EPA faces lawsuits for animal confinement air pollution

A pig at St Werburghs City Farm in the United Kingdom. (Ed Mitchell/Flickr)
A pig at St Werburghs City Farm in the United Kingdom. (Ed Mitchell/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | January 29, 2015

Two lawsuits were brought against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday alleging that the group isn’t doing enough to prevent air pollution caused by large animal confinement facilities.

The lawsuits filed in U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. were brought about by a coalition of eight groups including the  Environmental Integrity Project, the Humane Society of the United States, Center for Food Safety, Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, Clean Wisconsin, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, and the Association of Irritated Residents (represented by the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment). The coalition says that the lack of regulation by the EPA has allowed factory farms to pollute the air and threaten public health.

Specifically the lawsuits pertain to petitions filed in 2009 and 2011. The 2009 petition was filed by the Humane Society of the United States and called for concentrated animal feeding lots – or CAFOs – to be categorized as a source of pollution under the Clean Air Act and for new standards to be enforced on new and existing CAFOs. The Environmental Integrity Project filed the 2011 petition and sought health-based standards for ammonia emissions. The lawsuit asks for the EPA to respond to these petitions within 90 days.

A spokesman for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association said that beef producers have made efforts to reduce pollution without government intervention and between 2005 and 2011 were able cut emissions in water by 10 percent and greenhouse gas production by 2 percent. However, Iowa Pork Producers and an Iowa State University professor say that the link connecting CAFOs to health hazards is inconclusive.

When it comes to climate change information, farmers trust scientists most

A combine sits in an Iowa field (Carl Wycoff / Flickr)
A combine sits in an Iowa field (Carl Wycoff / Flickr)
KC McGinnis | January 28, 2015

The best way to reach farmers and agricultural workers who are skeptical of human activity’s effect on climate change may be direct connections to climate scientists, according to one Iowa State University sociologist.

A 2012 survey conducted by ISU’s J. Gordon Arbuckle Jr. found that 66% of Midwest farmers believe climate change is occurring, yet the respondents were mixed on whether or not human activity played a role. More than half said climate change either occurs naturally or is equally affected by human and natural factors. Only about 10 percent agreed that “climate change is occurring and it is caused mostly by human activities.”

Some of that skepticism may come from a general distrust of the mainstream media; the MSM was listed as the least trusted source of environment-related information. Given farmers’ dependence on scientific advances in crop development, it’s not surprising that the most trusted source of environmental information was scientists themselves.

This has important implications for anyone discussing climate change with agricultural professionals. In an interview with ClimateWire, Arbuckle recommended using language of adaptation to unpredictable weather events over explicit mentions of greenhouse gas emissions. More than half of the respondents believe it’s necessary to be prepared for more frequent high precipitation events like heavy rainstorms, even though many remain uncertain that increased atmospheric moisture due to higher emissions is to blame.

That’s why the U.S. Department of Agriculture is taking steps to bring current research on changing weather trends and adaptive practices to farmers around the country. The USDA’s eight “climate hubs” focus on communicating strategies for reducing risk and reducing the costs related to variable weather by connecting researchers to farmers on the ground. One of these climate hubs is in Ames, Iowa.

2015 Cover Crop Conference coming to West Des Monies

This farmer in South Dakota utilizes a cover crop combination of crimson clover, oats, common vetch, radish, and New York style turnip. (USDA NRCS South Dakota/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | January 27, 2015

The 2015 Iowa Cover Crops Conference will be held in West Des Moines on February 17 and 18.

The annual event is hosted by the Soil and Water Conservation Society, Conservation Districts of Iowa , and the Midwest Cover Crops Council. This year’s event will include a presentation from Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey as well as farmers and other agribusiness professionals.

Cover crop usage in Iowa has gained momentum in recent years with just 10,000 acres planted in 2009 and more than 300,000 acres by 2013. Cover crops are one of the techniques outlined in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy as a way of minimizing fertilizer runoff which pollutes waterways. Approximately 70 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorus in the Gulf of Mexico dead zone came from the Mississippi River.

A report by the international consulting firm Datu Research last year found that 23 percent of Iowa farmers reported utilizing cover crops. The report found that Iowa farmers are also practicing no-till and minimum tillage techniques as well as crop rotation, all of which can reduce runoff and improve soil health.

An ongoing study by researchers at the University of Illinois suggests that the use of cover crops does not increase yields but it does “increase the amount of sequestered soil organic carbon.” However, research by scientists at Purdue University has found that cover crops can improve corn stover yields which can be used as a biofuel.

The cost of next month’s event is $99 for those who register before February 16 and $125 for those who register onsite.

On the Radio: Soil conservation gains popularity among farmers

An Iowa farm in early Summer (Carl Wycoff / Flickr)
An Iowa farm in early Summer (Carl Wycoff / Flickr)
January 26, 2015

This week’s On the Radio segment looks at a recent report that shows Iowa farmers are increasingly turning to environmentally friendly soil conservation practices. Listen to the audio below, or continue reading for the transcript.

Transcript: Soil Conservation

Cover crops, crop rotation, and other soil conservation practices are gaining in popularity with Iowa farmers, according to a recent report.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The international consulting firm Datu Research released the 53-page report in December which found that 23 percent of those surveyed reported that they planted cover crops on their farms. Eighty percent of respondents said they alternate their fields between corn and soybeans each year while 70 percent of farmers said they practice minimum or conservation tilling practices.

These techniques improve soil health and help to regulate moisture content. This allows soil to retain more nitrate and phosphorus, saving farmers on fertilizer costs while also reducing nutrient runoff which is a major cause of water pollution in Iowa.

Agricultural runoff accounts for approximately 70 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorus that enters the Gulf of Mexico through the Mississippi River.

For more information about this report this IowaEnvironmentalFocus.org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Jerry Schnoor.

Bakken pipeline seeks official approval

Pipes to form a pipeline in Williston, North Dakota (Lindsey G / Flickr)
Pipes to form a pipeline in Williston, North Dakota (Lindsey G / Flickr)
KC McGinnis | January 21, 2015

The Texas-based company seeking to build an oil pipeline spanning the state of Iowa has applied for approval from the Iowa Utilities Board, according to the Des Moines Register.

Dakota Access, LLC, a division of Texas company Energy Transfer Partners, is seeking permission to build an underground pipeline that would run from North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields to Patoka, Ill., where it would then be connected to distribution systems across the country. The application, filed Tuesday, has set the stage for an ongoing battle between oil companies and Iowa farmers and environmental experts.

Among the concerns over the project is the potential for disastrous spills, like one that leaked 50,000 gallons of crude oil into the Yellowstone River in Montana. Cities like Glendive, Mo., for which the Yellowstone is the primary water supply, have had to have fresh water hauled in on semi trailers since the accident.

In informational meetings held over the month of December, Iowa farmers spoke out against the pipeline, concerned that the project could not only cut yields but also interfere with drainage systems, as Iowans scramble to tackle the state’s growing agricultural runoff problem.

Not least among these concerns is the pipeline’s significance as a fossil fuel system at a time when Iowa is trying to transition to clean energy. The effects of climate change due to the burning of fossil fuels is expected to more heavily impact Iowa’s agriculture industry over the next few decades.

Oil companies working in the Brakken oil fields are trying to find solutions to the railroad congestion problems caused by the oil surge, leading to a backlog in exports like grains, which share the rails with oil.

New dietary guidelines may take environmental health into account

Grazing cattle (Carl Wycoff / Flickr)
Grazing cattle (Carl Wycoff / Flickr)
KC McGinnis | January 14, 2015

Citing environmental concerns associated with livestock production, the federal government’s newest round of dietary guidelines may be broadening its scope to include sustainably-produced foods.

The U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, a partnership between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, reviews current dietary guidelines every five years, concluding in a list of dietary recommendations which affect federally subsidized school lunches, food labels and the government’s Choose My Plate program, which replaced the food pyramid in 2011.

A draft recommendation at the committee’s December meeting suggested a shift in the amount of red and processed meats Americans consumed, perhaps due to the significant role livestock plays in human-induced greenhouse gas emissions: As much as 14.5% of emissions may come from livestock, with beef making up a large portion of the total. Promoting a more plant-based diet on environmental grounds could lead to reductions in agricultural emissions as well as ensure food security for future generations. More sustainable livestock production practices could also have a significant impact on the country’s water quality.

While the panel’s draft recommendations have already received backlash from livestock groups, the committee maintains there is “compatibility and overlap” between food sustainability and human health.

Iowa farmers continue to battle invasive plant species in the field

University of Delaware Extension Specialist Mark VanGessel holds an uprooted Palmer amaranth plant. (University of Delaware Carvel REC/Flickr)
University of Delaware Extension Specialist Mark VanGessel holds an uprooted Palmer amaranth plant. (University of Delaware Carvel REC/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | January 8, 2015

Palmer amaranth, waterhemp, and other nuisance plant species continue to be growing problems for farmers in Iowa and neighboring states.

Weather and environmental conditions are two factors that have contributed to this problem. Droughts in 2013 forced farmers to delay application of herbicides and cool, wet conditions in 2014 further exacerbated the situation with problem weeds.

Waterhemp is “one of the most common weeds with which Midwest farmers must contend” according to data from the Purdue University Extension. Mike Owen – an Iowa State University Extension weed specialist – estimates that 85 percent of Iowa soy bean fields have waterhemp resistance.

In addition to waterhemp, Palmer amaranth has also caused issues for Iowa farmers. Instances of this bothersome weed have been reported in Page, Fremont and Harrison counties in the southwest part of the state in addition to Lee and Muscatine counties in the southeast. Owen said there are likely more unreported cases of Palmer amaranth in Iowa since it is prevalent in nearby states such as Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska.

Robert Hartzler – an Iowa State University Extension weed management specialist – does not believe that Palmer amaranth will be as devastating in Iowa as it has been in southern states. These weeds were largely unheard of prior to the 1980s when weed management practices changed.

Waterhemp and Palmer amaranth are similar in appearance and can often be difficult to differentiate.