Growing Returns

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Why the sustainable agriculture glass is half full

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Suzy Friedman, Director of Agricultural Sustainability at EDF

I’ve been working to promote and implement sustainable agriculture practices for nearly 15 years. But the last two years have seen more action and momentum in this space than in all of the previous 13 years combined – and I’m more enthusiastic than ever.

Let me be clear – we still have a long way to go. As a USDA report released at the Paris climate talks noted, warming temperatures pose a significant threat to agriculture and food security across the globe. And, despite technological advancements, the multimillion-dollar question of how we’re going to measure and quantify sustainable agriculture remains.

But a new progress report from the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), also released last week in Paris, reaffirms my optimism and excitement. We’re headed in the right direction, and sustainable agriculture is on its way to becoming the norm. Here’s why. Read More »

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Fertilizer runoff is just one piece of the dead zone puzzle

Credit: Ohio Wetlands Association

Dead zones (also called hypoxic zones) are caused by a rapid growth in algae that leads to less dissolved oxygen in the water and the death of aquatic species. Credit: Ohio Wetlands Association

It’s true that fertilizer runoff, sewage, and other pollutants from the Corn Belt have significantly boosted dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico. That’s because up to half of the fertilizer applied isn’t absorbed by crops, and in order to grow more food we’re using 20 times more fertilizer in the Corn Belt today than in the 1950s.

But even if we optimize fertilizer use on all cropland in the Upper Mississippi and Ohio River Basins, nutrients will still be lost to rivers and streams and carried into the Gulf of Mexico. Some of this loss is inevitable given factors like unpredictable weather, but my colleagues and I set out to quantify other reasons for why the Corn Belt exports so much nitrogen.

We discovered that an increase in fertilizer inputs is only one part of the problem. Three other distinct but interconnected factors also contribute to water pollution and the Gulf dead zone: the loss of perennial cover, the construction of artificial drainage systems, and the loss of wetlands. Read More »

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3 reasons food companies should track emissions from their supply chains

Credit: Flickr user

Few professions require as close attention to the weather as farming. Extreme temperatures, floods, drought, and storms are the quickest way for a promising crop to turn into a total loss. That’s why it is surprising that a new report from the environmental data organization CDP shows food companies largely ignore their agricultural supply chains when making climate commitments. Less than 25 percent of the companies reporting greenhouse gas (GHG) data are accounting for indirect emissions from fertilizer, manure, or deforestation.

There are various reasons why so few food companies extend climate commitments to their full supply chains – global supply chains are complex and it can be difficult to trace product components back to their origins.

But failure to account for agricultural emissions is problematic. As the CDP report noted, at least 10 percent of global GHG emissions are unaccounted for, meaning food companies are lacking important insight into climate risks in their supply chains.

Here are three reasons why food companies should invest the time and energy required to take this step: Read More »

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Cutting food waste to support farmers and the famished

Surplus food at the Food Donation Connection. Photo Credit: USDA.

Surplus food at the Food Donation Connection. Photo Credit: USDA.

Food waste affects more than just our wallets. Approximately one-third of all food produced in the world gets thrown away every year, leading to 3.3 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions. At 2.6 trillion pounds, that’s enough sustenance to feed three billion people, or almost all people living in poverty worldwide today.

That’s why, last week, when I attended a Q&A session for ag interns at the U.S. Department of Agriculture with Secretary Tom Vilsack, I was intrigued when a fellow intern asked a question regarding food sustainability and what the U.S. can do to ensure that there will be enough food to feed the 9 billion people expected to populate the world by 2050.

The Secretary’s answer? Reduce food waste.

Read More »

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Buy me some peanuts and … sustainable produce?

hotdogLet the games begin! America’s sports teams are moving into the sustainable food arena.

A new report released by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Green Sports Alliance highlights 20 venues that have played their part to reduce their impact on the environment. Of the 20 locations, 18 purchase produce from local farms, 17 provide organic food options, 14 compost their food, and seven use biodegradable eating utensils and plates. In order to provide the freshest food available, five venues even have their own on-site gardens.

These venues are going the distance – from the Portland Trail Blazers’ Moda Center to the Pittsburgh Pirates’ PNC Park – and providing fans with sustainable food options while simultaneously combating issues such as greenhouse gas emissions from food waste.

Which team’s efforts are best? We asked some of EDF’s sports fans (myself included!) to talk about what their favorite team’s venues have done:

Read More »

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How cover crops can help growers beat droughts and floods

Cover crops can include grasses like cereal rye.

Cover crops can include grasses like cereal rye.

Corn is trying to fight this summer’s extreme weather, and unfortunately, the weather is winning.

There are serious floods in the Midwest, devastating droughts in California, and brutal heat waves along the eastern seaboard. Ohio for example had a record June rainfall of 11 inches, which stunted corn roots and prevented many growers from planting any corn crops. In Northwest Ohio alone, 100,000 acres were left unplanted. At the same time, places in my home state of North Carolina experienced a June heat wave during the critical corn pollination period, significantly damaging corn yields.

These extreme weather events leave many farmers searching for ways to make the best of a challenging growing season. Although June’s weather was the opposite in Ohio and North Carolina, cover crops offer a proven solution to deal with both conditions. Read More »

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Note to Congress: Pitting fish against farms won’t solve California’s drought

Drought(Updated July 16, 2015)

A bill to supposedly address California’s devastating drought, authored by Rep. David Valadao, cleared the House of Representatives today.

Unfortunately, this proposal – dubiously named the Western Water and American Food Security Act of 2015 – is yet another attempt to move more water through California’s vast Central Valley Project at a time when we can least afford it and at the expense of many water users.

Among other problems, the bill would permanently undermine science-based protections and regulatory assurances for at-risk species and ecosystems that are essential in providing reliable food, safe drinking water, and jobs to millions of Americans.

The proposed tradeoffs here are nothing new. Similar bills – H.R. 3964 and 5781 in 2014, both opposed by the White House and the State of California – also pitted fish against farms.

It’s time we move away from finger pointing and start finding collaborative solutions to the drought that increase the resiliency of our freshwater ecosystems while supporting agricultural communities in California’s Central Valley. Read More »

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What a visit with a California citrus grower taught me about agricultural sustainability

EDF’s Sara Kroopf smells the soil at a citrus nursery in Arvin, California.

Putting yourself in the boots of a California farmer will give you a whole new perspective.

That’s why I recently spent a few days alongside Matt Fisher, a citrus grower in Kern County, California – to better understand growers’ challenges and concerns, and to rethink how environmental groups and farmers can achieve shared goals.

The experience was part of a farm exchange program offered through the California Agricultural Leadership Foundation, which facilitates learning opportunities on California farms.

With a record-breaking drought in California, tensions between environmentalists and farmers run high, and finger pointing is everywhere. But that isn’t getting us anywhere. The time I spent on Matt’s farm gave me new inspiration to break down barriers, put aside stereotypes, and work together. 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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