011.

These are not insignificant numbers when you think about how much damage these events can do (on the order of billions of dollars, as we detail in the report), and the human impact they have. In fact, Iowa state senator Rob Hogg, an ardent champion for climate change solutions, whose Cedar Rapids region was devastated by flooding in 2008, reminded us that “Floods not only cause preventable damage—they create long-lasting trauma and heartbreak.”

The science communication behind the scenes

The mini-demo I tried in my office with soils from a USDA research site in Maryland, with a corn-soybean-wheat/soybean crop rotation and you can see that the soil on the left which was conventionally tilled drained less water through it and “ponded” more at the soil surface, relative to the no-till soil.

This infiltration rate demonstration is something I first gathered supplies for and worked up when I was a student just starting my Ph.D. program at Iowa State University. In fact the whole thing started with a test run with soda bottle “beakers” in a friend’s backyard. The idea came from Ray Archuleta of the USDA, who is known for performing this demonstration. At the time, I was curious if the soil from Iowa would produce such a strong contrast. It did then, and it has every time I’ve tried it since.

And in case you think this is only the case with Iowa soil, it’s not. We were also fortunate to have additional soil from a long-term research site maintained by USDA scientists in Maryland that included a comparison of no-till soil to conventional tillage. I did an informal test in my office and found that this soil indeed worked the same way.

In the end, we only needed to use the soil from our Iowa experiment for the demo, but I share this in part because experts who study soil health suggest infiltration tests as an important indicator. So, do try this at home with your own soil, if you are so inclined!

Our two mini demos in the video appear simple, but it took a lot of people power to get all the supplies, which left my office looking like much like a warehouse for the weeks leading up to our shoot. My colleague and accomplice in all of this was Karen Perry Stillerman who also found great enjoyment in searching the wide reaches of the internet for assorted supplies (including mini people—but note that no one was harmed in the making of our video!).

Are you more curious about soil? We hope so!

I’m super proud of the finished product. We aimed to be accurate in our descriptions and there is research and evidence to back up everything. I am thinking all the time about how to make some of these agricultural concepts more broadly applicable, and I hope the video does just that.

AND, because making a video never goes 100% perfectly, we thought you might enjoy two of our favorite outtakes.

http://blog.ucsusa.org/wp-content/uploads/umbrella.mp4 http://blog.ucsusa.org/wp-content/uploads/godzilla.mp4

How Healthier Soils Help Farms and Communities Downstream Deal with Floods and Droughts

Soil scientist Natalie Lounsbury and farmer Jack Gurley inspect a tillage radish cover crop as part of a project funded by the Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education Program. This plant’s roots penetrate soil deeply, reducing compaction, and increasing water infiltration, making it an excellent cover crop to improve soil structure. Image: USDA-SARE/Edwin Remsberg.

A scan of recent news reveals the wide-ranging impacts of too much or too little rain: intensifying drought in the Great Plains; the largest dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico ever recorded, driven in large part by a wet spring that flooded parts of the Midwestern Corn Belt; and historic summertime rain in the mid-Atlantic. Climate change promises to bring more of this rainfall variability, with devastating effects on farmers and communities. But a new report we released today contains good news: healthier soil on farms can help combat the impact of floods and droughts.

A major take-home from our report is that the soil – yes, the “dirt” under our feet – can help buffer farmers and downstream communities from these events, particularly when farmers use practices that keep their soil covered with living plants year-round. And this is good for rural and urban residents, taxpayers, and farmer’s bottom lines.

Practices that keep farmland covered year-round retain more water in soil and can increase resilience to
floods and drought. Image: USDA-SARE/Edwin Remsberg.

Farmers have the power to make their soils “spongier”

Farmers want water to stay in the soil for their crops to use, rather than running off downstream. To understand how farming practices can help with this, we asked a series of scientific questions. The first was: how does soil’s ability to absorb and hold water change in any given place if land is managed using different practices? And by that, I mean different from the norm in the Corn Belt today, which is dominated by one or two annual crops grown on millions of acres, often with soil left bare for months in between.

Practices we wanted to know more about included no-till cropping (in which soil is not plowed); planting of cover crops between cash crop seasons (when soil would otherwise be bare); use of ecological livestock grazing systems (which intentionally manage animal numbers and rotation through pastures); integration of crops and livestock; and use of perennial crops (crops such as alfalfa that have living roots in the soil year-round).

To answer the question, we performed a rigorous review of prior field studies (150 experiments in total on six continents) that used any of these practices and focused on properties of the soil that make it more sponge-like, including the infiltration rate (the rate that water enters the soil), its pore space (or porosity), and the water in the soil available to plants.

We found that:

  • 70% of all the experiments we analyzed led to increases in these sponge-like soil properties, compared to more conventional practices.
  • The largest and most consistent improvements came from those practices that keep roots in the soil throughout the year. So-called “continuous living cover” practices included cover crops, perennial crops, and improvements to grasslands through grazing management.
  • Heavy rainfall events – more than one inch of rain per hour – could be significantly offset with some of these practices, particularly perennials. In more than half (53%) of the experiments that compared perennial crops to annual crops, water entering the soil not only increased, but did so at a rate higher than a one-inch per hour rain event. This is so critical as downpours grow more frequent across the U.S.
  • Continuous living cover practices change the structure of soil, by a measurable amount. We found an 8-9% improvement in both pore space and plant available water.

The value of continuous roots in the soil is depicted in this diagram: roots can make the soil more porous to store more water, and crop cover helps reduce water losses from runoff and evaporation. When managed properly this can lead to more water available to crops.

Spongy soil can be a solution on farms…and in cities downstream

This was all very encouraging. But we also wanted understand how these farming practices could reduce runoff in flood events and increase water in the soil during drought events if they were adopted on a large scale, and how these benefits might increase or decrease given likely future climate scenarios.

Here, we also found quite encouraging results when we used a model to represent such a shift in a representative farming region, the state of Iowa. Our model predicted that shifting the most erodible or least profitable croplands in Iowa to include more cover crops and perennial crops resulted in:

  • Up to 20% less runoff in historic flood events
  • Flood frequency (the number of months reaching flood stage) reduced by approximately one-fifth in some regions
  • Up to 16% more crop water use during droughts as severe as those experienced in 1988 and 2012
  • In a hotter, wetter climate that is projected for Iowa, we found a similar magnitude of benefits: 7 or 11% more crop water use and runoff reductions of 11 or 15%
Farmers and cities know they need to adapt to a changing climate

Soil quality can affect city dwellers as well as farmers. Excess runoff from farms with bare soil can contribute to flooding in towns and cities downstream, with resulting damage to homes, businesses, and critical infrastructure. Cedar Rapids, IA, was inundated by flooding in June 2008. Image: USGS/Don Becker.

There are many approaches proposed for climate adaptation, from improved seed varieties to more efficient irrigation technologies to insurance for disasters. What our report looks at specifically is the multiple benefits of healthier soil, because we know that the solutions we describe have multiple benefits: for reducing water pollution, for cities downstream, and importantly for improving farmer’s bottom lines.

The importance of managing water in heavy rain events is also something I’ve heard farmers and researchers repeatedly address. Farmer Tom Frantzen describes for Practical Farmers of Iowa in a podcast interview (listen here at ~10 mins) the tremendous benefit of his hybrid rye crop. Because he planted the crop the prior fall and it was fully protecting his soil the following spring, he had no soil erosion at all during a damaging three-inch rain event, when many surrounding fields were bare.

A Nebraska farmer made news by sharing a video of himself wakeboarding on flooded fields this spring. Interestingly, heavy rains in April and May haven’t been enough to keep the Plains out of a lingering dry spell.

The media outlet No-Till Farmer reported in June that a soil scientist stuck in a heavy downpour watched water infiltrate down to eight feet into the soil profile while waiting out the storm, serving as a light-bulb moment for illustrating to him the true water value of soil health. That scientist now reports that on his own ranch, he and his wife are working to restore perennial cover for livestock grazing.

And we know that cities benefit as well.

“Healthy, spongier soils are a win-win for farmers and water utilities and benefit rural and urban communities alike,” said Tariq Baloch, Cedar Rapids water utility plant manager and participant in the Middle Cedar Partnership Project, which receives funding from a USDA grant program called the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), which brings together landowners, utilities and farmers to reduce nutrient runoff into drinking water sources. “Investing in soil health means investing in soil productivity and reduced soil loss. Doing so will improve source water quality, reduce runoff that contributes to flooding and, ultimately, enhance the sustainability and prosperity of our communities.”

There is growing interest in the contribution of soils, and we hope that our analysis helps to quantify the benefits of this approach. Our report also addresses the ways that policy can help farmers make changes to protect their soil, and further posts will address this.

7 Fun Facts for National Farmers Market Week

Customers shop at the Crossroads Farmers Market in Takoma Park, Maryland, July 2014. Photo by Union of Concerned Scientists

And now, something we can feel good about. This Sunday marks the start of National Farmers Market Week, an annual celebration of local food systems. To get us in the mood, here are six facts that illustrate the benefits of farmers markets and local food systems.

FACT #1: There are 8,690 farmers markets nationwide. This may actually be a low-ball count, but it’s the number of markets currently listed in the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) National Farmers Market Directory. Washington, DC, where I live, is particularly fertile ground for farmers markets—the interactive database lists more than 60 markets within five miles of my home (try it for your state or ZIP code). But farmers markets have become commonplace across most of the country, as illustrated by this rather crowded national map generated from the USDA’s data:

FACT #2: In 2015, more than 167,000 US farms sold $8.7 billion worth of food directly to consumers, retailers, institutions (such as hospitals and schools), and local distributors. This was the finding of a farmer survey published by the USDA last year. The survey further found that more than one-third of those sales ($3 billion) were made directly to consumers via farmers markets, CSAs, farm stands, and the like.

FACT #3: Participants in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) redeemed more than $20 million in benefits buying food from local farmers in FY 2016. That’s up a staggering 638 percent from 2008. The data from the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, which tracks purchases made with SNAP benefits (formerly known as food stamps), shows that nearly 7,000 farmers markets and individual farmers across the country are authorized to accept these benefits. And the USDA’s Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) grant program, established by Congress in the 2014 farm bill, is helping to increase purchases of fruits and vegetables among SNAP participants by subsidizing these purchases at farmers markets and other outlets.

FACT #4: Three out of four farmers who sell at farmers markets use practices that meet or exceed organic standards. That was the finding of a 2015 survey by the non-profit Farmers Market Coalition and American Farmland Trust. More details from the survey: Nearly half of farmers used integrated pest management, information on the life cycle of pests, and their interaction with the environment to manage and prevent crop damage. And the overwhelming majority (81 percent) incorporated cover crops, reduced tillage, on-site composting, and other soil health practices into their operations. (Read more about the importance of soil health here.)

FACT #5: Farms selling fruits and vegetables locally employ 13 full-time workers per $1 million in revenue earned, for a total of 61,000 jobs in 2008. A report by the USDA’s Economic Research Service compared these farms with fruit and vegetable growers not engaged in local food sales, and found the latter employed just three full-time workers per $1 million in revenue.

FACT #6: Farmers themselves benefit economically from farmers markets, pocketing upwards of 90 cents for each dollar of sales there. So says the Farmers Market Coalition. And how does that compare to the return for US farmers overall? The National Farmers Union estimates that farmers’ share of every dollar Americans spend on food in 2017 is a paltry 15.6 cents.

FACT #7: Sales increased by more than one-quarter at farmers markets participating in the USDA’s Farmers Market Promotion Program (FMPP) between 2006 and 2011. Established by Congress in the 2002 farm bill, the FMPP is a competitive grant program designed to increase access to locally and regionally produced foods and develop new market opportunities for farmers. To measure this program’s impacts, researchers in 2012 surveyed organizations awarded grants during the previous six years. In addition to a 27 percent sales increase, the survey also showed that customer counts increased by 47 percent at markets that received FMPP grants, and the number of first-time customers increased at nearly all (94 percent) of these markets.

BONUS “FACT”: Everyone loves a farmers market. Everyone. Even this guy (who is normally not a big fan of facts), proving that farmers markets really do bring people together.

But seriously, the benefits of local food systems—for farmers, consumers, and communities—are worth investing in. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue recognized those benefits with his official proclamation of the week. But now it’s up to all of us to ensure that the secretary and Congress make those investments. That’s why UCS is advocating for USDA programs (including SNAP, FMPP, and FINI, among others) that are helping to ensure that farmers markets and local food systems thrive.

Happy National Farmers Market Week!

Dead Zone 2017: Even Worse than Predicted (and That’s an Understatement)

This map of dissolved oxygen levels in the Gulf of Mexico shows the extent of the dead zone in July 2017. Courtesy of Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium. https://gulfhypoxia.net/research/shelfwide-cruise/?y=2017&p=oxy_maps

There’s more bad news for the Gulf of Mexico. A team led by researchers at Louisiana State University this week confirmed the largest Gulf dead zone since standardized measurement began in 1985. The lifeless area of low oxygen in the Gulf is now at least the size of New Jersey, the researchers say, noting in a press release that because they couldn’t map the entire affected area, their measurement is an understatement of the problem this year.

As I wrote when it was predicted in June, the dead zone arises each year due to a phenomenon called hypoxia—a state of low dissolved oxygen that occurs when excess pollutants, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, accumulate in bodies of water. These nutrients enter the Gulf largely as runoff from Midwestern farm fields carried by the Mississippi River and its tributaries. They feed blooms of algae that die and decompose, and the process depletes the oxygen in the surrounding water. Fish and other creatures must either flee or suffocate.

We need to reduce farm runoff…a LOT

This year’s dead zone confirmation comes on the heels of a new study last week by scientists at the University of Michigan and Louisiana State University, who looked at what would be needed to decrease the size of the annual Gulf dead zone. Note these researchers aren’t talking about eliminating the dead zone, just shrinking it down…to the size of Delaware. (Delaware! Still an entire state, and not even the smallest one.)

Accomplishing just that, they estimated, would require bold action—a 59-percent reduction in the amount of nitrogen runoff coming from farmland in the Midwestern Corn Belt. That’s a very large reduction, one that farmers almost certainly can’t achieve just through more careful applications of fertilizer. The study’s lead author, University of Michigan aquatic ecologist Don Scavia, was pretty clear about that:

“The bottom line is that we will never reach the Action Plan’s goal of 1,950 square miles until more serious actions are taken to reduce the loss of Midwest fertilizers into the Mississippi River system,” Scavia said.

Instead, the Midwest farming system—which today leaves soil bare and vulnerable to runoff for months out of every year—will need to change.

And speaking of change, our changing climate poses a further challenge to tackling dead zones and related water quality problems in the Gulf and elsewhere. Yet another new study published in Science last week linked toxic algae blooms—a problem also caused by excess nutrient runoff, in which algae by-products can make water unsafe to drink or swim in—to climate change. The authors warned that increased rainfall in future years may wash even more fertilizer into rivers and lakes (e.g., Lake Erie), worsening the problem.

Soil is the solution!

Okay, so we need dramatic reductions in current rates of fertilizer runoff in the Midwest. In recent months, UCS has documented innovative farming practices such as extended crop rotations and perennial prairie plantings that can substantially reduce fertilizer use and runoff. We’ve also shown that such practices and systems are also good for farmers’ bottom lines.

And the evidence that farming practices that keep soil covered year-round can solve multiple problems by reducing rainfall runoff keeps coming. Next week, we’ll release an exciting new report that shows how farmers can create healthier, “spongier” soils, and how Congress and the USDA can help. Stay tuned!

Agroecology to the Rescue: 7 Ways Ecologists are Working Toward Healthier Food Systems

Ivette Perfecto and John Vandermeer in a shaded coffee farm in Chiapas, Mexico. They use diverse shaded coffee as a model system to study ecological complexity and its implications for farm management and biodiversity conservation.

A lot has been written about agroecology, and a new special issue of the journal Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems takes it to the next level.

The new issue, entitled Agroecology: building an ecological knowledge-base for food system sustainability, expands the conversation by outlining recent progress in ecology relevant for tackling food system challenges ranging from disappearing diversity to water woes to climate catastrophes. Together, the eight included articles demonstrate a range of emerging science-based opportunities that can help farmers and ranchers achieve the triple bottom line: social, environmental, and financial sustainability.  Here are just the highlights of what some farm-focused ecologists have been up to:

  1. Making sense out of complexity: Agroecosystems are complex, and as Vandermeer and Perfecto (2017) explain, “the fundamental rules of natural systems should be used as guidelines for planning and management of agricultural systems.” Fortunately, ecologists have developed some great tools (tools in topics like Turing patterns, chaotic dynamics, and more) that are up to the otherwise daunting task, and agroecologists are busy beginning to put them to work.
  2. Linking biodiversity to farming benefits: Decisions about how land is used at a regional scale can affect farming conditions at a surprisingly smaller scale, influencing even the pollinators and insect pests that are too small to spot unless you’re actually strolling through a field. As Liere et al. (2017) describe, understanding the connections between biodiversity at these different scales is essential to sustaining healthy, multi-functional agricultural systems. Agroecologists have just scratched the surface of investigating these “cascading” effects, and the subject is ripe for more discoveries.
  3. Keeping nutrients where we need them: It’s hard work keeping enough nutrients in some places (such as soils and plants) and reducing them in others (like in lakes and the atmosphere), but getting this right is a key to growing enough food while protecting the environment. Agroecologists tackle these problems with a bird’s eye view, measuring and evaluating everything from study plots to farm fields to watersheds. As Tully & Ryals (2017) note, this approach is critical to finding ways to optimize solutions (such as agroforestry, cover cropping, and organic amendments, just to name a few).
  4. Saving water by planting perennials: Much like nutrients, water often either seems to be overabundant (floods) or far too limited (drought), and climate change research suggests that this problem may only get worse. However, as Basche & Edelson (2017) review, farming practices that ensure “continuous living cover” can build healthier soils that keep more water on farms during dry times, while reducing flooding during heavy rain. Designing farms with water in mind, it seems, could prevent a lot of trouble, benefitting farmers and communities.
  5. Getting more from farming, with less: While adding more “inputs” (seed, water, chemicals) is typically understood to be the path to getting more food from farms, research has shown that this doesn’t always need to be the case. In fact, as Uphoff (2017) demonstrates through a review of the “System of Rice Intensification”, it can actually be possible to get more food by using fewer inputs. As Uphoff explains, “As climate and other conditions constrain agriculture, sustainable food systems will need to evolve.” Thanks to agroecologists, the evolution has already begun.
  6. Tracking down triggers for a food system transition: It’s one thing to find on-farm solutions and another to scale them up. Given that agroecologists have already been uncovering solutions to many of today’s challenges, what’s the next step? As my colleagues and I (Miles et al. 2017) explain, in an ever-changing world where one-sized-fits-all solutions simply won’t work, the research (and the university extension and education that goes with it) must continue to expand. But since research won’t be enough, we also propose several policy ideas (like shifting public research funds, improving conservation programs, etc.) that could help push and pull the food system to a better place.
  7. Exploring how healthier farms can support healthier humans: Much agroecology research to date has been focused on achieving productive farms and environmental sustainability, both of which have clear benefits for human heath (for example, by addressing food security and securing cleaner air and water). But as my colleagues and I (O’Rourke et al. 2017) argue, there’s an urgent need for more explicit research on how healthier farms can improve nutrition and public health. With an expanding agroecological toolbox and an ever-increasing concern about health care costs, perhaps there’s never been a better time!

Kate Tully collects porewater from a lysimeter installed in a farm fields on the Eastern Shore of Maryland to determine how effectively the system is recycling nutrients. Photo: Christopher Blackwood

Agroecologists in action

To close, I wanted to share this excerpt from agroecologist and Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems Editor Steve Gliessman:

“Ecology has always been the foundation of agroecology. We hope that this Special Issue will encourage more ecologists to engage in ecological research that can impact food system change. Their expertise in the science of ecology can show how an ecological understanding of the design and management of food systems can help us take major steps toward sustainability.”

Or, in other words, three cheers for agroecology! Onwards.

What’s in the special issue:

Agroecology: building an ecological knowledge-base for food system sustainability Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, Volume 41, Issue 7, 2017

Editorial: Agroecology: Building an ecological knowledge-base for food system sustainability Steve Gliessman Pages: 695-696 | DOI: 10.1080/21683565.2017.1335152

Ecological complexity and agroecosystems: seven themes from theory John Vandermeer & Ivette Perfecto Pages: 697-722 | DOI: 10.1080/21683565.2017.1322166

Intersection between biodiversity conservation, agroecology, and ecosystem services Heidi Liere, Shalene Jha & Stacy M. Philpott Pages: 723-760 | DOI: 10.1080/21683565.2017.1330796

Nutrient cycling in agroecosystems: Balancing food and environmental objectives Kate Tully & Rebecca Ryals Pages: 761-798 | DOI: 10.1080/21683565.2017.1336149

Improving water resilience with more perennially based agriculture |Andrea D. Basche & Oliver F. Edelson Pages: 799-824 | DOI: 10.1080/21683565.2017.1330795

SRI: An agroecological strategy to meet multiple objectives with reduced reliance on inputs Norman Uphoff Pages: 825-854 | DOI: 10.1080/21683565.2017.1334738

Triggering a positive research and policy feedback cycle to support a transition to agroecology and sustainable food systems Albie Miles, Marcia S. DeLonge & Liz Carlisle Pages: 855-879 | DOI: 10.1080/21683565.2017.1331179

Insights from agroecology and a critical next step: Integrating human health Megan E. O’Rourke, Marcia S. DeLonge & Ricardo Salvador Pages: 880-884 | DOI: 10.1080/21683565.2017.1326073

Economist to Team Trump: More Trade Won’t Avert a Farm Crisis

Whether or not you think “Made In America Week” is a hypocritical joke, it seems like a good time to assess the Trump administration’s plan to sell more home-grown farm products abroad. Earlier this month, senior administration officials tucked into prime rib in Beijing to celebrate the re-opening of China to US beef after 14 years. Despite a rather incoherent overall trade strategy, when it comes to exporting corn and beef, the administration has been bullish (pun intended). Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has said we can “sell our way out” of a crisis with exports, and he recently reorganized the USDA to add an Undersecretary for Trade who will “wake up each and every day” thinking about how to unload more US farm products overseas. (The president just this week nominated Indiana Agriculture Director Ted McKinney to fill that post.)

On the face of it, new and expanded global markets might seem like a way out for US farmers suffering from low commodity prices and declining farm incomes. But will it work? I walked down the hall to ask an expert.

Kranti Mulik is our resident agricultural economist here at the Union of Concerned Scientists, and her bio includes stints researching global agricultural trade issues at Iowa State University, IHS Global Insight, North Dakota State University, and Kansas State University. Following is my recent Q&A session with Kranti to better understand how much we can expect US farmers’ prospects to improve through increasing exports of major farm commodities.

KPS: For starters, just how bad is the economic picture for US farmers right now anyway?

KM: Farmers are in a bind—commodity prices are low and we have an oversupply issue. Grain storage bins are full and farmers are trying to find a way to get rid of their supply. In addition, net farm incomes are expected to decline for the fourth consecutive year and farm debt is also expected to rise by over 5 percent. And the entire northern hemisphere is dealing with overproduction. As a result, global farm commodity prices are low and the latest forecasts indicate that they will remain low compared to previous highs. In addition, demand for agricultural commodities is also expected to slow down as countries like China slow their spending.

In response to all of this, our friends at the National Farmers Union—who represent 200,000 family farmers across the United States—are sounding the alarm about a full-blown farm crisis.

KPS: That’s bad. But we’ve heard that as China’s middle class grows, it will be hungry for more meat and poultry products from the United States. Is that a given?

KM: It’s true that China’s economy and its middle class are growing, and that more affluent consumers demand more meat. However, GDP growth in China has leveled off (as shown in this graph), and we won’t see growth rates there or in other developing countries like we saw 10 years ago. In addition, Chinese pork demand has peaked, and is now declining as diets get healthier. Pork sales hit a three-year low last year at 40.85 million tons (down from 42.49 million tons in 2014), and it is predicted that they will fall slightly this year as well. New Chinese government dietary guidelines also aim to reduce that country’s meat consumption by 50 percent. And as I mentioned before, China is also expected to slow its spending.

So is Chinese meat demand really expected to grow that much going forward? Maybe not.

Also, trade decisions really depend on a combination of factors, not just GDP growth but also exchange rates and consumer preferences for particular products. The US dollar is strong now (too strong, according to President Trump), which makes our exports more expensive abroad. Moreover, South American countries now have advantage over the US in terms of lower cost of production, and those countries are expanding their cattle inventories. So it’s harder for US farmers to compete with cheaper beef coming from Brazil and Uruguay, for example. And to some degree, beef is beef for Chinese consumers, and the government is likely to import the cheaper product.

Overall, I think it’s irresponsible to suggest to farmers that increasing exports is some kind of silver bullet.

KPS: Assuming for the moment that US exports of farm commodities could be increased significantly, would that necessarily benefit the average American farmer?

KM: Exports are already a big part of total US farm income, and increased trade isn’t inherently bad. But right now our exports are dominated by grains and oilseeds (think corn, soybeans, and cottonseed), along with meat produced from animals fed those products in industrial facilities. That’s what Secretary Perdue is suggesting we sell more of abroad. But that means doubling down on a large-scale vertically-integrated production system that is already failing most US farmers. This system primarily benefits big agribusiness companies like Cargill and Tyson. And global trade in these kinds of undifferentiated commodities rarely helps the little guy very much.

And today, beginning farmers operate 20 percent of US farms. These mostly younger farmers want to move away from the industrial model, and they won’t be helped much by Secretary Perdue’s trade strategy.

KPS: But isn’t a free market and more trade good for everyone?

KM: Not necessarily. The US export strategy has long been a matter of using world markets to sell commodities—like corn—that we’re producing too much of already. And a major reason our farmers are producing too much in the first place is that a handful of commodities have long been subsidized by federal farm policies. Farm subsidies between 1995 and 2014 totaled $322 billion, and most of this has supported five commodity crops—corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and rice—with corn alone receiving more than $94 billion in subsidies over that period.

So when we sell a lot of subsidized commodities, corn for example (or corn-fed beef or pork) globally, it drives down world food prices. And farmers in other countries—where they don’t get big subsidies—can’t compete. That’s really bad for farmers in developing countries. And when farmers in those countries suffer, the whole population suffers. We’re talking about some of the poorest people in the world here.

KPS: What other effects might we see from boosting production of US farm commodities for export?

KM: It would almost certainly worsen the environmental impact of US agriculture, which is already a big problem. My recent research has shown how our policies that subsidize a few farm commodities have contributed to a massive water pollution problem. By encouraging Midwestern farmers, for example, to maximize production of corn and soybeans, these policies have created a vast monoculture with lots of added nitrogen fertilizer and bare soil in between crops, leading to erosion and runoff that has harmful downstream impacts. The national price tag for nitrogen pollution from farms is already $157 billion a year—more than double the value of the entire 2011 US corn harvest. Expanding corn production, especially if it’s done in less-productive, more-erodible areas, will make this problem worse.

More industrial agriculture probably won’t be good for public health, either. A 2014 Harvard study found that ammonia emissions from exporting livestock and commodity crops resulted in public healthcare costs of $36 billion and 5,100 premature deaths.

KPS: Based on your research, what are the most promising strategies—trade or otherwise—for helping American farmers and rural communities out of their current economic slump?

KM: As I said, there’s nothing inherently wrong with trade in farm products. But it’s interesting that while the United States has always been an agricultural exporter, our food and farm trade balance has been declining. We are now importing more than we’re exporting. Of course, farmers in the Midwest can’t meet local consumer demand for bananas and coffee, but there are plenty of crops they could grow.

For example, we now import oats from Canada and Sweden, and my most recent report shows we could grow more of those in the Midwest, and that would benefit the region’s farmers and its environment. Rather than continuing to focus on single-commodity exports, we should use public policies and incentives to encourage farmers to grow a wider variety of higher-value, differentiated products that would find ready markets both abroad and right here at home.

I mentioned beginning farmers earlier. They’re the future of agriculture, but they face various challenges—the primary one being access to land, which has becoming increasingly difficult. In addition, the major focus of the government subsidies and research is still on commodity crops, making it challenging for farmers who want to grow so-called specialty crops (fruits and vegetables). With 30 percent of principal farm operators over the age of 65, we need more beginning and young farmers to enter the work force and we need to support these farmers as they are critical to our rural economies.

I’ve studied the economic benefits that would come from farmers in states like Iowa growing fewer commodities and more fruits, vegetables, and other foods for local consumption. I found that if public policies did more to connect small and midsize farmers there with large-scale food local buyers such as supermarkets and hospitals, it would create jobs, revitalize rural communities and improve access to healthy food all at once.

Build the Wall and Blame the Poor: Checking Rep. King’s Statements on Food Stamps

If you read “Steve King” and think of novelist Stephen King, don’t worry too much about it.

Iowa Representative Steve King dabbled in fear and fiction himself in an interview with CNN last Wednesday, suggesting that a US-Mexico border wall be funded with dollars from Planned Parenthood and the food stamp program.

Photo: CC BY SA/Gage Skidmore

This particular idea was new, but the sentiments King expressed about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the people who use it, less so. With 2018 farm bill talks underway, misconceptions about the program and who it serves have manifested with increasing frequency, and setting the record straight about these misconceptions is more important than ever. Policymakers like King, who is a member of both the House Committee on Agriculture and its Nutrition Subcommittee, hold the fate of 21 million SNAP households in their hands, and it’s critical that they’re relying on complete and correct information to make decisions about this program.

Here’s a quick deconstruction of what was said—and what needs to be said—about Americans who use food stamps.

“And the rest of [the funding beyond Planned Parenthood cuts] could come out of food stamps and the entitlements that are being spread out for people that haven’t worked in three generations.”

The idea that food stamp users are “freeloaders” is perhaps one of the most common and least accurate. The truth is, most SNAP participants who can work, do work. USDA data shows that about two-thirds of SNAP participants are children, elderly, or disabled; 22 percent work full time, are caretakers, or participate in a training program; and only 14 percent are working less than 30 hours per week, are unemployed, or are registered for work. Moreover, among households with adults who are able to work, over three-quarters of adults held a job in the year before or after receiving SNAP—meaning the program is effectively helping families fill temporary gaps in employment. King’s constituents are no exception: in his own congressional district, over half of all households receiving SNAP included a person who worked within the past 12 months, and over a third included two or more people who worked within the past 12 months.

“I would just say let’s limit it to that — anybody who wants to have food stamps, it’s up to the school lunch program, that’s fine.”

The national school lunch program provides one meal per day to eligible children. Kids who receive free or reduced price lunch are also eligible to receive breakfast at school through the program, but only about half do. Even fewer kids receive free meals in the summer: less than ten percent of kids who receive free or reduced price lunch at school get free lunches when they’re out of school. This means that, for millions of families, SNAP benefits are critical to filling in the gaps so kids can eat. In fact, USDA data shows that more than 4 in 10 SNAP users are kids. Again, these patterns hold true in King’s district: over half the households that rely on SNAP benefits include children.

“We have seen this go from 19 million people on, now, the SNAP program, up to 47 million people on the SNAP program.”

True. In 1987, average participation in SNAP was around 19 million. In 2013, it peaked at 47 million, and dropped to around 44 million by 2016. The increase over this time period is attributable, at least in part, to changes in program enrollment and benefit rules between 2007 and 2011 and greater participation among eligible populations. However, participation data also demonstrates SNAP’s effective response to economic recession and growth. For example, there was an increase in 2008 as the recession caused more families to fall below the poverty line, and in 2014, for the first time since 2007, participation and total costs began to steadily decrease in the wake of economic recovery. Congressional Budget Office estimates predict that by 2027, the percentage of the population receiving SNAP will return close to the levels seen in 2007.

“We built the program because to solve the problem of malnutrition in America, and now we have a problem of obesity.”

It is undeniable that rising rates of obesity are a significant public health threat. But obesity is an incredibly complex phenomenon, the pathophysiology of which involves myriad social, cultural and biological factors. It is a different type of malnutrition, and we will not solve it simply by taking food away from those who can’t afford it. If we want to focus on increasing the nutritional quality of foods eaten by SNAP recipients, we can look to programs that have been successful in shifting dietary patterns to promote greater fruit and vegetable intake, using strategies such as behavioral economics or incentive programs. Truth be told, most of us—SNAP users or not—would benefit from consuming more nutrient-dense foods like fruits and vegetables.

“I’m sure that all of them didn’t need it.”

Without a doubt. And this could be said of nearly any federal assistance program. But the goal of the federal safety net is not to tailor programs to the specific needs of each person or family—this would be nearly impossible, and the more precise a system gets, the more regulation is required and the greater the administrative burden and financial strain becomes. The goal of federal assistance programs like SNAP is to do the most good for the greatest amount of people, within a system that most effectively allocates a limited amount of resources. And I’d venture to say that a program designed to lift millions of Americans out of poverty—with one of the lowest fraud rates of any federal program, an economic multiplier effect of $1.80 for every $1 spent in benefits, and an ability to reduce food insecurity rates by a full 30 percent—comes closer to hitting its mark than a wall.

Northern Plains Drought Shows (Again) that Failing to Plan for Disasters = Planning to Fail

As the dog days of summer wear on, the northern plains are really feeling the heat. Hot, dry weather has quickly turned into the nation’s worst current drought in Montana and the Dakotas, and drought conditions are slowly creeping south and east into the heart of the Corn Belt. Another year and another drought presents yet another opportunity to consider how smart public policies could make farmers and rural communities more resilient to these recurring events.

Let’s start with what’s happening on the ground: Throughout the spring and early summer, much of the western United States has been dry, receiving less than half of normal rainfall levels. And the hardest hit is North Dakota. As of last week, 94 percent of the state was experiencing some level of abnormally dry conditions or drought, with over a quarter of the state in severe or extreme drought (a situation that only occurs 3 to 5 percent of the time, or once every 20 to 30 years).

Throughout the spring and early summer, drought conditions have worsened across the Dakotas and Montana, stressing crops and livestock.
Image: http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/

But this drought is not just about a dry spring. Experts believe the problem started last fall when first freeze dates were several weeks later than usual, creating a “bonus” growing period for crops like winter wheat and pasture grasses, which drew more water from the soil. This is an important pattern for agriculture to stay tuned into, as recent temperature trends point to greater warming conditions in the winter.

Bad news for wheat farmers (and bread eaters)

The timing of the drought is particularly damaging to this region’s farm landscape, which centers around grasslands for grazing livestock, along with a mix of crops including wheat, corn, soy, and alfalfa.

Spring wheat has been especially hard hit—experts believe this is the worst crop in several decades in a region that produces more than 80 percent of the country’s spring wheat. (Here’s a great map of the wheat varieties grown across the country, which makes it easy to see that the bread and pasta products we count on come from Montana and the Dakotas).

As grasses wither, cattle ranchers have only bad options

More than 60 percent of the region’s pasture grasses are also in poor or very poor condition, leaving cattle without enough to eat. Given the forecast of high temperatures upcoming, and the creeping dry conditions into parts of the Corn Belt (at a time of year when corn is particularly sensitive to hot and dry conditions), it is shaping up to be a difficult situation for farmers and  ranchers all around the region.

So it’s appropriate that the Secretary of Agriculture released a disaster proclamation in late June, allowing affected regions to apply for emergency loans. But another of the Secretary’s solutions for ranchers with hungry livestock—authorizing “emergency grazing” (and just this week) “emergency haying” on grasslands and wetlands designated off-limits to agriculture—could exacerbate another problem.

Short-term emergencies can hurt our ability to plan for the long-term

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), created by the 1985 Farm Bill, pays landowners a rental fee to keep environmentally sensitive lands out of agricultural production, generally for 10-15 years. It also serves to protect well-managed grazing lands as well as to provide additional acres for grazing during emergencies such as drought.

Instead of planting crops on these acres, farmers plant a variety of native grasses and tree species well suited to provide flood protection, wildlife and pollinator habitat, and erosion prevention. In 2016, almost 24 million acres across the United States (an area roughly the size of Indiana) were enrolled in CRP. This included 1.5 million acres in North Dakota, which represents approximately 4 percent of the state’s agricultural land.

While this might sound like a lot, CRP numbers across the country are down, and in fact North Dakota has lost half of its CRP acreage since 2007. This is due in part to Congress  imposing caps on the overall acreage allowed in the program, but in large part due to the historically high commodity prices over the same time period, as well as increased demand for corn-based ethanol.

The loss of CRP acreage over the last decade demonstrates high concentrations of land conversion in the Northern Plains, nearly overlapping with the current drought. Image: USDA Farm Service Agency

Research on crop trends tells a complicated story about how effective this program is at protecting these sensitive lands in the long-term. The data demonstrate how grasslands, notably CRP acreage, are being lost rapidly across the United States. CRP acreage often comes back into crop production when leases expire (see examples of this excellent research here, here and finally here, which notes that often CRP lands turn into corn or soy fields). This may potentially erase the environmental benefits from these lands that were set aside.

At the same time, with negotiations toward a new Farm Bill underway, some ranchers and lawmakers are looking for even more “flexibility” in the CRP program. Some have expressed concerns about the amount of land capped for CRP. Some feel that CRP rental rates are too high, tying up the limited suitable land that young farmers need to get started, while others believe there are not enough new contracts accepted (for things like wildlife habitat) because of caps.

The bottom line is that it is critical to have emergency plans in place to protect producers in cases of drought. Emergency livestock grazing on CRP acreage is one solution to help prevent ranchers from selling off their herds (such sell-offs are already being reported). But, if CRP acreage continues to decline, what will happen when the next drought occurs, or if this drought turns into a multi-year disaster? And what will happen if floods hit the region next year, and the grasslands that could help protect against that emergency aren’t there?

Unfortunately, short-term emergencies can hurt our ability to plan for long term, and the trend toward losing CRP and grasslands is one example of this. It is no simple balance for policy to find solutions that simultaneously support short-term needs while encouraging risk reduction in the long term.

Agroecology helps farmers protect land while still farming it

But there’s another way to achieve conservation goals that doesn’t depend upon setting land aside. A number of existing farm bill programs encourage farmers to use practices on working lands that build healthier soils to retain more water, buffering fields from both drought and flood events. Increasing investment and strengthening elements of these programs is an effective way to help farmers and ranchers build long-term resilience.

Recent research from USDA scientists in the Northern Plains highlights climate change impacts and adaptation options for the region, and their proposed solution sound much like the agroecological practices UCS advocates for: increased cropping intensity and cover crops to protect the soil, more perennial forages, integrated crop and livestock systems, as well as economic approaches that support such diversification and the extension and education services needed to bring research to farmers.

As I wrote last year, drought experts recognize that proactive planning is critical, thinking ahead about how disasters can be best managed through activities such as rainfall monitoring, grazing plans, and water management is critical. Here we are again with another drought, and climate projections tell us that things are likely to get worse. In this year as a new Farm Bill is being negotiated, we have an opportunity to think long-term and make investments for the future to better manage future drought.

 

How Trump’s Trade Talks (and Tweets) Got Sickeningly Sweet

There are things that raise eyebrows in the public health community.

One of those things is when the sugar industry is happy.

While they’ve had a lot to smile about lately—including the delay of an FDA rule requiring added sugar to be listed on packaged food nutrition labels—most recently, it’s President Trump’s trade talks with Mexico.

The preliminary agreement struck between the US and Mexico last month, seen as a prelude to NAFTA renegotiations, effectively reduces the amount of refined sugar Mexico can export to the United States, allowing US refineries to remain competitive. In return, Mexico has the option to supply any excess demand for refined sugar in US markets. (Refined sugar is the white, granulated stuff most of us know as sugar; it’s made from raw sugar harvested from sugarcane or beets.)

The US has long had import quotas and other mechanisms securing price guarantees for refined sugar, but producers argued that these were undermined when Mexico was allowed unrestricted access to the American market in 2008 through what was called a loophole in NAFTA—leading to the dumping of subsidized refined sugar into the US market. Following claims of unfair trading practices filed by American producers in 2014, Mexico agreed to limit the price and volume of its sugar exports, but US sugar producers still felt trade laws had been violated. Had the US and Mexico not reached an accord last month, Mexican companies may have been subject to financial penalty as a result.

I’m not here to comb through the finer points of these negotiations, because I’m not qualified to do so. Nor will I propose that we ban sugar and hope the industry folds, because I plan on having ice cream this weekend. As long as Americans produce, process, and consume sugar, we will need to negotiate trade in sugar.

That said, I’m concerned by this banner emblazoned this week on the home page of the American Sugar Alliance, which represents sugar producers and refiners.

Photo: sugaralliance.org

Let’s talk about money and corporate influence.

Of course, it’s misleading to suggest there was no sugar deal for many years. As Daniel Pearson, chairman of the U.S. International Trade Commission under former president George W. Bush, noted, “Prior to 2008 and after 2014, it was a very tightly controlled market.

But that aside, I’d like to focus on the power and political influence of the sugar industry. The mission of the American Sugar Alliance, per their website, is to “ensure that sugar farmers and workers in the US sugar industry survive in a world of heavily subsidized sugar.” To aid in their quest for survival, they’ve managed to pull enough quarters out of the couch to spend no less than $2.17 million annually on lobbying between 2013 and 2016. These expenditures are second only to those of American Crystal Sugar, whose total spending topped $3.24 million in 2016. These two groups claim the number one and two spots for highest lobbying expenditures in the category of “crop production and basic processing,” which includes sugar, fruit, vegetables, cotton, grains, soybean, honey, rice, and peanuts.

In the case of this particular deal, a spotlight also shines on the cozy relationship between billionaire Wilbur Ross, Trump’s commerce secretary, and Jose Fanjul, longtime Republican donor and part owner of a sugar and real estate conglomerate that includes the Domino Sugar and Florida Crystals brands. Though the two have never conducted official business together, they’ve run in the same social circles for years and have frequently been guests in each other’s homes. (Hilary Geary Ross describes their “gloriously perfect” vacation in the Dominican Republic here.) At a July fundraiser for then-candidate Trump in Mr. Ross’s Long Island home, Mr. Fanjul took a seat on the exclusive “host committee.” It was later reported that he made donations to the Republican party and the Trump campaign in amounts of $94,600 and $5,400, respectively.

To be clear: I’m not claiming that the sugar industry and its kingpins are the only ones with deep pockets, that they are solely responsible for the outcomes of the trade deal between US and Mexico, or even that this is an inherently disastrous agreement. Nor do I believe that our government agencies are solely a vehicle for the interests of big business; on the contrary, I’m inclined to believe that most federal employees and political appointees lead and serve with integrity.

But we now have a president who has demonstrated an unyielding interest in dismantling and renegotiating fundamental food and agriculture policy—trade and otherwise—with enormous financial implications for some of the biggest and most powerful players in our food system, and we need to pay attention. We’re talking about an industry that has manipulated and influenced nutrition research for over fifty years to shift the onus of disease from sugar to fat. Not to mention agribusiness, which boasts lobbying expenditures on par with defense—totaling over $2 trillion over the last 20 years. These industries are deeply invested in making sure these policies work in their favor, and where there’s a will, a whole lot of capital, and a few friends in high places, it isn’t far-fetched to imagine that there is a way.

Undue industry influence on President Trump’s policy agenda will almost certainly allow the corporate consolidation of our food system to continue to snowball, and in doing so, will move us further than ever from achieving an equitable, sustainable, and health-promoting food system. History has provided us with too many examples of the self-interest of sugar, Big Ag and the food industry to believe otherwise.

We all lose when industry drives policy.

It’s simple.

Industry influence and industry money will benefit industry.

It will not improve the health or wellbeing of our children.

It will not contribute to our communities, our farms, or our local economy.

And it can go unchecked without the awareness and intentional engagement of those of us who stand to lose the most. This sugar deal is done, but there are other battles to fight. At UCS, we’ll continue in our efforts to stand up for science and the public good, from defending climate science and clean air protections at the EPA to fighting the nomination of a USDA Chief Scientist with no scientific background. Because if corporate interests and anti-science ideology drive public policies, we all lose.

Timing, Pollinators, and the Impact of Climate Change

Sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus). These flowers have a scent similar to overripe rotting fruit, and are visited by sap beetles

Periodically in the spring, I have the pleasure of teaching Plant Taxonomy to students at a small college in Asheville, North Carolina. Among other things, I love the way that teaching this class forces me to pay close attention to what is coming out of the ground, leafing out, or flowering at any particular point of the season in the Blue Ridge Mountains where our campus is nestled. Each week, I fill the classroom with clippings from plants for my students to examine, up close and personal, as they learn to recognize different families of plants and how they compare with one another: how trilliums differ from jack-in-the-pulpits, or spring beauty differ from rue anemone.

But a couple weeks into the semester this spring, it became abundantly clear that I was going to need to scrap my syllabus and completely rearrange my labs. A very warm and short winter followed by an early spring meant that many of the plants I depend on appeared to be blooming weeks earlier than usual. While I initially doubted my intuition, based solely on passing observations, I then pulled out my collection notes for lab on March 6 and found it was dated April 6, 2013. My intuition was right on target. The flowering period was three to four weeks earlier than when I last taught the class, just four years ago.

In my research, too, the early spring was evident and influential. I study pollination and floral biology in sweetshrub, Calycanthus floridus, which has wine-red-colored flowers with the scent of overripe, rotting fruit that attracts their pollinators, little sap beetles that crawl into the flowers and feed there. I’ve been following the timing of flowering and fruiting in this plant since 2007, and the data so far show that in years with an early, warm spring, the plant flowers earlier…and the beetles are nowhere to be found. The flowers are there in their glory, flooding the area with their intoxicating sweet aroma, but they are holding a party with no guests—and this does not bode well for their future. The plants depend on the beetles for pollination and subsequent seed production, and in years when the beetles don’t visit, their reproductive success drops to almost nothing.

Author (Amy Boyd) teaching pollination biology to students in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.

Phenology and climate change

Timing of biological events—such as flowering and leaf-out in plants or egg-laying in insects—is called phenology, and increasing attention has been given to the study of phenology as we face a changing climate. Many organisms depend on climatic signals such as temperature as cues for their timing during the season, and so as the planet warms, their response to these cues will cause them to leaf out, bloom, mate or lay eggs earlier.

But here’s the rub: many organisms, like the sweetshrub, depend on relationships with other species…and not all species use the same cues. One may use mean daily temperature as its phenological cue while another uses day length. If two species that depend on their interaction with one another use different cues in a changing environment, or respond differently to similar cues, they may end up missing each other entirely—what is likely happening with the beetles and the sweetshrub.

Plant-pollinator mismatch

Scientists keeping watch over phenology are accumulating more and more evidence that our changing climate is affecting many diverse species and potentially disrupting the interactions among them. For example, a study of bumblebees and the plants they visit in the Rocky Mountains has found that the timing of both has shifted earlier, but not by the same amount. The shift in flowering has been greater than the shift in bumblebee timing, resulting in decreased synchrony—and both plants and pollinators may suffer as a result. In Japan, biologists have followed a spring wildflower (Corydalis ambigua) and its bumblebee pollinators and similarly found that the plants were more sensitive than the bumblebees to early onset of spring. Reduced synchrony of bees and flowers resulted in lower availability of pollinators for the plants, and potentially also lower availability of food for the pollinators.

As the planet warms, plants and pollinators alike may adjust to the changes in different ways, leading to mismatches between these symbiotic partners. This impact of climate change on phenology compounds all the other challenges facing pollinators today, like the loss and fragmentation of habitat, disease, pesticide use, and the spread of invasive species.

Maypop (Passiflora incarnata) flower being visited by carpenter bee pollinator (Xylocopa virginica)

Consequences for agriculture

So why should we care about such disruptions in phenology? Being forced to scrap my syllabus is a very minor consequence compared to the potential impacts on agricultural production. By some estimates, 35% of all crop species worldwide depend on or benefit from pollination by animals (including bees and other insects). Some 16% of all vertebrate pollinator species (such as hummingbirds and bats) are threatened with extinction, while at least 9% of all insect pollinators are threatened as well. Pollinators are essential partners with farmers who grow fruit, vegetables and nuts; without them, our own species faces loss of an important component of its food source. Similar mismatches may also change and disrupt relationships between crop plants and pest species, creating new challenges to agriculture or enhancing existing threats.

Farmers see the changes in phenology in their own fields, and they are already concerned about the future of agriculture in a changing climate. But we all need to be aware of the impact of climate change on the web of interactions that make up the world around us, so that we can support lawmakers and others who are ready to stop the human activities impacting our planet’s climate. Many biologists are out there watching, accumulating evidence with the systematic eye of science.  We must support their efforts—and listen to their messages about our impacts on the planet and our future.

 

Amy E. Boyd is Professor of Biology and Chair of the Division of Natural Sciences at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina. She is an ecologist and evolutionary biologist whose research currently focuses on plant-pollinator interactions and phenological patterns.

 Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

The Case Against Clovis: Why Trump’s USDA Chief Scientist Nominee Is the Wrong Choice

President Trump is dangerously close to violating the law (no, not what you’re thinking!). Recently, word began circulating that the President plans to fill the role of Chief Scientist at the Department of Agriculture (USDA) with…you guessed it, someone who has no scientific background. If the nomination of Sam Clovis—a conservative talk show radio host and former Trump campaign co-chair with a doctoral degree in public administration—moves forward, it would not only be in direct violation of the law, but would risk the safety of our food and water, and the well-being of thousands of American farmers and communities.

One scientist, two hats…

Of the thousands of scientists that work with USDA, many do so to advance agricultural research. USDA invests billions in agricultural research annually—$2.9 billion in FY2016—and that investment is overseen by the Under Secretary of Research, Extension, and Economics (REE).

The REE Under Secretary—the position for which Clovis’ name has been floated—is responsible for disbursing all of these funds through dozens of programs and entities, such as the Agriculture & Food Research Initiative (AFRI), the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE), and the Organic Agriculture Research & Extension Initiative (OREI), all of which invest in research that supports farmers, rural communities, and consumers.

But that’s not all. The REE Under Secretary also fills the role of USDA’s Chief Scientist. The Chief Scientist is in charge of the Office of the Chief Scientist (OCS), which is tasked with identifying, prioritizing, and evaluating “Department-wide agricultural research, education, and extension needs.” A core component of this work is the responsibility to advance scientific integrity at USDA by “ensuring that research supported by and scientific advice provided to the Department and its stakeholders is held to the highest standards of intellectual rigor and scientific integrity.”

…and three reasons to say no

So, even though Clovis isn’t a scientist, does that make him unfit for the job? According to the U.S. Code, yes! But that’s not the only thing going against his potential nomination:

  1. It would violate the law. The REE Under Secretary is a tremendously important position, responsible for investing billions of dollars into agricultural research that should help U.S. farmers, communities, and consumers. Congress acknowledged this by cementing the following in statute: “The Under Secretary [of REE] shall be appointed by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, from among distinguished scientists with specialized training or significant experience in agricultural research, education, and economics.” (7 U.S.C. 6971). Yet, what’s known of Clovis’ background demonstrates virtually no “specialized training or significant experience” in any of the relevant fields.
  2. Functions & duties. As written by Congress, one of the primary duties of the REE Under Secretary is to “identify, address, and prioritize current and emerging agricultural research, education, and extension needs.” This task requires a sound understanding of the breadth of agricultural scientific literature, and furthermore, a belief in numbers and facts. Former Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman said recently that it would be “challenging” to have someone without a scientific background as REE Under Secretary, and former REE Under Secretary Catherine Wotecki said that the role should be filled by “a person who evaluates the scientific body of evidence and moves appropriately from there.” Yet, Clovis has called even the most basic scientific research into question. In 2014, while running unsuccessfully for an Iowa Senate seat, Clovis twice said he was “skeptical” of the science of climate change (here and here). If Clovis were to take the Under Secretary position at USDA, his skepticism would transform from an ignorant personal belief to an egregious affront to American farmers and rural communities. Because whether he believes it or not, farmers are experiencing the effects of a changing climate every day.  From hotter summers that hurt crop yields, to more extreme rains that wash soils away, to more erratic winters that threaten cold-requiring crops, the obstacles farmers are facing are real. They deserve the attention of someone who understands, rather than dismisses, their challenges. And if, like me, you’re not a farmer, the scientific research supported by the USDA impacts you too. From food safety, to basic nutrition, to water quality – no matter where you live, USDA supported research is finding answers which will lead to a safer, healthier life for millions of American families.
  3. Scientific integrity. The Chief Scientist is responsible for the advancement of scientific integrity at USDA, which recently improved their scientific integrity policy. In April 2017, the USDA Office of Inspector General released survey data in an attempt to quantify what USDA scientists thought of the Departments’ scientific integrity policies. While the survey has recently been removed from the website (you can still find the full survey here), among the findings were 29 scientists (2 percent of those surveyed) who indicated that entities external to USDA had pressured them to alter their work, and 42 scientists (3 percent of those surveyed) who indicated that a Department official had pressured them to omit or significantly alter their research findings for reasons other than technical merit. For an individual with no scientific background or expertise, it can be next to impossible to oversee let alone improve an issue as complex and important as scientific integrity. This is particularly true when that individual has questioned even the most basic science (see #2).

On November 8, 2016, President Trump rode a wave of support from rural America into the Oval Office. Since then, his Administration has abandoned even the most elemental scientific facts. For the rural Americans who helped catapult him to the Presidency, this has become particularly poignant.

Unfortunately, the nomination of Sam Clovis isn’t a solution. It will only make the wound even deeper.

This Summer’s Gulf “Dead Zone” Could Be Bigger Than Connecticut—and Trump’s Budget Cuts Would Make It Worse

Summer is almost here, and you know what that means. Sun, sand, and…a watery wasteland devoid of all life? Yep, this is the time each year when a team of federal and university scientists predicts the size of the so-called dead zone that will develop in the Gulf of Mexico later in the summer. We’re waiting for that official prediction, but based on federal nitrate flux data and Midwest weather patterns this spring, it seems likely that it will be bigger than usual.

That means a swath of marine habitat considerably larger than the state of Connecticut could be lifeless by summer’s end—a haunting prospect for coastal ecosystems, fisheries, and the men and women who earn their livelihoods from them. And the Trump administration’s budget proposal and general antagonism toward science and environmental protection are likely to make the problem worse in the future.

Dead zones don’t talk

Marine and coastal dead zones are the result of a phenomenon called hypoxia—a state of low dissolved oxygen that occurs when excess pollutants, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, accumulate in bodies of water. These nutrients feed blooms of algae that, when they die and decompose, deplete the oxygen in the surrounding water. Hypoxia is a silent killer, suffocating organisms that can’t escape the low-oxygen zone quickly enough, and causing others to flee.

As we wrote a year ago when the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicted an “average” (roughly Connecticut-sized) Gulf dead zone, even average is not the same as normal. Nitrogen and phosphorus can come from many sources, but the largest are due to human activity, including sewage discharges and fertilizers from farm fields running off into rivers and streams. In 2010, researchers at the University of Illinois showed that the problem of runoff from industrialized, corn-and-soybean intensive agriculture, with its system of underground drainage channels, dwarfs the impact of cities and other nutrient sources in the Midwest. Essentially, each year the Mississippi River and its many tributaries meandering through the Corn Belt quietly funnel a vast amount of agricultural pollution into the Gulf.

Image courtesy National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration

April showers bring May flowers, but what do May downpours bring?

The size of the dead zone in any given year is dependent not just on how much fertilizer was applied to fields in the drainage area, but also on the amount of rainfall available to carry it from the land into the rivers and on to the Gulf. This spring has been a wet one in the Midwest, and the drenching rains and widespread flooding that hit parts of the region in late April and continued into May have created ideal conditions for a large flush of nutrients downstream.

The two graphs below from the US Geological Survey (USGS)—which monitors stream flow and nitrate levels in rivers and streams—show how the nitrate “flux” in the Mississippi River basin in May 2017 compares with previous years, and how the actual size of the dead zone tracks those fluxes each year. It’s easy to see the contrast between a wet year like this one and, say, the devastating drought year of 2012.

These are preliminary data that the scientific team led by NOAA will use in making its dead zone prediction this month.

 

 

 

The solution to dead zone pollution…

Nope, it’s not dilution. Even very large bodies of water like the Gulf of Mexico aren’t safe from this annual, preventable destruction. And recurring dead zones and toxic algae blooms also plague other large water bodies including the Chesapeake Bay and Lake Erie. Just today, NOAA predicted a larger-than-average dead zone in the Chesapeake Bay this summer.

And there’s more bad news—climate change is likely making these problems worse. A study published earlier this year examined runoff data from the drought year 2012 and the following, wetter year, to show how “weather whiplash” can increase the flow of nitrate into the Gulf. So we can expect more of the same as the cycle of Midwestern floods and droughts becomes more intense and erratic in the future.

In addition, as the climate heats up, shallow waters like the end of Lake Erie that abuts Toledo, Ohio, will be warmer and thus will likely suffer more toxic algae blooms that taint the city’s drinking water, causing recurring health risks and economic pain.

It’s clear that decreasing the size and severity of algae blooms and dead zones will require significant reductions to current rates of fertilizer runoff in the Midwest. And fortunately, there is bountiful evidence about how to do that on the region’s farms. As we’ve documented in two recent reports, for example, innovative farming practices such as extended crop rotations can cut fertilizer use significantly, and planting perennial prairie strips in and around cropland can dramatically reduce the amount of nitrogen that escapes from those lands into waterways. Even better, we’ve shown that such practices and systems are also good for farmers’ bottom lines.

Budget cuts could grow the dead zone (and shrink opportunities for farmers)

But just when pollution-cutting practices are showing such promise and are needed more than ever, the Trump administration’s proposed Department of Agriculture (USDA) budget could hamstring the department’s efforts to help farmers implement them, cutting programs that deliver financial and technical support for farmers.

Moreover, proposed major cuts at NOAA, the USGS, and the Environmental Protection Agency would hamper the ability of scientists at those agencies to study and remediate the Gulf dead zone and other water bodies that suffer from hypoxia and toxic algal blooms due to fertilizer pollution.

Water pollution from agriculture has real impacts on farmers, coastal and lakeshore communities across the country, and millions of Americans. Even as we wait to see if this year’s problem in the Gulf will be as bad as we think, UCS is advocating for policies and budget investments that could truly tackle the problem in future years.

Join us by calling on Congress to reject the Trump administration’s unacceptable budget cuts at the USDA, and instead vote to fully fund proven programs that keep our water clean, improve farmers’ livelihoods, and help hungry families.

An Insider’s View on the Value of Federal Research

Not long after receiving my doctorate in biochemistry I took a research position with the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the main research arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Prior to retiring in 2014 I had spent my entire career, 33 years, with ARS. I had a chance to see federal research from within the system. Contrary to what you may have heard, it’s been my experience that federal research is solutions-oriented, transparent, and nonpolitical.  

Mike and his technician, Karen Wagner, developing a new method for biodiesel synthesis. Photo: Agricultural Research Service, USDA.

Among the key aspects of that system were the following, which I believe pertain to federal research in general (exclusive, in some cases, of defense-related work):

  • It was problem-solving in nature, with research goals based in the country’s needs. These goals, for example, could be safer or more nutritious food, improved soil health, new uses for crops produced in excess of current needs, or any of a myriad of other topics.
  • There was daylight everywhere: Programs, goals, and outcomes were clearly published and publicized.
  • The work was not conducted to advance the sales of any commercial product, as some work in the private sector might be. It was problem, not profit, oriented.
  • The process had integrity and autonomy: Our results and conclusions were not dictated to us by management or the Administration.  During my career I published over 120 articles, including approximately 80 research papers in peer reviewed scientific journals, a dozen book chapters and half a dozen U.S. Patents. I gave over 100 oral presentations describing work.  Not one word that I authored was dictated to me by management. I am not aware of any colleague for whom that was not also true.
  • We were allowed and encouraged to patent any invention that we made. Patents were licensable under terms that were designed to aid the flow of technology to the private sector rather than to generate large sums of money for the inventor or the government.
  • We had full professional autonomy and were encouraged to interact with all parties (other than individuals and organizations from state sponsors of terrorism) as necessary to advance the work and disseminate its results. Among our partners were citizens as well as peers in academic, private sector or federal research, be they domestic or international, large or small firms. Large companies often have their own dedicated research and development teams, serving their interests. I came to see that in many ways we were the Research and Development team for the smaller firms and young industries – startups or small operations lacking the funds and staff to do dedicated research.  We collaborated with all comers, irrespective of size.
  • Research programs were up to 5 years in length, and continued beyond that if such could be justified. This led to the kind of long term, higher risk type of work that is in some cases needed and in many cases rare these days.
  • In cases of ‘crisis’ – some incident that needed a rapid research response (e.g. outbreak of a new plant disease, food poisoning incident….) – researchers were detailed into that area to assist in quickly developing appropriate responses to the threat.

Aerial shot of the Eastern Regional Research Center, USDA, near Philadelphia. Photo: Agricultural Research Service, USDA.

I spent my career at the Eastern Regional Research Center near Philadelphia, one of the ARS ‘Utilization labs’ that were built in the late 1930s as part of a major effort to develop new uses for the crops produced by America’s farmers. Out of this work have come thousands of research publications and patents, which developed or assisted in developing a host of new products and processes including dehydrated mashed potatoes (and hence Pringles!); soy ink; permanent press cotton fabric; frozen foods with increased retention of flavor, color and texture; Lact-Aid; and more efficient processes for the production of biofuels.

Filling up a truck on biodiesel. Photo: Spencer Thomas/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

The increased market share for biodiesel alone is a success for federal research. Beginning in the early 1990s, the desire to promote energy independence in this country and to provide new markets for our crops led researchers to begin exploring the production of what became known as ‘biodiesel’. Made from vegetable oils and animal fats, biodiesel can replace petroleum-derived diesel fuel while burning cleaner and thus reducing the emission of pollutants.  It was an obvious new outlet for U.S. lipids, and so my group and others in ARS began investigating various aspects related to its production and use.  Today biodiesel is an accepted fuel used throughout the country (and world), powering vehicles and generators and heating homes.  It is a true success story, one in which my lab, other USDA labs, and many other researchers played a part.

Based on my experiences, I see federal research as extremely valuable. As I have outlined above, it is dedicated to improving the quality of life of all Americans, and is conducted within a framework designed to maximize its integrity, reliability, impact and availability. It is also very efficacious: I am aware of two studies conducted during my career that assessed the economic impact of ARS research. These analyses determined that every dollar invested yielded between 14 and 20 dollars in benefits for the country. That’s a strong statement of the value of the work, a measure of what will be lost to all of us if programs are dropped, and a return on investment that I’ll sign up for any day.

 

Following receipt of a B.S. in Biochemistry from the University of Minnesota and a Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the U. of Wisconsin, Mike Haas went on to a career with the Agricultural Research Service of the U. S. Department of Agriculture.  During his over 30 years with ARS-USDA his research ranged from sophisticated studies of applied enzymology to the development of the simplest of methods for the production of biodiesel, a renewable fuel produced from U.S. farm products that both replaces and burns cleaner than petroleum diesel fuel.   During his research career Mike also served as an officer in relevant professional societies and as Associate Editor of a scientific journal.   Now retired, he serves as a student mentor with the National Biodiesel Board and, after 40 years in labs and offices, enjoys a multitude of outdoor activities.    

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

7 States Give Pruitt an “F” in Science, Challenge EPA Over Pesticide That Harms Children

Back in March, EPA Administrator and science skeptic Scott Pruitt ignored his agency’s own science when he canceled a planned ban on chlorpyrifos, a well-studied pesticide that has been shown to damage children’s developing brains and make farmworkers sick. But the fight to protect kids and workers from this toxic pesticide isn’t over. In a welcome new twist, the Attorney General of New York and his counterparts in six other states announced today that they have filed an objection with the EPA for its inaction.

Joining New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in the legal challenge are the Attorneys General of California, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Washington, and Vermont. They charge that the EPA “failed to make a key safety finding needed to continue to allow levels of chlorpyrifos, a common agricultural pesticide, on fruits and vegetables consumed by the public.  The federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (Food Act) requires EPA to revoke allowable levels—or ‘tolerances’—for pesticide residues on foods if the Agency is unable to determine that the levels are safe.”

Chlorpyrifos has been studied for decades and increasingly regulated, but it’s still used on a variety of fruits and vegetables—including apples and broccoli—that millions of American moms and dads feed their kids every day. The EPA was all set to ban those last uses due to the pesticide’s ability to damage children’s developing brains, when Pruitt abruptly changed course.

The announcement of the states’ lawsuit comes as the saga of this pesticide continues to grow. Chlorpyrifos reportedly poisoned nearly 50 California farmworkers in an incident near Bakersfield in May.

And in another troubling development last month, Pruitt also put the kibosh on a planned proposal to ensure that pesticides including chlorpyrifos are safely applied. That proposal was supposed to regulate “restricted use pesticides,” defined by the EPA as having the “potential to cause unreasonable adverse effects to the environment and injury to applicators or bystanders without added restrictions.” It would have required workers handling such pesticides—including chlorpyrifos—to be at least 18 years old and to have regular safety training.

 

 

 

 

We All Benefit from Foreign Nations’ Food Crop Diversity—But Do Our Politics Reflect This Interdependence?

Earlier this spring, the United States became the newest member of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, a global agreement on sharing and caring for seeds. It’s a remarkable moment for an agreement whose central tenet is that all countries need one another, especially since it’s really hard to measure just how much they do.

Here’s the argument: genetic diversity in food plants is an essential resource needed to keep crops productive, nutritious, resistant to pests and diseases, and tolerant to drought, heat, and other climatic challenges. Farmers need these traits to produce good yields, and plant breeders provide them by mixing and matching the genetic diversity found within the seeds of modern cultivars, ancient heirlooms, and even wild relatives to produce vigorous new crop varieties.

So where do plant breeders find these seeds? Here’s where we get to international collaboration. Crop genetic diversity increases with time: the places where food crops have been continuously cultivated for hundreds to thousands of years, and especially where they were initially domesticated many thousands of years ago, tend to be extraordinarily diverse.

Origins and primary regions of diversity of major agricultural crops. From Khoury et al. 2016. Proc. R. Soc. B 283(1832): 20160792.

Wheat, corn, rice, and every other one of the crops that feed us originated and diversified in distinct regions around the world. Now they are grown just about everywhere they can be. From Canada to Argentina, Mexico to Mongolia, varieties of these crops have been introduced and adapted to different climates and soils, pests and diseases. This work never ends—it’s a continuous process of breeding and adaptation to maintain agricultural productivity. To support this most important of endeavors, we all have a stake in the open exchange of seeds.

But just how interdependent are countries with regard to seeds?

In its 15 years of existence, the Seed Treaty has made some progress toward its goals. Its 143 member countries have negotiated a way by which crop seeds in the public domain can more easily be shared across borders. They have also started to keep track of these seeds, better ensuring that they remain public, and have built a benefit-sharing fund that has disbursed $20 million in support of crop diversity conservation and capacity building worldwide. Related initiatives focus on providing long-term financial support to the world’s most diverse and vulnerable public genebanks, where substantial crop genetic diversity is maintained, and offer a global safety backup for seeds in the Arctic.

Svalbard Global Seed Vault- the global safety backup for seeds. Photo: Crop Trust.

But much remains to be done to adequately share and care for the world’s seeds. A number of countries have yet to join the Treaty, and implementation of its procedures by many members has been slow. Essential components such as the affirmation of the rights of farmers to continue their traditional seed exchange practices, and the contributions to the conservation fund, need strengthening.

Surely it’s partly a matter of time; big political processes move at glacial speed. But I suspect that roadblocks persist because of a deeper problem: the central argument that we all benefit from one another’s seeds hasn’t had enough teeth to motivate comprehensive political action.

Unfortunately, complete data on the extent to which countries give and receive seeds aren’t available. Tracking these exchanges was mandated only recently, and we won’t know the results until some years in the future. By then we’ll be even further behind on the urgent work needed to adapt crops to climate change.

How about an estimate of interdependence among countries?

Returning to the roots of the argument for the creation of the Seed Treaty, our research team has estimated the degree to which countries depend on one another’s seeds. The calculation was based on the proportion of each country’s national agricultural production, and its food supply, that is composed of crops whose origins, or “primary regions of diversity” are found elsewhere around the world.

We found that countries indeed produce and consume crops from many different primary regions of diversity. The US, for example, grows crops like corn and cotton that originated in Central America, wheat and alfalfa from West Asia, soybeans and citrus from East Asia, and other crops originating in the Mediterranean, Europe, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Andean South America, East Africa, and other regions. A bit of what we grow originated in North America itself, but not a lot. It’s very much the same story for the food we eat.

Estimated potential contribution of different primary regions of diversity of crops grown in the U.S., measured in value ($USD per year). As crops may have more than one primary region of diversity, total percent contribution is more than 100%. From Khoury et al. 2016. Proc. R. Soc. B 283(1832): 20160792.

To put simpler numbers on the trend, we estimated the degree to which each country cultivates or eats “foreign” crops, defined as plants whose primary regions of diversity do not overlap at all with the region where the country is located. For the US, we found that more than 95% of American agricultural production is of foreign crops, as is at least 90% of its food supply.

Averaging across all countries, about 70% of crops grown, and 69% of plants consumed, are immigrants. No country produces or consumes only native foods. Countries are increasingly cultivating and eating foreign crops as economic development proceeds and as food systems become more globalized.

Interdependence and the state of the Seed Treaty

Even with a lack of comprehensive data on consumption and production and crop diversity regions, it is clear that people in all countries grow and eat food crops whose genetic diversity is largely concentrated outside their borders, and would therefore benefit from the facilitated exchange of agricultural seeds. The very likely trend is for increasing needs for seeds, as markets adapt to changing consumer preferences and as producers adapt to increasingly challenging environmental conditions.

The evidence on countries’ predominant use of foreign crops bolsters the rationale for strengthening international collaboration on conservation of crop diversity and for making the exchange of all agricultural seeds as easy and affordable as possible. Our interdependence also boosts the argument for considering the genetic diversity of globally important food crops as public goods which should be openly available to all, and for respecting the rights of farmers to practice their traditional methods of conservation and exchange, not only in recognition of their historical contributions to the diversity in our food, but also in active support of its further evolution.

The Seed Treaty has already done a lot to formalize the understanding that it is prudent for countries to collaborate on sharing and caring for seeds. As one of the world’s agricultural powerhouses, and still the single largest public provider of crop diversity, the US ratification of the Treaty is exciting. Hopefully this is a key moment in the progress toward a truly global agreement where countries work together to conserve and share the diversity of the crops that nourish us all.

 

Colin Khoury studies diversity in the crops people grow and eat worldwide, and the implications of change in this diversity on human health and environmental sustainability. He is particularly interested in the wild relatives of food crops. Colin is a research scientist at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), Colombia, and at the USDA National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

The Trump Budget Is an Affront to Farmers (and All of Us)

I’m starting to feel like a broken record. Last month, I listed five ways President Trump had failed rural America in just his first 100 days. A few weeks prior, I’d documented evidence that his administration’s initial (so-called “skinny”) FY18 budget proposal would cut technical assistance for farmers and nutrition assistance used by rural households at higher rates than urban ones.

So now that the White House has released its full budget proposal—almost laughably titled “A New Foundation For American Greatness”—I’m not sure why I’m surprised by it. I guess it’s just hard to fathom the brazenness of the president’s 180 on policy issues and taxpayer investments that really matter to farmers and rural residents.

Making America less great, one budget cut at a time

Early reporting and commentary have characterized this week’s budget proposal as cruel, draconian, and a con. Its combined social safety net cuts would reportedly affect up to one-fifth of Americans, and many of President Trump’s own voters in red states and rural communities would be hit hardest. The proposal’s architects have made rosy assumptions about future economic growth that economists on both sides of the aisle have called into question, and they apparently employed some faulty math to boot. If enacted, the budget would decimate publicly-funded science across many agencies, though Congress will almost certainly reject it, probably forcefully.

In short, there is nothing great about this budget proposal, and frankly nothing American. But its effects on key programs administered by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) are particularly troubling. Let’s review:

Taking food from people’s plates won’t make America great (just hungrier). The proposed cuts to social programs that help our neighbors in need are mean-spirited and just plain senseless. The White House is proposing to cut the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) by nearly $200 billion over 10 years. This highly cost-effective program has a demonstrated record of success in alleviating hunger and poverty in rural and urban communities alike. In fact, research has shown that rural households use SNAP at higher rates than urban and suburban households.

(UCS Food Systems & Health Analyst Sarah Reinhardt digs deeper on the SNAP program and the implications of these cuts, which would lead to poorer nutrition and needless suffering for millions of Americans.)

And what about USDA programs that specifically serve farmers? That’s not a pretty picture either.

Cutting agricultural research won’t make America great (just less informed). In a blatant attack on science (yes, another one), the president’s budget proposes deep cuts to scientific and medical research across many agencies, including the National Science Foundation (cut 11 percent), the National Institutes of Health (cut 18 percent), and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Research and Development (cut a whopping 50 percent). At the USDA, these are mirrored by large cuts to already-small research budgets, including the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (cut 20 percent) and the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (cut 30 percent). These programs have funded research on, for example, how cover crops can reduce fertilizer needs and maximize profits, and how different combinations of crops can affect weeds, pests, and drought resilience (see this February post from UCS Senior Scientist Marcia DeLonge for more). UCS has advocated for more agricultural research, not less, and nearly 500 experts have joined us in calling for increased investments in agroecology to help farmers and our environment.

Slashing farm conservation programs won’t make America great (just more polluted). To complete the trifecta of not-greatness, the White House is proposing cuts to USDA programs and technical staff that farmers rely on for help implementing soil, water, and biodiversity conservation practices on their land. For example, the perennially popular (with Republicans, Democrats, and farmers of all stripes) Conservation Stewardship Program, which provides direct financial assistance to farmers, would take an 8 percent hit, and the budget proposes eliminating new enrollments.

And then there’s a proposed 10 percent reduction in “conservation operations,” the pot of USDA money that funds technical assistance to farmers in the field. The stated justification for this last cut (on page 9 of this document) made me sit up and take notice:

Agricultural conservation planning is not an inherently governmental function. The private sector can provide this service, given uniform planning standards that are established by the Government. Currently the private sector offers planning assistance to farmers to implement precision pesticide and nutrient application, which is evidence that the private sector could also provide technical assistance for conservation planning. Farmers and other agricultural interest groups argue that the need for conservation planning is much greater than the funding resources currently available through the Government. When the Government funds technical assistance, it crowds out private sector competition. In the absence of Government funding, the private sector could increase farmers’ access to technical assistance beyond what the Government currently offers.

Hold on…does the Trump administration really imagine that corporate America is just waiting to help farmers implement the most sustainable farming practices? It’s clear that taxpayers, water drinkers, and all of us who enjoy clean lakes and streams have a vested interest in the benefits of conservation practices, but the private sector largely doesn’t. It exists to sell stuff, and the beauty of ecological farm practices is that they require less stuffless pesticides, fertilizers, and the like. So what would be the private sector’s motivation to step into the breach here? I don’t see it.

And finally, a missed opportunity to make farmers more resilient for the long term

There is one thing in this USDA budget I almost agree with, and that is its proposed limits on crop insurance and other subsidies for the wealthiest farm operators. The budget proposal would limit crop insurance eligibility to farmers making less than $500,000 annually and cap insurance premium subsidies at $40,000. That sounds reasonable, and in fact, our 2016 report Subsidizing Waste called for a reduction in taxpayer-funded crop insurance premium subsidies because they drive planting decisions that tend to lead to more pollution. But (and this is important) we think the savings from crop insurance reforms should be invested in programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program, where they can incentivize better outcomes for farmers and the environment.

So even here, the White House misses an opportunity to do something right, maintaining an effective safety net for farmers while facilitating a shift to practices that build real resilience—to pests, weather, and price fluctuations in any one crop—and making them less reliant on crop insurance in the long run. And while is a debate we hope Congress will have in the upcoming farm bill, it’s not likely to get past appropriators in this form.

But I believe that’s true of this whole mess of a budget. And thankfully so.

Trump’s Proposed Budget: A Wrecking Ball to Science

Joe Biden once said, “Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.”

President Trump has just shown us his budget. Here is what he values: large tax cuts—mostly for the wealthy—and a buildup of the military and homeland security.

Here is what he does not value: the Medicaid program that allows our poorest citizens to get basic health care; the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps), a highly cost-effective program with a demonstrated record of success in alleviating hunger and poverty in rural and urban communities alike; and student loans and grants, that allow for some upward mobility.

He also does not value science. His budget not only eviscerates funding for basic research (e.g., an $86 billion cut to the National Institute of Health), but also funding for the science that government scientists conduct, or government agencies fund, to inform and improve public policy. Just look at this pattern:

Eviscerating Science at the EPA

The proposed budget cuts the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by more than 30 percent overall, returning the agency to staffing levels not seen since the Ford administration. The budget takes particular aim at the EPA’s Office of Research and Development (ORD), and its many national laboratories. ORD is the science research arm of the EPA, responsible for advising EPA policymakers on safe levels of air and water pollutants, the fate and transport of hazardous waste once it is released into the environment, safe disposal of chemicals, and many other critical matters.

This program also responds to emergencies. ORD was called in recently, for example, to help Toledo, Ohio cope with massive algae blooms in Lake Erie. Trump proposes to cut ORD by over 50 percent. This will simply eviscerate the EPA’s ability to use the best science to protect public health and the environment.

Slashing renewable energy research at DOE

Some of the deepest cuts in Trump’s proposed budget at the Department of Energy (DOE) take aim at clean energy research and development. For example, the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy would be slashed by 69 percent, including cutting more than half the budget of the renewable energy technology offices that have played a critical role in the precipitous drop in costs of renewable energy such as wind and solar.

The budget also eliminates one of DOE’s crown jewels: the ARPA-E program, which fills a crucial void by providing start-up funding for transformative,= but high-risk technologies. This is particularly important as private venture capital has “all but stopped funding ‘deep technology’ companies,” according to recent Brookings Institution study.

Not surprisingly, ARPA-E has bipartisan support, and corporate luminaries such as Bill Gates and Jeffrey Immelt have called for doubling its funding to $1 billion per year as a key way to develop low cost solutions for greenhouse gas emissions and transition to a clean energy economy.

Zeroing out ARPA-E and cutting other clean energy research and development programs will stall vital progress in developing new technologies to lower global warming emissions and will further erode our economic leadership in clean energy.

Weakening emergency preparedness at NOAA

The budget proposes to eliminate funding for several National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) grant and education programs, including Sea Grant, the National Estuarine Research Reserve System, Coastal Zone Management Grants, the Office of Education, and the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund. These programs are critical in helping us adapt to a changing environment.

Their elimination will cripple scientific research as well as emergency preparedness, disaster risk reduction, and national security. Programs like Sea Grant, for example, enable universities to conduct research that helps states prepare for coastal flooding.

Canceling vital earth monitoring at NASA

The budget proposes to terminate five Earth Science Mission programs that have furthered knowledge of biological, physical, chemical and extraterrestrial processes: Radiation Budget Instrument (RBI), PACE, OCO-3, DSCOVR Earth-viewing instruments, and CLARREO Pathfinder.

These five NASA Missions are vital tools for improving our ability to predict everything from agricultural commodity yields to water management and infrastructure management. They have furthered knowledge of biological, physical, chemical and extraterrestrial processes. They have resulted in safeguards that protect our waters and prevent people from eating toxic shellfish, improved aviation safety, and provided essential information about unhealthy air quality.

They have also tested equipment essential for successful satellite launches and provided information about climate measures that inform decision-making with broad economic impacts, including vegetation changes and have provided precise measurements of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Starving agricultural research and conservation at USDA

The US Department of Agriculture would take a 21 percent hit overall. With deep cuts to key research and conservation programs, the budget would undermine the ability of farmers to sustain their land and their livelihoods for the future. The budget slashes tens of millions of dollars from cutting-edge agricultural research programs, effectively denying farmers the science they need to be productive and profitable and to adapt to the harsh realities of a changing climate.

Significant changes to programs that encourage conservation on farmlands would similarly put farmers at a disadvantage and leave the nation’s waters and other critical natural resources more at risk from farm pollution.

Scientists must step up!

Fortunately, Congress, not the President, will ultimately decide what to fund and at what levels. If recent history is any guide, Congress will not attach much weight to President Trump’s misguided budget proposal.

But we must not take anything for granted. This summer, activists from all across the country will likely attend town hall meetings with their congressional representatives. I expect we will hear powerful, heart-rending testimony against the Trump budget’s cynical and vicious attempt to shred the social safety net. But the proposed cuts to science also demand a rallying cry in response, from scientists and from all who value our ability to make public decisions based on the best available evidence.

Now is the time to make our voices heard.

To learn more about how you can effectively stand up for science and influence congress on the budget, check out our recently posted toolkit.

If It Ain’t Broke, Defund It: Trump’s Budget Writes Off SNAP—and With It His Supporters

Today, the Trump administration released a budget proposal for FY 2018 that would drastically reduce funding for SNAP—the largest nutrition assistance program in the federal safety net—by a full 28 percent over the course of the next ten years. This amounts to a $193 billion dollar cut from a program with a yearly budget of less than $75 billion.

Despite statements just last week from Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, who claimed no knowledge of proposed changes to SNAP, the budget proposal states that the drastic reductions in SNAP funding will be achieved through measures that expand work requirements, narrow eligibility, and establish a matching component for states to cover a portion of benefits—a potential first step toward block granting the program.

The preliminary “skinny budget” released by the administration in March, which called for a 21 percent reduction in USDA funding for discretionary programs, hinted at the direction, but not the magnitude of cuts to come for means-tested programs like SNAP. Now, with dollar signs and decimal points to demarcate the damage, the final budget proposal confirms a caustic indifference to the needs of millions of rural and urban families served by the agency’s cornerstone programs—and with it, a callous betrayal of a key segment of President Trump’s own voter base. The consequences of slashing funding for SNAP, compounded by equally significant cuts for programs like Medicaid to the tune of over $800 billion over 10 years, pose a very real and significant threat not only to the core function of our federal safety net, but to the backbone of our nation itself.

We can’t afford cuts to SNAP funding

SNAP provides support to 21 million American households in both urban and rural areas, lifting families out of poverty, reducing food insecurity, and improving long-term health outcomes. Put simply, SNAP works. It is one of the most effective federal assistance programs we have, and it operates with one of the lowest fraud rates. In 2014, the benefits provided by SNAP lifted an estimated 4.7 million people out of poverty—including 2.1 million children. In fact, nearly half of all SNAP recipients (about four in ten) are children.

Research is clear about the devastating consequences facing kids who don’t get enough to eat: they experience poorer health, incur higher medical expenses, and achieve less in the classroom and beyond. Reducing the amount of funding available to SNAP recipients by 25 percent is equivalent to removing a critical source of support for the growth and development of over half a million kids. How does the master plan to make America great (there is one… right?) compensate for the lost potential of a half million of its youth?

And kids aren’t the only ones who benefit from SNAP. Data shows that the program reduces food insecurity rates by 30 percent among participating households, which means fewer serious health complications and hospitalizations for adults living with diabetes. SNAP-Ed also plays an important role in promoting health and helping low-income families achieve healthy diets: evidence-based nutrition education programs funded through SNAP have yielded increases in fruit and vegetable consumption and greater physical activity levels among adults, with estimates of $10 saved in overall long-term health care costs for every dollar invested.

Research also suggests that SNAP expenditures act as economic stimuli, with every five dollars in new benefits generating as much as nine dollars in economic activity. This function is particularly important during times of economic downturn, as benefits redeemed contribute to both the economic stability of participating households and their broader communities.

Cultural elitism, institutional racism, and a dash of alternative facts

If you remember only two things from this post, let it be these brief and breathtakingly true facts: SNAP already has work requirements in place. And most SNAP participants who can work, do work. To be eligible for SNAP benefits, program regulations require that able-bodied adults without dependents must either work or participate in a work program for at least twenty hours per week. SNAP users may also be required to attend state-assigned employment and training programs. If they don’t meet work requirements within three months of enrolling, benefits are terminated and can’t be reinstated for a 36-month period.

Which brings us back to extraordinarily accurate fact number two: Most SNAP participants who can work, do work. USDA data shows that approximately 64 percent of SNAP participants are children, elderly, or disabled; 22 percent work full time, are caretakers, or participate in a training program; and only 14 percent are working less than 30 hours per week, are unemployed, or are registered for work. Moreover, among households with adults who are able to work, over three quarters of adults held a job in the year before or after receiving SNAP—meaning the program is effectively helping families fill temporary gaps in employment.

So if work requirements already exist, and most able-bodied adults are working…why are we still talking about stronger work requirements? We can attribute this in part to a dangerous and deeply rooted political narrative that has for decades cast a light of suspicion and mistrust on welfare recipients—particularly those of color—by painting them as lazy and deceitful in the public eye. And if you believe that we no longer suffer the aftershocks of the mythical Reagan-era welfare queens, recall that just three short years ago, current House Speaker Paul Ryan delivered a radio interview in which he raised concerns about a perceived “tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.” Ryan’s own constituents were quick to point out that his comments amounted to thinly veiled code language for “black men.”

Is there good news? Tell me there’s good news

There’s good news. Here it is: Trump doesn’t have the final say on the budget. Congress does, and there are strong indications that bipartisan opposition to proposed agency and program funding cuts has only gained momentum since the release of the preliminary budget. House Agriculture committee chair Mike Conaway has called the proposed budget wrongheaded, while ranking member Collin Peterson confidently stated that the preliminary budget would be ignored, “as it should be.

But it is critical not to mistake broad dissatisfaction with the president’s budget priorities for a commitment to protecting public assistance programs—particularly SNAP. As the farm bill program with the largest price tag, SNAP is, and will remain, a glaring target for those seeking areas to cut federal spending. At UCS, we will continue our work to provide sound scientific evidence demonstrating the long-term health impacts and cost savings generated by investments in SNAP, while countering political narratives that propagate harmful stereotypes about program participants and diminish public support for critical federal assistance programs. We can’t let allow politics and ideology to seal the fate of the federal safety net—the stakes are simply too high.

Photo: wisley/CC BY SA (Flickr)

Three Reasons Congress Should Support a Budget Increase for Organic Agriculture Research

Recent headlines about the US Department of Agriculture’s leadership and scientific integrity have been unsettling, as have indications that the Trump administration intends to slash budgets for agriculture and climate research and science more generally. But today there’s a rare piece of good news: a bipartisan trio in Congress has introduced legislation that would benefit just about everyone—farmers and eaters, scientists and food system stakeholders, rural and urban Americans. Not only that, but the new bill promises to achieve these outcomes while maintaining a shoestring budget.

Organic dairy producers need sound science to be able to make informed decisions about forage production for their herds. At this on-farm demonstration at the Chuck Johnson farm in Philadelphia, Tennessee, Dr. Gina Pighetti and her research team from the University of Tennessee and the University of Kentucky grow organic crimson clover (right) and wheat to develop best management practices that will help farmers make production decisions. Source: University of Tennessee.

Representatives Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Dan Newhouse (R-WA), and Jimmy Panetta (D-CA) are sponsoring the Organic Agriculture Research Act of 2017, which calls for an increase in mandatory funding for a small but crucial USDA research program, the Organic Research Extension Initiative (OREI). Congress allocated this program a mere $20 million annually in both the 2008 and 2014 Farm Bills, but that small investment stretched across the country with grants awarded in more than half of all states. The new bill proposes to increase that investment to $50 million annually in future years.

While a $30 million increase to a $20 million program may seem like a lot, it is worth noting that these numbers are small relative to other programs. For example, the USDA recently announced that its flagship research program, the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), will receive $425 million this year (another piece of good news, by the way). And many R&D programs at other agencies have much higher price tags (e.g., the NIH will receive $34 billion this year). But the return on investment of agricultural research and investment is very high, so this increase could do a lot of good.

Students at UC Davis, under the leadership of Charles Brummer, Professor of Plant Sciences, examine their “jalapeño popper” crop, a cross between a bell pepper and a jalapeño pepper. This public plant breeding pipeline supports organic farming systems by designing new vegetable and bean cultivars with the particular needs of the organic farming community in mind. Source: UC Davis.

While there are many reasons we are excited about a possible budget boost for the Organic Research Extension Initiative (OREI), I’ll highlight just three:

1)  We need more agroecologically-inspired research. More than 450 scientists from all 50 states have signed our expert statement calling for more public support for agroecological research, which is urgently needed to address current and future farming challenges that affect human health, the environment, and urban and rural communities. This call is built upon agroecology’s successful track record of finding ways to work with nature rather than against it, producing nutritious food while also boosting soil health, protecting our drinking water, and more. Unfortunately, the diminishing overall support for public agricultural research is particularly problematic for agroecology, because this research tends to reduce farmers reliance on purchased inputs, which means that gaps in funding are unlikely to be filled by the private sector. So, programs that direct public funding more toward agroecological research and practice are particularly needed, and OREI is one of these.

2)  When it comes to agroecology, this program is a rock star. The OREI funds some of the most effective federal agricultural research, especially around ecologically-driven practices that can protect our natural resources and maintain farmer profits.  One highlight of the program is that it stresses multi-disciplinary research; according the USDA “priority concerns include biological, physical, and social sciences, including economics”, an approach that can help ensure that research leads to farming practices that are both practical and scalable. Importantly, this program also targets projects that will “assist farmers and ranchers with whole farm planning by delivering practical information”, making sure that research will directly and immediately benefit those who need it most. But it’s not just the program description that leads us to believe this is a strong investment. In fact, our own research on competitive USDA grants found that OREI is among the most important programs for advancing agroecology.  And this in-depth analysis of USDA’s organic research programs by the Organic Farming Research Foundation further highlighted the vital importance of OREI.

3) Research from programs like OREI can benefit all farmers, while focusing on practices required for a critical and growing sector of US agriculture. The OREI program is designed to support organic farms first and foremost, funding research conducted on certified organic land or land in transition to organic certification. However, the research from OREI can benefit a much wider group of farmers as well, as such results are relevant to farmers of many scales and farming styles, organic or not. Of course, directing funds to support organic farmers makes lots of sense, since this sector of agriculture is rapidly growing and maintaining high premiums that benefit farmers. But it’s important to recognize that the benefits of the research extend far beyond the organic farming community.

For all of the reasons listed above, this bill marks an important step in the right direction. It is essential that the next farm bill increases support for science-based programs that will ensure the long-term viability of farms while regenerating natural resources and protecting our environment. Expanding the OREI is a smart way forward.

 

How Oats Could Save Iowa’s Farmers (and Fight Pollution)

That bowl of oatmeal pictured above was my breakfast this morning. The strawberries were from nearby Virginia (hello, spring!) but the oats may have come from as far away as Sweden, Finland, or Canada. In the future, my morning oats could be grown much closer to home, in a state like Iowa that is now dominated by corn and soybeans. A new UCS report shows why that would be a good thing for US farmers and our environment.

Today’s Midwestern Corn Belt produces two crops—the aforementioned corn and soybeans—in abundance; however, this system has grown steadily less beneficial for farmers over time. US corn and soybean growers achieved record-high har­vests in 2016. But due to oversupply, prices farmers receive for these crops have plummeted, and 2016 US farm incomes were expected to drop to their lowest levels since 2002.

Endless rotations of corn and soy aren’t environmentally sustainable either. This system typically leaves fields bare for much of the year and uses tillage (plowing) practices that erode away farmers’ soil. It loads on synthetic fertilizer, leading to a nitrogen pollution problem that costs the nation an estimated $157 bil­lion per year in human health and environmental damages.

Rural communities suffer many of the consequences, with Iowa high on the list of states with surface water pollution from fertilizers, pesticides, and eroded soil. And the nega­tive effects extend far beyond the Midwest. Corn Belt watersheds are major con­tributors to the annual “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, and nitrous oxide emissions from farm soils make up 5 percent of the US share of heat-trapping gases responsible for climate change.

Diverse crop rotations offer multiple benefits

Fixing these problems is a little more complicated than simply planting oats, but not a lot. For the last 14 years, Iowa State University researchers have compared the typical Iowa corn-soy system with something that looks just a bit different. Innovative three- and four-year systems add combinations of winter-growing small grains (yes, those oats), an off-season cover crop, and alfalfa, a perennial crop that adds nitrogen to the soil.

I wrote years ago about the enhanced crop yields, steady profits, and reduced pesticide use and pollution produced by these year-round ground-covering rotations, and Iowa State’s most recent data continue to reflect these benefits. Average corn yields are 2 to 4 percent higher, soybean yields are 10 to 17 percent higher, and profits are similar to corn-soy alone. While cutting herbicide use by as much as 51 percent, the system positively slashed herbicide runoff into streams by as much as 96 percent, and it reduced total nitrogen fertiliz­er application rates by up to 57 percent as well.

Now, a groundbreaking analysis by UCS senior economist Kranti Mulik shows that such a modified system is scalable. Building on Iowa State’s results with additional analysis of soil erosion outcomes and economic impacts, her report, Rotating Crops, Turning Profits: How Diversified Farming Systems Can Help Farmers While Protecting Soil and Preventing Pollution, found that these innovative rotations, paired with no-till practices to keep soil in place, could be imple­mented on millions of acres in Iowa today and expanded to tens of millions more over time. Specifically, she found that:

  • Diverse crop rotations could be adopted over time on 20 to 40 percent of Iowa’s farmland—5 million to 11 mil­lion acres—without changes in crop prices driving farm­ers back to predominantly corn-soy.
  • Soil erosion would be reduced by 88 percent compared with tilled corn-soy, to a sustainable level given natural soil replacement rates.
  • Taxpayers would achieve total annual savings of $124 million to $272 million from reduced surface water cleanup costs and net reductions in heat-trapping gases valued at $111 million to $233 million annually, for a total of $235 million to $505 million in environmental benefits every year.

Although we focused our analysis on Iowa, the results can be generalized throughout the Corn Belt.

So why aren’t Iowa farmers sowing oats?

A few years ago, production of oats in the United States fell to its lowest level since the Civil War. Partly, of course, that’s because most people don’t get around using oat-eating horses anymore. But even since the 1940s, oat production in Iowa has fallen steadily, as this handy graph shows (hat tip to my colleague Andrea Basche, who created it):

The change in crops planted across the state of Iowa from 1940-2012. Closed symbols represent summer annual crops while open symbols represent perennial crops or crops that grow over winter. Alfalfa, barley, hay and oats represented 45 percent of harvested acreage in 1940 and 7 percent in 2012. Source: USDA-NASS, https://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2012/Full_Report/Census_by_State/Iowa/.

Struggling farmers need to diversify, and they need help

There’s no agronomic reason Iowa farmers can’t grow crops other than corn and soybeans, they just mostly don’t anymore. Maybe specialization seemed like a good idea at the time, but now farmers in Iowa and other parts of the Midwest are trapped in an endless cycle of corn and soybeans. And it can’t continue. As any financial advisor will tell you, having just a few stocks (or in this case, just a few crops) in your portfolio puts you at increased risk from price swings. And so it is with many farmers, who now rely, to a risky and ultimately unsustainable degree, on corn and soybeans.

This guy likes oats, but pigs would eat them too!

Our friends at the Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) are trying to turn that around. For the last few years, PFI’s Sarah Carlson and her colleagues have been working with a small group of pioneering farmers on diversifying crop rotations, including an oat pilot project. They’ve even created a YouTube video series called Rotationally Raised and a dedicated oat-growing tips video to share their experience with other farmers who might want to give diverse rotations a try.

Carlson says that many of the farmers she talks to would like to try adding oats and other crops into their mix, but they need to know they’ll be able to sell them. That’s why PFI is also talking with companies who buy a lot of oats (think cereal makers) about committing to buy Iowa oats in the future. The state’s pork producers could also be encouraged to feed oats to their pigs as a substitute for some of the corn they now buy.

Mulik believes that markets for new crops will expand once there are more oats out there looking for buyers, at lower prices than corn. To paraphrase a famous line from a movie set in Iowa, “If you grow it, they will come.”

Tell Secretary Sonny: Diversify US agriculture!

But we don’t have to wait for markets to catch up. Many farmers who might adopt a modi­fied rotation system right now face challenges including financial and technical barriers as well as crop insurance and credit con­straints. New and expanded federal farm policies are needed to help farmers overcome those barriers and reap the benefits of these systems. Our report recommends some specific policy changes Congress should take up as it reauthorizes the federal farm bill over the next year, and others the USDA could implement in the near term.

And this brings me to the Trump administration’s newly-confirmed Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue. Perdue has hit the ground running, meeting with farmers at an Iowa town hall and flying over flooded farmland in Arkansas last week, while using his folksy new Twitter handle, @SecretarySonny, to assure farmers that the USDA has their back.

One way the USDA could support farmers in the Midwest and across the country is by supporting smart farming systems—like diverse crop rotations—that offer proven benefits to farmers and the rest of us. Sign our petition today urging him to prioritize healthy farm and food systems.

 

 

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