Tom Philpott

Why the EPA Can't Manage To Block This Gnarly Herbicide

| Mon Feb. 10, 2014 2:13 PM EST

In the February 10 issue of the New Yorker, Rachel Aviv has an outstanding piece on Tyrone Hayes, the University of California-Berkeley biologist whose research found that atrazine, a widely used herbicide, caused extreme sexual-development problems in frogs at very low levels. Aviv's article follows a superb Hayes profile by Dashka Slater published in Mother Jones in 2012. Aviv's piece gives some key background on just why it's so hard for the US Environmental Protection Agency to take action on chemicals like atrazine, which in addition to harming frogs, is also suspected of causing thyroid and ovarian cancers in people at low doses. Here's the key bit regarding the EPA and its reliance on cost-benefit analyses to determine what chemicals the public can and cannot be exposed to:

In the U.S., lingering scientific questions justify delays in regulatory decisions. Since the mid-seventies, the E.P.A. has issued regulations restricting the use of only five industrial chemicals out of more than eighty thousand in the environment. Industries have a greater role in the American regulatory process—they may sue regulators if there are errors in the scientific record—and cost-benefit analyses are integral to decisions: a monetary value is assigned to disease, impairments, and shortened lives and weighed against the benefits of keeping a chemical in use. Lisa Heinzerling, the senior climate-policy counsel at the E.P.A. in 2009 and the associate administrator of the office of policy in 2009 and 2010, said that cost-benefit models appear “objective and neutral, a way to free ourselves from the chaos of politics.” But the complex algorithms “quietly condone a tremendous amount of risk.” She added that the influence of the Office of Management and Budget, which oversees major regulatory decisions, has deepened in recent years. “A rule will go through years of scientific reviews and cost-benefit analyses, and then at the final stage it doesn’t pass,” she said. “It has a terrible, demoralizing effect on the culture at the E.P.A.”

Hat tip: Kathleen Geier.

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Iowa Is Getting Sucked Into Scary Vanishing Gullies

| Fri Feb. 7, 2014 7:00 AM EST
See that gash in the land? Until heavy rains hit in May 2013, it was filled with topsoil. It's an "ephemeral gully," and Iowa is full of them after hard rains.

Last year, after a record drought in 2012, Iowa experienced the wettest spring in its recorded history. The rains triggered massive runoff from the state's farms into its creeks, streams, and rivers, tainting water with toxic nitrate from fertilizer. Nitrate levels in the state's waterways reached record levels—so high that they emerged as a "real issue for human health," Bob Hirsch, a hydrologist for the US Geological Survey, told the Associated Press.

We're losing soil at as much as 16 times the natural replacement rate.

The event illustrated two problems facing Iowa and the rest of the nation's topsoil-rich grain belt. The first is the challenge of climate change: how to manage farmland in an era when weather lurches from brutal drought to flooding, as it likely will with increasing frequency. The second, related challenge is the largely invisible crisis of Iowa's topsoil, which appears to be eroding at a much higher rate than US Department of Agriculture numbers indicate—and, more importantly, at up to 16 times the natural soil replacement rate.

I got that disturbing assessment from Richard Cruse, an agronomist and the director of Iowa State University's Iowa Water Center. Cruse's on-the-ground research has shown a particular kind of soil erosion clearly connected to last year's heavy rains. Cruse told me that with current methods, the USDA measures a kind of soil loss called "sheet and rill erosion," wherein water washes soil away in small channels that form at the soil surface during rains. Under that measure, Iowa farmland loses an average 5.2 tons of topsoil per acre every year, according to the USDA's latest numbers, which are from 2007.

The USDA sees five tons per acre as a "magic number," Cruse said, because it's generally accepted to be the rate at which soil renews itself. So the prevailing view has been that "if we can limit erosion to five tons per acre, we can do this forever," Cruse said. But he added that the "best science" (explained here) indicates that the real sustainable erosion rate is closer to a half ton per acre—meaning that even by the USDA's own limited measure, Iowa's soils are eroding much faster than they can be replaced naturally.

The gullies are essentially pipelines, periodically filled by farmers, that move prime soil from fields into streams.

But here's where we get to the scary part. Using stereo-photographic techniques, Cruse and his team have been measuring a different form of erosion that occurs through what are known as "ephemeral gullies"—that is, large gashes in farm fields formed by water during heavy rains, bearing soil rapidly away and dispersing it into streams and rivers. This kind of erosion is not included in conventional soil-loss measures, and as a result, the USDA is "way underestimating" erosion in Iowa, he said.

Cruse's team has not collected data long enough, nor analyzed it thoroughly enough, to say exactly how much soil is being surrendered in this way. But he added that he "could say with a lot of confidence" that ephemeral gullies are carrying away on average an additional 2.5 to 3 tons of soil per acre—bringing the grand erosion total as high as 8 tons per acre, 60 percent higher than the USDA's sustainable threshold of 5 tons and 16 times higher than the 0.5-ton limit that Cruse says is more scientifically valid.

Ephemeral gullies represent not only an alarming disappearance of productive soil; they also mean a concentrated transfer of farm chemicals into waterways, where they feed algae blooms and get into municipal drinking water. That's because when an ephemeral gully appears one growing season, farmers push fresh topsoil into the gullies. That topsoil, heavily treated with fertilizer and herbicides, is just the kind that causes the most water-quality damage when the next ephemeral gully forms, Cruse said. It's a startling image: The gullies are essentially pipelines, periodically filled by farmers, that move prime soil from fields into streams.

And there's a feedback loop operating here, Cruse said—as Iowa's farmland loses soil, it also loses the ability to trap water, because soil acts as a sponge. That makes it more prone to flooding, and more likely to sprout ephemeral gullies.

A tale of two fields: On one side of the road, a gully cuts through an unprotected field (bottom photo). On the other side (top) a grass waterway stops the gully, but is filled with rocks and mud from the other side. EWG

In the wake of last year's heavy rains, the Environmental Working Group filed a great report called "Washout" on the damage done to Iowa's soils, building on its landmark 2011 study on Iowa's erosion problem, "Losing Ground." EWG looked at data from ISU's Iowa Daily Erosion Project, and found that in less than a week, farmland in 50 townships covering 1.2 million acres suffered average erosion of more than 5 tons per acre—and that in 15 of those townships fields suffered average erosion of 7.5 to 13 tons per acre. (The recognized, and probably overstated, "sustainable" rate of erosion, recall, is five tons per year.)

And here's the catch: The Iowa Daily Erosion Project doesn't have the technology to account for ephemeral gullies. In the wake of the May storms, the EWG researchers "drove a random loop" through seven counties around EWG's Midwest office in Ames. They found "gullies scarring field after field," as well as roadside ditches "full of mud and polluted runoff—a very bad sign for Iowa's already polluted streams." (If you don't believe that "field after field" had formed gullies, check out the EWG researchers' slideshow from their trip, which I've plunked down below.) So, erosion from last year's rains was "actually worse—likely far worse—than even the IDEP estimates," EWG concludes.

Erosion from last year's rains was "actually worse—likely far worse—than even the IDEP estimates," EWG concludes.

I asked Cruse, whose team is creating tools that can help document gully erosion, what farming practices could stem the hemorrhaging of Iowa's soils. He pointed to winter-season cover crops, which have the twin virtues of (a) building organic matter in soil, giving it more capacity to sponge up water; and (b) providing a cover, a mat of plant matter that shields soil from being disturbed and dislodged by heavy rains. Both help keep soil in place and prevent gullies. (For a deeper dive into cover crops, see my 2013 piece on the innovative Ohio farmer David Brandt.)

Cruse also mentioned reintegrating grazing animals into Iowa's fields. Maintaining pastures for livestock means an abundance of perennial grasses, which act like cover crops and keep soil in place—granted, of course, that the animals are properly rotated and not allowed to overgraze, which also degrades soil.

I also asked him how long Iowa's farmers could go on pushing their soils for maximum corn and soy production without integrating cover crops and livestock on a much larger scale than is happening now. He said that Iowa's status as an agriculture powerhouse relative to other farming regions worldwide will likely continue for a while, because most of the globe's farmland is experiencing equal or even greater soil degradation. Not the most comforting answer!

He added he can't pinpoint the year "when we cross a 'game over' condition." But he could say with certainty that the "impact of soil erosion is a gradual decline in production potential and, probably even more important, soil resilience—the capacity of soil to supply needed water and nutrients under weather- or climate-stressful conditions."

After talking to Cruse and reading the EWG report, I reread the first chapter of University of Washington ecologist David Montgomery's terrific 2007 book Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations "With just a couple feet of soil standing between prosperity and desolation, civilizations that plow through their soil vanish," Montgomery wrote.

For a graphic immersion into what Iowa looked like after last year's storms, check out Environmental Working Group's fantastic slideshow:

First We Fed Bees High-Fructose Corn Syrup, Now We've Given Them a Killer Virus?

| Wed Feb. 5, 2014 7:00 AM EST

In the classic board game Clue, murder mysteries have clear solutions: say, Col. Mustard with the candlestick in the dining room. In the stark recent declines of honeybees and other pollinators, however, the situation is murkier.

We've put bees through a lot. They have to deal with nasty parasite, the varroa mite, which didn't make its way to the United States until the late 1980s. They also have to deal with pesticides specifically designed to target those mites (called, yes, miticides). Over the winter, bees in commercial hives often live not on their own honey, as they have evolved to do, but rather a cheap substitute: high-fructose corn syrup. And finally, they are confronted with a range of pathogens.

Over the past month, the dossiers on two of those suspects got a little thicker. In the January issue of the peer-reviewed journal Ecotoxicology, UK researchers delivered yet more evidence that a widely used pesticide class called neonicotinoids might play a decisive role in declining bee health. They fed one set of bumblebees pollen and sugar water containing very low levels a neonic called imidacloprid. The team let the dosed bees forage in a field and compared their pollen-gathering performance to those of an un-dosed control group.

The New Farm Bill: Yet Again, Not Ready for Climate Change

| Fri Jan. 31, 2014 7:00 AM EST
Corn in a drought-stricken field.

Imagine you're a policy maker in a large country in an era of increasing climate instability—more floods and droughts, driven by steadily increasing average temperatures. And say the policy you make largely dictated the way your country's farmers grow their crops. Wouldn't you push for a robust, climate change-ready agriculture—one that stores carbon in the soil, helping stabilize the climate while also making farms more resilient to weather extremes?

There's no real mystery about how to achieve these goals. I profiled a farmer last year named David Brandt who's doing just that with a few highly imitable techniques (spoiler: crop rotation and cover crops), right in the middle of Big Corn country. This peer-reviewed 2012 Iowa State University study tells a similar tale. The question is, how to turn farmers like Brandt from outliers into to trendsetters—from the exception to the rule. The obvious lever would be the farm bill, that twice-a-decade omnibus legislation that shapes the decisions of millions of farmers nationwide, while also funding our major food-aid program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which used to be called food stamps.

Well, after more than a year of heated debate, Congress has finally cobbled together a new farm bill, one likely to be signed into law soon by President Obama. Unfortunately, the great bulk of that debate didn't focus how to steer the country's agriculture through the trying times ahead. Instead, it concerned how much to cut food aid for poor people. The Democrats wanted relatively minor cuts; the Republicans, animated by the tea party wing, wanted draconian ones. The (relatively) good news: the new bill will cut SNAP by $9 billion over the next decade, vs. the $40 billion demanded by austerity-obsessed GOP backbenchers. My colleague Erika Eichelberger has more on this sad business of pinching food aid at a time of record poverty.

Monsanto's Take on Whether It's Moving Away from GMOs

| Thu Jan. 30, 2014 6:42 PM EST

In a recent piece, I speculated that Monsanto might be moving away from its focus on genetically modified crops. I contacted the Monsanto press office to get the company's perspective, but didn't connect by deadline time. Since then, I've been in touch with Charla Lord, a Monsanto press officer. She confirmed that in its vegetable division, Monsanto relies on conventional breeding and not GMOs, because "breeding helps us bring more products to market faster and is more cost effective."

As for my speculation that Monsanto was moving in a similar direction in its main business—big commodity crops like corn, soy and cotton—she pointed to the company's recently released 2014 Research and Development Pipeline, which lists four "platforms" for delivering new technology to farmers: "breeding, biotechnology, agronomics and new technology platforms." So genetic modification—i.e, "biotechnology"—is just one of the four. She also directed me to a replay of Monsanto's Jan. 8 conference call on its latest quarterly financial report. In it, a Monsanto exec made this remark on the company's new-products pipeline.

Some of the most exciting advances are coming from our new platforms. … We are really entering a new era where we expect farmers will see waves of technology that build on each other in a total system in the seed, in the bag, and in the field.

The pipeline itself paints a compelling picture of where this industry is going. Increasingly, we are moving beyond farmers making due with disconnected input components and we are on the leading edge of giving farmers real, integrated systems in their fields. Think about it. You start with the seed that is capable of delivering more yield than at any other point in the history and then we protect that with cutting-edge traits embedded in the seeds. Wrap around that chemical and microbial seed treatments that fend off disease and increase the health of the plant, and then utilize sophisticated algorithms to plant and position all the inputs meter by meter across the field. We are talking about a prescription agriculture that looks a lot like individually personalized medicine and that is how we are going to drive yield and productivity. You can see all the elements coming together today in waves that build on each other and which drive the opportunity for our farmer customers and our company.

Lord said that all this talk about new platforms shouldn't be read as a move away from GMOs—the other techniques "augment" GMOs in Monsanto's R&D work, but don't represent a "tradeoff," i.e., they don't displace GMOs. Fair enough. But this still sounds to me like a company that's diversifying away from GM technology—or at least one that's trying to.

 

Monarch Butterflies Can Survive the World's Most Amazing Migration—But GMOs Are Wiping Them Out

| Thu Jan. 30, 2014 11:44 AM EST
A monarch butterfly, with milkweed.

The monarch butterfly is a magnificent and unique beast—the globe's only butterfly species that embarks on an annual round-trip migration spanning thousands of miles, from the northern US and Canada to central Mexico. And monarchs aren't just a gorgeous bug; they're also pollinators, meaning they help keep land-based ecosystems humming. Their populations have been plunging for years, and the number of them hibernating in Mexico last year hit an all-time low, reports University of Minnesota ecologist Karen Oberhauser. Why? Here's Oberhauser:

Tragically, much of their breeding habitat in this region [the US and Canada] has been lost to changing agricultural practices, primarily the exploding adoption of genetically modified, herbicide-tolerant crops in the late 20th and early 21st centuries ... These crops allow post-emergence treatment with herbicides, and have resulted in the extermination of milkweed from agricultural habitats.

In a 2012 post, I teased out how crops engineered for herbicide tolerance wipe out milkweed, the monarch's main source of food, and lead to the charismatic specie's decline. And here's the peer-reviewed paper, co-authored by Oberhauser, that documents the trend.

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Is Monsanto Giving Up on GMOs?

| Wed Jan. 29, 2014 7:00 AM EST

Is genetically modified seed giant Monsanto doing the unthinkable and moving away from genetically modified seeds?

It sounds crazy, but hear me out. Let’s start with Monsanto's vegetable division, Seminis, which boasts it is the "largest developer and grower of vegetable seeds in the world." Monsanto acknowledges Seminis has no new GM vegetables in development. According to a recent Wired piece, Seminis has has reverted instead to "good old-fashioned crossbreeding, the same technology that farmers have been using to optimize crops for millennia."

Why? The article points to people's growing avoidance of genetically modified foods. So far, consumers have shown no appetite to gobble up GM vegetables. (But that doesn't mean people aren't eating GMOs: Nearly all GMOs currently on the market are big commodity crops like corn and soy, which, besides being used as livestock feed, are regularly used as ingredients in processed food—think high-fructose corn syrup and soy oil.)

Are Agriculture Exports Killing Us?

| Wed Jan. 22, 2014 6:55 AM EST
A large hog farm and its ammonia–spewing "manure lagoon."

Late last year, US Department of Agriculture chief Tom Vilsack boasted that US agriculture exports had hit an all-time high in fiscal 2013, and hailed "historic work by the Obama Administration to break down barriers to US products and achieve new agreements to expand exports." Underlying Vilsack's glee is the idea that growing huge amounts of food here and selling a big chunk of it overseas bolsters the US economy and stabilizes rural America.

Agricultural exports cause $36 billion in annual healthcare costs, along with about 5,100 premature deaths.
 

That kind of thinking has driven agriculture policy at least since the days when Richard Nixon's ag secretary Earl Butz exhorted farmers to scale up operations and plant "fencerow to fencerow" in order to supply foreign markets.

But a new paper (PDF) from Harvard suggests massive ag exports might not be the economic boon imagined by USDA secretaries. The researchers looked at a single farm pollutant, ammonia (NH3), which makes its way into the air from fertilizer applied to farm fields and from the manure that accumulates on livestock farms. Once it enters the atmosphere, as Erik Stokstad explained in an excellent (pay-walled) news item in Science, it "reacts with other air pollutants to create tiny particles that can lodge deep in the lungs, causing asthma attacks, bronchitis, and heart attacks."

The Standard American Diet in 3 Simple Charts

| Mon Jan. 20, 2014 6:55 AM EST

US obesity and diabetes rates are among the globe's very highest. Why? On her blog, the NYU nutritionist and food-politics expert Marion Nestle recently pointed (hat-tip, RealFood.org) to this telling chart on how we spend our grocery money, from the USDA's Amber Waves publication:

So, we do a pretty good job eating enough potatoes. But the healthier, more brightly colored vegetables like kale and carrots, no so much. We spend four times the amount on refined grains the USDA thinks is proper, and about a fifth of the target expenditure in whole grains. We spend nearly 14 percent of our at-home food budgets on sugar and candies, and another 8 percent on premade frozen and fridge entrees. Whole fruit barley accounts for less than 5 percent of our grocery bill. And so on—a pretty dismal picture.

That chart deals with at-home expenditures. What about our food choices out in the world? The USDA article has more. This chart shows that we're getting more and more of our sustenance outside of our own kitchens:

And while the article doesn't offer comparable data to the above at-home chart about expenditures outside the home, it does deliver evidence that our eating out habits are pretty dire as well:

Why do we eat such crap food? The USDA throws up its hands: "Despite the benefits to overall diet quality," the report states, "it can be difficult to convince consumers to change food preferences."

But it never pauses top consider the food industry's vast marketing budget. According to Yale's Rudd Center, the US fast-food chains like McDonalds, Wendy's, and Burger King spent $4.6 billion on advertising in 2012. "For context," Rudd reports, "the biggest advertiser, McDonald’s, spent 2.7 times as much to advertise its products ($972 million) as all fruit, vegetable, bottled water, and milk advertisers combined ($367 million)." I can't find numbers for the marketing budgets for the gigantic food companies that stock the middle shelves of supermarkets; but according to Advertising Age, Kraft alone spent $683 million on US advertising in 2012.

By contrast, Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, the USDA’s sub-agency that “works to improve the health and well-being of Americans by developing and promoting dietary guidance that links scientific research to the nutrition needs of consumers," had a proposed budget of $8.7 million in 2013.

Farmworkers Win an Extra Penny From the Ultimate Penny Pincher, Walmart

| Sat Jan. 18, 2014 7:00 AM EST
Walmart representatives John Amaya (left), Tom Leech (center) and CIW’s Lucas Benitez and Gerardo Reyes Chavez (far right) sign an historic agreement at a farm outside of Immokalee, Florida.

Before fast-food workers began agitating for a liveable wage, before Walmart employees began holding public demonstrations to demand better pay from the largest US private employer, there was the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida's vast tomato fields.

Living in dire conditions, disempowered by their status as undocumented migrants from points south, making sub-poverty wages, subjected to often-violent repression and sometimes outright slavery—all depicted in detail in Barry Estabrook's Tomatoland—the workers rolled out an ambitious and quixotic-seeming strategy to improve their lot in the mid-2000s. Rather than continuing to knock their heads against Florida's entrenched tomato barons directly, CIW instead brought battle to their case to the growers' customers: massive fast-food chains.

Using boycotts and partnering with college-student activists, CIW demanded that the chains pay an extra penny per pound for their tomatoes, which would then be passed on directly to the workers. A penny per pound would represent the first major pay raise in years for the workers, and a minor dip in profits for massive chains like McDonalds. Yet the chains fought back, sometimes voraciously.

And then, one by one, they fell: first YUM Brands (Taco Bell) signed the penny-a-pound pledge, then McDonalds, then Burger King, and finally, after a long battle, Chipotle Grill. After that, CIW turned its attention to retailers, signing agreements with Whole Foods and Trader Joe's.

Late Thursday, CIW netted the biggest fish of all: Walmart, by far the largest private food buyer in the US. A company that muscled its way to the top of the US corporate heap by pinching pennies—squeezing suppliers and its own workers relentlessly—has now agreed to shell out an extra penny per pound for tomatoes.

CIW has shown yet again that scrappy workers, sufficiently organized, can win concessions from even the most ruthless companies. Barry Estabrook has more.