Vilsack announces $500 million in loans to increase competition in meatpacking industry


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Elizabeth Miglin | July 13, 2021

U.S. Agriculture Secretary and former Iowa Governor, Tom Vilsack announced plans to provide $500 million in loans and grants to increase competition in the meat processing industry, on Friday.

In his speech, Vilsack emphasized the negative effects of four major meatpacking companies dominating over 80% of the beef market. Noting, 89.6% of farms do not generate the majority of income for the families who own and operate them. The loans and grants are aimed to help small and medium sized packing operations expand over time. 

The announcement occurred on the same day President Biden signed an executive order which requires the U.S. Department of Agriculture to add rules to the Packers and Stockyards Act in an effort to allow farmers more sway in determining prices for livestock. 

Both Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig and U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, voiced cautious optimism for the efforts to address the anticompetitive practices in the livestock markets. However the United Food and Commercial Workers International, a major union for meatpacking company employees say the aid is necessary. Adding, meatpacking workers were among the most negatively impacted by COVID-19. 

Biden Plans to Restore Endangered Species Regulations Rolled back by Trump


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Elizabeth Miglin | June 23, 2021

The Biden administration announced plans to rewrite changes made to the Endangered Species Act, on Friday.

Led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, the focus will be on five regulatory changes made by the Trump administration. The revisions will significantly shift rules on habitat designations and reinstate the “blanket rule,” which requires additional protections for newly classified threatened species. 

Under Trump, habitat protections were rolled back in order to reduce limits on energy industries such as oil drilling and mining. However, the weakening of regulations, such as the century-old Migratory Bird Treaty Act, made it harder to prosecute bird and other animal deaths caused by energy development. The bird act was among more than 100 business-friendly amendments made by Trump that Biden plans to reconsider according to The Chicago Tribune

A few of the Trump administration changes have been delayed or stopped prior to implementation. One of these changes includes the one-third reduction of protected federal old-growth forest used by the spotted owl which was announced during the final days of the Trump administration. 

The reviews announced by the Biden administration will take months or years to complete, continuing a decades-old debate between Republican and Democratic approaches to environmental regulation.

Biden to Suspend Oil and Gas Leases in Alaskan Wildlife Refuge


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Elizabeth Miglin | June 2, 2021

The Biden administration is suspending all oil and gas leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in order to take a deeper look at the environmental impacts of drilling in the region, the Interior Department announced on Tuesday. 

The Refuge is a 1.6 million-acre stretch of tundra on Alaska’s North Slope and is home to endangered polar bears whose population have been in dramatic decline due to diminishing sea ice. The region also provides important calving habitat for the Porcupine caribou herd.

Under the Trump administration, the Bureau of Land Management began administering an oil and gas program in the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge. The opening of the coast to drilling signified the culmination of a four-decade-long effort by the oil industry to gain access to the refuge. The lease sale on January 6, 2021 resulted in 10-year leases on nine tracts covering more than 430,000 acres according to the Department of the Interior. Imposing more restrictions on development in the region or ending the leases altogether would undo a signature policy of the Trump administration. 

The suspension of the leases follows the Biden Administrations official review of the activity in the Refuge. The review found multiple defects in the Record of Decision supporting the leases, such as the lack of analysis of a reasonable range of alternatives and other legal deficiencies. The suspensions, notably, do not go as far as environmental groups might hope as they do not void the leases all together. However, the initial executive order to review the leases left open the possibility the department would establish a new environmental review process to address legal flaws in the program itself. 

High Quality Waters At Risk From Proposed Manure Plan


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Thomas Robinson | March 2nd, 2021

A proposed plan for a manure application has come under scrutiny for the potential harm it could cause in some of Iowa’s high quality waters.

Supreme Beef, a cattle company in northeastern Iowa, has applied to spread cow manure in a 30 mile area around their operation near Monona IA.  Critics have warned that the plan may threaten water quality in the region, and pose a risk to the brown trout, a popular Iowa fishing attraction.  The plan proposed by Supreme Beef has been targeted for the likelihood for manure overapplication as well as a failure to include required conservation practices.

The area where manure would be spread is close to the headwaters of Bloody Run Creek, an area where brown trout reproduce, which presents a threat to water quality because of northeastern Iowa’s karst topography.  Karst topography is characterized by easy groundwater flow, which means that any manure seepage or contamination from the surface could easily influence the water quality of the region. Iowan’s in the area have needed to address similar issues previously, particularly for private well owners.

Currently the DNR is accepting written comments for the plan until March 8th before they will issue a decision for Supreme Beef’s manure application.

Climate Driven Increase In Bat Species Richness Likely Connected To COVID-19


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Thomas Robinson | February 9th, 2021

In a new study, researchers have published a link between climate driven shifts in bat populations, and the emergence of COVID-19.

Researchers mapped the global range of bat populations, as well as changes in global vegetation within the past 100 years to determine how changes in global bat species richness were driven by climate change. There were many regions across the globe that experienced local increases in bat populations, such as parts of Brazil and eastern Africa, however a major hotspot was the Yunnan province in southern China.  Over the 100 year time span, around 40 bat species flocked to the province, which is a significant concern as it is known that the number of coronaviruses in a region is closely linked to local bat species richness.  Researchers point out that the Yunnan province is also the likely place of origin for both SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2. 

Bats are studied because they are known to carry the largest amount of zoonotic diseases out of all mammals, and both the SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2 outbreaks have been attributed to bat populations.  Zoonotic diseases are illnesses that are transferred to humans by animals when both populations begin to interact. As human’s develop and expand into animal habitats these interactions become more common, especially as climate change drives the spread of disease vectors such as mosquitoes.  In a separate study, it was shown that over 60% of emerging infectious diseases, like COVID-19, are linked to animal to human transmission.

Human Noise Pollution is Threatening Marine Life


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Nicole Welle | February 8, 2021

A new scientific review confirmed that human-made noise is disrupting the ocean soundscape and harming marine life.

Anthropogenic sound from sources like ships, seismic surveys, pile drivers, dynamite fishing and drilling platforms threatens the countless marine species that rely on sound to navigate and communicate. The new review, published last week in the journal Science, combined the work of 25 authors in various fields of marine acoustics to form a more complete synthesis of evidence on the effects of noise pollution. While past studies have outlined the effects noise pollution has on individual large marine animals, this study includes many groups of marine life and aims to increase global awareness of the issue, according to a New York Times article.

The study shows that increasing levels of anthropogenic noise not only negatively affect large mammals like whales and orcas, but also groups like zooplankton, jellyfish and clownfish. After clownfish are conceived in coral reefs, they drift in the open ocean as larvae until they have grown enough to swim against the tide. They then use the sounds coral reefs make to find their way back to the reef where they will live out the rest of their lives. However, high levels of human-made noise sometimes prevent baby clownfish from hearing the popping and snapping of reefs, and they never find their way back, according to the article.

The authors also found that some species of whales, killer whales and porpoises will permanently evacuate areas where noise pollution levels are too high. However, these forced evacuations can lead to population decline, especially in species that have limited biogeographical ranges like the Maui dolphin. Even when marine life can escape, they don’t have anywhere to go that is free of noise pollution.

While the study’s results are worrying, the authors say that noise pollution is the easiest pollutant to control in the ocean. Reducing ships’ speed, developing quieter propellors, avoiding sensitive areas and moving shipping lanes could all help to reduce its impact. Many animals also have the ability to quickly rebound. For example, some large marine mammals immediately began repopulating areas that had been vacant for decades when pandemic-related lockdowns reduced noise pollution by just 20% last year. The authors hope their review urges policymakers to enact policy changes that address noise pollution and raise awareness of the issue.

Arctic Drilling Leases Might Not Get Many Takers as Deadline Approaches


Caribou in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
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Nicole Welle | December 31, 2020

The Trump administration successfully opened roughly one million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil drilling following his election defeat, but oil companies might not have any interest in buying the 10-year leases.

Today marks the deadline for submitting bids on the oil leases, so the exact number of companies that have expressed interest is unclear. However, there has previously been little indication that oil companies are interested in buying the leases for several reasons. The drilling conditions would be difficult and the cost of locating the oil is high. Many companies are also concerned about damaging their reputation by drilling on previously-protected lands as Alaska natives and environmentalists continue to oppose drilling on the refuge, and many major banks have refused to finance companies who wish to drill there. The oil industry is struggling to make money during the pandemic as global interest shifts to renewable energy sources as it is, so the state of Alaska might be forced to step in and buy the leases itself, according to a New York Times article.

The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, a state-owned corporation, recently voted to authorize bidding up to $20 million for some of the oil leases. If the corporation succeeds in securing the leases, the state of Alaska could become the sole owner and would be left with hoping that it can sublease the tracts to someone else if interest in drilling on the refuge ever picks up. There are legal questions as to whether the corporation qualifies as a bidder and ongoing efforts by Alaska natives and environmental groups to halt the bidding and sale of the leases altogether, so it is still unclear how the sales will proceed.

The National Arctic Wildlife Refuge was protected for decades by Democrats in Congress. It provides a sanctuary for polar bears, caribou, migrating waterfowl and other wildlife, and the Trump administration was the first to successfully push a bill through that allowed for drilling on 1.5 million acres of protected land. The Bureau of Land Management was able to remove about half a million acres from the bidding after citing concerns about disturbing caribou calving areas and other wildlife, but about a million acres across 22 tracts are still available. The Bureau of Land Management will reveal the number of bids received once the bids are opened after the submission deadline.

Trump Pushes For Further Environmental Deregulation During Final Weeks in Office


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Nicole Welle | November 19, 2020

The Trump administration is using its final weeks to push through dozens of environmental rollbacks that weaken protections for migratory birds, expand arctic drilling and increase future threats to public health.

One proposed change would restrict criminal prosecution for industries that cause the deaths of migratory birds. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 currently protects over 1,000 species of bird including hawks and other birds of prey, and it is used to recover damages in situations like the BP oil spill in 2010 that killed more than 100,00 seabirds, according to an AP article. The Trump administrations wants to ensure that companies face no criminal liability for preventable deaths such as this in the future. Officials advanced bird treaty changes to the white house two days after news organizations declared Joe Biden’s win.

Another recent proposal put forth by the Trump administration would set emission standards for dangerous particles of pollution emitted by refineries and other industrial sources. Others would allow mining and drilling on public lands around the Chaco Canyon National Historical Park in New Mexico and in Alaska.

Most of these proposed changes directly benefit gas and oil industries, and some of them could be difficult for President-elect Joe Biden to reverse once he takes office. Biden could easily reverse some with executive action, but others, like putting protected lands up for sale or lease, could pose a bigger challenge.

Most of the proposed changes will go quickly through the approval process. It is not unusual for presidents to push rule changes through at the tail end of their terms, but many environmentalists and former officials believe this environmental deregulation reflects a pro-industry agenda taken to the extreme. It could have serious negative impacts on the safety of imperiled wildlife, climate change and human health.

Researchers Use Honeybees to Test Environmental Contamination Levels


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Nicole Welle | July 20, 2020

Researchers created a non-invasive tool to sample environmental contaminates in honeybee hives.

Bees are good bioindicators of environmental contamination because they get coated with everything in their surroundings, including pollutants. Because they have a wide flight range and sample from a range of spaces, they can pick up build-up from the air, water, ground and trees. They also spread the nectar they collect to other bees and throughout the hive.

Researchers have used honeybee hives to understand the environmental contamination in their area in the past, but the process was often harmful. It involved capturing bees and extracting whatever they had ingested or transported on the surface of their bodies. Sampling could also be done with pollen reserves, larvae and honey. Not only was this often very difficult and time-consuming, it also often disrupted the normal functioning of hives, according to a PHYS.ORG article.

Professor José Manuel Flores, from the Department of Zoology at the University of Cordoba, collaborated with researchers at the University of Almeria to put a new device into operation. APIStrip (Absorb Pesticide In-Hive Strip) is a non-invasive polystyrene strip that is placed in a hive and can absorb a variety of pesticides and other pollutants for testing. This device will allow researchers to continue to use honeybees as sample collectors and improve environmental health without jeopardizing the safety of honeybee colonies.

Food, Justice and Environmental Groups Start #BoycottBigMeat Campaign


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Nicole Welle | July 16, 2020

The #BoycottBigMeat campaign launched Tuesday and calls for consumers to boycott meat products from large corporations.

Over 50 organizations are backing the campaign, including Iowa Sunrise Hub, Cedar Rapids, and Iowa Alliance for Responsible Agriculture. Those behind the effort cite a number of issues with large-scale meat producers including worker safety, animal welfare, consumer health and environmental impact, according to a Public News Service article.

While some groups involved in the campaign are focusing on holding corporations accountable for exploiting workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, others are hoping to confront longstanding issues with the negative impacts these businesses have on the environment. Feed sourcing is a leading cause of natural prairie loss in the Midwest, and the chemicals and fertilizers used to treat the fields that grow feed crops are polluting waterways, according to Clean Water Action. Large corporations are also responsible for huge carbon emissions that contribute to climate change.

“We really want to push for policy that helps to transform these rural communities where these operations exist – these industrial operations, meat-packing plants, as well as the concentrated animal feeding operations – that we want to help transition to a better food system,” said Sherri Dugger, executive director at the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project.

The coalition hopes that consumers and policymakers will help promote local producers who sell products considered organic and regenerative that come from pasture-raised, grass-fed animals.