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Nature Can Reduce Pesticide Use, Environment Impact

Author: Michigan State University | Published: March 1, 2018

Farmers around the world are turning to nature to help them reduce pesticide use, environmental impact and, subsequently, and in some cases, increasing yields.

Specifically, they’re attracting birds and other vertebrates, which keep pests and other invasive species away from their crops. The study, led by Michigan State University and appearing in the current issue of the journal Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, showcases some of the best global examples.

“Our review of research shows that vertebrates consume numerous crop pests and reduce crop damage, which is a key ecosystem service,” said Catherine Lindell, MSU integrative biologist who led the study. “These pest-consuming vertebrates can be attracted to agricultural areas through several landscape enhancements.”

For example, Lindell and graduate student Megan Shave led earlier research to bring more American kestrels to Michigan orchards. Installing nest boxes attracted the small falcons, the most-common predatory bird in the U.S., to cherry orchards and blueberry fields. The feathered hunters consume many species that cause damage to crops, including grasshoppers, rodents and European starlings. In cherry orchards, kestrels significantly reduced the abundance of birds that eat fruit. (Results from blueberry fields are pending.)

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In Ethiopia’s Wheat Diversity, the Seeds of a Wheat Rust Solution

With pathogens like Ug99 evolving and adapting quickly, a diverse agricultural gene pool is often the best insurance for the future.

Authors: Kerstin Hoppenhaus & Sibylle Grunze | Published: January 22, 2018

Ethiopia is one of the oldest cultivating regions not only for wheat, but also for other crops like coffee, millet, and barley. Over thousands of years, the environment and farmers have interacted by selecting and breeding in order to adjust old crop varieties to regional conditions. The result is a unique variety of crop variations, and today, Ethiopia is recognized worldwide as a center for genetic diversity.

The Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov identified these centers as early as 1926. He noticed that in Peru, for example, there were thousands of potato varieties, while South and Central America had many different tomatoes and Central Asia saw a wide variety of carrots.

In Ethiopia, the diversity is in wheat — durum wheat in particular.

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Baby Steps – Profile in Soil Health

Moving Beyond Sustainability into a Regenerative System

Ezra Lakey started Lakey Farms in 1945 with a focus on small grain production.  Half the acres were in small grains and the other half were summer fallow, with the occasional plow down nitrogen pea crop.  The farm progressed and grew through the years as did the family.  Ezra’s five children all helped on the farm, but Dwight and his younger brother Jerry were the two who were most involved.  Dwight’s eldest son, David, returned after college to the farm to help the operation grow to nearly 9,000 acres at one point.  With the passing of Ezra in 2009 and the retirement of Jerry, additional help was needed.  At that time, Dwight’s youngest son, Dan, was 2 years out of college where he had obtained a bachelor’s degree in Business Management and was living in Twin Falls working in outside sales.  With the pending birth of his first child, the desire to raise his children on the farm was growing.  When presented with the opportunity to return to the farm, Dan and his wife, Marie, made the decision to return to the small East Idaho town.

A Legacy of Conservation

Soil conservation is nothing new to the Lakey’s.  In the early 1980s, they transitioned away from moldboard plowing into chisel plowing to reduce erosion.  They also incorporated water and sediment basins and contour farming for the same reason.  Then in the late 1990s ,they moved away from fallowing so many dryland acres and moved to annual cropping. Dwight served on the Caribou Soil Conservation District from 1989 to 1998.  Through the years, they have tried to implement the best conservation techniques of the time.

When Dan came back to the farm in 2009, changes were in the works.  The Lakey’s were seeing the negative effects of using Anhydrous Ammonia (NH3) fertilizer and starting to transition away from it.  Dwight was looking at incorporating mustard into their limited crop rotation.  Then a JD-1895 no-till drill was purchased. Dan was tasked with figuring out how to operate it and run it.  By 2013, mustard was in the rotation and giving the ground a much needed break from cereal grains, but they still were seeing some concerns on other cropland.   “At that time, I thought that what we needed was a different tillage tool or something to dump out of a jug that we could use to cure the problem,” Dan recalls.

Changing Views

The farm was looking at additional tillage implements such as disk rippers and high speed vertical tillage tools to deal with compaction and residue.  At one point, he thought possibly more fallowing and returning to the plow might be the answer.  Then, Dan began attending soil classes in 2014.

“I started to realize that what I was seeing and treating on the cropland were merely symptoms, and they weren’t addressing the real problem,” he said.

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Why Healthy Humans and Ecosystems Need Healthy Soil

Author: Eva Perroni | Published: January 2018

Emanuela Pille da Silva and Anabel González Hernández are working at the nexus of land rehabilitation, soil health, and sustainable agriculture. Their project Agricultural Production in Recovered Areas After Coal Mining in Brazil was a finalist in the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition (BCFN) Yes! Competition. The project assesses whether land that has been degraded by coal mining in southern Brazil is suitable for the production of safe and nutritious food. Their ongoing research at the Federal University of Santa Catarina, Brazil, uses plant microorganisms and soil microbes to monitor and aid the recovery of degraded lands.

Food Tank had the opportunity to talk with Pille da Silva and González Hernández about their project, the impact of coal mining on sustainable food production, and the links between soil and public health.

Food Tank (FT): What inspired you to become involved in food and agriculture research, and in particular to focus on soil microbiology?

Emanuela Pille da Silva & Anabel Gonzalez Hernandes (EPS & AGH): Our research team is multidisciplinary. We have experts in different areas from three universities in Latin America: a microbiologist from the University of Havana, Cuba, a biologist from the University of Antioquia, Colombia, and an agronomist from the Federal University of Santa Catarina, Brazil. We have all finished or are completing studies in the Plant Genetic Resources Graduate Program at the Federal University of Santa Catarina, which has been dedicated for almost 20 years to identifying conservation strategies and the sustainable use of plant genetic resources. Within the program, we chose to work on projects related to the recovery of degraded areas after mining, since the Brazilian mining industry is a significant contributor to the economy of Brazil. In the past, coal mining has been inadequately developed in southern Brazil, without observing the biotic and abiotic aspects necessary and indispensable to maintaining the quality of the environment around the mined areas. We believe that the land that has been degraded as a consequence of these mining activities can and should be reclaimed and regenerated for food production, especially for local communities. However, food quality and safety need to be monitored and ensured in this context.

FT: Congratulations on your project Agricultural Production in Recovered Areas After Coal Mining in Brazil making the BCFN YES! Competition finals in 2016. Can you tell us about the project?

EPS & AGH: Thank you. Our project is based on the idea that there may be a global scarcity of suitable farmland in the future. We believe that this scenario is even more likely in southern Brazil, where coal mining has put great pressure on land use and lead to environmental impacts, such as the contamination of soil and water with heavy metals. These elements are known to be bioaccumulative and pose a danger to human health. For these reasons, the Brazilian government and the coal industry were forced to conduct environmental recovery projects, implementing measures such as revegetation of affected areas and land reclamation for future use. Food production has been identified as a potential future use for these areas. However, there is uncertainty about the risk of transfer of toxic and heavy metals to humans, animals, and agricultural crops in these locations. The objective of the project was to assess the quality of food produced in these so-called recovered areas and their potential risks to human health. We hope that the monitoring of food contamination with heavy metals will be adopted as a public health policy in the region.

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Turning Appalachia’s Mountaintop Coal Mines Into Farms

In the post-coal economy, community organizations are creating jobs and restoring the ravaged land.

Author: Catherine V. Moore | Published: January 12, 2018

On a surface-mine-turned-farm in Mingo County, West Virginia, former coal miner Wilburn Jude plunks down three objects on the bed of his work truck: a piece of coal, a sponge, and a peach. He’s been tasked with bringing in items that represent his life’s past, present, and future. “This is my heritage right here,” he says, picking up the coal. Since the time of his Irish immigrant great-grandfathers, all the males in his family have been miners.

“Right now I’m a sponge,” he says, pointing to the next object, “learning up here on this job, in school, everywhere, and doing the best I can to change everything around me.”

Then he holds up the peach. “And then my future. I’m going to be a piece of fruit. I’m going to be able to put out good things to help other people.”

Jude works for Refresh Appalachia, a social enterprise that partners with Reclaim Appalachia to convert post-mine lands into productive and profitable agriculture and forestry enterprises that could be scaled up to put significant numbers of people in layoff-riddled Appalachia back to work. When Refresh Appalachia launched in 2015, West Virginia had the lowest workforce participation rate in the nation.

When he’s not doing paid farm work on this reclaimed mine site, Jude is attending community college and receiving life skills training from Refresh. “I’m living the dream. The ground’s a little bit harder than what I anticipated,” he says of the rocky soil beneath his feet, “but we’ll figure it out.”

On this wide, flat expanse of former mountaintop, the August sun is scorching even through the clouds. In the distance, heavy equipment grinds away on a still-active surface mine site—the type of site where some of the Refresh crew members used to work, blowing up what they’re now trying to put back together.

Crew leaders drive out to an undulating ridge where we can see a 5-acre spread of autumn olive—a tough invasive shrub once heavily seeded on former mine sites as part of coal companies’ reclamation plans. It’s summer 2016, and the crew for this particular Reclaim Appalachia site is awaiting the arrival next week of a forestry mulcher that will remove and chew up the shrubs into wood chips. By the next spring, the clearing will have been replanted by this Refresh crew with over 2,000 berry, pawpaw, and hazelnut seedlings. During my visit, everyone’s clearly excited for the mulcher to arrive.

“It’s almost like a continuous miner head,” explains Nathan Hall, “but instead of mining coal, it’s mulching autumn olives.” Hall is from Eastern Kentucky and worked for a short time as a miner before attending the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies; now he heads up Reclaim Appalachia, which focuses on repurposing mine land.

A few small agriculture projects are on other former surface mines in the area, but Refresh and Reclaim are the only outfits attempting anything of this scale while also operating a job-training project. One crew member, former miner Chris Farley, says he’s stoked to be a part of “the first bunch” to attempt to farm these rugged lands.

“It’s a long-term science project,” says Ben Gilmer, Refresh’s president.

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How California Farmers can Conserve Water and Combat Climate Change

Author: Rich Collins | Published: December 9, 2017

In January and February, no less than 125 million gallons of rain fell upon my 200-acre farm, located off Highway 80 between Dixon and Davis.

Our soil, blanketed with an annual winter cover crop of mixed grass and legumes, absorbed all of those 24 inches of rain. Not one single gallon left our property.

Where did all that water go? Some was used by the cover crop and a small amount evaporated. But most sank down to be stored in the soil and to recharge groundwater.

On conventionally managed fields nearby, copious and disheartening amounts of rainwater ran off, causing some localized flooding. But most it made its way out the Delta, then the bay and beyond. It was an opportunity lost.

Similarly, I fear Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature will be missing an opportunity in the coming budget.

California is a global leader on climate change. Brown and legislative leaders miss no opportunity to remind the world of our model. The state has an ambitious greenhouse gas reduction target and many climate change programs to achieve those goals.

Among them are agriculture programs supported by farmers and ranchers that help store carbon in soil, trees and shrubs; fund conservation easements that spare farmland threatened by development; and help dairies reduce methane emissions. More than $200 million has been invested in these programs.

However, our leaders could be missing a great opportunity to support sustainable agricultural solutions to climate change unless they provide at least a modest sum for critically important sustainable agriculture programs.

The State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program has provided financial assistance to growers for improvements that save water and energy while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Launched in 2014 during the drought, and oversubscribed by more than 200 percent, this popular program has provided $67.5 million for almost 600 projects across the state. Over the 10-year life of the project, 700,000 acre-feet of water will be conserved, and there will be a reduction of 225,000 tons of greenhouse gas. It will be one of the state’s most cost-effective climate programs.

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Solar Greenhouses Generate Electricity and Grow Healthy Crops

Magenta panes also help plants save water

Published: November 3, 2017

The first crops of tomatoes and cucumbers grown inside electricity-generating solar greenhouses were as healthy as those raised in conventional greenhouses, signaling that “smart” greenhouses hold great promise for dual-use farming and renewable electricity production.

“We have demonstrated that ‘smart greenhouses’ can capture solar energy for electricity without reducing plant growth, which is pretty exciting,” said Michael Loik, professor of environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and lead author on a paper that appears in the current issue of the American Geophysical Union’s journal Earth’s Future.

Electricity-generating solar greenhouses utilize Wavelength-Selective Photovoltaic Systems (WSPVs), a novel technology that generates electricity more efficiently and at less cost than traditional photovoltaic systems. These greenhouses are outfitted with transparent roof panels embedded with a bright magenta luminescent dye that absorbs light and transfers energy to narrow photovoltaic strips, where electricity is produced. WSPVs absorb some of the blue and green wavelengths of light but let the rest through, allowing the plants to grow. WSPV technology was developed by coauthors Sue Carter and Glenn Alers, both professors of physics at UC Santa Cruz, who founded Soliculture in 2012 to bring the technology to market.

Loik’s team monitored photosynthesis and fruit production across 20 varieties of tomatoes, cucumbers, lemons, limes, peppers, strawberries, and basil grown in magenta glasshouses at two locations on campus and one in Watsonville, California.

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Grocery Store Program Improves Farmers’ Adoption of Environmental Practices

Published: January 9, 2018

When grocery stores tout sustainable products, consumers may take their claims at face value. Yet few studies have analyzed whether or not companies who claim to improve the sustainability of their products are actually changing practices in their supply chains.

In a new study published online Dec. 22 in the journal Global Environmental Change, Stanford researchers carried out one of the first analyses of a company-led sustainability program in the food and agriculture space. Studying the agricultural supply chain of Woolworths Holding Ltd. (Woolworths), one of the five largest supermarket chains in South Africa, they found that its Farming for the Future program drove increased adoption of environmental practices at the farm level. Agriculture is one of the largest global environmental polluters, driving deforestation and contributing an estimated 30 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions.

“If indeed these company-led policies are effective and able to transform their entire supply chains, then they can potentially transform land-use practices worldwide and have a very positive impact on the environment,” said study co-author Eric Lambin, the George and Setsuko Ishiyama Provostial Professor in the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth). “Having this kind of evaluation done by independent researchers increases the confidence of the public in these private programs.”

Driving change or greenwashing?

The biggest challenge in evaluating the effects of food store sustainability programs has been gaining access to stores’ private data. For this reason, researchers have focused on certifications led by nongovernmental organizations and multi-stakeholder standards that offer open access to their data, such as FairTrade and the Rainforest Alliance.

“The real question here is, ‘Will companies’ sustainability efforts slow if they don’t have an NGO checking in on them? Will they be actually driving change or is it just greenwashing?'” said lead author Tannis Thorlakson, a doctoral student in Stanford Earth’s Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources (E-IPER).

Several U.S.-based food retailers with company-led sustainability programs refused to grant Thorlakson access to their data. Eventually, the high-end South African grocery and clothing chain Woolworths gave access.

“It’s really hard to evaluate a company’s sustainability program because you need to know exactly who their suppliers are and how the program works,” Thorlakson said. “Woolworths provided a unique opportunity because they agreed to total academic freedom to evaluate their program and publish results.”

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Grocery Store Program Improves Farmers' Adoption of Environmental Practices

Published: January 9, 2018

When grocery stores tout sustainable products, consumers may take their claims at face value. Yet few studies have analyzed whether or not companies who claim to improve the sustainability of their products are actually changing practices in their supply chains.

In a new study published online Dec. 22 in the journal Global Environmental Change, Stanford researchers carried out one of the first analyses of a company-led sustainability program in the food and agriculture space. Studying the agricultural supply chain of Woolworths Holding Ltd. (Woolworths), one of the five largest supermarket chains in South Africa, they found that its Farming for the Future program drove increased adoption of environmental practices at the farm level. Agriculture is one of the largest global environmental polluters, driving deforestation and contributing an estimated 30 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions.

“If indeed these company-led policies are effective and able to transform their entire supply chains, then they can potentially transform land-use practices worldwide and have a very positive impact on the environment,” said study co-author Eric Lambin, the George and Setsuko Ishiyama Provostial Professor in the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth). “Having this kind of evaluation done by independent researchers increases the confidence of the public in these private programs.”

Driving change or greenwashing?

The biggest challenge in evaluating the effects of food store sustainability programs has been gaining access to stores’ private data. For this reason, researchers have focused on certifications led by nongovernmental organizations and multi-stakeholder standards that offer open access to their data, such as FairTrade and the Rainforest Alliance.

“The real question here is, ‘Will companies’ sustainability efforts slow if they don’t have an NGO checking in on them? Will they be actually driving change or is it just greenwashing?'” said lead author Tannis Thorlakson, a doctoral student in Stanford Earth’s Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources (E-IPER).

Several U.S.-based food retailers with company-led sustainability programs refused to grant Thorlakson access to their data. Eventually, the high-end South African grocery and clothing chain Woolworths gave access.

“It’s really hard to evaluate a company’s sustainability program because you need to know exactly who their suppliers are and how the program works,” Thorlakson said. “Woolworths provided a unique opportunity because they agreed to total academic freedom to evaluate their program and publish results.”

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The Year in Food Policy

As with every other aspect of U.S. politics and policy, 2017 brought upheaval and uncertainty to the nation’s food system.

Author: Twilight Greenaway | Published: December 28, 2017

It was a tumultuous year for food policy in the United States.

The year started off with several efforts by the Obama Administration to safeguard efforts at wide-scale food system change—such as the long-awaited formalization of new animal welfare rules in organics and the so-called “GIPSA rule,” which promised to level the playing field for small-scale meat producers in a consolidated marketplace. But once Donald Trump took office, things began to shift rapidly.

Here’s a rundown of several of the most important food policy changes that took place in 2017 (links to Civil Eats stories are in bold):

Changing Face of the USDA

Just one day before his inauguration, Trump named former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue as the nation’s new secretary of agriculture.

At the time, food systems experts from around the nation expressed concern about Perdue’s involvement with the growth of large poultry facilities in Georgia and his overly religious approach to government, pointing to the fact that he once prayed for rain in response to drought in the state. Many also worried that Perdue and Trump’s shared anti-regulatory stance would be bad for farmers and consumers.

Then, in March, Trump proposed $21 million in cuts to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) budget—and some farmers protested cuts to local conservation offices.

A week after being sworn in, Perdue announced—during a visit to an elementary school in Leesburg, Virginia—that the agency would “make school meals great again” by getting rid of Obama-era school lunch standards requiring that schools serve more whole grains and less sodium, among other changes.

It soon became clear that the USDA itself was changing radically. In September, Politico reviewed the resumes of dozens of  Trump agricultural appointees, and found that the president had placed former campaign workers—many of whom had no experience with agriculture, and had worked as truckers, cabana attendants, and landscapers—in the agency.

That month, Trump also nominated Sam Clovis, a birther, conservative talk-show host, and climate-change denier with no science background, to the role of chief scientist at the USDA. (Clovis withdrew his nomination in November after being linked to the current Russia investigation.)

In October, Civil Eats published a wide-ranging look at the changes Perdue had made to the USDA, including a dramatic reorganization.

In November, Vanity Fair published a detailed account of story of a group of veteran USDA scientists who had either left or been forced out of the agency over the course of the transition.

Farm Bill and Other Farm Legislation

For all the reasons above and more, concern is mounting about the 2018 Farm Bill, which has been taking shape since Congress began discussions last February.

In May, as the agriculture committees in the House and Senate began another round of farm bill negotiations, grassroots leaders gathered to discuss the people, places, and issues that have too often been shut out of funding. Some food-reform advocates have also been pushing to incentivize farms to improve their soil in the face of climate change by linking it to crop insurance, which made up a significant portion of the last farm bill.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), otherwise known as food stamps, and other nutrition programs account for a significant portion of the farm bill (around 80 percent of the initial projected spending in 2014). It’s also always one of the most hotly debated pieces of the legislation. This year, the House agriculture committee considered cutting soda and candy from the SNAP program, but the sugar industry invested heavily to stop it from happening.

Despite the popularity of farmers’ markets, it’s also looking unlikely that the national Farmer Markets Promotion Program (FMPP) will be prioritized in the coming bill.

In August, Oregon Representative Earl Blumenauer announced his alternative farm bill—a set of proposed legislation that he has been working with farmers, food advocates, and public health professionals to shape. The suggestions are geared toward strengthening efforts to produce healthy food, rather than animal feed and fuel.

Want to know more about how the farm bill shapes the food we eat? Civil Eats recently published an explainer from farm economist John Ikerd on Twinkies, carrots, and farm policy reality. And here’s an interview with Chellie Pingree about her plan to build a “farm bill for all.”

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