Growing Returns

3 must-haves for USDA to cut agriculture’s environmental footprint in half

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new Agriculture Innovation Agenda sets a promising and necessary goal: Cut the environmental footprint of U.S. agriculture in half by 2050. The agency aims to achieve this in part through lower greenhouse gas emissions, improved water quality and increased soil health.

Meeting this objective will not only benefit the people who rely on American farmers and the natural resources they steward. It will also make agriculture part of the solution and build climate resilience on the front lines – America’s farms.

Farmers are coming off one of the most difficult growing seasons on record, and more extreme and variable weather is becoming the norm. Boosting climate resilience to reduce production risk has never been more essential.

But for USDA to effectively deliver on this goal, it will need to arm itself – and farmers – with robust data, science and economics. Here are three ways that USDA can boost its climate roadmap to put U.S. agriculture on the path to success. Read More »

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This bill will protect scarce water supplies for rural Arizona, if the Legislature can pass it

Breakthrough reporting by the Arizona Republic widely exposed what is perhaps one of the state’s darkest water secrets: Groundwater pumping is essentially unregulated in nearly 80% of the state, putting the livelihoods and water supplies of up to 1.5 million residents at risk.

Groundwater is essential for life in the Southwest. It makes up about 40% of the water that Arizonans use each year. In many of the state’s rural areas, groundwater is the only available water supply.

Although Arizona regulates groundwater in and around Phoenix and Tucson, there are no limits on groundwater pumping in most of the state. As a result, more than a third of Arizona’s perennial rivers have been lost or altered; the city of Kingman’s main aquifer is projected to run out of water in 60 years or less; and residents in rural Arizona are already seeing their wells run dry.

Lack of oversight and transparency on groundwater pumping has left communities and rural citizens powerless to secure their water supplies.

Without action by the Arizona Legislature to address this crisis, rural communities will face ever-mounting groundwater challenges as populations grow, out-of-state mega farms move in and persistent drought continues. Fortunately, state leaders – both Republicans and Democrats – are now coming forward with legislation to tackle rural groundwater challenges. Read More »

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To preserve its coast, Louisiana must plan for the future

By Dr. Denise Reed, Professor Gratis, University of New Orleans

Coastal Louisiana has changed a lot in the last century. By comparing aerial photographs from the 1930s to today, we can see that change across the coast from an ecosystem once dominated by extensive marshes and lush swamps to one increasingly covered with open water and “ghost forests.”

Each year, our coast creeps farther inland as marshy shorelines erode due to boat wakes, wind and waves. This is called marsh edge erosion, and it’s one of the primary causes of Louisiana’s current land loss crisis.

Future land loss, however, will be driven by different causes. To better understand and prepare for future scenarios, EDF convened a team of scientists from its own organization, the University of New Orleans, Tulane University, The Water Institute of the Gulf and the National Wildlife Federation. Together, we used computer models and data from Louisiana’s 2017 Coastal Master Plan to look ahead 50 years and explore the effects of varying sea-level rise and subsidence rates, known as relative sea-level rise.

The recently published results were illuminating and sobering. Here is the main takeaway for Louisiana:

Climate change accelerates land loss.
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Groundwater plans are due in California, but the hard work is just getting started

January 31 is a big day for California water. It’s the day when 19 critically overdrafted groundwater basins must submit plans to the state for how they will bring their groundwater demand in line with available supplies over the next 20 years.

This deadline was set by the state’s most sweeping water law change in a century – the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). SGMA, passed during the last major drought, was designed to put an end to groundwater overpumping and ensure there’s enough water for people, the economy and wildlife in California for generations to come.

SGMA is taking water managers and users into uncharted territory. Since its passage, California water managers have made important progress, creating new groundwater agencies and learning more about their local groundwater supplies and demands. These are important first steps toward sustainability, but SGMA requires a deeper paradigm shift to succeed.

Here are four actions that will help drive this massive shift and move California closer to truly balancing groundwater supply and demand.

Read More »

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What are cover crops doing on a pecan orchard? Hopefully attracting bugs.

You don’t typically hear farmers saying they want to attract bugs to their farm, but that’s what a unique conservation project in California’s Sacramento Valley is doing – determining whether cover crops can attract more at-risk native pollinators, like monarch butterflies, in addition to insects that serve as pest control, like ladybugs.

The project came about thanks to a $3-million monarch and pollinator recovery bill (AB 2421) designed to establish habitat restoration projects for important pollinator species facing steep population losses. Read More »

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Newsom’s Water Resilience Portfolio puts California on course to climate resilience

It is encouraging that one of California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s first actions in 2020 was the Jan. 3 release of the much-anticipated Water Resilience Portfolio.

While Newsom has been forced to address climate change on many fronts during the past year – think wildfires, blackouts and automobile standards – the state’s myriad water challenges must remain a priority. Our state’s water system is decades old and needs to be re-envisioned for a new era. Read More »

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New Jersey prepares for future with seas rising faster than anticipated

Coastal states are particularly vulnerable to climate change, and that is especially true in New Jersey. To better understand and plan for this risk, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) released a new report by Rutgers University that examines the state’s historical rates of sea level rise and updates future projections.

The report finds that sea level has increased at a higher-than-average rate for the Garden State, and seas could rise by an additional six feet by 2100.

Nearly eight years after Superstorm Sandy devastated the state, this and other report findings can help state planners and policymakers take proactive measures to help build resilience and mitigate impacts from rising seas and future storms. Read More »

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Plant-based foods are booming, but we need sustainable meat, too

By Ame Igharo, originally published on the EDF+Business blog

The statistics on plant-based proteins are eye opening: Beyond Meat’s shares have more than tripled in value since in its IPO in May, Impossible Foods can now be found in about 10,000 restaurants, and the market for meat substitutes is expected to reach $2.5 billion by 2023. In fact, dollar sales of plant-based products are growing double digits across the country, and you can now find meat alternatives in Burger King, White Castle and Carl’s Jr, among other chains. Read More »

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Farmer grit created unexpected bright spots in a difficult year

It is a wild understatement to say it has been a hard year in agriculture. It has been a year of loss, heartbreak and stress. As a frontpage Washington Post article captured, “Farm bankruptcies and loan delinquencies are rising, calamitous weather events are ruining crops and profits are vanishing during Trump’s global trade disputes.”

I had to dig deep, but I was determined to find some silver linings.

As I sat with my pen, paper and thoughts, I found I had more and more to write. I was reminded that farmers have amazing grit and determination, which is why, despite the incredible challenges ahead, I remain firmly optimistic that we will find the ways to feed the world while sustaining the natural resources on which we all depend. Read More »

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What 2,000 years of traditional Hopi farming in the arid Southwest can teach about resilience

When Michael Kotutwa Johnson was 8 years old, he began spending much of his time on the Hopi reservation in Arizona with his grandfather, who taught him how to farm.

For more than 2,000 years, the Hopi have been farming without irrigation in an area of Arizona that receives less than 10 inches of rain a year.

“Hopi is a testament to doing a lot with a little,” Mike says. “A raindrop can raise a whole plant.”

Mike went on to study science and public policy in college and recently earned a Ph.D. in natural resource management at the University of Arizona. He is now living back on the Hopi reservation, farming and working as a research associate at the Native American Agricultural Fund. The fund’s mission is to promote the sustainability and viability of Indian agriculture in America, and Mike’s personal mission is to bring more Hopi back to farming.

I had the opportunity to talk to Mike about the Hopi’s unique way of farming and how it can inspire other farmers seeking to become more resilient to climate change and increasingly finite water supplies. Here’s what he shared with me. Read More »

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