For years Dan O’Brien raised cattle on his ranch in the Black Hills of South Dakota. After enduring beef’s punishing boom and bust cycle and experiencing first-hand the environmental toll that cattle took on his land, O’Brien made a dramatic change. He started raising North American Bison*, the great icon of the Great Prairie, instead. Read more
Minnesota Congressman Colin Peterson (D-Minn.) struck a nerve this month when he said that “there is five times as much fraud” in the federal crop insurance program as there is the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program.
“There is less fraud in food stamps than in any government program,” Peterson told the National Journal on April 10. “There is five times as much fraud in crop insurance than in food stamps.” Read more
There is no better time than the Thanksgiving Holiday to explore the connection between our food and the land it comes from. Ken Burns, America’s premiere documentarian, has tackled topics from jazz to the Civil War. His new film chronicles the Dust Bowl, the massive ecological disaster that plagued a large swath of U. S. farmland during the 1930’s.
The same forces that wreaked havoc on soil and farmer’s livelihoods in the Dust Bowl era are in play today. Read more
One of the big challenges facing the globe in the next century will be access to clean water.
In America, federal agriculture policies are putting drinking water used by millions of people at risk. Perverse incentives such as farm subsidies and ethanol mandates have ushered in an era of fencerow-to-fencerow planting of chemical-intensive commodity crops, even as funding to protect water sources has been repeatedly slashed.
The result is that water running off poorly managed fields that have been treated with chemical fertilizers and manure is loaded with nitrogen and phosphorus, two potent pollutants that set off a cascade of harmful consequences.
Troubled Waters, a new Environmental Working Group report released on April 12, examines the water pollution caused by farm runoff in the upper Midwest and demonstrates that treating the problem after the fact is increasingly expensive, difficult and, if current trends continue, ultimately unsustainable. Because most farm operations are exempt from the requirements of the federal Clean Water Act and states have little authority to compel farmers to control water contamination, the burden of cleaning up agricultural pollution in drinking water falls mostly on municipal treatment systems – and the taxpayers who pay for them. Read more
As a possible 2012 farm bill looms, the agriculture committee leaders and their industrial agriculture lobby remoras are sorting through the smoking ruins of the 2011 secret farm bill process. They hope to come up with a unified position from which to begin deliberations on a new farm bill. Sadly, one thing they’ve all agreed to cut is 7 million acres from the Conservation Reserve Program. The CRP is administered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and pays farmers to keep highly erodible land out of production.
While many recognize that putting land into conservation programs leads to cleaner water, healthier soil and robust wildlife habitat, few realize that CRP land also plays a major role in fighting climate change. According to the USDA, one acre of protected land sequesters 1.66 metric tons of carbon every year, carbon that would otherwise end up in the atmosphere. The 7 million acres about to be cut from the Conservation Reserve Program have been putting 11.6 million metric tons of carbon into the soil every year. Read more
The popularity of Oscar-nominated Food, Inc. and writers Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman make it clear that consumer interest in food and farming issues is now deeply embedded in the cultural mainstream.
And that’s not just my personal impression. Two brand new polls show a surprising degree of agreement on consumers’ concerns about the quality of food and how it’s produced, considering that one was commissioned by an environmentally-oriented foundation and the other by an organization that’s out to advance the interests of large scale agribusiness. I’ll come back to those results in a minute.
Shoppers’ buying habits reflect their growing interest in food quality and where it comes from. Healthy food-oriented chains such as Whole Foods are thriving, farmers’ markets are more prevalent than ever, and organically grown food is the fastest growing segment of the agriculture sector. Before long, it’s inevitable that consumers’ growing interest in food issues will start to affect their behavior in the voting booth as well. Read more
Bad federal policy and intensifying storms are washing away the rich dark soils in the Midwest that made this country an agricultural powerhouse and that remain the essential foundation of a healthy and sustainable food system in the future.
That’s the alarming finding of a new Environmental Working Group report that highlights innovative research by scientists at Iowa State University. The report is titled Losing Ground, and it shows in stark terms what industrial-scale crop production is doing to our soil and water in the Corn Belt. Read more