Farmers could be key allies in climate crisis


By Julia Shanahan | August 9th, 2019

According to a report from CNN, farmers could potentially practice farming in a way that would remove carbon from the air and put in into the ground.

From soybeans to corn to pine trees, plants already move carbon out of the air. The report suggests that with enough financial motivation and innovation, farmers could continue growing food while also practicing carbon management. Substances like biochar, charcoal and other organic material that is almost pure carbon, can be sprinkled over soil to keep carbon in the ground for thousands of years, and it doesn’t go back into the atmosphere.

The 2018 IPCC Lands Report says that nearly a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions come out of the agriculture sector, pointing to diesel fuel and synthetic fertilizer.  Gene Tackle, a co-author of the National Climate Assessment, said in the CNN report that farmers could be key allies in helping to reduce, and even eliminate, global greenhouse gas emissions. 

The National Climate Assessment projects that the amount of days that exceed 90 degrees in  Des Moines could increase from 17 days to 70 by mid-century. Additionally, the latest IPCC report finds that growing food around the world will only become more difficult as the weather becomes more unpredictable.

Farmers in Iowa were burdened this past year with extremely heavy rainfall and flooding, as well as an ongoing trade dispute between the U.S. and China that has made it hard for some farmers to sell goods. There are currently no mandatory conservation practices that farmers must practice in Iowa – extra conservation practices are done on a voluntary basis across the state. 

Experts encourage towns to invest in composting


Photo by Plan for Opportunity, Flickr.

By Julia Shanahan | August 2nd, 2019

Composting all organic waste could eliminate one-third of materials sent to landfills and trash incinerators, according to a study from Composting in America, U.S. PIRG Education Fund, Environment America Research, and Policy Center and Frontier Group.

The reports says that each year the U.S. disposes of enough organic material  to fill 18-wheelers stretching from New York to Los Angeles ten times over. Only 326 U.S. towns nationwide provide curbside food pickup, leaving people no option but to throw food scraps in the trash.

The report says that increasing composting would help replenish soil and prevent erosion, reduce the need for chemical fertilizers, and help combat climate change. Composting excess organic material would help pull carbon out of the atmosphere and return nutrients to the soil. 

In Iowa, some small compost facilities are exempt from solid-waste permits, but must adhere to a list of requirements: facilities must be greater than 500 feet away from any inhabited residence, outside of wetlands, 200 feet away from any public well, and runoff from the composting operation must be correctly managed – according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

The national report lists several things that would make composting more accessible and user-friendly, saying that towns should offer curbside pickup for organic waste, make composting programs affordable, require commercial organic-waste producers to compost excess materials, and to encourage local markets to buy back compost materials to distribute to public projects or community projects.

New report shows Iowa’s slow progress in meeting Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals


By Julia Shanahan | July 19th, 2019

In a report from the Iowa Environmental Council, it will take about 900 years to meet wetland goals and 30,000 years to implement enough bioreactors to treat the number of acres set out it in the 2013 Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

The Nutrient Reduction Strategy was implemented in Iowa in 2013 with the goal of reducing the amount of nitrate and phosphorus runoff in waterways, and then eventually into the Gulf of Mexico. The state hopes to cut nutrient runoff by 45 percent through voluntary programs and conservation practices.

In 2018, Iowa had about 880,000 acres of cover crops planted – a way to reduce soil erosion and prevent nutrient runoff. However, the NRS says Iowa needs about 12.6 million acres of cover crops, and the Iowa Environmental Council estimates it will take another 93 years until the state reaches that goal. The average rate of cover crop installation has decreased since the NRS implementation in 2013, but increased in 2018 by about 16 percent.

The NRS also aims to treat 7.7 million acres of wetlands – or see a 45 percent decrease in nutrient pollution – and as of 2017, about 104,000 acres were treated. The Environmental Council estimates it will take 913 years for the state to reach that goal at Iowa’s rate of adoption.

Bioreactors, which cost about $10,000 to $15,000 to install, only cover 1,250 acres of the state. Iowa’s strategy aims for bioreactors to treat 6,000 acres of the state.

On The Radio- West Nile virus in Iowa


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(flickr/cesar monico)

Kasey Dresser| June 17, 2019

This week’s segment looks at the unwanted guest brought into Iowa by the rain and flooding this season. 

Transcript: 

The West Nile virus may soon run rampant because of the flooding that has been occurring in western Iowa.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Mosquitoes are not abnormal residents in the western region of Iowa. Yet these types of mosquitoes, the Culex tarsalis (Cool-ex tar-say-lis)  is carrying a virus that could hurt human beings.

The Culex tarsalis, have risen in grand numbers because they gather and breed in large pools of water and flooded areas. Iowa State University came out with new research that shows western Iowa has the largest presence of the West Nile virus, due to the resurgence of these mosquitoes.   

Iowa State professor and entomologist Ryan Smith believes that the virus is concerning as it is the common mosquito-born disease in the United States. The virus could affect one in five people bitten by the mosquito, and could lead people to develop fevers and potentially fatal symptoms.

The best way to protect yourself, would be to consistently spray insect repellent or wear long sleeve shirts. Make sure that you are fully covered before stepping outside.

For more information, visit Iowa environmental focus dot org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Sara E. Mason.

 

How environmental fluctuations affect our food


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Changing weather patterns have greatly impacted our core crops | Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | June 4th, 2019

Ongoing climate change could drastically alter our relationship with food.

We often imagine our crops and sources of food being struck down by an intense weather event–a drought, a heatwave, an endless spell of rain. But small changes can affect our ecosystem and our crop yeild. In 2016, French wheat farmers were stunned at how much their crop yeild had decreased–all resulting from a few seemingly small seasonal changes in the weather.

Even incrementally warmer temperatures increase the lives of pests that damage and kill crops. Rain leeches soil of its nutrients. Fluctuations in weather patterns have a bigger impact on our food than we would often like to think. Rising levels of carbon dioxide also affect plants, as most staple crops don’t grow well in CO2-rich environments.

Senthold Asseng, a researcher at the University of Florida, used data and modeling to determine the effect that temperature has on crops worldwide. Wheat, rice, corn, and soybeans are the top four staple crops, feeding billions accross every nation. A global temperature increase of just 1 degree Celsius impacts all of these core foods, reducing the crop yields of wheat and corn by 6 to 8% and rice and soybean yields by roughly 3%. For a richer nation, these numbers mean little; for poorer areas, decreases like this could lead to extreme food shortages or famine.

Ongoing research into crops and agriculture and how these two link to climate change will help us find alternatives and solutions to continue feeding our nation.

 

A different look at glyphosate


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Glyphosate, found in most weed-killers, is not cancer-causing, EPA finds | Photo by Dan Hamill on Pexels.com

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | May 1st, 2019

UPDATE: We find it important to mention that though glyphosate has been found to not contribute to cancer by the EPA, some independent groups have their doubts about the safety of this chemical, and it’s true that we are not fully aware of what long-term exposure to glyphosate does. The article has been revised accordingly.

Cancer is scary, carcinogens scarier. The uncertainty behind many common carcinogens and chemicals–what leads to cancer after prolonged exposure and what doesn’t–is certainly stressful, which is why extensive studies into different suspected cancer-causing chemicals is essential.

Sometimes, before concrete evidence can be found, suspected carcinogens spark widespread panic. Glyphosate is one such suspected carcinogen. A common chemical found in RoundUp weedkiller, the ingredient has been linked to alleged negative health effects for years. Glyphosate works by blocking enzymes in certain plants, effectively regulating weeds that would otherwise leech crops of their nutrients.

Recently, Monsanto, the conglomerate that produces RoundUp, was hit with several lawsuits, including one from a customer who had used the weedkiller for decades–and claimed that his cancer diagnoses was a result of long-term exposure to the glyphosate in the product. The federal jury overseeing the case ruled in the man’s favor. Monsanto has, so far, appealed all of the lawsuit rulings.

Glyphosate touches more than just weeds in lawns–it’s the most-used herbicide in US agriculture. It also may not be as dangerous as we thought: studies from the US Environmental Protection Agency suggest that glysophate is not, in fact, a carcinogen. They say that there is not much evidence linking glyphosate exposure to the development of cancer cells, and the EU, following thousands of peer-review studies, has long sanctioned glyphosate herbicides as safe for general use.

Of course, glyphosate–and weedkiller in general–should not be ingested in any way, and basic caution is recommended when handling the product. While the risk of developing cancer from spraying away a cluster of dandelions from a front-porch garden may be slim to none, the health effects of larger, long-term glysophate exposure is still up for debate.

 

 

Presidential hopefuls discuss sustainable ag at last weekend’s Heartland Forum


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Photo by Julia Poska, 2019. 

Julia Poska | April 4, 2019

Last weekend, four 2020 presidential candidates and one likely contender gathered in Storm Lake, Iowa to discuss their visions for struggling rural America at the Heartland Forum. Here’s what each said about sustainability and agriculture:

Julián Castro: The former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Obama was asked a question about promoting eco-friendly family food farmers for economic, social and environmental resiliency.

“Our family farms help feed America—and the world, really—so we need to make sure that they can succeed, and also that people in these rural areas and rural communities can have clean air and water. Number one, I would appoint people to the EPA who actually believe in environmental protection,” he said. He specifically discussed boosting funds to enforce the Clean Air and Water Acts.

Rep. John Delaney (D-MD): Delaney’s “Heartland Fair Deal,” which he discussed at the forum, lays out plans for investing in negative emissions technology and focusing on climate resiliency and flooding.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN): Klobuchar said she would re-enter the Paris Climate Agreement on her first day in the White House. She also discussed her experience on the Senate Agriculture Committee.

“What we’ve learned over time, is that [if] we’re going to get [the Farm Bill] passed… we need to have a coalition of people who care about nutrition, people who care about farming and people who care about conservation,” she said.

She said she wants to keep Farm Bill conservation programs strong.

Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH): Hailing from the industrial “Rust Belt,” Ryan has little experience with rural areas, but he said he believes the two regions face many of the same issues and should come together politically. He spoke to opportunity in the clean energy and electric vehicle industries, which he would like to see driven into “distressed rural areas” to replace lost manufacturing jobs.

He also spoke about Farm Bill conservation programs; “These are the kind of programs we need to ‘beef up,’ no pun intended,” he said.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA): Senator Warren did not speak about sustainability directly. Her platform mainly focused on addressing monopolies in agribusiness to support small, family farmers. One of her proposals is to break up the Bayer’s acquisition of Monsanto, a merger that was heavily criticized by environmentalists. 

The Heartland Forum was moderated by Pulitzer prize-winner Art Cullen, editor of the Storm Lake Times, and two reporters from HuffPost. Those news organizations organized the event alongside Open Markets Institute and the Iowa Farmers Union.