Growing Returns

Selected tag(s): Lake Erie

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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Two ways to reduce toxic algal blooms

Toxic algae. Photo: Eric Vance, US EPA

Photo: Eric Vance, US EPA

For a month now, South Florida Atlantic beaches have been blanketed by a sickly green, toxic algae sludge that has kept tourists away and caused local businesses to lose millions.

Florida has a bigger headache this summer than most states, but algae blooms are hardly unique.

Last week, more than 100 people were sickened from toxic algae in a Utah lake largely fed by agricultural runoff and treated sewage water. And just two summers ago, an outbreak in Lake Erie forced the City of Toledo to close off its water supply for nearly half a million residents.

Agricultural runoff also means wasted money for farmers, who can spend approximately half of their input costs on fertilizer.

There are ways to reduce the runoff that contributes to water quality problems and kills marine life, year after year. Algae blooms can be minimized and maybe even prevented if we scale up existing efforts to improve fertilizer efficiency and soil health – practices that can also save farmers money and boost their yields.

Two initiatives and private-sector partnerships are making real headway in doing just that. And if these efforts are replicated at scale, they could have a national – and even international – impact. Read More »

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Targeting conservation dollars makes good sense

Harmful algae bloom in Lake Erie

Summer algae bloom in Lake Erie. Credit: NOAA

A University of Michigan study released late last month implies that in order to meet the U.S. and Canadian governments’ 40 percent phosphorous reduction target for Lake Erie by 2025, farmers will need to significantly ramp up their conservation efforts.

Some of the stories covering this study focused on the more drastic measures called for, such as converting thousands of acres of productive cropland to grassland. But I’m optimistic that we can indeed work with farmers to meet this goal by 2025, without having to impact production so drastically – we can do so through targeting.

Targeting refers to directing conservation dollars and practices to places on the landscapes where they’ll be most effective. In Ohio, that means targeting the areas delivering the highest amount of nutrients into Lake Erie.

Here’s the background on targeting, what the research says, and why targeting should be even more finely tuned and amplified at scale in order to accelerate on the ground environmental improvements. Read More »

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Taking the bloom and gloom out of Lake Erie

NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory .

Green algae in the Great Lakes. Photo credit: NOAA

It’s been one year since a massive algae bloom in Lake Erie contaminated the drinking water of more than 500,000 Ohio residents.

Since that time, we’ve seen an increase in legislative actions and governmental commitments to reduce fertilizer runoff. Yet the harmful algae that showed up last summer have bloomed again. This summer’s catastrophic rains have caused farm fields to flood, sending fertilizer into Lake Erie. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, this year’s algae bloom could be the second largest on record.

Nutrient efficiency and soil health practices can create a powerful antidote to Lake Erie’s bloom and doom cycle. But farmers need more support and guidance in making changes on their farm. And they need to know that these practices won’t reduce yields.

That’s why an innovative platform called SUSTAIN™ is taking off. SUSTAIN provides agricultural retailers with training on the best tools and practices for reducing fertilizer runoff and increasing soil health – but also focuses on maintaining productivity. Earlier this summer, a group of central Ohio retailers became SUSTAIN authorized – and while it’s not a silver bullet, this effort has enormous potential to keep Lake Erie’s algae blooms at bay.

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More reasons to embrace food sustainability

farm

Credit: Flickr user Ruben Holthuijsen

There is no shortage of news about the contamination of drinking water sources caused by fertilizer run-off from agriculture. And there is no shortage of regulatory responses to these events: Ohio and Michigan’s commitment to reduce phosphorus levels in Lake Erie by 40 percent; the nitrate lawsuit in Des Moines, Iowa, and Monday’s ruling on the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to enforce total maximum daily load specifications for the Chesapeake Bay.

In addition, food companies wanting to source sustainably grown grains to meet that consumer demand and reduce their own supply chain risks are sending the same signal, further shining the spotlight on the growing demand for improved environmental outcomes from how we produce food.

If farmers can help meet these demands by being increasingly efficient with nutrients and protecting their soils, they will see nearer term benefits and possibly stem future regulations. Here’s why:

Read More »

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USDA-funded projects help farmers protect water and wildlife

corn farmerEarlier this month, the USDA authorized nearly $400 million in federal funds through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) to improve soil quality, water quality and quantity, and wildlife habitat.

The program funded 115 initiatives covering a wide range of conservation benefits, from improving wildlife conservation efforts in California’s ricelands to reducing fertilizer runoff in the Mississippi River Basin.

These projects demonstrate that by prioritizing spending of conservation dollars on projects where large numbers of farmers are committed to cooperative conservation, we can avoid the need for costly regulatory programs. Read More »

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Will Ohio’s proposed fertilizer legislation solve the runoff problem?

Proposed legislation in Ohio would regulate when farmers can apply fertilizer to their fields

Proposed legislation in Ohio would regulate when farmers can apply fertilizer to their fields.

The Ohio General Assembly will vote next week on legislation that aims to address the problem of nutrient pollution, which was responsible for a massive algae bloom in Lake Erie that contaminated the drinking water of more than 400,000 Ohio residents this past August.

In short, the bill would ban application of fertilizer on land that is frozen, covered by snow, saturated with rain, or when the weather predicts a certain amount of rainfall. Those who violate the ban could face penalties of up to $10,000.

Policies that set rational ground rules for when farmers can apply fertilizer to their fields and that create real incentives to reduce nutrient pollution are important, but it’s going to take more than legislation to solve the runoff problem. Read More »

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How one business is reducing nutrient losses on 10 million acres

Logo_United_Suppliers_Lincoln_Nebraska-620x192The people over at United Suppliers are savvy. When they caught wind of Walmart’s pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by, in part, asking its top suppliers to reduce fertilizer losses from cropping systems, they jumped at the chance to differentiate themselves in the marketplace.

“For us, it was a no brainer,” says Matt Carstens, United Suppliers vice president. “If Walmart and major food companies have identified fertilizer pollution as a business risk, it makes sense for us to help them address that risk. We want to be at the forefront of helping farmers meet these demands. It’s a great business opportunity, not to mention the right thing to do.

“After all, farmers want the same thing. Reduced losses translate to increased profits and greater sustainability.”

Read More »

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A business-smart approach to ending fertilizer pollution

Toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie. Photo credit: NOAA

Toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie. Photo credit: NOAA

The toxic algae scare in Toledo this past summer really drove home the problem of fertilizer pollution in this country, right through the faucets of half a million unsuspecting residents. Don’t drink the water, officials warned. Don’t even touch it.

We need and rely on farmers every day for our well-being. But when producing food for a growing population threatens to deprive us of water, another life essential, it’s time to rethink the way we feed America.

That’s why I’m so excited about EDF’s new Sustainable Sourcing Initiative. Our goal in this collaborative effort is to engage every player in the U.S. grain supply chain to solve what has been an intractable problem for decades.

The challenge

Fertilizer, of course, is necessary for achieving high crop yields. But its inefficient use contributes to climate instability and causes dead zones that contaminate water supplies and kill millions of fish each year.

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What is climate-smart agriculture?

quoteYou may have heard by now about “climate-smart agriculture.” It’s the catchphrase that came out of the United Nations Climate Summit this week and the reason I was in New York to participate in a panel discussion on how to achieve food security for a growing population in a climate-changing world.

More than 20 governments and 30 organizations announced they would join the newly launched Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture, which aims to enable 500 million farmers worldwide to practice climate-smart agriculture. This is wonderful. But what does it mean in practice?

My colleagues and I have been asking ourselves this question since the concept was originally introduced by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization in 2010. Over the past four years, we’ve done some hard thinking on which practices, precisely, will get us to a point where we can keep pace with the food demands of a growing global population and increase the resiliency of our food systems to the harsh impacts of climate change.

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