Growing Returns

Anthony Bourdain taught us the power of sharing a meal and leaving biases at the door

"What I aspire to is the grace with which he was able to meet people where they were and, at the same time, challenge preconceived notions."

I never knew Anthony Bourdain or even saw him in person. Yet, that he existed in the world – that I could turn on the TV or pick up something he'd written and get a dose of inspiration, or laughter, or learn something about food, life, relationships, or what it means to be authentic – was such a gift.

His 1999 New Yorker essay “Don’t Eat Before Reading This,” and subsequent book, Kitchen Confidential, were full of bombast, bad-ass adventure and raw truth-telling. That made him fun to read, and later to watch. But if that is all it was, I doubt I’d find his death so devastatingly sad.

It was his passion for his craft, his love of people, and, ultimately, his talent for being able to suspend his own (strong) biases and beliefs in order to bring people together, that resonates deeply with me as I think about the work I lead for Environmental Defense Fund.

Bridging cultural divides

Bourdain often said that Parts Unknown, the “food show” that made him a global celebrity, wasn’t ever really about food. It was about people. It was about sitting down with them and learning who they were. It was about sharing ideas, asking questions, and opening up their world and their worldviews to the rest of us.

He embraced the dichotomy of the world being a really big place and a small planet all at the same time. Read More »

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What to watch for during today’s farm bill markup in the House

The House Agriculture Committee meets today to begin markup on the 2018 draft farm bill. While markup is only the first step of a long process, it will tell us a lot about the road ahead.

The farm bill provides the largest source of federal funding for conservation on private lands – and with 70 percent of U.S. land privately managed, the farm bill is a major driver of efforts to improve water and air quality, increase wildlife habitat and build drought resilience.

While much of the focus will be on whether the Conservation Stewardship Program will be folded into the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), here are six additional conservation items to keep an eye on during markup. Read More »

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3 reasons animal agriculture should be leading the way on supply chain sustainability

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicted that Americans will eat a record-breaking amount of meat in 2018 [PDF] – 223 pounds per person of chicken, pork and beef. That’s why I went to Atlanta last week to speak to environmental managers for the nation’s largest meat companies at a conference held by the North American Meat Institute.

My message for those I met? Animal agriculture should be leading the way in addressing the full impacts of their supply chains, from feed grain production all the way to the consumer.

Read More »

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The next Farm Bill can jump-start agricultural conservation. Here’s how.

An Ohio farmer uses the latest agricultural technology.

Precision agriculture technology can accelerate on-farm conservation, including nutrient management. (Photo: John Rae)

Benjamin Franklin, an experimental farmer and author of Poor Richard’s Almanac, once said that in order to succeed, you must jump as quickly at opportunity as you do at conclusions.

The 2018 Farm Bill is an opportunity for agriculture policy to champion locally led projects, new ideas and entrepreneurship. Such policies can move the needle on conservation outcomes with relatively minimal investment from the federal government. So let’s jump quickly.

In the face of a changing climate, growing population and complex macroeconomic shifts, agricultural resiliency is more important than ever. We need to protect water quality, address climate impacts, establish species habitat and maintain farm profitability. Government alone can’t accomplish these goals. But smart policies can catalyze investments and innovations that do. Read More »

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Bridging the gap between farm and table

As a student at the George Washington University (GWU), I’ve had the privilege to attend classes taught by Dr. Kathleen Merrigan, former Deputy Secretary of Agriculture and current Executive Director of Sustainability at GWU.

I recently reconnected with Dr. Merrigan at a Washington, D.C. event called Transformers: Food, where she spoke on a panel about how technology and science are changing agriculture, revolutionizing modern food systems and changing the way we consume food.

Afterward, we sat down to talk about how farmers and consumers are adapting to these changes, and what we can look forward to as new movements arise.

At the Transformers: Food event, you mentioned that our society has recently become fixated with food and agriculture. What do you think has fueled this fascination? Read More »

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3 ways the Farm Bill can protect croplands from extreme weather

Photo Credit: Flickr user Benjamin Disinger (License)

Here’s a statement that everyone can agree on, regardless of politics: Farmers benefit from making their croplands more resilient to the effects of extreme weather.

Report after report, including a study this week in the journal Nature Geoscience, has shown that shifting climatic conditions will hit agriculture hard, threatening food supplies and farmers’ incomes. This week’s report found that in years when the Arctic was warmer than normal, the average decline in yields across the United States was as high as 4 percent – and in Texas, corn yields were as low as 20 percent of what they are in typical years.

Farmers can take steps to protect their operations from extreme weather – but they can’t do it alone.

The 2018 Farm Bill can and should play a powerful role in helping farmers adapt to changing climatic conditions by prioritizing and supporting public-private partnerships, innovation, and financial models that can accelerate deployment of conservation practices.

Read More »

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3 ways Amazon's purchase of Whole Foods could affect agriculture and the environment

Photo credit: USDA

The vast majority of the media stories surrounding Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods have focused on how the deal could affect the cost of food, home delivery services, competition in the retail space and our overall shopping experiences.

While it’s still too early to predict what exactly Amazon will do with hundreds of new brick and mortar grocery stores, here are three possible implications for farmers and the land they rely on to grow our food.

1. Demand for organic could skyrocket

As of last month, organic products represented more than 5 percent of all grocery sales in the US – and organics have been one of the strongest areas of growth for many retailers and grocery stores.

Now, with Whole Foods under the Amazon umbrella, that demand could increase exponentially. POLITICO noted that if this happens, “domestic organic acreage isn’t positioned to handle such an expansion.” Read More »

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How food companies can turn the pollinator emergency into a big opportunity

The rusty patched bumblebee was listed as an endangered species in early 2017

The rusty patched bumblebee was listed as an endangered species in early 2017. [Photo credit]

Bees, beetles and butterflies are in big trouble.

Pollinators all over the world are experiencing dramatic declines in populations, with about 40 percent of all invertebrate pollinator species facing a very real threat of extinction. Just last October, several species of bees were added to the U.S. Endangered Species List for the first time. Monarch butterfly populations also face the potential threat of a future listing, with populations down by more than 90 percent in recent decades.

These stats are concerning because pollinator health is a strong indicator of an ecosystem’s overall health. Pollinator decline directly correlates with habitat loss, decreased plant diversity, and increased disease in the ecosystem.

This problem cannot be solved by any one sector. Restoration of pollinator habitats will require significant investment and collaboration between both public and private sectors – especially businesses with bottom lines directly tied to pollinator success. Read More »

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What does the end of the Paris deal mean for agricultural innovation?

Agriculture has faced increasing disruption from extreme weather and climate shifts over the past 40 years.

In the face of an ever-changing climate, agricultural innovation is more important than ever.

No matter your views on climate change, the United States’ exit from the Paris agreement could compromise the ability of farmers and agribusinesses to become more resilient in the face of extreme weather events.

In the absence of federal leadership, individual farmers, state and national ag associations, food companies, retailers, and environmental organizations will need to fill the void.

I’m confident we can do this, because all the farmers I’ve ever known are incredible innovators and are willing to implement practices that can mitigate the effects of an unpredictable climate – practices that also protect their businesses. Read More »

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Why Sonny Perdue should prioritize these 3 farm programs

Sonny Perdue will now lead the United States Department of AgricultureThe U.S. Senate will confirm the Secretary of Agriculture today, empowering former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue to lead an agency with a $155 billion budget, some 100,000 employees and ultimate responsibility for our nation’s food security.

Over 80 percent of this budget goes toward farm programs, food stamps, school meals and other mandatory spending programs. The remainder goes to protect farmers’ livelihoods, rural economies and the environment – but according to the Administration’s budget proposals, this pot of funding could be cut by over 21 percent.

Retaining current funding levels for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) – and conservation programs in particular – ensures that farmers can remain productive during periods of extreme weather, protects habitat for wildlife without sacrificing profitability and improves on-farm efficiencies.

Secretary Perdue will need to advocate on behalf of farmers to protect these programs – and he’ll need help from the private sector, since the federal government alone cannot maintain farming as a core industry in America, make sustainable agriculture the norm or feed a growing population.

Here are three programs that provide widespread benefits – and that should be a top priority for the new Secretary. Read More »

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