Growing Returns

How one company’s sustainability goal is poised to change an entire industry

Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, has committed to a major increase in manure-to-energy projects. The company will invest in infrastructure and provide farmer incentives to install manure lagoon covers and digesters on 90 percent of its total hog finishing capacity, a standardized measurement that excludes sow and nursery farms, in North Carolina, Missouri and Utah over the next ten years.

This is a major step forward for the hog industry. Open lagoon and sprayfield systems of manure management are predominant in North Carolina and raise concerns about greenhouse gas emissions, water quality, odor and resilience to extreme rainfall.

There are currently only a few manure-to-energy projects in North Carolina. This commitment from Smithfield means they will become the new status quo.

The company’s largest source of greenhouse gases is methane emitted from open manure lagoons. Here’s how this commitment will turn that liability into an asset – and how we can ensure that it delivers the full potential benefits of the change. Read More »

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How can we reduce losses from coastal storms? Monitor the health of our coasts.

With a rapidly changing climate and more frequent extreme events like floods and droughts, comprehensive environmental monitoring will be increasingly important for coastal planners, farmers and others invested in natural resource management.

Monitoring efforts can cover the whole spectrum of environmental and socioeconomic concerns to provide a holistic picture of ecosystem health over the short- and long-term. This can help to inform future decisions and planning based on the most recent conditions and trends.

However, it can be difficult to coordinate monitoring efforts across political boundaries and agencies, and monitoring is expensive to maintain over time.

Luckily, Louisiana is already a world leader in utilizing collaborative monitoring data to inform coastal restoration and planning efforts. Read More »

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Lake Erie cleanup efforts highlight need for market drivers

Every year, blue-green algae in Lake Erie impacts lake tourism and sometimes elevates concentrations of a toxin that can harm human health and impair drinking water. While multiple sources contribute to this nutrient-fueled problem, fertilizer runoff from farms is the largest.

Cleaning up the lake requires farmers’ active participation, and many agricultural conservation partnerships with farmers are underway in the Lake Erie basin. For example, the Lake Erie Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) helps farmers and landowners defray the costs of setting aside land and planting grasses or wildflowers, or creating wetlands to help capture and treat nutrients leaving the farm field.

Algae bloom along Lake Erie shoreline

Photo credit: NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory

The first wave of Lake Erie CREP contracts began to expire last month, highlighting a growing vulnerability for this conservation model: how to maintain conservation practices on marginal, less productive or flood-prone acres after the initial contract runs out.

This question is especially urgent for land in sensitive areas that provides disproportionately large ecosystem benefits like water filtration. Read More »

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We can solve North Carolina’s manure challenges. Here’s how.

Hurricane Florence caused more than $1.1 billion in agricultural losses, according to the latest estimates from the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Row crop losses total nearly $990 million. Livestock, poultry and aquaculture damages total $23 million, and include the deaths of 4.1 million chickens and 5,500 hogs.

Many farmers and friends have confided to me that flooding from Florence has been worse than the flooding caused by Hurricane Floyd, which until now had been North Carolinians’ point of reference for agricultural devastation wrought by too much water. Florence also followed on the heels of 2016’s Hurricane Matthew, which caused flooding that many communities in North Carolina’s coastal plains had only just recovered from.

The losses for farmers, their families and rural communities are staggering. This devastation underscores the need for action. Solutions exist to help the agricultural sector build resilience and long-term prosperity, but the private and public sectors can’t delay implementing them any longer.  Read More »

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3 urgent steps for North Carolina to build back stronger and smarter

Hurricane Florence’s arrival so soon after Hurricane Matthew serves as an urgent reminder that new, effective and rapidly implementable solutions are required to meet the challenges of a new normal of extreme weather.

“It’s clear that we’re going to have to build back not only stronger, but smarter. When you have two so-called 500-year floods within a 23-months period, you know we’re not talking about 500-year floods. We’ve got to work to make sure we make smart decisions.”
– North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper after surveying extreme flooding from Hurricane Florence

It’s time to invest in three proven approaches to flood preparedness and economic development so that our communities can bounce forward to a more prosperous, safe and resilient future. Read More »

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Trump attacks vital conservation tool for threatened and endangered species, misses real problem

Critical habitat designations are an essential tool in the Endangered Species Act (ESA) toolbox. They are the primary mechanism Congress created to accomplish the goal of the act, “to provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend may be conserved.”

Critical habitat is the science-based determination of specific areas that are essential for a species’ survival. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service designate critical habitat for threatened and endangered species, like the marbled murrelet and piping plover, to signal to federal agencies, landowners, industries and conservationists where habitat protections should be prioritized and impacts avoided. Photo credit: Kathy1006

Because habitat loss and fragmentation is currently the leading cause of extinction, it’s vital to protect areas that currently contain the physical and biological features that are essential for species survival today.

Supporting imperiled species also requires that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service (Services) identify and protect historic ranges that can be restored or rehabilitated, provide key features or dynamic forces essential to species, or potentially become suitable habitat due to climate change. Critical habitat designations are the tool the Services use to do this.

As important as they are, critical habitat designations don’t come without controversy. Read More »

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Following Florence, lessons from Harvey in recovery and resilience

With the impacts of Hurricane Florence continuing to unfold, coastal communities in the Southeast will soon be looking to other coastal areas, like Houston, as models for rebuilding resiliently. By doing so, they can speed their recovery and build back in smart ways – because that’s what resilience is all about.

For Houston, it wasn’t a single event that triggered discussions of resilience. Houston residents have faced a decade of intense storms and floods, with Hurricane Ike in 2008, the Memorial Day Flood of 2015, the Tax Day Flood of 2016 and Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Together, these repeat catastrophic events sounded the alarm that past approaches to managing flood waters are not sufficient.

Last week, I went to Houston to help decision-makers explore how the city can realize its aim to become more resilient. One year after Harvey, Houston is still learning from its experiences and building upon lessons learned from mega-disasters like Katrina and Sandy to move more rapidly into resilience-building phases. That’s good news, because with more frequent, intense weather events, communities across the nation are going to have to rebuild smarter.

Once communities and officials in the Southeast begin thinking about recovery from Florence and preparing to rebuild, there are four key lessons they can learn from Houston after Harvey that will ultimately help them strengthen the social, economic and environmental fabric of the region. Read More »

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As much as Trump would like, economics do not trump science. These laws say so.

The Trump administration has made several attempts to remove science-based decision-making at multiple federal agencies, including those responsible for keeping the American public and our nation’s vital ecosystems healthy.

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

The latest proposal to insert economic considerations into Endangered Species Act (ESA) decisions is not only illegal – prohibited by the act itself – it’s also a misplaced attempt at incorporating economics where they simply do not belong.

It’s the latest in this administration’s politicization of science and, if successful, will ultimately interfere with efforts to craft durable, realistic solutions to public and ecosystem health. Read More »

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The groundwater manager’s dilemma: How to comply with new California law without changing water rights

by Christina Babbitt and Daniel M. Dooley, New Current Water and Land

Over the next two years, more than 100 groundwater sustainability agencies in California will have to hammer out a plan to make their groundwater basins sustainable.

But as mangers in many areas work to combat decades of over-pumping, they face a major dilemma: In dividing the groundwater pie to avoid overuse, they can’t change Byzantine groundwater rights that date as far back as 1903.

In a new working paper, “Groundwater Pumping Allocations under California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act,” Environmental Defense Fund and New Current Water and Land – a California-based consulting firm – provide water managers with a recommended approach to navigate this challenge and develop plans that are more durable, and thus likely to succeed, under the new Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA).

Groundwater pumps in California’s Pajaro Valley. Photo credit: USDA

Choosing which approach is best is a critical step for cutting back groundwater use, which many basins will have to do, and for creating water trading systems, which many basins are considering to better manage increasingly limited groundwater. Before you create a market, you have to define who has how much – in this case, groundwater pumping rights – in order to trade. Read More »

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What a New York Times op-ed misses about living with climate change

There’s so much that Dr. Erle C. Ellis gets right in his recent op-ed in The New York Times, “Science Alone Won’t Save the Earth. People Have to Do That.

We’re exceeding Earth’s planetary boundaries. We need to adjust our expectations about what a new normal will look like. And there’s no single optimal solution for thriving in a changing climate.

Photo Credit: NOAA Photo Library

But in making the case that it is people who will decide the future and not science or natural limits, Dr. Ellis falls into the binary trap he’s encouraging us to avoid. It’s not an either/or proposition.

We need both science and people to make our land and water systems more resilient so humanity and nature can prosper. Heck, we need every tool in the shed, including community engagement, flexible policy, money and good old-fashioned political will.

It may sound like an impossible order, but it’s already happening in some surprising places. Read More »

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