Growing Returns

This partnership between environmentalists and corn growers is breaking new ground

Throughout Environmental Defense Fund’s history and my nearly two decades of working on our agriculture team, collaborations with unlikely allies have proven to be a powerful, necessary way to unleash transformative sustainability solutions.

It’s in that spirit that EDF has partnered with the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA), which represents the interests of more than 300,000 corn farmers, to address one of the most pressing challenges facing our food and agriculture system – how to improve environmental outcomes while optimizing crop productivity and economic performance.

This partnership marks the first time an environmental nonprofit and commodity crop association have joined forces at this scope and scale. Here’s how it came about and what we’ve committed to tackle together. Read More »

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Monarch butterflies are migrating in large numbers, with support from some unlikely allies

Monarch butterflies fueled on recently planted prairie habitat on hog farms in Missouri this summer before beginning their annual fall migration south.

You may have noticed more monarch butterflies than usual this year. There’s a reason for that.

Researchers are finding that monarch populations are at the fourth highest level since 1993 – making this year’s population currently migrating south for the winter one of the highest of the past 25 years.

That’s great news for the beloved orange and black butterfly, which has faced a 95 percent population decline since the 1980s. This dramatic loss has been driven largely by increased applications of herbicides across the agricultural landscape, and additional threats posed by extreme weather and climate change.

But citizens, conservationists and even some forward-thinking companies are highly motivated to help recover the monarch before it’s too late.

Read More »

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Four near-term market and policy opportunities for increasing agricultural resilience

Every day farmers across the U.S. face unprecedented pressures from a variety of factors, including policy and regulations, markets and trade, and variability in input costs. With extreme weather becoming a new normal and the global population climbing toward 11 billion people by 2100, it is imperative that we build a food and agriculture system that can absorb and recover from these stresses.

This summer, Environmental Defense Fund, National Corn Growers Association and Farm Journal Foundation convened a stakeholder dialogue about the challenges facing the agriculture industry and recommended paths forward.

A new white paper [PDF] summarizes key findings from the discussion, which also included ideas for better equipping farmers with the tools and incentives they need to identify and adopt climate-smart solutions.

Here are four policy and market opportunities that can help boost agricultural resilience. Read More »

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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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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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The market for grassland carbon credits is on the rise. Here’s why.

A new study from UC Davis found that “grasslands and rangelands are more resilient carbon sinks than forests in 21st century California.”

While forests remain vital to global climate mitigation efforts, the increasing frequency and severity of wildfires has heightened the need to explore additional carbon sinks in fire-prone regions. Grasslands lock carbon into the soil, and they don’t release it during wildfires.

Photo credit: Nicole Rosmarino, Executive Director of the Southern Plains Land Trust

It’s because of this resilient carbon-capturing power that grasslands and rangelands are essential to meeting climate goals. Unfortunately, these ecosystems are being converted into croplands at the highest rate in decades. Landowners converted 1.6 million acres of long-term grasslands – those that have existed for 20 years or more – into croplands between 2008 and 2012.

Record high land rental values make land conversion a compelling economic choice, but a new market opportunity may soon change this calculus. Read More »

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Elite food consumers won’t make sustainable ag the norm. Here’s what will.

I recently participated on a panel discussion with a provocative title: “Elite Food Consumers: A Force for Environmental Good?” The panel was moderated by The Washington Post columnist Tamar Haspel and organized by the Breakthrough Institute.

It was a great discussion because there is no doubt that consumer preferences are changing food – and not just for elite consumers. Even the larger and more affordable food retailers are responding to new consumer demands for how food is produced, what ingredients it contains and how products are marketed. But consumer choices alone won’t reshape the food system.

Minimizing the environmental footprint of agriculture – in ways that don’t hurt farmers’ profitability or consumers’ pocketbooks – will require additional levers. Read More »

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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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Farmers join international climate talks prepared to take action

Nearly one year ago, President Trump announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement. In the absence of federal government leadership, the agriculture sector is making its voice heard in the international climate change discussions taking place this week at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany.

Farmers are on the front lines of a changing climate and increasingly extreme weather. They know that climate-smart agriculture is critical to ensuring their operations continue for generations to come. That’s why they’re pulling up a chair to take a seat at the global climate table. Read More »

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Farmers open their books to show financial impact of conservation

Farm accountants have a lot more to offer than advice on how to maximize tax returns. In fact, they play a pivotal role in scaling conservation.

Environmental Defense Fund and K·Coe Isom AgKnowledge, a managerial accounting service for farmers and ranchers, teamed up with three Midwestern grain farmers to study how the adoption of conservation practices affects farm budgets.

These farmers, based in Iowa, Kansas, and Ohio, have all adopted some combination of no-till, crop rotations, cover crops and nutrient management. They were generous enough to open up their books so that AgKnowledge could analyze the financial impact of these conservation activities.

The full report will be out later this year, but initial results show how conservation can benefit farmers’ bottom lines. Here are three lessons we learned from this analysis. Read More »

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