Growing Returns

The year the private sector stepped up for land, water and wildlife

The private sector stepped up for land, water and wildlifeBy this time next year, I believe we’ll reflect back on 2017 as the year that the private sector stepped up to protect our land, water and wildlife for future generations.

I believe this because major retailers, food companies, agricultural businesses and farmers laid the groundwork in 2016, making sizeable commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), improve water quality and conserve habitat for imperiled wildlife.

President-elect Trump has made political theater by threatening to kill the regulations that protect our nation’s air and water. But in the real world, the private sector is going the other direction.

Forward-thinking businesses are rolling up their sleeves and finding ways to make those regulations work better by accelerating the uptake of practices that are good for the planet and the bottom line.

These are three areas to watch in 2017.

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Will Trump’s victory defeat the environment? It’s time to rally around shared values

Farmers and ranchers across the country value the benefits of environmental protectionsLike all Americans, I woke up on November 9 to a new reality: A few more Democrats in Congress, and yes, a President-elect who promised to dismantle our nation’s core environmental protections.

Though the overwhelming majority of rural counties voted for Donald Trump, I do not believe they voted to increase air and water pollution or jeopardize wildlife.

We live in amazing times. Compared to 40 years ago, our environment is healthier, even as our economy has grown 300 percent.

But 40 years is a long time ago, and it’s easy to forget that progress didn’t happen overnight. It took Republican and Democratic administrations to put our bedrock environmental protections in place so the rules laid out in them could be enforced. These laws include:

  • A wildlife protection act that brought our national symbol, the bald eagle, back from the brink of extinction.
  • A clean air act that has helped to reduce smog and acid rain that was threatening our children’s health and killing our forests.
  • A water quality act that has cleaned up our rivers so they may never catch fire again. (Yes, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland was so polluted that it ignited in 1969.)

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Hurricane Matthew teaches us four important lessons about resilience

Flooded farm field. Photo: Todd Boyd, Pinetown, North Carolina

Photo credit: Todd Boyd, Pinetown, North Carolina, via DTN Progressive Farmer

Floodwaters powered by Hurricane Matthew’s heavy rains are finally receding in eastern North Carolina. Now farmers, communities, and state officials are beginning to take stock of their losses and think about the future.

Here are four lessons we should learn from the devastating storm.

1. Plan for the new normal

In the past 17 years, North Carolina has been hit by two storms causing 500-year floods. Hurricane Floyd in 1999, and Hurricane Matthew this past month. Both hurricanes caused extensive damage and loss of life. But Floyd in particular was especially devastating to animal agriculture and the environment. Read More »

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What Michael Pollan gets wrong about Big Ag

Tractor in farm fieldJournalist Michael Pollan deserves credit for elevating the national conversation about food. Over the course of 25 years, his articles and books have thoughtfully contemplated the troubling side effects of the American diet and the way our food is produced.

But his latest piece in the New York Times Magazine reads like a script for a black and white Western, with food companies, agribusiness and commodity producers cast in the role of Bad Guy and local organic farmers and vegans cast as the Men in White Hats.

In Pollan’s script, the bad guys are responsible for everything from America’s weight problem and rising health care costs to widespread environmental degradation and monocultures that threaten national security. If only the law would get on the good guys’ side, he muses.

Food production is actually changing

All industries have issues that continually need to be addressed, and the food industry is no exception.

Agriculture consumes a lot of land and water and emits greenhouse gas emissions that must be curbed. And, yes, our diets have contributed to America’s obesity epidemic.

Except, our food system is changing, more than Pollan acknowledges.

The uptick in consumer demand for local, organic products is promising. So, too, are the contributions that Pollan’s so-called villains – the companies, agribusinesses and commodity farmers who produce what’s on our plate – are making to the environment. They deserve recognition. Read More »

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These heartland conservation heroes defy stereotypes

Montana rancher Dusty Crary with his horses.

Montana rancher Dusty Crary with his horses.

Western ranchers, Midwestern commodity crop growers, fishermen who make their livelihoods along the Mississippi River and the Gulf Coast. In some circles, these folks wouldn’t necessarily be considered models of sustainability. And yet, many are leading a quiet revolution in the way our food is raised, harvested and produced.

In her new book Rancher Farmer Fisherman: Conservation Heroes of the Heartland, my colleague Miriam Horn journeys down the Mighty Mississippi River System to meet five representatives of this unsung stewardship movement: Read More »

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3 investment ideas to sustain water in the American West

The Arizona Canal brings water to sprawling desert communities near Phoenix.

The Arizona Canal brings water to sprawling desert communities near Phoenix.

The crippling drought in the American West is now making headlines daily and the stories are raising a collective awareness of the unfolding crisis – as The New Yorker did recently when it chronicled the plight of the Colorado in Where the River Runs Dry.

If there’s a silver lining to the Western water crisis, it’s that governors, state legislators and federal policymakers are finally taking action to ensure a reliable water supply.

These are welcome actions – except, top-down government mandates, while sometimes necessary, won’t result in the durable change we need to move from scarcity to sustainability.

Top-down mandates only work as long as there is political will to enforce them. In order to crack open the ossified structure that has dictated unsustainable water policy for more than a century, we need to build ground-level support for flexible solutions that benefit everyone – including cities, agriculture and, of course, the environment. Read More »

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Dietary guidelines are one ingredient in the recipe for sustainable food production

myplate_yellow_livetype copySome people don’t like the idea of the federal government telling them what they should and shouldn’t eat. Others feel the science of nutrition is still evolving—are eggs good or bad for us this week?—and don’t know whether to trust the recommendations.

But there’s no denying that USDA dietary guidelines have a profound influence on the public discussion over our food choices.

So it is a good thing that the commission that suggests updates to these guidelines every five years has come forward with a proposal that for the first time recognizes an inarguable fact: dietary choices have an impact not only on our health, but also on the health of our environment. Read More »

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Four incentives that will push fertilizer efficiency to scale

fertilizerWe need fertilizers to maintain and increase farm productivity and feed a rapidly growing population, yet 50 percent of the nitrogen fertilizer applied to crops is lost to our waterways or into the air.

That’s not good – not for the grower, nor  for the environment.

I’m optimistic that nutrient losses will soon be trending downward while productivity climbs. Here are four reasons why:

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A national food policy? What the Bittman-Pollan op-ed missed

EDF's David Festa (left) met with farmers in two Yuma area irrigation districts this fall to learn more about irrigation efficiency.

EDF’s David Festa (left) met with farmers in two Yuma area irrigation districts this fall to learn more about irrigation efficiency.

Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan have done a huge service with their writing by shining the spotlight on the way we produce and consume what’s on our plate. Together, the two have elevated the national dialogue on food. As they correctly point out in their recent Washington Post op-ed, the food industry touches everything from our health to the environment.

Agriculture sustains us. But agriculture also emits more greenhouse gases than all our cars, trucks, airplanes and trains combined. It consumes more than 80 percent of the world’s fresh water supply and pollutes rivers with fertilizer runoff that creates dead zones downstream. When we clear grasslands and forests to produce more food, we accelerate the loss of biodiversity. And yes, our diets have contributed to a rise in obesity.

The challenge is clear. We need to feed a growing population, but how do we do it without killing the planet in the process?

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How the marketplace is driving clean water solutions

BoyMomDrinkFtn_Photos.com_87822780_4CC_RFFederal and state governments aren’t doing enough to keep polluted runoff from reaching America’s waterways. That’s the conclusion the Environmental Protection Agency – aka the federal government – has reached in a new report from the office of its inspector general.

Anyone surprised?

Government has tried to reign in nutrient pollution for decades, only to watch dead zones persist in the Gulf of Mexico, Chesapeake Bay and Lake Erie. Just last month, a toxic brew of urban and agricultural runoff shut down Toledo’s water for two days. Seven weeks later, many of the city’s half million residents are still afraid to drink what’s coming out of the tap.

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