A Movement Grows to Help Farmers Reduce Pollution and Turn a Profit

More than 100,000 miles of U.S. rivers and streams are polluted by nitrogen and phosphorus, much of it from agricultural runoff. In Pennsylvania, an innovative program is showing farmers how to plant cash crops in buffer zones to help stabilize stream banks and clean up waterways.

ILLUSTRATION BY LUISA RIVERA / YALE E360

In Chester County, Pennsylvania, about 40 miles northwest of Philadelphia, Beaver Run carves a triangular piece of bottomland as it turns east to join French Creek. A gnarled old American sycamore grows in the narrow fringe of native forest bordering the stream. On a cold, gray winter’s day, agroforester Austin Unruh pulls on a woolen beanie and points out the variety of saplings poking through the straw-colored carpet of dormant grasses beyond the thin band of forest.

“Over there are American persimmons and pawpaws,” he says, identifying two of the native fruit-bearing trees he planted on the 3-acre corner of land. Scattered among them are ornamental natives such as red-twig dogwood and willows, which fetch a good price in the floral trade, he explained. With a state-funded grant from the nonprofit Stroud Water Research Center in Avondale, Pennsylvania, Unruh leased the land from Lundale Farm to demonstrate how agroforestry can be employed to create a new kind of pollution-fighting landscape called a “working buffer.”

A few hundred years ago, forests grew naturally along waterways in the eastern United States, but many have been razed to make way for towns, cities, cattle, and crops. Today, strips of streamside land replanted with native floodplain trees and shrubs, called riparian forest buffers, are essential to the health of creeks and rivers. These buffers help stabilize stream banks and decrease flooding while trapping and filtering pollutants that would otherwise end up in local waterways. Until recently, however, restoring a streamside buffer in rural areas meant taking farmland out of production.

Four years ago, with its push to create riparian forest buffers lagging far behind mandated targets, Pennsylvania established an innovative grant program to encourage farmers and landowners to plant working buffers that can yield cash crops. Unruh, who was working on a master’s degree in agroforestry, leapt at the opportunity. In addition to planting the Lundale Farm buffer, he founded Crow and Berry Land Management to help farmers in the Delaware and Chesapeake basins, the two major watersheds in eastern Pennsylvania, take advantage of state and private funding to design, plant, and maintain working buffers on their own lands.

From Lundale Farm, French Creek meanders southeast to the Schuylkill River, which continues on a winding course down to Philadelphia, where it joins the Delaware River. Stretching 330 densely populated miles from New York’s Catskill Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean, the Delaware is the lifeblood of the region, providing drinking water for more than 13 million people, including residents of New York City. The river and its web of tributaries also sustain countless orchards, dairy farms, corn and soybean fields, and nurseries. According to the Pennsylvania Association of Conservation Districts, almost 27 percent of the watershed is agricultural, a mixture of cropland and pasture.

As storm water runs off of farmland, it can wash away not only pesticides and soil but also nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus from commercial fertilizers and manure. These pollutants enter upstream waters, such as Beaver Run, and end up in larger water bodies like the Delaware, degrading water quality by promoting algal blooms that can harm aquatic species by depriving them of oxygen. They also create toxins and compounds in surface and groundwater supplies that can be harmful to human health..

The problem extends well beyond the Delaware watershed. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), more than 100,000 miles of U.S. rivers and streams have poor water quality because of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, which the agency calls “one of America’s most widespread, costly, and challenging environmental problems.”

“Riparian forest buffers are a primary method that Pennsylvania is looking at for reducing its water quality problems,” says one official.

Riparian buffers not only help filter out fertilizers and other pollution. By shading streams and producing woody debris, they enhance aquatic habitat and provide food, cover, and nesting sites for birds and other animals. They also sequester carbon. The wider the buffer, the greater its benefits.

“Riparian forest buffers are a primary method that Pennsylvania is looking at for reducing its water quality problems,” says Tracey Coulter, agroforestry coordinator at the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR). For example, the state is responsible for fully 65 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorus polluting the Chesapeake Bay. As part of a newly updated Watershed Implementation Plan that lays out how the five states in the Chesapeake Basin intend to reduce the nutrients flowing into the bay to levels required by the EPA, Pennsylvania has committed to planting 85,650 new acres of riparian forest buffers by 2025. “It’s a massive goal, especially compared to what the rate of implementation has been lately,” says Lamonte Garber, watershed restoration coordinator at the Stroud Water Research Center.

For the past two decades, most buffers have been financed by the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), a federal initiative that covers 50 percent of the cost of planting riparian forest buffers at least 35 feet wide, and 100 percent for buffers 50 feet or wider. The farmers also receive a land rental check for 10 to 15 years. In return, farmers are prohibited from generating income from the buffers. CREP also requires that farmers maintain the buffers for the first three to five years while the plantings become established.

But participation in CREP has lagged, in part because farmers are reluctant to retire cropland. “Non-productive land is an anathema for farmers,” says Coulter. Many Pennsylvania farms are small, family enterprises, and in the words of Chris Kieran, senior associate of the William Penn Foundation’s watershed protection program, “the smaller the farm, the more valuable each individual acre is to the overall operation.” Many farmers also balk at the hassle involved in dealing with the federal government. In addition, most Amish and Mennonite farmers, who work a good deal of acreage in Pennsylvania, don’t believe in taking money from the government.

The problem is compounded by the fact that many of the early buffers created under CREP suffered from a lack of maintenance. If there’s nothing to harvest in the buffer, maintenance often takes a back seat to other pressing farm tasks, says Coulter. “We need a way to make the buffers important to farmers,” she says.

Pennsylvania sees working buffers as a compromise that protects water quality while allowing farmers not participating in CREP to earn a living from their land. A 1998 study by University of Maryland researchers concluded that buffers can gross nearly $25,000 per acre annually. According to Jeremy Kaufman, chief operating officer of Propagate Ventures, which works with farmers to make buffers and other forms of agroforestry economically viable, “fruit and nut crops yield a much higher return per acre than a row crop operation.”

As envisioned by Pennsylvania officials, working buffers consist of three zones. While conventional forest buffers must extend at least 35 feet from the water’s edge, the strip of native woodland that comprises zone one of a working buffer can be just 15 feet wide. The principle objective of this zone is to stabilize the bank with tree roots and enhance wildlife habitat.

The second zone, which extends 15 to 35 feet from the water, is planted with trees and shrubs that can tolerate periodic flooding. In addition to slowing floodwater and taking up nutrients, this zone is designed to provide products for profit or personal use. For example, black walnut, American hazelnut, pawpaw, American persimmon, and common elderberry can tolerate the conditions in this area and yield salable fruits and nuts. To minimize soil disturbance, only hand harvesting is permitted in zone two.

Coulter calls zone three, which is adjacent to crop fields or grazing lands, “the most commercial part of the buffer.” In this zone, mechanical harvesting is allowed. Candidate crops require slightly drier soils, such as blueberry and black raspberry, as well as decorative “woody florals” such as curly willow, wild hydrangea, pussy willow, and winterberry holly.

To date, most buffers have been established by small landowners philosophically committed to land stewardship.

In addition to edible fruits, nuts, mushrooms, and cut stems for the floral trade, advocates say, working buffers with beehives can produce income from honey. Depending on the location, working buffers can also yield high-value medicinal plants like ginseng and black cohosh. Mulberries and other trees can provide fodder for livestock, an attraction for dairy farmers.

How many farmers and landowners can be enticed to create working buffers remains to be seen. To date, most have been established by small landowners philosophically committed to land stewardship. This has fueled concerns that the concept could remain a cottage industry and never really spread across the landscape at a scale that would make a real difference for water quality.

“My hunch is that the number is going to be small, less than 10 percent of landowners out there who have significant stream frontage,” says Garber of the Stroud Center. “It may be an incentive for small-scale niche farmers who may have 5, 10, or 20 acres,” he says, but not for the majority of “production farmers” such as dairy operations and corn and soybean growers. “Most of those farmers have their hands full with their existing farm enterprise,” says Garber.

Some researchers at the Stroud Center, which in recent decades has done much of the research on the effectiveness of conventional riparian forest buffers, also worry that working buffers may lose some pollution-reduction power when the native forest portion is downsized and replaced with tree and shrub crops. Until proven otherwise, Garber says policymakers should not be tempted by the current enthusiasm for working buffers to stop funding and improving CREP and other traditional buffer programs.

A growing number of entrepreneurs like Unruh and Kaufman are leading the transition to low-impact “regenerative” farming that integrates trees and shrubs with traditional crops, not only in working buffers but also pastures, windbreaks, and narrow, widely spaced rows of trees that produce nuts and other valuable products in the midst of traditional crops, a technique called alley cropping. However, these forms of agroforestry are unfamiliar to most American farmers. Another impediment to the adoption of working buffers as envisioned by the state is that hand harvesting is necessary, making them more labor-intensive than crops like corn and soybeans that can be harvested mechanically.

What’s more, you can’t just leave a load of persimmons at the local grain elevator. The marketing and distribution infrastructure for such products does not yet exist. “We’re trying to work out strategies for these things,” Coulter says. Among the solutions under discussion are co-ops, such as the Midwest Elderberry Cooperative in Minnesota and a woody floral co-op in Nebraska.

Most farmers are used to thinking in annual cycles, says Kaufman, so “the 20- or 30-year investment entailed with working buffers can be a challenge for them.” To allay their concerns, Propagate Ventures brings a variety of potential partners to the table with farmers willing to consider creating a working buffer. Among them are ecologically minded investors, including companies that can market their support of low-impact agriculture on their product labels. “Farmers need to know that a buyer will be available” when the tree crops begin to bear fruit, says Kaufman. Putting together the right kind of investment arrangements, purchase and lease agreements, and management and maintenance contracts is critical to making this kind of farming work, Kaufman says.

If working buffers are to succeed, they must incorporate the needs of individual farmer, says one expert.

According to Unruh, states and the federal government have employed a “cookie-cutter approach” to streamside buffers, concerned only with improving water quality. If working buffers are to succeed, he says, they must incorporate the needs of individual farmers as well. “Taking a holistic approach, looking at the whole farm and not just the buffer is key,” says Kaufman. “So someone accustomed to growing grain might be more interested in a hay-production crop between rows of trees than dealing with elderberries or other shrub fruits,” he says.

This spring, Propagate Ventures and the Stroud Center will be identifying three farms willing to pilot working buffers and to work out business models for them. Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority (PENNVEST), a partner in the state’s grant program for working buffers, is keeping track of the costs the buffers accrue and the income they generate. The authority, which traditionally has managed revolving loans for sewage, storm water, and drinking water projects, hopes to do the same for working buffers. But right now there is little data to support a business plan and complete data from the farms they have funded won’t be available for three or four years, says PENNVEST executive director Brion Johnson.

“The real long-term sustainable solution,” he says, “is to move away from just grants to a low-interest, revolving loan program that can support these buffers 20, 30, 40 years into the future.”

It’s not only health impacts. Polluted air is affecting the crops of California

The state lost up to US$1 billion in crops per year.

More than 90% of the planet breathes unhealthy air, leading to seven million premature deaths per year and billions of dollars in extra costs for health services. But that’s not the single problem, as pollutants are also affecting the yield of food crops and their nutritional quality.

 

Food contributes to air pollution, releasing nitrogen compounds into the air. In turn, air pollution can impact food production. Ozone emissions react to form ground-level ozone, penetrating into the structure of the plant and affecting its ability to develop — a phenomenon seen across the globe.

California is not an exception. The state has lost up to US$1 billion in crops each year between 1980 and 2015 due to smog, according to a new study. Crops including grapes, strawberries, walnuts, peaches, nectarines, and hay lost between 2% and 22% of their yield over this period.

Having lower yields means bad news for California, which relies on agriculture as one of its main sources of income, and for the country as a whole, as the state is the largest agricultural producer, producing a third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts.

Nevertheless, there might be a light at the end of the tunnel for California. The state has stepped up its game to reduce pollution over the years and if it continues doing so the efforts will likely pay off, the researchers estimate.

“The farming community can see improvements in yields related to a decrease in this ground-level ozone. If that continued, we could even see further improvements in the yields of these sensitive crops,” Steven Davis, an associate professor at the University of California Irvine and coauthor of the study.

Other studies previously looked at the effect of air pollution on staple crops such as wheat, soy, and rice. Now, Davis and the group of researchers decided to focus on different crops, known as perennials. These are more valuable than staples and have longer lifespans, meaning they could be more vulnerable to pollution.

The team analyzed pollution exposure and crop yields from 1980 to 2015, and also looked at the effects of warming on these perennial crops. They also projected crop yield changes up to 2050, expecting a decline in the that would boost wine grape production by 5% and nectarines by 8%.

“These aren’t the things that are providing the global population with its main source of calories. These are the sweet things in life – fruits, nuts and grapes for wine,” Davis said. “Also, monetarily, some of these crops are a lot more valuable than wheat or corn.”

The results of the study can be applied to other farming areas, according to the researchers, who now want to look at the trajectory of California’s energy systems and what benefits they might have for specific crops. “We can start analyzing trade-offs of water use and energy and try to inform the policymakers about the most cost-effective and beneficial ways to go,” Davis said. SOURCE

The New Frontiers of Farming Come With Huge Climate Risks

A worker picks cherries from a tree on May 21, 2018 in Acampo, California.Photo: Getty

Not sure you’ve heard, but the planet is getting hotter. The heat is making farming harder in some places, but it’s also making it possible to bring agriculture into new areas. Farmers are growing food in northern Alberta, Canada. Russia plans to “use the advantages” of global warming to expand its agriculture northward. And by 2030, New England could have three times as much farmland as it does now. Finally, some good news!

Except maybe not. New research shows that expanding agriculture northward could screw up the environment and unleash a flood of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, worsening the climate crisis. The new study published in PLOS One on Wednesday shows that disturbing soils on new northern farmland could release 177 gigatons of carbon. That’s equivalent to more than a century’s worth of present-day carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S.

The researchers used projections from 17 global climate models and found that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate, global temperatures could rise by 4.8 degrees Celsius (8.6 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century. That would open up as much as 9.3 million square miles of arable land in the northern part of the world as well as high altitude areas by 2080. Those new areas could support important food crops, including wheat, corn and soy. Yes, the findings are based on the upper end of carbon emissions scenarios, but even lower emissions scenarios will still warm the planet and create millions of acres of new potential farmland.

Farming isn’t inherently bad. After all, people need to eat. And if the world’s population grows to 10 billion by 2050, the world will need to produce 70 percent more food. The problem is how we farm. Soil traps carbon from the atmosphere, and when it’s turned over to create new farmland, some of that carbon gets released. That effect at a large scale, the researchers worry, could trigger runaway climate change.

To make matters worse, farming new frontiers could also pose problems for biodiversity, especially in tropical mountain regions that are newly warm enough to support agriculture. The predicted new farming frontiers cover some of the world’s most biodiverse regions and critical bird habitats. Agriculture that relies on fertilizer and fossil fuel-powered equipment also releases toxic byproducts into the local environment that can trickle downstream (see the Gulf of Mexico dead zone for a prime example of how had it can get). Farming higher in the mountains could pollute drinking water that more than 1.8 billion people rely on.

These effects are all bad on their own, but the climate crisis, biodiversity loss, and water pollution can compound the stress of each even further. Another recent study showed that these threats “have the potential to impact and amplify one another in ways that might cascade to create global systemic collapse.”

There are policies that could mitigate these effects, such as making sure that the world’s most carbon-rich soil is off limits, and reforesting the areas that are no longer suitable for agriculture. And since all the potential farmland the researchers identified isn’t ready to farm yetthe time to create those policies is now, before there’s money to be made off those new frontiers and things go full Wild West. SOURCE

A Growing Presence on the Farm: Robots

A new generation of autonomous robots is helping plant breeders shape the crops of tomorrow.

Not only can the TerraSentia navigate under dense crop canopies, it can make many observations about plant health and yield as it drives through fields.

Credit…Institute for Genomic Biology/University of Illinois

FARMER CITY, Illinois — In a research field off Highway 54 last autumn, corn stalks shimmered in rows 40-feet deep. Girish Chowdhary, an agricultural engineer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, bent to place a small white robot at the edge of a row marked 103. The robot, named TerraSentia, resembled a souped up version of a lawn mower, with all-terrain wheels and a high-resolution camera on each side.

In much the same way that self-driving cars “see” their surroundings, TerraSentia navigates a field by sending out thousands of laser pulses to scan its environment. A few clicks on a tablet were all that were needed to orient the robot at the start of the row before it took off, squeaking slightly as it drove over ruts in the field.

“It’s going to measure the height of each plant,” Dr. Chowdhary said.

It would do that and more. The robot is designed to generate the most detailed portrait possible of a field, from the size and health of the plants, to the number and quality of ears each corn plant will produce by the end of the season, so that agronomists can breed even better crops in the future. In addition to plant height, TerraSentia can measure stem diameter, leaf-area index and “stand count” — the number of live grain- or fruit-producing plants — or all of those traits at once. And Dr. Chowdhary is working on adding even more traits, or phenotypes, to the list with the help of colleagues at EarthSense, a spinoff company that he created to manufacture more robots.

Traditionally, plant breeders have measured these phenotypes by hand, and used them to select plants with the very best characteristics for creating hybrids. The advent of DNA sequencing has helped, enabling breeders to isolate genes for some desirable traits, but it still takes a human to assess whether the genes isolated from the previous generation actually led to improvements in the next one.

“The idea is that robots can automate the phenotyping process and make these measurements more reliable,” Dr. Chowdhary said. In doing so, the TerraSentia and others like it can help optimize the yield of farms far beyond what humans alone have been able to accomplish.

Automation has always been a big part of agriculture, from the first seed drills to modern combine harvesters. Farm equipment is now regularly outfitted with sensors that use machine learning and robotics to identify weeds and calculate the amount of herbicide that needs to sprayed, for instance, or to learn to detect and pick strawberries.

Lately, smaller, more dexterous robots have emerged in droves. In 2014, the French company Naïo released 10 prototypes of a robot named Oz that is just three feet long and weighs roughly 300 pounds. It assembles phenotypes of vegetable crops even as it gobbles up weeds. EcoRobotix, based in Switzerland, makes a solar-powered robot that rapidly identifies crops and weeds; the device resembles an end table on wheels. The household appliance-maker Bosch has also tested a robot called BoniRob for analyzing soil and plants.

“All of a sudden, people are starting to realize that data collection and analysis tools developed during the 90s technology boom can be applied to agriculture,” said George A. Kantor, a senior systems scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, who is using his own research to develop tools for estimating crop yields.

The TerraSentia is among the smallest of the farmbots available today. At 12.5 inches wide and roughly the same height, the 30-pound robot fits well between rows of various crops. It also focuses on gathering data from much earlier in the agricultural pipeline: The research plots where plant breeders select the varieties that ultimately make it to market.

Girish Chowdhary, holding a TerraSentia robot, and Chinmay Soman, left, with Tim Smith at one of Mr. Smith’s research fields in Farmer City, Ill.

The data collected by the TerraSentia is changing breeding from a reactionary process into a more predictive one. Using the robot’s advanced machine-learning skills, scientists can collate the influence of hundreds, even thousands, of factors on a plant’s future traits, much like doctors utilize genetic tests to understand the likelihood of a patient developing breast cancer or Type 2 diabetes.

“Using phenotyping robots, we can identify the best-yielding plants before they even shed pollen,” said Mike Gore, a plant biologist at Cornell University. He added that doing so can potentially cut in half the time needed to breed a new cultivar — a plant variety produced by selective breeding — from roughly eight years to just four.

The demands on agriculture are rising globally. The human population is expected to climb to 9.8 billion by 2050 and 11.2 billion by 2100, according to the United Nations. To feed the world — with less land, fewer resources and in the face of climate change — farmers will need to augment their technological intelligence.

The agricultural giants are interested. Corteva, which spun off from the merger of Dow Chemical and DuPont in 2016, has been testing the TerraSentia in fields across the United States.

“There’s definitely a niche for this kind of robot,” said Neil Hausmann, who oversees research and development at Corteva. “It provides standardized, objective data that we use to make a lot of our decisions. We use it in breeding and product advancement, in deciding which product is the best, which ones to move forward and which ones will have the right characteristics for growers in different parts of the country.”

Dr. Chowdhary and his colleagues hope that partnerships with big agribusinesses and academic institutions will help subsidize the robots for smallholder farmers. “Our goal is to eventually get the cost of the robots under $1,000,” he said.

Farmers don’t need special expertise to operate the TerraSentia, either, Dr. Chowdhary said. The robot is almost fully autonomous. Growers with thousands of acres of land can have several units survey their crops, but a farmer in a developing country with only five acres of land could use one just as easily. The TerraSentia has already been tested in a wide variety of fields, including corn, soybean, sorghum, cotton, wheat, tomatoes, strawberries, citrus crops, apple orchards, almond farms and vineyards.

But some experts question whether such robots will ever truly be targeted to small farms, or a sufficiently affordable option. “For the kind of agriculture that smallholders tend to engage in, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and parts of Latin America, there are a lot of barriers to the adoption of new technologies,” said Kyle Murphy, a policy and agricultural development analyst at the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab at M.I.T. He added that robots like the TerraSentia may be more likely to help smallholder farmers indirectly, by promoting the development of better or more suitable crops.

Before the TerraSentia can advance crop breeding for a wide swath of farmers, it must perfect a few more skills. Occasionally, it trips over branches and debris on the ground, or its wheels get stuck in muddy soil, requiring the user to walk behind the rover and right its course as needed. “Hopefully, by next year we’ll be able to train the TerraSentia so even more so users won’t have to be anywhere in the field,” Dr. Chowdhary said.

For the moment, the TerraSentia keeps a leisurely pace, less than one mile an hour. This allows its cameras to capture slight changes in pixels to measure the plants’ leaf-area index and recognize signs of disease. Dr. Chowdhary and his colleagues at EarthSense are hoping that advancements in camera technology will eventually add to the robot’s speed.

The team is also building a maintenance barn, where the TerraSentia can dock after a long day. There, its battery can be swapped with a fully charged one, and its wheels and sensors can be sprayed clean. But for now, a farmer simply dumps the robot in the back of a truck, takes it home and uploads its data to the cloud for analysis.

The main office of EarthSense, in Urbana, Illinois, is full of early versions of robotic technology that didn’t quite pan out. Initial prototypes of TerraSentia lacked a proper suspension system, so the robot jumped into the air and disrupted the video streams whenever researchers set it loose in a deeply rutted field. Another design kept melting from the heat of the robot’s motors, until they switched plastics and added metal shielding.

Those early, cracked chassis are now stacked on a shelf, like a museum display: a reminder of the need for improvement, but also of the excitement that the robot has generated.

“A lot people who tried the early prototypes still came back to us, even after having robots that essentially broke on them all the time,” Dr. Chowdhary said. “That’s how badly they needed these things.” SOURCE

These Are the World’s Most Environmentally Friendly Countries

Go green on your next trip. These 5 destinations are doing the most to tackle important environmental issues.

Switzerland is the most eco-friendly country in the world, especially when it comes to its efforts in air quality and climate protection. Photo by Burben/Shutterstock.

Many factors can influence a traveler’s decision about where to go next. The kind of destination is of course important, as is the type of experience: Is the goal to have a quiet beach getaway or a lively multi-city tour? But as climate change becomes an increasing global concern and as it becomes harder to ignore the impact that travel has on the environment, another question that well-informed travelers might want to ask themselves is: Which destinations are making the biggest efforts to “go green”?

The Environmental Performance Index (EPI) is a biennial report that determines which countries around the world are leading the front in making—and enforcing—policies that safeguard the environment. Created in 2006, the global index determines a country’s ranking based on its efforts to address the environmental issues that have the most impact on health and sustainability worldwide, such as climate change and pollution.

The EPI’s most 2018 report ranks 180 countries using performance metrics organized under the following categories: air quality; water and sanitation; heavy metals; biodiversity and habitat; forests; fisheries; climate and energy; air pollution; water resources; and agriculture.

In 2018, these were the five countries named the world’s most sustainable. The next EPI is slated for release in early 2020; whether these destinations will remain on top is yet to be seen.

Top 5 countries from the 2018 Environmental Performance Index:

1. Switzerland 

2. France 

3. Denmark 

4. Malta 

5. Sweden 

According to 2018 EPI data, Switzerland currently leads the world in sustainability, with an overall score of 87.42. The country received almost perfect scores for water sanitation (99.99) and water resources (99.67), placing second overall for air pollution, behind Equatorial Guinea, as well as climate and energy, following the Seychelles archipelago, which the 2018 EPI indicated as the “most improved country over the past decade.”

France (83.95), Denmark (81.60), Malta (80.9), and Sweden (80.51) rounded out the EPI’s top five most environmentally friendly countries list, with France, Denmark, and Malta earning top rankings in the biodiversity and habitat category. Malta was in the lead for water and sanitation and water resources; Sweden received a perfect score in heavy metals (addressing the life-threatening impact of lead exposure). Denmark, Malta, and Sweden also stood out for high scores in air quality.

Essentially, this index highlights the world’s leading countries in progressive environmental performance and policy. For travelers who prefer supporting “green” destinations, these results can be helpful when planning your next trip. SOURCE

The EPI is produced by Yale University and Columbia University in collaboration with the World Economic Forum. For the full list of countries ranked, see the 2018 Environmental Performance Index (EPI).

 

FARMING’S GROWING PROBLEM

Fertilizers are contaminating and warming the planet. Regulators haven’t acted on decades-old warnings.

Image result for publicintegrity: Fertilizers are contaminating and warming the planet. Regulators haven’t acted on decades-old warnings.

ROCKWELL CITY, Iowa — Everywhere Randy Souder looked, he saw mud. On his soggy fields. In the mechanized crannies of his planter. Along the rural road to his house, where he’d left a trail of clumps. It was late June, and record-breaking rain had pushed the state’s corn-planting rate to its lowest level in nearly four decades. Souder hoped the summer sun would dry the soil quickly.

Once it did, Souder could finally start the critical next step: Bring in a rig with tires tall enough to clear shoulder-high corn stalks and cast a 100-foot swath of fertilizer over his crop. That blast of nitrogen — the farming equivalent of pixie dust — would make the ears grow large and dense with kernels if applied at the right time.

“When I started 40 years ago, my fertilizer pounds per acre [were] less than half of what they are now,” Souder said. “I started out with a 110-bushel yield, and I’m thinking, ‘It’ll never get any better than this.’ Now we’re pushing 300-bushel on the corn.”

But this agricultural alchemy comes with a toll. In America’s Corn Belt and around the world, some of the fertilizer applied to fields escapes the soil in new forms that contaminate and warm the planet.

Some of these compounds enter the atmosphere as a potent greenhouse gas that’s now at its highest concentration in the last 800,000 years, helping fuel climate problems like the flooding that upended farmers’ lives last spring.

Other fertilizer byproducts contaminate water wells, especially in agricultural areas, where the U.S. Geological Survey says one in five has levels exceeding federal health limits. These contaminants also wash into streams, rivers and lakes, where they become what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calls “one of America’s most widespread, costly and challenging environmental problems.”

This pollution stream feeds the kind of algae bloom that was so toxic in Lake Erie in 2014 that officials in Toledo, Ohio, warned roughly 500,000 customers not to drink or come in contact with the city’s tap water for three days. The nutrients flow more than a thousand miles from agricultural states to the Gulf of Mexico, where they nourish an aquatic dead zone that in summer 2017 grew as large as New Jersey.

 

Deep cuts to nitrogen runoff and emissions are critical, researchers say, both to curb mounting hazards from water pollution and to stave off the most cataclysmic consequences of rising global temperatures.

And while it’s a smaller environmental danger than carbon, scientists say fertilizer is an underrated and growing threat — one that’s more complicated to solve. MORE

 

‘Bill Gates is continuing the work of Monsanto’, Vandana Shiva tells FRANCE 24

“Our guest is Vandana Shiva, a world-famous environmental activist from India. Her latest book is entitled “One Earth, One Humanity vs. the 1%”.

She tell us about more her opposition to big multinationals such as Monsanto for their nefarious influence on agriculture. But Shiva also singles out billionaires like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg for criticism.

“When Bill Gates pours money into Africa for feeding the poor in Africa and preventing famine, he’s pushing the failed Green Revolution, he’s pushing chemicals, pushing GMOs, pushing patterns”, she tells FRANCE 24’s Marc Perelman SOURCE

George Monbiot: Lab-grown food will soon destroy farming – and save the planet

Scientists are replacing crops and livestock with food made from microbes and water. It may save humanity’s bacon

Illustration: Matt Kenyon

It sounds like a miracle, but no great technological leaps were required. In a commercial lab on the outskirts of Helsinki, I watched scientists turn water into food. Through a porthole in a metal tank, I could see a yellow froth churning. It’s a primordial soup of bacteria, taken from the soil and multiplied in the laboratory, using hydrogen extracted from water as its energy source. When the froth was siphoned through a tangle of pipes and squirted on to heated rollers, it turned into a rich yellow flour.

This flour is not yet licensed for sale. But the scientists, working for a company called Solar Foods, were allowed to give me some while filming our documentary Apocalypse Cow. I asked them to make me a pancake: I would be the first person on Earth, beyond the lab staff, to eat such a thing. They set up a frying pan in the lab, mixed the flour with oat milk, and I took my small step for man. It tasted … just like a pancake.

But pancakes are not the intended product. Such flours are likely soon to become the feedstock for almost everything. In their raw state, they can replace the fillers now used in thousands of food products. When the bacteria are modified they will create the specific proteins needed for lab-grown meat, milk and eggs. Other tweaks will produce lauric acid – goodbye palm oil – and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids – hello lab-grown fish. The carbohydrates that remain when proteins and fats have been extracted could replace everything from pasta flour to potato crisps. The first commercial factory built by Solar Foods should be running next year.

The hydrogen pathway used by Solar Foods is about 10 times as efficient as photosynthesis. But because only part of a plant can be eaten, while the bacterial flour is mangetout, you can multiply that efficiency several times. And because it will be brewed in giant vats the land efficiency, the company estimates, is roughly 20,000 times greater. Everyone on Earth could be handsomely fed, and using a tiny fraction of its surface. If, as the company intends, the water used in the process (which is much less than required by farming) is electrolysed with solar power, the best places to build these plants will be deserts.

We are on the cusp of the biggest economic transformation, of any kind, for 200 years. While arguments rage about plant- versus meat-based diets, new technologies will soon make them irrelevant. Before long, most of our food will come neither from animals nor plants, but from unicellular life. After 12,000 years of feeding humankind, all farming except fruit and veg production is likely to be replaced by ferming: brewing microbes through precision fermentation. This means multiplying particular micro-organisms, to produce particular products, in factories.I know some people will be horrified by this prospect. I can see some drawbacks. But I believe it comes in the nick of time.

Several impending disasters are converging on our food supply, any of which could be catastrophic. Climate breakdown threatens to cause what scientists call “multiple breadbasket failures”, through synchronous heatwaves and other impacts. The UN forecasts that by 2050 feeding the world will require a 20% expansion in agriculture’s global water use. But water use is already maxed out in many places: aquifers are vanishing, rivers are failing to reach the sea. The glaciers that supply half the population of Asia are rapidly retreating. Inevitable global heating – due to greenhouse gases already released – is likely to reduce dry season rainfall in critical areas, turning fertile plains into dustbowls.

global soil crisis threatens the very basis of our subsistence, as great tracts of arable land lose their fertility through erosion, compaction and contamination. Phosphate supplies, crucial for agriculture, are dwindling fast. Insectageddon threatens catastrophic pollination failures. It is hard to see how farming can feed us all even until 2050, let alone to the end of the century and beyond.

Food production is ripping the living world apart. Fishing and farming are, by a long way, the greatest cause of extinction and loss of the diversity and abundance of wildlife. Farming is a major cause of climate breakdown, the biggest cause of river pollution and a hefty source of air pollution. Across vast tracts of the world’s surface, it has replaced complex wild ecosystems with simplified human food chains. Industrial fishing is driving cascading ecological collapse in seas around the world. Eating is now a moral minefield, as almost everything we put in our mouths – from beef to avocados, cheese to chocolate, almonds to tortilla chips, salmon to peanut butter – has an insupportable environmental cost.

But just as hope appeared to be evaporating, the new technologies I call farmfree food create astonishing possibilities to save both people and planet. Farmfree food will allow us to hand back vast areas of land and sea to nature, permitting rewilding and carbon drawdown on a massive scale. It means an end to the exploitation of animals, an end to most deforestation, a massive reduction in the use of pesticides and fertiliser, the end of trawlers and longliners. It’s our best hope of stopping what some have called the “sixth great extinction”, but I prefer to call the great extermination. And, if it’s done right, it means cheap and abundant food for everyone.

Research by the thinktank RethinkX suggests that proteins from precision fermentation will be around 10 times cheaper than animal protein by 2035. The result, it says, will be the near-complete collapse of the livestock industry. The new food economy will “replace an extravagantly inefficient system that requires enormous quantities of inputs and produces huge amounts of waste with one that is precise, targeted, and tractable”. Using tiny areas of land, with a massively reduced requirement for water and nutrients, it “presents the greatest opportunity for environmental restoration in human history”.

Not only will food be cheaper, it will also be healthier. Because farmfree foods will be built up from simple ingredients, rather than broken down from complex ones, allergens, hard fats and other unhealthy components can be screened out. Meat will still be meat, though it will be grown in factories on collagen scaffolds, rather than in the bodies of animals. Starch will still be starch, fats will still be fats. But food is likely to be better, cheaper and much less damaging to the living planet.

It might seem odd for someone who has spent his life calling for political change to enthuse about a technological shift. But nowhere on Earth can I see sensible farm policies developing. Governments provide an astonishing £560bn a year in farm subsidies, and almost all of them are perverse and destructive, driving deforestation, pollution and the killing of wildlife. Research by the Food and Land Use Coalition found that only 1% of the money is used to protect the living world. It failed to find “any examples of governments using their fiscal instruments to directly support the expansion of supply of healthier and more nutritious food.”

Nor is the mainstream debate about farming taking us anywhere, except towards further catastrophe. There’s a widespread belief that the problem is intensive farming, and the answer is extensification (producing less food per hectare). It’s true that intensive farming is highly damaging, but extensive farming is even worse. Many people are rightly concerned about urban sprawl. But agricultural sprawl – which covers a much wider area – is a far greater threat to the natural world. Every hectare of land used by farming is a hectare not used for wildlife and complex living systems.

paper in Nature suggests that, per kilo of food produced, extensive farming causes greater greenhouse gas emissions, soil loss, water use and nitrogen and phosphate pollution than intensive farming. If everyone ate pasture-fed meat, we would need several new planets on which to produce it.

Farmfree production promises a far more stable and reliable food supply that can be grown anywhere, even in countries without farmland. It could be crucial to ending world hunger. But there is a hitch: a clash between consumer and producer interests. Many millions of people, working in farming and food processing, will eventually lose their jobs. Because the new processes are so efficient, the employment they create won’t match the employment they destroy.

RethinkX envisages an extremely rapid “death spiral” in the livestock industry. Only a few components, such as the milk proteins casein and whey, need to be produced through fermentation for profit margins across an entire sector to collapse. Dairy farming in the United States, it claims, will be “all but bankrupt by 2030”. It believes that the American beef industry’s revenues will fall by 90% by 2035.

While I doubt the collapse will be quite that fast, in one respect the thinktank underestimates the scale of the transformation. It fails to mention the extraordinary shift taking place in feedstock production to produce alternatives to plant products, of the kind pioneered in Helsinki. This is likely to hit arable farming as hard as cultured milk and meat production will hit livestock farming. Solar Foods thinks its products could reach cost parity with the world’s cheapest form of protein (soya from South America) within five years. Instead of pumping ever more subsidies into a dying industry, governments should be investing in helping farmers into other forms of employment, while providing relief funds for those who will suddenly lose their livelihoods.

Another hazard is the potential concentration of the farmfree food industry. We should strongly oppose the patenting of key technologies, to ensure the widest possible distribution of ownership. If governments regulate this properly, they could break the hegemony of the massive companies that now control global food commodities. If they don’t, they could reinforce it. In this sector, as in all others, we need strong anti-trust laws. We must also ensure that the new foods always have lower carbon footprints than the old ones: farmfree producers should power their operations entirely from low-carbon sources. This is a time of momentous choices, and we should make them together.

We can’t afford to wait passively for technology to save us. Over the next few years we could lose almost everything, as magnificent habitats such as the rainforests of Madagascar, West Papua and Brazil are felled to produce cattle, soya or palm oil. By temporarily shifting towards a plant-based diet with the lowest possible impacts (no avocados or out-of-season asparagus), we can help buy the necessary time to save magnificent species and places while these new technologies mature. But farmfree food offers hope where hope was missing. We will soon be able to feed the world without devouring it.

SOURCE

Global warming could be boon for prairie crops

Canada is one of the few regions of the world where crop yields will benefit from global warming, according to a recently published Agriculture Canada research paper.

The benefits will be particularly pronounced for prairie crops like canola and wheat versus Ontario corn.

Yields were simulated by three crop modelling systems using 20 global climate models under different warming scenarios. It is the first study of its kind for Canada.

The four warming scenarios were increases of 1.5 C, 2.0 C, 2.5 C and 3.0 C over the baseline climate of 2006-2015.

“The findings indicate that climate at the global warming levels up to 3 C above the (baseline) could be beneficial for crop production of small grains in Canada,” stated the study published in the July 1, 2019, edition of Environmental Research Letters.

That is counter to what is expected to happen throughout much of the rest of the world, especially tropical climates.

Climate change has already caused an estimated 40 million-tonne reduction in world corn, wheat and barley production between 1981 and 2008. That represents a two-to-three percent hit to global production of those three crops.

Global warming is projected to be far more intense in Canada than the rest of the world. Canada’s mean air surface temperature has warmed by 1.8 C between 1950 and 2016, which is about double the global mean temperature increase.

Canada’s warming rate is projected to continue at a faster pace than the global rate due to polar amplification. That is important since heat stress can reduce crop yields.

However, there is another factor at work that is expected to more than offset the yield losses associated with heat stress in the years to come.

“Due to elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, C3 crops like canola and wheat can have more effective carbon dioxide responses to carbon assimilation than C4 crops such as corn,” study lead author Budong Qian said in an email.

Research has shown the doubling of carbon dioxide concentration increases yields in C3 crops by about 30 percent, while there was effectively no response in C4 crops.

Agriculture Canada’s findings are consistent with previous studies that have shown the largest yield gains will occur in water-stressed regions such as the Canadian Prairies due to improved water-use efficiency with elevated carbon dioxide levels.

Global warming is also expected to boost growing season precipitation levels by about five percent on the Prairies at warming levels of 2 C and 2.5 C, while a slight decrease in precipitation is forecast for Eastern Canada.

“Since the Prairie region is relatively cooler than Eastern Canada and water stress is the major factor limiting the canola and wheat yields, a bigger yield percent change was projected (for the Prairies),” said Qian.

The Agriculture Canada study shows an increase in canola and wheat yields for all four global warming scenarios under all three models.

The highest canola yield increase is 13.4 percent under the 3 C warming level. The biggest wheat yield bump is 22.8 percent under the same warming scenario.

Corn yields vary widely from yield reductions under every warming level for one model to a 19 percent increase under the 3 C scenario for another model.

The projections are based on current crop cultivars. The introduction of extended growing season corn varieties could vastly improve the outlook for corn yields.

Qian said weed and pest pressure might increase with global warming but that wasn’t factored into the crop models. It also didn’t take into account yield damage caused by increased drought, hail and flood events. SOURCE

An Opportunity for Farmers In a Green New Deal

A Green New Deal could incentivize farming practices that help remove carbon pollution from the atmosphere.

A farm. Source: Pexels

This month, a group of Democratic lawmakers called for an ambitious plan for the United States to reach net-zero carbon pollution. While experts debate whether the proposal is technologically or politically feasible, the so-called Green New Deal is about more than shifting to cleaner, more advanced forms of energy sources. It’s also about shifting to more traditional forms of agriculture.

While farming generally takes a back seat to energy in discussions of climate, it accounts for up to a third of carbon pollution, by one account. Tractors and trucks that harvest and transport our food burn gasoline and diesel, generating pollution. Synthetic fertilizers derived from fossil fuels spur the release of heat-trapping gas from the soil, and cows and sheep emit large volumes of planet-warming pollution. Then there is the matter of agricultural giants burning forests to clear land for farming and grazing, thereby releasing carbon stored in trees into the atmosphere and reducing the capacity of the land to store CO2.

And yet, while agriculture is a big part of the problem, it can also be part of the solution. Smart growing practices can help soak up pollution and store it in the ground — what’s known as carbon farming.

Plants scrub carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in their leaves and branches. When those plants shed their leaves and die, that carbon enriches the soil, where it’s gobbled up by insects, fungi and microbes, and then exhaled back into the atmosphere. If more carbon goes into the soil than comes out, the process helps to eliminate atmospheric carbon dioxide, cooling the planet. Carbon farming also helps guard against climate change, as soil that is rich with microbes and fungi holds more water, which protects it from drought and mitigates the impact of floods.

The carbon cycle. Source: The Better Tomorrow Fund 

There are steps farmers can take to make sure the soil retains as much carbon as possible, namely disturb the soil as little as possible. Till the earth only where necessary. Keep the soil covered in a diverse array of deep-rooted crops. Rotate between cash crops, like wheat, and cover crops, like ryegrass, which nurture the soil and can be fed to livestock. Avoid the use of pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers. Protect areas that are rich in plant-life — and therefore carbon — such as forests, wetlands and peat bogs.

“What we’re learning is that the soil is a living organism. It’s full of life,” said Betsy Taylor, the president of Breakthrough Strategies, a consulting firm focused on carbon farming. Farmers can keep soil healthy by nurturing the growth of fungi and microbes. Healthy soil will store more carbon, which is good for the climate and good for crops. Unfortunately, the widespread use of chemical fertilizers is killing the soil.

Cotton planted among pecan trees in Milton, Florida. 2003. One way to improve soil health is to lay down crops among deep-rooted trees. Source: USDA 

“It’s possible to grow crops and plants of all kinds in soil that is biologically dead, in soil that — through the use of chemical fertilizers, through the use of herbicides and pesticides and fungicides, and through compaction and erosion and other loss of living topsoil — has become just a mineral medium,” said Connor Stedman, an agricultural consultant at AppleSeed Permaculture. “That’s what a lot of industrial agriculture practices are based on. They treat farms and crop growing almost like a factory.”

Taylor compared the use of reliance on chemical fertilizers to a bad diet. “I can eat my doughnuts and chocolate and beer and take a vitamin and pretend like I’m going to be okay, but under the surface, things are really getting damaged,” she said. “If we eat a healthy diet and try to eat an organic diet — that’s the latest science — then we’re more likely to be healthy. And it’s the same with the soil.”

Source: Nexus Media 

Adopting sustainable farming practices will improve soil health. However, Stedman said, “There are costs and risks to transitioning to new practices. So that’s where the private sector, the NGO sector and the public sector all have a really big role to play in helping farmers to diversify and intensify and perenniallize their production.”

Taylor said philanthropists can help by bankrolling programs that educate growers about carbon farming. Policymakers can help by funding conservation efforts and by ending subsidies that incentivize monoculture, meaning the planting of one of just a few crops, like corn and soybeans, robbing the soil of essential nutrients.

“There is a real desire among, I think, all farmers to have healthy soils but they have been in a system that has actually subsidized them to do the opposite,” she said. “You have got to shift the way you farm to build healthy soil, and I would say, right now, that’s becoming a growing consensus across the political spectrum, which is exciting,” she said.

A field of corn. Monoculture deprives the soil of essential nutrients. Source: Pexels 

The resolution on a Green New Deal calls for the federal government to work with farmers to cut pollution and invest in sustainable farming, which could “really bring jobs into communities that are losing people to opioids and to collapsing farms,” Taylor said. She suggested that, as part of a Green New Deal, the federal government might also resurrect the Civilian Conservation Corps, which was created as part of the original New Deal. During the Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps planted trees and worked to slow soil erosion. A modern-day incarnation could do the same, in addition to promoting carbon farming.

“I think we would be making a huge mistake if we thought of the Green New Deal strictly in terms of the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy,” Taylor said. “That’s essential, but it’s no longer enough.” A recent UN report on climate change finds that to prevent catastrophic warming, countries will need to remove huge sums of carbon pollution from the atmosphere, and currently, planting forests and farming carbon are the cheapest ways to do that.

This graph shows carbon pollution cuts necessary keep warming under 1.5 degrees C, the most ambitious target of the Paris Climate Agreement. Countries must cut emissions in half by 2030 and reach zero net emissions by 2050, at which point much of the remaining carbon dioxide must be removed from the atmosphere through techniques like carbon farming. Source: IPCC

“The only way to get [carbon dioxide] out of the atmosphere in great quantities and into the soil is by changing our farming and ranching practices. And a large part of that is we have to grow more things,” said Gabe Brown, 58, who deploys carbon farming techniques at his farm in Bismark, North Dakota. “We have to get away from monoculture production.”

Brown believes the government should curtail incentives for industrial farming and educate growers about carbon farming. “The more carbon a farmer or rancher can take out of the atmosphere and put in his or her soil, the greater the potential for profitability of their operation,” he said. “I am way more profitable than the average conventional producer… And I’m doing it without any government subsidies of any kind.”

John Norman, a retired University of Wisconsin soil scientist, studied Brown’s farm, which he said is storing around 80 tons of carbon per acre. He noted that a typical farm stores around 10 to 20 tons of carbon per acre. “We scientists must humbly go to the farming community and seek their guidance for what we can do to help them grow deep, healthy topsoil,” he said. “We need to stop catering to the big-agriculture-big-government money machine and put our hearts into healing our environment, like many — if not most — farmers truly want to do, but can’t because they are indentured to a brutal economic system.”

For Brown, the embrace of sustainable farming represents a return to more traditional practices. “I don’t care what you call it. It’s just farming and ranching in nature’s image. We have to get back to the basics,” Brown said. “We just follow the template nature provided, because it was a wonderful template. It’s only when man tries to impose his or her will on nature that we run into these issues.”  SOURCE