Land Line: Greenwashing Manure, Climate & Organics, Graziers Needed, Black Farmers, Rural Health Crisis

Jan. 7: An LSP Round-up of News Covering Land, People & Communities

As the Livestock Industry Touts Manure-to-Energy Projects, Environmentalists Cry ‘Greenwashing’

(12/7/21) Inside Climate News reports that as utilities, oil companies, and livestock companies pitch biogas (turning manure into energy) as an emissions-reducing solution, critics say it simply locks in systems that allow two highly polluting industries to continue unchecked and without truly tackling their climate impact. Highlights:

  • Initially, the idea of capturing methane from manure lagoons and converting it into biogas seemed like a viable way to lower methane emissions. That green distinction, though, is based on faulty math, critics say. Most methane from livestock comes from the burps of cows — which biogas systems do nothing to divert. Those systems then lead to more cows, more manure, and more methane pollution.
  • These systems cost tens of thousands of dollars to install, are expensive to maintain and only make economic sense on farms with high numbers of animals, which tends to motivate the expansion of existing farms that are already large.
  • Biogas development is creating a new revenue stream for the livestock industry, potentially spurring big operators to expand and add more animals to their inventories.
  • “They make these claims that they’re going to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by so much because this methane was going into the air, but that assumes that emissions from industrial livestock are natural. They’re a human-induced problem,” said Sasan Saadat, an analyst with The Right To Zero campaign, an effort by EarthJustice to push California toward net-zero energy. “When animals are raised on pastures, their manure decomposes. Livestock consolidation leads to manure lagoons and the manure lagoons are what’s responsible for the methane pollution.”

Check out LSP's special report, The Money Pit: How Minnesota Property Taxpayers are Subsidizing Factory Farms.

As Fertilizers Spread Worldwide, Researchers Find Herbivores Can't Keep Up with Excess Grasses

(12/26/20) Herds of wild zebra, buffalo, deer, and other herbivores on six continents can't keep up with all the extra plant life dominating grasslands around the world, reports the Star Tribune. Certain grasses have been growing taller, thicker and, faster because of the nutrients and fertilizers humans have introduced both directly and indirectly into otherwise wild places. Highlights:

  • There simply aren't enough grazers left in most places to forage or mow down the extra plant life, according to a study led by the University of Minnesota at more than 50 grasslands worldwide.
  • Nutrient pollution has become so prevalent that humans are essentially fertilizing every grassland on Earth. It's coming from the land, and what farmers and homeowners are spreading on fields and lawns, and from runoff into rivers and streams.

  • Extra plant life is a problem because each fall as the plants die, all that added weight and biomass becomes fuel for wildfires. In places less prone to fire, such as Minnesota, exotic nutrient-loving grasses are crowding out native plants and small flowers needed by bees and other pollinators.
  • "…this suggests that restoration of wild herbivores and even some form of domestic grazing, with cattle or possibly goats, seem promising to avoid things like fire risk or the loss of species and biodiversity," says U of M researcher Elizabeth Borer.

LSP's Grazing & Soil Health web page includes links to fact sheets, videos, articles, and other resources.

Can Organic Farming Solve the Climate Crisis?

(12/15/20) While there is some evidence pointing to organic farming’s climate benefits, there are a wide range of approaches, and some worry that industrial-scale organics haven’t maintained a focus on soil health, according to Civil Eats.

  • In a 2017 study, researchers at Northeastern University’s National Soil Project (in collaboration with the Organic Center) found that soils on organic farms sequestered 26% more carbon than conventional farms.
  • Organic farmers create significantly less new reactive nitrogen — a category of nitrogen that includes nitrous oxide and other harmful forms like nitrate, which pollutes groundwater — compared to conventional farmers.
  • While grass-fed cows produce more methane per unit of milk or meat due to longer lives, some research has shown that shown careful, managed grazing may sequester enough carbon in soil to offset those emissions.
  • There are many organic farms going above and beyond what the certification requires, but the industry is now dominated by large, industrial operations. Recent USDA data showed that just 17% of all organic farms sell 84% of the food. Many of those farms do the minimum required for certification, and organic produce companies can now certify container growing and hydroponic systems, which don’t include soil and therefore might take carbon sequestration out of the equation.

Check out LSP's Carbon Farming web page.

When Meat is Sourced from 'Independent Family Farms,' What Does That Really Mean?

(1/5/21) The Counter reports that Cargill’s heavy marketing emphasis on its “independent farmers” when selling poultry products has long rankled anti-monopoly advocates. They argue that it misleads eaters, who may believe that they’re buying poultry directly from producers. They argue that it eats away at the market for food that was actually produced without involvement of the country’s largest meatpackers. And now, a coalition of consumer interest groups is going one step further to argue that the use of such language is a form of false advertising that violates federal law. Highlights:

  • Like most processors, Cargill sources poultry from farmers through contract growing arrangements. In this set-up, companies like Cargill dictate almost all terms of production — from the chicks that growers raise to the feed that birds eat to the processing and sale of finished products. The company even has the power to mandate costly equipment and housing upgrades that can trap farmers in cycles of debt. Because of this lopsided arrangement, the Small Business Administration in 2018 went so far as to deem that contract growers be treated as subsidiaries, rather than independent farming operations, when it came to federal lending decisions
  • As such, argues the coalition led by Family Farm Action Alliance, Cargill’s continued use of the term “independent farms” in its advertisements and packaging amounts to “unlawful consumer deception.” In November, the groups filed a formal petition to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), calling on regulators to prohibit the company from using the term in its marketing.
  • USDA’s Economic Research Service defines “family farm” fairly broadly, including any operation where the operator, or their relatives, own at least half of the business. That includes 98% of all farms in the country, according to the latest report on the model. However, neither USDA nor FTC has a firm definition for what makes a farm “independent” — a primary point of contention in Family Farm Action Alliance’s petition.

LSP's Farmer-Eater Exchange lists member-farmers who have meat and other items available for direct-sale.

'We Wanted to Work the Land with Our Kids': the Black US Farmers Reclaiming the Soil

(12/22/20) There is a nationwide movement seeking to address the systemic racism denying Black people land and food sovereignty, writes Donnell Alexander in the Guardian. Highlights:

  • There were more than 900,000 Black farmers in the U.S. in 1920, but of the country’s 3.4 million total farmers, just 45,000 are Black, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture. That’s just over 1% of farmers, despite Black or African American people making up 13% of the U.S. population.
  • In 1997, a class discrimination lawsuit was filed, Pigford vs. Glickman, which would find that the USDA had discriminated against Black farmers from 1983 to 1997. Its controversial settlement injected $1 billion into Black farming, but dragged on for years.
  • A paucity of Black-owned farms means a dearth of healthy food right in the middle of communities of color, which often lack decent supermarkets and fresh produce. According to a report from the National Institutes of Health studying trends in food insecurity from 2001 to 2016, “food insecurity rates for both non-Hispanic Black and Hispanic households were at least twice that of non-Hispanic white households.”
  • But in states like Oregon, things are changing. “The interest in urban farming has grown threefold” in this region, says Eddie Hill, co-director of the Black Food Sovereignty Coalition, a nonprofit organization that works with BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) growers. The number of Black-owned farms within 50 miles of Portland has doubled from eight to 16 during the past five years.

LSP's Racial Justice web page provides updates, action items, and resources for engaging in racial justice work in our communities.

Why Democrats Keep Losing Rural Counties Like Mine

(12/1/20) In a commentary, Bill Hogseth writes in Politico that the Democratic Party will continue to lose votes in rural communities like his unless it addresses the "pain and struggle" he and his neighbors are dealing with every day. "I’ve come to believe…the national Democratic Party has not offered rural voters a clear vision that speaks to their lived experiences," concludes Dunn, who is chair of the Dunn County Democratic Party in Wisconsin. Highlights:

  • Small-business growth has slowed in rural communities since the Great Recession, and it has only worsened with COVID-19. As capital overwhelmingly flows to metro areas, the small-town economy increasingly is dominated by large corporations: low-wage retailers like Dollar General or agribusiness firms that have no connection to the community.
  • Farmers’ share of every retail food dollar has fallen from about 50% in 1952 to 15% today. Corporations control more and more of the agriculture business — from the seed and fertilizer farmers buy to the grain, milk, and meat they sell — sucking out profits instead of giving farmers a fair price or a fair shot at the market. Every day, small farmers are squeezed: They can either expand their operations and take on more debt in an attempt to produce more, or close their business entirely because of chronically low commodity prices.
  • About 28% of rural Wisconsinites lack high-speed internet, which stifles rural economic growth.
  • At least 176 rural hospitals have closed since 2005, the majority of them in the past 10 years; it’s generally not profitable for hospitals to operate in low-population areas. Rural people in Wisconsin are dying by suicide at rates higher than folks in suburban and urban parts of the state. This is not just a matter of poor mental health services — many rural counties lack a single practicing psychiatrist.
  • Rural voters appreciated Barack Obama’s repeated campaign promises to challenge the rise of agribusiness monopolies. But as president, he allowed for the continued consolidation of corporate power in the food system.
  • Concludes Hogseth: "For Democrats to start telling a story that resonates, they need to show a willingness to fight for rural people, and not just by proposing a 'rural plan' or showing up on a farm for a photo op. Rural people understand economic power and the grip it has on lawmakers. We know reform won’t be easy. A big step forward for Democrats would be to champion antitrust enforcement and challenge the anti-competitive practices of the gigantic agribusiness firms that squeeze our communities."

A recent LSP blog outlines LSP's priorities for the 2021 Minnesota legislative session.

'Toxic Individualism': Pandemic Politics Driving Health Care Workers From Small Towns

(12/28/20) COVID-19 has exposed a weakness in many rural communities, where divisive pandemic politics are alienating some of their most critical residents — health care workers, reports National Public Radio. A wave of departing medical professionals would leave gaping holes in the rural health care system, and small-town economies, triggering a death spiral in some of these areas that may be hard to stop. Highlights:

  • Health care professionals in rural areas are finding their recommendations for dealing with COVID-19 are prompting antagonism from local residents, even as these same communities become major virus hot spots. As a result, many are leaving the profession or moving out of communities already suffering from lack of quality health care.
  • More than a quarter of all the public health administrators in Kansas quit, retired, or got fired this year, according to Vicki Collie-Akers, an associate professor of population health at the University of Kansas. Some of them got death threats. Some had to hire armed guards.
  • Alan Morgan, CEO of the National Rural Health Association, says this is happening across a lot of rural America. Rural hospitals were in deep trouble before the pandemic. Morgan says 132 of them have closed since 2010. COVID-19 made matters worse. "It's been a terrible, an absolute terrible, no good year for rural health," Morgan says.

For more on LSP's work to provide quality, affordable healthcare for farmers and other rural residents, see our Affordable Healthcare for All web page.

Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter.