8 Presidents Who Most Shaped the U.S. Food System
Every president has played a role in making the food system what it is today, but these eight stand out, for better and for worse.
Nathaniel Currier lithograph, 1852.
By Karen Perry Stillerman – Commentary, Food Justice, Food Policy
February 19, 2018
As we prepare to observe Presidents Day, I’m thinking about a president’s role in shaping the way we grow food in the United States, and how we eat. Quite a few of our past presidents were farmers or ranchers at some point in their lives, and some had infamous relationships with certain foods, whether cheeseburgers or jelly beans or broccoli.
But a small number of presidents spanning the history of the republic have had particular influence on our food supply and culture, and its impact on the health and well-being of all Americans, including farmers. And notably, as we’re also observing Black History Month, the interventions of those past presidents in our food system have often particularly affected African Americans.
1. George Washington: First farmer, innovator, and slaveholder
Whether or not young George chopped down that famous fruit free, the post-presidency Washington grew cherries, along with apples, pears, other tree fruits, and a whole lot of other food at his Mount Vernon estate, which comprised five neighboring farms on 8,000 acres. An innovative farmer who kept meticulous records, Washington was an early proponent of composting for soil health, and eventually phased out tobacco (the plantation crop of his day in Virginia) in favor of a diversified seven-crop rotation system including wheat for sale, corn for domestic consumption, and fertility-enhancing legume crops. (Sounds like a good idea.)
The grim reality behind Washington’s farming success, though, is that his farms were worked by slaves. A slaveowner since age 11, when he inherited ten slaves from his father, Washington bought and sold Black people throughout his life (reportedly treating them severely and separating family members through sale), and 317 slaves worked on his estate at the time of his death.
The devastating legacy of racial injustice and inequality at Mount Vernon is still with us, but it is being gradually undone. The 126-acre historic Woodlawn estate—originally part of Washington’s farm network—was purchased by northern Quakers prior to the Civil War, expressly to prove that you could farm profitably without slavery. Today, the site is occupied by the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Agriculture, whose work includes a mobile market delivering fresh, healthy, affordable food to food-insecure neighborhoods like this one in the Washington DC area.
2. Thomas Jefferson: Experimentation, failure, and a legacy of slave-centered agriculture
The third president has been called America’s “first foodie” for his love of the table, and of French cuisine in particular. He ate a lot of vegetables, and introduced many new ones to the United States. On his Monticello estate, Jefferson introduced and experimented with a vast variety of food crops, including 330 varieties of eighty-nine species of vegetables and herbs and 170 varieties of the fruits. An avid experimenter, Jefferson’s trials often resulted in failure, leading neighbors to call him “the worst farmer in Virginia.” But in truth he promoted techniques to build soil health through adding organic matter, and by sharing seeds and techniques widely, he promoted commercial market gardening and spread new crops that expanded the young nation’s food traditions and palate.
Perhaps even more than Washington, Jefferson’s legacy is marred by the stain of his complicity in slavery, and his racial views. He embodied the inherent social contradictions at the birth of this nation that we have yet to resolve, by denouncing the institution of slavery while simultaneously profiting from it—he owned some 600 slaves who worked on his Monticello farm and other holdings, employed brutal overseers, and fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings through a relationship that, by definition, could not have been consensual. His goal of “improving” slavery as a step towards ending was misguided, as it was used during his time as an argument for its perpetuation.
3. Abraham Lincoln: The USDA and the land-grant college system
Born in that legendary log cabin on his father’s farm in Kentucky, Lincoln was, as he put it, “raised to farm work.” His father farmed frontier land in southern Indiana before moving the family to Illinois, where Abe later got his political start in the state legislature. A believer in technological progress in agriculture, Lincoln advocated for horse-drawn machines and steam plows to take the place of hand labor. As president, he advocated for and signed legislation creating the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which he later called “The People’s Department,” since about half of all Americans at the time lived on farms. And Lincoln’s early belief in the value of educating farmers came to fruition in 1862 when he signed the Morrill Land Grant College Act, which facilitated the transfer of public land to each of the states to establish colleges of agriculture and the mechanical arts.
Lincoln fought a war over slavery (perhaps we’re finally coming to agreement on that point?), issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and submitted the 13th Amendment prohibiting slavery to the states for ratification just a few month before his violent death in 1865. But it would be another quarter century before freed slaves in the former Confederate states would get the benefit of a land-grant education Lincoln envisioned. A second Morrill Act in 1890 required each state to show that race was not an admissions criterion for its land-grant colleges, or else to designate a separate institution for students of color. (See some of the achievements of some of the institutions known as 1890 schools here.)
4. Theodore Roosevelt: Cattle ranching and conservation
Teddy Roosevelt’s is known as one of the nation’s great conservationists, but that legacy was born out of a series of calamities. On a hunting trip in the Dakota Territory in 1883, the passionate outdoorsman discovered that native bison herds had been decimated by commercial hunters. Cattle ranching on the region’s vast grasslands was booming in bison’s wake, and he became interested in the cattle business, investing $14,000 (a huge sum at the time) in a ranch. Returning to politics in New York, Roosevelt was struck by tragedy with the death of both his mother and his wifeon the same day in 1884, and he turned to the West and the ranching life to forget. But cattle in the Badlands at the time was itself a looming disaster: a boom with no regulation quickly led to massive overgrazing, and a scorching summer followed by a harsh winter in 1886-87 proved deadly. Tens of thousands of cattle, about 80 percent of the region’s herds, froze and starved to death in a blizzard. Roosevelt himself lost over half his herd, and soon got out of the business.
But his experience with agricultural disaster helped shape the future president’s views on the importance of conservation and led to an inspiring conservation legacy. Using his presidential authority, Roosevelt gave federal protection to more than 230 million acres of public land, creating the National Forest Service (now part of the USDA) and five national parks, and setting aside 51 federal bird reservations, 18 national monuments, and four national game preserves. In his words in 1908: “We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources and we have just reason to be proud of our growth. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have been still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields, and obstructing navigation.” (Nah, that couldn’t happen, could it?)
5. Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Dust Bowl and soil conservation
In the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, FDR inherited economic and ecological catastrophes that hit farmers particularly hard. The Dust Bowl was caused by massive-scale plowing up of grasslands (the Great Plow-Up of the 1910s and ’20s) followed by four distinct drought eventsin the 1930s. It scorched the Plains and literally blew away its soil, leaving millions of acres of farmland useless, driving farmers into bankruptcy and off the land, and worsening the banking and unemployment crises.
An amateur forester, Roosevelt understood the importance of soil conservation, and soon after taking office he established the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Soil Erosion Service. The latter (now the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service) was the first major federal conservation effort to focus on privately owned natural resources. FDR also launched the Plains Shelterbelt Project effort that planted millions of trees, creating windbreaks (now at risk) on farms from the Canadian border to Texas. And he initiated farm policies to help farmers manage future boom-and-bust cycles by preventing overproduction. The Agricultural Adjustment Act enacted on his watch would grow into today’s wide-ranging farm bill, which still struggles with how to deal with overproduction while providing livelihood for the nation’s farmers and conserving soil and water.
6. Richard Nixon: Turning farming into big business
Nixon was a contradiction. Scholars continue to dissect his deep character flaws and divisiveness, but also his achievements. Among the latter, he created the EPA and signed the National Environmental Policy Act (both of which, one hopes, will survive the current administration’s manyassaults), and he made dozens of other environmental proposals.
But his lasting legacy in agriculture continues to haunt us. That’s because Nixon gave his blessing to his agriculture secretary, Earl Butz, to essentially undo decades of FDR’s supply management policy. The Nixon years would be all about maximizing and consolidating farm production. “Get big or get out,” Butz told farmers in 1973, and boy, did they. His policies encouraged farmers to plant as much corn and other commodities as they could, on every possible bit of land. Today, one might argue, we have Nixon and Butz to thank for persistent fertilizer pollution in our nation’s waterways, for high-fructose corn syrup and the power and deception of the food industry, and for our enduring crisis of obesity and diet-related disease. (Read the full story of Secretary Butz, entertainingly told by Tom Philpott back in 2008.) Buzz’s obit recounts how a nasty racist comment ended his political career.
7. George W. Bush: Justice for Black farmers denied
While George W. Bush spent a lot of his presidency clearing brush on his Texas ranch, he wasn’t particularly known for his agriculture policy. But during his administration, a long-simmering dispute between the USDA and Black farmers came to a head. The background: in 1997 a group of Black farmers sued the USDA, citing years of racial discrimination by the department, which denied Black producers loans and other assistance and failed to act on their claims for years. The farmers prevailed in 1999, winning a $2.3 billion settlement from the government, the biggest in civil rights history. But there were limitations on who could collect under the Pigford settlement (named for lead plaintiff Timothy Pigford, a Black corn and soybean farmer from North Carolina), and what kinds of documentation they would need to provide.
Under W’s watch, many of the 22,000 farmers who had joined the Pigford suit were denied payment; by one estimate, nine out of 10 farmers who sought damages were denied. And the Bush Department of Justice, representing the USDA, reportedly spent 56,000 office hours and $12 millioncontesting farmers’ claims. Many farmers believed their claims were rejected on technicalities.
8. Barack Obama: Justice and healthy food, served
Much of the Obama food and farming legacy (which is hers as much as his) is well known: the now permanent White House kitchen garden (which, incidentally, includes a section honoring Thomas Jefferson with favorite varieties from his own garden at Monticello) along with the (possibly less permanent) improvements to school meals that resulted from the bipartisan Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act they championed, and the Let’s Move! campaign. The USDA under the Obama administration also made other efforts to improve our nation’s food system by promoting local and regional farm economies, increasing agricultural research, and strengthening federal dietary guidelines.
He also fixed a lingering problem with the Pigford discrimination settlement described above. Failure to effectively notify and communicate with Black farmers eligible for payout under the 1999 settlement meant that many farmers were left out. Obama’s Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Attorney General Eric Holder advocated for a fix, and in 2010, the administration announced a $1.25 billion settlement of the so-called “Pigford II” claims.
And now what?
These eight former presidents have made their mark on U.S. agriculture and food, delivering both progress and setbacks. Bottom line this Presidents Day? We still have a lot of work to do to achieve a healthy, sustainable, and just food system in this country.
Next time I’ll look at what happens when the occupant of the White House is not only not a farmer, but seems puzzlingly (if not cynically) indifferent to farmers’ concern. And when, instead of a healthy food advocate, he’s an unabashed proponent of the same processed and fast foods that are damaging the health—and even shortening the lives—of our nation’s children.
This post originally appeared on the Union of Concerned Scientists blog and is reprinted with permission.
How Industry Has Taken Over Scott Pruitt’s EPA
Most of its “deregulatory” actions and planned initiatives match up with specific industry requests.
Rachel Leven and Center for Public Integrity February 16, 2018
This April 18, 2013 aerial photo shows a destroyed fertilizer plant, top, following an explosion in West, Texas. Tony Gutierrez/AP
First came the smoke. The explosion hit 20 minutes later—so massive it killed 15, injured 260, damaged or destroyed 150 buildings, shattered glass a mile out and set trees ablaze. Under stadium lights, the West, Texas, high school football field, home of the Trojans, was transformed into a makeshift triage center.
The 2013 disaster in West, a town of just 2,800, began with a fire at the local fertilizer plant, highlighting safety gaps at thousands of facilities nationwide that use or store high-risk chemicals. It took the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency nearly four years after that to issue a rule intended to prevent such accidents—a move strenuously opposed by industry groups such as the American Petroleum Institute.
Firefighters check a destroyed apartment complex near the fertilizer plant that exploded earlier in West, Texas, in this photo made early Thursday, April 18, 2013. LM Otero/AP
Just a week after the rule was issued, Donald Trump was sworn in as president. Businesses tried again, asking for a delay of the requirements. This time, they got what they asked for.
The EPA has granted more than a few private-sector wishes lately under the guise of regulatory reform. Roughly 62 percent of the agency’s “deregulatory” actionscompleted in Administrator Scott Pruitt’s first year and 85 percent of its planned initiatives match up with specific industry requests, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis. These changes targeted requirements ranging from air-pollution limits for oil and gas operations to water-pollution restrictions on coal-fired power plants.
Many of these steps followed entreaties from a small number of powerful lobbying groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Chemistry Council and the National Association of Manufacturers.
The EPA, which ignored a half-dozen requests for comment, has said officials are merely reigning in an agency that they assert routinely overstepped its authority. But there is another interpretation. The analysis shows the EPA has been captured by industry, said Alexandra Teitz, a former agency attorney.
“The idea that ‘We are for environmental protection, too, we just choose to do it a different way’ might be plausible if we’d seen anything to support that. But we haven’t seen them do anything positive. So, that claim is just a joke.”
“The idea that ‘We are for environmental protection, too, we just choose to do it a different way’ might be plausible if we’d seen anything to support that,” said Teitz, now a senior policy adviser for the Sierra Club. “But we haven’t seen them do anything positive. So, that claim is just a joke.”
Alex Howard, deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation, an open-government group, said the industry successes have come while the EPA is “operating under a veil of secrecy.” The agency has failed to routinely disclose day-to-day activities it previously made public, he said.
While Oklahoma attorney general, Pruitt sued over 14 major EPA regulations and opposed others, including the chemical-safety rule. His legal interpretations tend to align with industry desires: a 2017 New York Times investigation revealed his deep ties to companies and propensity to use their arguments as his own.
In his first six months on the job, Pruitt was scheduled to meet 31 times more often with industry than with environmental or public-health groups, according to a Center analysis last year. The EPA’s internal watchdog is investigating his official travel, including a Morocco trip during which Pruitt promoted natural-gas exports. Asked in a January CBS News interview whether the EPA’s mission is to protect the environment or business, he responded, “It’s neither.”
“Our focus here should be on stewardship,” Pruitt said, adding that “to achieve what we want to achieve in environmental protection, environmental stewardship, we need the partnership of industry.”
Industry’s EPA scorecard
When Trump directed all federal agencies to reconsider existing rules a month into his term, Pruitt seized the opportunity. Regulatory reform would mean “listening to those directly impacted by regulations,” in contrast to the ways the Obama administration “abused the regulatory process,” he said in an EPA news release.
To see who has benefited so far, the Center examined the EPA’s list of completed deregulatory actions and its October agenda for future reform, comparing them to requests made by the private sector in comments to the agency in previous months.
The analysis focuses only on the agency’s stated deregulatory actions. It doesn’t capture other steps taken by the EPA that also went industry’s way, such as the March decision not to ban the pesticide chlorpyrifos, suspected of harming children’s brains. Agency scientists previously recommended prohibiting its use.
In April, the EPA asked the public what rules it ought to roll back. Americans flooded the agency with comments that urged officials to keep environmental-health safeguards intact, while numerous businesses pointed to rules they considered burdensome. The EPA said it drew from those comments to craft its regulatory reform agenda, released in October. But at least three of the four broad initiatives announced by the agency and all nine of the rules identified for reconsideration stemmed from industry requests—85 percent of the EPA’s reform plans.
Reopening a rule allows industry to make the case again that the regulations should be less stringent. Southern Co., for example, previously opposed regulations intended to limit water pollution from coal-fired power plants, asserting the agency relied on “faulty cost-benefit analyses.” Prior to Pruitt, the EPA disputed these claims. Now, it’s taking another look. Southern Co. declined to comment.
The broader EPA initiatives give industry a chance to fundamentally alter the way the nation fights pollution. The agency committed, for example, to evaluating the cumulative employment impacts of its environmental regulations, in response to business requests. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which didn’t reply to emails asking for comment, wrote last May that failing to properly analyze job impacts “stacks the deck against the possibility of producing a good regulation.”
Corporate influence is also apparent in at least 13 of the 21 actions the EPA has taken since Pruitt became administrator on Feb. 17 of last year. Six of these actions delayed, rescinded or reopened for consideration major regulations—wins for business interests. For instance, the agency delayed through May 2018 stricter requirements to protect people applying certain toxic pesticides, a move supported by companies such as Bayer Corp. Another seven industry victories came on narrower issues; manufacturers of wood products, for example, won a deadline extension to meet emission standards.
Industries didn’t always get what they wanted, of course. In part that’s because not all companies are on the same side of every issue. For example, the National Association of Manufacturers and other business groups that oppose the Clean Power Plan, the Obama-era rule aimed at limiting planet-warming pollution from the U.S. power sector, were pleased when the EPA said it would consider a repeal. Microsoft and Apple, on the other hand, supported the regulation in federal court.
Many companies and trade organizations say their outreach to the EPA is no different than in previous administrations. Some are employing the same arguments they used during the Obama era, including assertions that small environmental gains are coming at an outsize cost to business.
“We have lost the critical balance in our federal environmental policies between furthering progress and limiting unnecessary economic impacts,” the National Association of Manufacturers wrote to the EPA last year. The group didn’t respond to the Center’s requests for comment.
“We have lost the critical balance in our federal environmental policies between furthering progress and limiting unnecessary economic impacts,” the National Association of Manufacturers wrote to the EPA last year.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers’ members supported the EPA taking a second look at limits set for greenhouse-gas emissions from light-duty vehicles “to let the facts dictate the outcome,” wrote spokeswoman Gloria Bergquist. She added, “We are not prejudging the results.”
These reviews will aid the public, companies said. “A vibrant U.S. manufacturing base that helps American companies compete globally and keeps jobs here at home is what we all want,” wrote Laura Toole, a spokeswoman for General Motors.
But Teitz, the former EPA lawyer, said Pruitt is pushing agency norms. It’s not unheard of for new administrations to take another look at regulations that aren’t yet in effect, or even those that are, she said. But this EPA is reversing rules companies already must follow at an unprecedented rate, she said, causing confusion for officials in the field and leaving the public under-protected.
That, public advocacy groups and states such as New York and Massachusetts say, is exactly what has happened with the chemical-safety rule, delayed through February 2019. Since the rule was finalized in the waning days of the Obama administration, more than a dozen accidents, leaks, explosions and fires occurred at facilities that would have been covered by these new requirements, according to the Sierra Club. At least eight people died. More than 40 were injured.
A federal court will hear arguments about the delay in March. Industry opponents of the rule say in filings that it would cost companies money without providing benefits to the public. A Louisiana security official, in a court document filed by Oklahoma and 11 other states that support the rule delay, said that allowing it to take effect could expose chemical facilities to terrorism threats because of new disclosure requirements. (Military experts opposing the delay have said the rule would improve national security by better informing first responders.)
Whichever way the court rules, it likely won’t affect West, Texas. The town hasn’t replaced its fertilizer plant and has no intention of doing so, said John Crowder, a local pastor.
“The community would just not welcome that kind of business,” he said. It took nearly five years for West to rebuild, he noted, work that was just completed last month “to a collective sigh of relief.”
Crowder is no great fan of regulation. Now, though, he sees a need for more oversight.
He doesn’t know much about the requirements the EPA enacted and then put on ice, so he can’t say whether they would avert tragedies like the one in West.
“But if there were a rule that could prevent it,” he said, “I can’t imagine a valid reason for delay.”
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February 17, 2018
Who is Mick Mulvaney? Narrated by Elizabeth Warren. Unbelievable!
From Ronald Reagan’s envelope stuffer to Donald Trump’s budget director, meet the self-diagnosed right-wing nutjob Mick Mulvaney (via Who Is?)
Posted by NowThis Politics on Saturday, February 17, 2018
Trump Budget Would Undo Conservation Gains on Farms and Ranches
Funding for farm conservation programs would be slashed by $13 billion over 10 years, impacting the environment and farmers alike.
By Ashley Dayer and Seth Lutter – Agroecology, Climate, Environment, Food Policy February 16, 2018
Members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees are starting to shape the 2018 Farm Bill–a comprehensive food and agriculture bill passed about every five years. Most observers associate the farm bill with food policy, but its conservation section is the single largest source of funding for soil, water, and wildlife conservation on private land in the United States.
Farm bill conservation programs provide about $5.8 billion yearly for activities such as restoring wildlife habitat and using sustainable farming practices. These programs affect about 50 million acres of land nationwide. They conserve millions of acres of wildlife habitat and provide ecological services such as improved water quality, erosion control, and enhanced soil health that are worth billions of dollars.
Sixty percent of U.S. land is privately owned, and it contains a disproportionately high share of habitat for threatened and endangered species. This means that to conserve land and wildlife, it is critical to work with private landowners, particularly farmers and ranchers. Farm bill conservation programs provide cost shares, financial incentives, and technical assistance to farmers and other private landowners who voluntarily undertake conservation efforts on their land.
President Donald Trump’s 2019 budget request would slash funding for farm bill conservation programs by about $13 billion over 10 years, on top of cuts already sustained in the 2014 Farm Bill. In a recent study, we found that it is highly uncertain whether the benefits these programs have produced will be maintained if they are cut further.
Funding Cuts and Future Prospects
Conservation on private land produces tangible benefits for wildlife, water quality, erosion control, and floodwater storage. The public value of these improvements extends far beyond the boundaries of any individual landowner’s property.
Studies have shown that farmers appreciate the direct benefits they receive from participating in these programs, such as more productive soil and better hunting and wildlife viewing on their lands. Conservation programs can also provide farmers with an important and stable income source during crop price downturns.
Congress made substantial cuts in farm bill conservation programs in 2014–the first reductions since the conservation title of the bill was created in 1985. In total, the 2014 farm bill reduced conservation spending by 6.4 percent, or about $3.97 billion over 10 years.
These cuts reduced the number of farmers who were able to enroll in the programs. For example, the Conservation Reserve Program pays farmers to take environmentally sensitive land out of agricultural production and convert cropland into ecologically beneficial grasses. In 2016, due to budget cuts, it accepted just 22 percent of acres that farmers offered for enrollment.
The Conservation Stewardship Program, which focuses on working lands in agricultural production, offers farmers financial incentives and technical advice for conservation measures such as cover crops or efficient irrigation systems. In 2015 USDA funded only 27 percent of CSP applications.
In a June 2017 hearing, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, said:
“I’ve heard repeatedly from farmers and ranchers about the importance of these programs, how they successfully incentivize farmers to take conservation to the next level, and the need for continued federal investment in these critical programs.”
In October 2017, Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. and Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, introduced a bipartisan bill to strengthen the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which fosters private-public partnerships in regions of high conservation priority. The Trump administration has proposed to eliminate this program, along with the Conservation Stewardship Program.
Funding will be tight for the 2018 Farm Bill, as USDA has acknowledged. A set of guiding principlesthe department released on January 24 pledged to provide “a fiscally responsible Farm Bill that reflects the Administration’s budget goals.” Congress will soon face funding decisions that will have critical implications for conservation outcomes and landowners.
Without Funding, Fewer Farmers Will Conserve
Further budget cuts in farm bill conservation programs would undermine environmental protection in multiple ways. Less land and wildlife would be protected, and fewer farmers would be able to enroll in these programs. Moreover, as our study concluded, landowners are unlikely to continue their conservation efforts when payments end.
Federal agencies and environmental organizations generally would like to see owners keep up conservation practices even when they no longer receive federal incentives. We call this phenomenon “persistence.” Designing incentives so that they produce lasting behavior changes is a challenge in many fields, including agricultural conservation.
Our search of relevant scientific publications found very limited research on landowner behavior after incentive program contracts end. What research has been done indicates that persistence is highly variable and often does not occur.
Studies have found that after contracts expire, the percentage of landowners who continue conservation management can range from 31 to 85 percent. Persistence also depends on the practices landowners are required to perform. Structural actions like planting trees are more likely to have lasting effects than measures that landowners need to perform frequently and may abandon, such as treating invasive plants with herbicides.
Little is known about why landowners do or do not persist with conservation behaviors after incentive programs end. But we have identified several mechanisms that could support persistence behavior.
As landowners participate in conservation programs, they might develop positive views of conservation. They also may continue to use conservation practices because they want to be perceived as good land stewards. Practices that involve repeated action, such as moving cattle for prescribed grazing, might become habits. Finally, landowners with sufficient financial and technical resources are more likely to persist with conservation behaviors.
Long-Term Costs Of Defunding Conservation Programs
Our research shows that it is hard to predict how farmers and ranchers will respond if they are unable to re-enroll in farm bill conservation programs. Some might continue with conservation management, but it is likely that many landowners would resume farming formerly protected land or abandon conservation practices.
To promote conservation more effectively over time, it would make sense to consider farm bill policy changes such as issuing longer-duration contracts and designing post-contract transitions that encourage continued conservation. Further budget cuts will only reduce future conservation on private land, and could undo much of the good that these programs have already achieved.
Top photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Soil Conservationist Garrett Duyck and David Brewer examine a soil sample on the Emerson Dell farm near The Dalles, OR. USDA NRCS photo by Ron Nichols.
EcoWatch – Renewable Energy
Renewables Now Contribute Nearly One-Fifth of U.S. Electricity Generation
Lorraine Chow February 16, 2018
Renewable energy now makes up 18 percent of total electrical generation in the U.S., roughly double the amount a decade ago, a new report shows.
According to the sixth annual Sustainable Energy in America Factbook, which outlines key U.S. energy trends, renewable energy output in the power sector soared to a record high last year and could eventually rival nuclear.
The Factbook, produced for the Business Council for Sustainable Energy by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), shows that renewable generation boomed 14 percent in 2017 to hit 717 terawatt hours (TWh). This increase was driven mostly by the West Coast’s rebound in hydropower generation after years of drought as well as new wind and solar projects built in 2016 coming online in 2017.
Rachel Luo, senior analyst for U.S. utilities and market reform at BNEF and lead author of the report, told Greentech Media that 18 percent might not sound like a lot but it brings renewable energy “within striking distance” of nuclear, which contributes about 20 of total annual U.S. electricity generation.
“In 2017 it’s a very significant story that renewables are making a lot of headway in pushing forward the decarbonization of the power sector, even as the natural gas share decreases,” she said.
Indeed, as this chart below shows, natural gas slipped 2 percent last year, from 34 percent in 2016 to 32 percent in 2017. Coal, which used to dominate the U.S. energy landscape, has also shrunk to 30 percent.
2018 Sustainable Energy in America Factbook
Even though natural gas is still the number one producer of U.S. power, “[its] downtick could be from a variety of factors [such as] the increasing penetration of renewables, but load growth is also stalling and … natural gas prices have recovered a little,” Luo told Greentech Media.
In summary, the Factbook said: “The massive and historic transformation of the U.S. energy sector clicked into a higher gear in 2017, despite new policy uncertainties. Renewable deployment grew at a near-record pace, energy productivity and GDP growth both accelerated, and the U.S. became a serious player in the global liquefied natural gas market. All of this combined to squeeze U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to a 25-year low, while keeping costs in check for consumers.”
Watch here to learn more:
World’s First Floating Wind Farm Exceeds Expectations
By Lorraine Chow February 16, 2018
To estimate the rest of the country, the researchers calculated statistics for the covered area and then used things like Census data to scale them for every other ZIP code area.
Next, the researchers worked out the average amount of sunlight in a year for each location. Using the average efficiency of rooftop solar panels installed in 2015, they combined everything to produce a map of maximum possible rooftop solar energy production.
In total, they estimate that there are a little over 8 billion square meters of suitable roofs in the US. Cover that in solar panels, and you would produce about 1,400 terawatt hours of electricity each year—about two-thirds of which would come from small residential buildings. The total production is equal to nearly 40 percent of the total electricity currently sold by utilities in the US.
A simpler 2008 National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimate came in at just 22 percent of electricity—the new estimate shows a higher percentage partly because solar panel efficiency has improved but also because new sources of data made a more accurate estimate possible.
Apart from the big numbers, there are some interesting details at the state or local level. States with strong sunlight and plenty of roofs obviously have the most potential—California, for example, could supply 74 percent of its total electricity use by covering its buildings with solar panels, while Wyoming could only get to about 14 percent.
But that’s partly because of different electricity use. New England doesn’t have the sunniest skies, but the limited need for air conditioning in the summer helps keep electricity use down. As a result, that region could produce about half its total electricity from rooftop solar. And if you consider residential buildings separately, they can produce about as much electricity as people use in their homes.
Overall, the all-in scenario of slapping solar panels on every single building wouldn’t be enough to replace all our power plants, but 40 percent ain’t bad. More plausible (and less Fiddler-on-the-Roof-If-I-Were-a-Rich-Man) scenarios would obviously stay south of that number. Still, the “what if?” is instructive.
EPA Says Scott Pruitt Flies First Class Because Angry People Yell At Him Too Much
Nick Visser, HuffPost February 16, 2018
Often costing thousands of dollars more than equivalent seats in coach. The report, citing EPA receipts obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, noted several flights cost more than $90,000 in total during a few weeks last June.
Federal regulations mandate government employees travel in the “least expensive class of travel” for their needs, but individuals are allowed to book premium seats if there are security concerns.
The EPA briefly said this week Pruitt had a “blanket wavier” to travel first class but later rolled back its statement when Politico noted that the regulations state that such travel must be approved on a “trip-by-trip basis.” A spokesman later clarified to the news site that Pruitt’s office submitted a waiver seeking an exemption before each trip, citing security concerns.
Until Thursday’s report, it was unclear what those concerns were, although Pruitt defended the bookings in an interview with the New Hampshire Union Leader, blaming what he called a “very toxic environment politically.”
“We’ve reached the point where there’s not much civility in the marketplace and it’s created, you know, it’s created some issues and the (security) detail, the level of protection is determined by the level of threat,” he told the Union Leader on Tuesday.
Pruitt’s tenure at the EPA over the past year has been controversial among environmentalists. The agency has quickly worked to roll back many regulations meant to combat climate change. The agency has also moved to unravel the Clean Water Act and the Clean Power Plan, and Pruitt was one of the driving forces behind President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the landmark Paris climate deal.
He receives many more threats than his predecessors, E&E News reported in January, and is the first EPA administrator to have a full-time security detail.
The agency also refuses to release many details about Pruitt’s schedule in advance, citing similar security concerns.
Can the Leopold Center be Saved?
A year after the influential center for sustainable agriculture research was defunded, farmers and students are urging Iowa’s legislators to reinstate its budget.
By Lisa Held – Agroecology, Climate, Farming, Food Policy February 14, 2018
Nearly a year ago, the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, one of the country’s preeminent research centers for sustainable agriculture, was defunded via budget cuts made by Iowa’s state government. Now, a grassroots coalition is fighting to revive the Center and to educate the public on why its work matters more than ever.
Last Tuesday, students, farmers, and community members called for a “fully funded, fully staffed, re-imagined” Leopold Center during a press conference at the Iowa State Capitol building and in meetings with legislators and staff members at the governor’s office.
“The work is far from done,” said Liz Garst, a conventional row crop farmer who’s been involved in Leopold Center research on several topics, including prairie hay and cover crops. Because these practices are uncommon in a state where most farmers grow only corn and soybeans in otherwise bare soil, and most university-level research in the area focuses on that system, losing any hub for alternative information is significant. “As a practicing cover crop farmer, I have way more questions than answers,” added Garst.
The Iowa Sustainable Ag group—which also launched a website that includes a petition and videos highlighting the center’s work—included representatives from the Iowa Farmers Union, the Women, Food, and Ag Network, the Center for Rural Affairs, and several former students from Iowa State University’s (ISU) Sustainable Agriculture Graduate Program.
“A lot of the students received funding and support from the Leopold Center, and some of them came to ISU to study because the Center was there and it has an international reputation,” said Debbie Bunka, a representative from the Iowa Farmers Union.
The participants in last week’s event signify the Leopold Center’s wide reach. Iowa Farmers Union president Aaron Lehman, who farms both organic and conventional row crops, spoke alongside several other farmers who talked about how the Center had supported their work in the fields. Third-generation organic crop and livestock farmers Ellen Walsh Rosmann and Daniel Rosmann spoke about how the Center supported their creation of a food hub that now links over 40 producers in western Iowa to institutions like schools and grocery stores.
Daniel Rosmann said the hub was one tool for supporting Iowa’s struggling rural communities, a topic the Leopold Center had advanced in many ways. “They have created an understanding of what rural communities need to survive and thrive,” he said.
Between 1987 and 2017, the Center awarded more than 500 research grants to study pressing agriculture issues like conservation buffers, rotational grazing, and building local food economies. While Leopold’s focus was on Iowa’s specific food and farm landscape, many of its findings have had national and international impact.
An Iowa State University student collects water infiltration data in a field with cover crops, as part of a Leopold Center supported research project studying the long-term impact of cereal rye on cash crop yields. (Photo courtesy The Leopold Center)
In fact, the day before the press conference, the results of a new Leopold Center study made the news, promising “transformative” change for the dairy industry. The study, published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, identified a new technique for differentiating between milk from grass-fed cows and that from cows fed grain. Fluorescence spectroscopy, the researchers found, measures the amount of chlorophyll metabolites in the milk and found that they were higher in milk from the cows fed grass—a fact that could make it easier for the industry to monitor whether producers using the “grass-fed” claim are truly grazing their cows on pasture.
“This project was started a couple of years ago,” said Leopold Center director Mark Rasmussen. “It was totally coincidental that it came out the very week that the advocacy event happened.”
A Long, Slow Shutdown
Last week’s advocacy event marked a bright moment during a tough year for Rasmussen, who, since the funding disappeared last May, has been presiding over shutting down most of the Center’s operations.
The staff’s first order of business was figuring out how to manage the grants that had already been awarded. They moved up the end dates of some projects so that they could be completed before the end of last year, and transferred 20 projects to the Iowa Nutrient Research Center for completion. Twelve projects were cancelled outright, although four of those found alternative funding.
After dealing with the grants, five of the Center’s staff members were let go, leaving just two: Rasmussen and distinguished fellow Fred Kirschenmann. The duo moved into a smaller office and downsized 30 years of records, taking care to maintain the history and work of the center. They received a commitment from ISU, for example, to keep the Leopold Center’s website up and running, with all past research searchable in the university database.
Finally, they set up listening sessions around the state to hear input on what the future of the Center could be, with the goal of determining a narrower focus with limited resources.
“The old Center is gone; we have to accept that and think of a new Center, a Leopold Center 2.0,” Rasmussen said. “When Leopold Center started it was the only game in town. Thirty years later, there are a bunch of organizations that are focusing on beginning farmers, women in agriculture, you name it.” Using information from the listening sessions, an 11-member volunteer task force conducted a gap analysis to look at where the center should go from here. Findings from the analysis will be presented to the Center’s advisory board in March.
A Path to Rebirth?
If the grassroots advocacy campaign is successful, however, Leopold 2.0 won’t be a stripped-down version of its former self. At the Capitol, the activists—several of whom worked on fighting the Keystone XL pipeline—talked to lawmakers about supporting new legislation that was introduced by state representatives Charles Isenhart and Beth Wessel-Kroeschell. The bill would make $1 million in annual public funding available to the center if ISU’s president first raised the same amount in private funds. Together, the $2 million would equal the Leopold Center’s pre-cutback budget.
“This legislation would provide the opportunity for [ISU] President [Wendy] Wintersteen to demonstrate her commitment to the Leopold Center and deploy her fundraising skills to benefit the Leopold Center, advancing the cause of sustainable agriculture in Iowa,” Rep. Isenhart explained by email.
A Leopold Center-funded a grant project supported Congera Alex, originally from Burundi, shown here transplanting his crops in early spring in a community garden in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo courtesy The Leopold Center)
Iowa Farmers’ Union’s Debbie Bunka said during meetings, however, that support for the bill generally broke down along party lines, with Democrats in support and Republicans opposed, a fact Isenhart confirmed. “The bill itself is not likely to be considered, unless Rep. [Pat] Grassley [the appropriations chair] is encouraged to do so by agricultural interest groups [such as the Farm Bureau],” Isenhart said. “We will, however, probably offer this as an amendment to the state’s Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Environmental Protection Appropriations Bill.”
David Osterberg, the co-founder of the non-partisan Iowa Policy Project and one of the former state senators who created the Leopold Center, blames the influence of agribusiness on legislators’ unwillingness to support the center.
“I’m not sure you can follow the money and find out that each person who voted [to defund the center] also got money from agribusiness,” Osterberg said, “but in general, if you’re a rural legislator you realize that there are a lot of entities you don’t want to piss off. And this legislature seems to be willing to do anything for corporations.”
Bunka confirmed that in meetings, legislators said they perceived the Center as “bashing conventional ag,” which is one reason part of the advocacy group’s mission is educating the public education to help more people understand the Center’s mission and activities.
“This movement is not for the benefit of a small group of people,” Bunka said. “The Leopold Center is internationally known, and they do so much good work that helps conventional farmers, farmers growing organic crops … it’s a wide range of groups. We like to say it’s ‘agriculture research for the common good.’”
Top photo: Aldo Leopold during his 1936-37 trip to the Sierra Madre in Mexico. Photo by the U.S. Forest Service.