Land Line: Our Soil Heritage, Soil Econ, GHG & Ag, CAFOs Crossing the Line, COVID Relief

March 14: An LSP Round-up of News Covering Land, People & Communities

How the Loss of Soil Is Sacrificing America’s Natural Heritage

(3/1/21) Writing in Yale Environment 360, Verlyn Klinkenborg argues that a recent study showing at least 24% of the Midwest's topsoil has been removed by farming documents not just an economic loss for agriculture, but the demise of a "common earthly heritage" and should prompt a hard reexamination of the entire food and farming system. Highlights:

  • Since World War II, the lost fertility once inherent in the Midwest's carbon-rich soils has been replaced by chemical fertilizer, without adding carbonaceous material of any kind. "We’ve been getting our food the wrong way. Industrial farming is like holding up the grocer at gunpoint for a head of lettuce — 'efficient' in the short term, but eventually disastrous," writes Klinkenborg.
  • It's particularly troubling that solutions to the erosion crisis such as no-till farming are well-known, but mostly underutilized. No-till farming consistently takes place on only 15% of the acreage in the heart of the Corn Belt, according to the study.
  • "It’s easy to blame the old farmers — the ones who broke the prairie and their immediate descendants — for not farming in a way that conforms to what we know now," writes Klinkenborg. "But we ourselves aren’t farming the way we now know we should. Who do we blame for that?"

LSP's "100% Soil Healthy Farming Bill" is advancing through the Minnesota Legislature. For details on how to push this groundbreaking legislation past the finish line, check out our recent action alert; on that page, you'll also have an opportunity to sign the "100% Soil Healthy Farming" petition.

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Soil Health Economics Evaluated on 100 Farms

(3/10/21) Improving soil health can help farmers build drought resilience, increase nutrient availability, suppress diseases, reduce erosion and nutrient losses, and increase economic benefits, according to recent research cited in Morning Ag Clips. Highlights:

  • The Soil Health Institute collected data from 100 farmers across nine states: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio, South Dakota, and Tennessee.
  • Results showed soil health practices increased net income for 85% of participating farmers growing corn and 88% of farmers growing soybeans.
  • The farms had used soil health practices to reduce the average cost to grow corn by $24 per acre and soybeans by $17 per acre.
  • They increased net farm income by an average of $52 per acre for corn and $45 per acre for soybeans.
  • “In addition, 97% of the farmers we interviewed reported their soil health management system increased crop resilience to extreme weather,” said researcher John Shanahan.

LSP's Soil Builders web page includes numerous resources on how farmers can profitably increase soil health.

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Food Systems are Responsible for a Third of Global Anthropogenic GHG Emissions

(3/8/21) Food-system emissions represent 34% of total global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, according to a new study published in the journal Nature Food. Highlights:

  • The largest contribution came from agriculture and land use/land-use change activities (71%), with the remaining from supply chain activities: retail, transport, consumption, fuel production, waste management, industrial processes and packaging.
  • The global food system is becoming more energy intensive, with almost a third of food-system emissions coming from energy-related activities.
  • The overall energy use inside the farm gate has increased substantially in the past 25 years. Globally, the study shows an increase of 15% in emissions from the use of energy (electricity, heat and fuels) in the agricultural sector compared with 1990, with the highest increase happening in developing regions (an increase of 50%) such as Africa, Latin America, and Asia.
  • Emissions associated with use of solvents, which are also used to produce pesticides, increased to 15 times the global level, while solvents used for the production of fertilizers increased by 24%.
  • GHG emissions from food distribution are on the rise but "food miles" are less important than packaging when it comes to agriculture's share of energy use. The paper's authors estimate that due to the huge variations in energy needed per transported "food mile," the majority of emissions arise from local to regional transport via road (81%) or rail (15%), rather than navigation (3.6%) or aviation (0.4%). Urban policy and food logistic policies could thus play a significant role in improving the energy efficiency of food systems, conclude the researchers.

On March 18, gather virtually with LSP members and Minnesotans from across the state — along with our partners over at the 100% Clean Energy Campaign — to hear an update on climate and green energy initiatives happening at the state Legislature. Details are here. LSP's white paper on agriculture and climate change, "Farming to Capture Carbon & Address Climate Change Through Building Soil Health", is available here.

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Judge Rules Maryland Must Regulate Air Pollution from Poultry Industry

(3/12/21) The Salisbury Daily Times reports that a judge has ruled that the Maryland Department of the Environment must regulate ammonia released into the air as a water pollutant because some of it falls into waters protected by the federal Clean Water Act. This is a ruling that could have implications for the regulation of CAFOs in general. Highlights:

  • Ammonia, which is a form of nitrogen, is a byproduct of chicken waste. Chickenhouses are equipped with large fans that pull ammonia out of the houses and into the air to prevent toxic buildups. Nitrogen is a nutrient that helps plants grow, but in overabundance helps to create rapid boom-and-bust cycles that rob oxygen from bodies of water in "dead zones" where little can live.
  • While landmark federal environmental laws like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act are quite comprehensive, the concept of pollution that crosses from one zone into another is not factored into either. Though it is well-known that the poultry industry's ammonia releases cross from one medium to another, those releases have so far only been regulated under the Clean Water Act. The EPA has not set air emissions standards for industrial-scale animal-feeding operations, citing a lack of data.
  • Data on air pollution from CAFOs like chickenhouses is typically of poor quality, primarily because pushback from the agricultural community and some members of Congress has kept these air emissions from being monitored.
  • A multistate study of air emissions from a variety of animal feeding operations, including poultry, by the EPA is anticipated to drop draft models in June on ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and particulate matter emissions.

Check out LSP's fact sheet: "Hydrogen Sulfide & Factory Farms: How a group of rural residents made Minnesota hog factories accountable for the hydrogen sulfide gas they produce."

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Congress Passes Coronavirus Relief Bill with $23 Billion for Farming & Food

(3/10/21) The $1.9-trillion coronavirus relief bill recently passed by Congress contains an estimated $23 billion in food and farming provisions, including a sizable injection of federal cash to bolster supply chains and to expand nutritional assistance for hungry families, according to Modern Farmer. The bill also provides roughly $4 billion in debt relief for Black farmers and other groups who have long been subject to systemic racism in federal ag policy. Highlights:

  • The bill devotes about $4 billion to respond to disruptions to the food supply chain caused by the pandemic, and to make it more resilient moving forward. It also boosts the amount of food the government buys directly from farmers for distribution at food banks and other nonprofits. It includes cash for smaller grants and loans to help companies buy personal protective equipment, COVID-19 tests, and other safety items to protect food workers.
  • Under the bill, Black, Indigenous, Hispanic, and and other farmers of color can have up to 120% of their outstanding federal farm loans forgiven. A related provision includes another $1 billion to help those same farmers with training, education, and other forms of assistance acquiring land. This money will fund a newly created commission on racial equity at the USDA.

LSP and our allies are demanding that the Biden administration and its USDA leadership address numerous issues early in Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's tenure, including systemic racism, consolidations, support for beginning farmers, market access, promoting soil-friendly farming, and developing a regional food system. You can make your voice heard on these and other ag issues via our recent action alert.

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Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter.