Can California’s Organic Vegetable Farmers Unlock the Secrets of No-Till Farming?

Civil Eats

Can California’s Organic Vegetable Farmers Unlock the Secrets of No-Till Farming?

Reducing tillage—which often relies on herbicides—has long been out of reach on organic farms. Now, a group of veteran growers are undertaking a soil health experiment with implications for California and beyond.

Transplanting melons in to high-residue beds on Full Belly Farm. (Photo courtesy of Full Belly Farm)Transplanting melons in to high-residue beds on Full Belly Farm. (Photo courtesy of Full Belly Farm)

Last summer, veteran organic farmer Scott Park was bewildered when he surveyed his vast tomato, corn, and sunflower fields. Before planting the crops on 350 acres he had radically cut down on tilling the soil, planted cover crops twice, and let goats graze the land. And he was sure he’d see excellent yields.

The undisturbed soil was loaded with earthworms, but the crops grew sluggishly and didn’t produce enough fruit. Park lost almost half of his yields—and over half a million dollars.

“We thought we were going to cut a fat hog,” said Park, whose farm lies 50 miles northwest of Sacramento in California’s Central Valley. “But the combination of no-till and grazing kicked me in the teeth.”

Though surprising, the result was part of a critical experiment that Park plans to replicate again—this time, on a smaller plot on his 1,700-acre farm: Because there’s more at stake than his own profit.

Park, who has been farming for 48 years and is well-known for his soil health practices, is one of a small group of innovative organic vegetable producers working with the University of California Cooperative Extension, Cal State Chico’s Center for Regenerative Agriculture and California State University, Fresno to decipher how to farm with little or no tillage—and without chemicals. Similar research is also taking place at U.C. Santa Cruz.

For the vast majority of organic growers, tilling the soil is a crucial tool. It helps control weeds (which are a much bigger challenge for farmers who don’t spray herbicides) and helps incorporate compost and other nutrients into soil. But that system may begin to change.

Organic no-till farmer Scott Park. (Photo credit: Chico State Center for Regenerative Agriculture)Scott Park. (Photo credit: Chico State Center for Regenerative Agriculture)

The so-called no-till farming system, which is said to boost soil health, sequester carbon, and bring myriad other benefits, is popular among commodity grain farmers in the Midwest and the Northeast—many of whom rely heavily on herbicides and increasingly use the term “regenerative” to describe what they do. But even among those farmers, most haven’t cut out tilling altogether, alternating no-till with tillage practices.

Switching to no-till on mechanized organic farms—and particularly in organic vegetable cropping systems—has long been considered the holy grail, and practically impossible to achieve, especially in the water-parched arid West, a region that dominates U.S. organic produce production.

Two growing seasons into the California experiment, Park and the other farmers have faced an array of challenges. Some have been economically painful, while others have led to promising results. And yet, if the farmers can get past the hurdles presenting themselves in these early years, their efforts could catalyze a massive shift to reduced tillage—and a new understanding of soil health—in the organic industry in California and nationwide. And because no-till is held up as a central tenent of regenerative agriculture, it could also be seen as a boon for farmers hoping to take part in the carbon markets the Biden administration has put forward in response to climate change.

“When soil transitions to a no-till system, yield reduction is usually a temporary thing,” said Cynthia Daley, a professor at Chico State who is involved in the project. “These farmers see the benefit of going into no-till, but they are trying to find a way to get there that doesn’t result in a negative economic impact in the long run. Their dedication is incredible.”

No-till could also create a carbon sponge to retain water in the soil and cut back on evaporation, a change extremely welcome in California, where water is scarce and droughts are common, said Paul Muller of Full Belly Farm, another farmer participating in the no-till experiment. The cooling effects on soil would also be crucial, Muller said, given that hot temperatures can negatively impact the soil’s microorganisms.

“We’re trying to figure out . . . whether there’s a better system without tillage where we can empower the microbial communities under those plants to supply them with what they need,” said Muller. “We’re at the beginning of that curve of knowledge and of understanding how these practices can capture more carbon and put more vitality into our farming system.”

No-Till Catches on with Organic Farmers

Intensive tillage on a large scale took off in the U.S. with the invention of the steel plow in the 1830s. But while it facilitated the conversion of prairie land and large-scale farming across the country, tillage also led to massive erosion, habitat loss, and the release of greenhouse gases. It culminated in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, an agricultural crisis so severe that it caused some farmers to adopt conservation practices and the U.S. government to invest in teaching them how to take care of their soil through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Soil Conservation service, which eventually became the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). And while those efforts convinced some farmers to change their practices, most continued to intensively plow their fields multiple times each season.

No-till rose in popularity throughout several regions of the U.S. in the 1970s and today, its adoption is concentrated in the South, the Midwest, and the Great Plains. According to the 2017 U.S. Census of Agriculture, no-till was used on 37 percent of U.S. acres, and reduced tillage was practiced on an additional 35 percent. Since reducing tillage is part of a wider set of regenerative practices, some farmers are also planting more cover crops to regenerate their soil and prevent erosion. Cover crops use rose by 15 percent between 2012 and 2017, but they still only grow on about 4 percent of the nation’s total cropland.

On most farms, the phrase “no-till” is a misnomer, as many farmers use it to refer to a greatly reduced approach to tilling and not to the continuous lack of tillage. For this reason, teasing out the differences in approaches between regenerative and organic systems can be a challenge.

Some organic farmers have scoffed at the idea of no-till and regenerative agriculture systems that include herbicides. They argue that organic farming, which is built around the idea of soil health, can build up soil fertility or sequester carbon better than regenerative/no-till agriculture. Some research indicates this is true because the addition of manure and cover crops more than offset losses from tillage.

Other research shows that organic farms’ ability to store carbon at deeper soil levels exceeds that of conventional farms, even those using cover crops. Scientists are still learning to understand how soil works, so the jury is out on whether organic production that includes tilling but cares for the soil in other ways equals or outstrips no-till farming.

While science continues to evolve, a third of all organic farms nationwide self-define their operations as “no-till” or “minimal till”—but, as is the case for conventional growers, for most, these terms don’t mean that they have stopped tilling.

The “organic no-till” project at the Rodale Institute, is a good example. The Institute has been working since the 1990s on ways organic grain growers can disturb the soil less.

“On one hand, organic farmers claim to be improving soil health, but with the same breath they’re doing multiple tilling operations in a single season,” said Jeff Moyer, Rodale Institute’s executive director. “Tillage day isn’t a particularly good day if you’re an earthworm.”

Moyer, who spent 35 years as Rodale’s farm director and farm manager, began encouraging large organic grain growers to plant cover crops prior to their cash crops and to use the residue as mulch to suppress weeds. To facilitate the process on large farms, he re-designed the roller crimper as a tool to help organic corn and soybean farmers reduce tilling. Hitched to a tractor, the crimper flattens cover crops, breaking their stems and creating a dense mat of mulch. With the right tool, the farmer can then plant the cash crop directly into the newly rolled mulch.

A no-till roller-crimper. (Photo credit: Rodale Institute)A no-till roller-crimper. (Photo credit: Rodale Institute)

This system has allowed some organic farmers, mostly in the Midwest, to reduce their tillage—cutting it down to one deep-till pass per crop rotation. In the past, those farmers would make a primary tillage pass over their fields, followed by multiple secondary passes to disc, pack the soil, make a clean bed ready for planting, and then—once the crop is growing—to rotary hoe and cultivate multiple times to manage weeds.

“To the microbial life in the soil, it feels like tillage over and over again, and that’s what we’re trying to avoid,” Moyer said.

In addition to the tillage to establish the cover crop, Rodale’s system reduces multiple passes through the fields to just two, planting and harvesting, Moyer said. And farmers time the deep tillage for late summer, when the weather is dry and the earthworms and other soil life burrow deep in the soil in search of moisture. They also apply compost, manure, or other soil amendments, which—in addition to the benefits derived from the cover crop—reduce the negative impacts of deep tillage, he added.

The roller-crimper system has worked so well for organic grain corn and soybean that some conventional soybean growers are also using it to reduce their use of expensive herbicides, said Moyer, who is also the author of the newly published book, Roller/Crimper No-Till.

The approach has gone from total obscurity to adoption by organic farmers on millions of acres—mostly in corn and soybeans, but also on orchard and vineyard floors, Moyer said. Other institutions, including the University of Wisconsin-MadisonWashington State University, and Iowa State University, are also conducting research on reduced tillage in organic farming using the roller-crimper.

Organic Pioneers Form No-till Partnership

In California, organic vegetable growers have made multiple attempts at reducing tillage over the past decade, with little luck, said Tom Willey, an organic pioneer who retired three years ago from his 75-acre farm near Fresno. Willey, who farmed for nearly 40 years, is now helping other growers return to the effort.

A historical photo of Tom Willey in his farm field.Tom Willey holding soil from his farm.

“Our early attempts at no-till were so disappointing, we gave up,” Willey said.

Then, in 2018, three well-established organic farms, Scott Park’s farm Park Farming Organics, Full Belly Farm, and Pinnacle Organically Grown Produce joined forces with U.C. Extension, Cal State Chico, and Fresno State to launch on-farm trials focusing on various forms of reduced soil disturbance. Since then, with financial support from a USDA NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG), the farmers and researchers are trying out various approaches and equipment. While the farmers choose which practices to use, the universities are collecting soil and tissue samples and doing additional reduced till and cover crop experiments on the schools’ farms.

The partnership is especially significant in a state that has always been at the forefront of organics but has offered little to no research development or extension services to organic farmers.

The participating farmers have all grown cover crops, incorporated compost, and managed complex crop rotations for many decades; they have all also experimented with reducing tillage. Yet, in a sense, they have decided late in their careers to go back to farming school, putting aside prevalent, economically secure concepts of organic production to learn a more nuanced, complicated version of soil microbiology. It’s a significant risk, but one they hope will be worth it.

“It’s like looking at the world through a different lens . . . a more reverential one that says we don’t know a whole lot and we should stop screwing it up. And maybe it can teach us if we step back,” said Muller of Full Belly Farm.

The farmers and academics are part of a growing informal network that shares knowledge, swaps scientific papers and on-farm trial updates, organizes farm tours, and hosts a slew of soil health experts, including conventional no-till farmers.

“[There are] too few farmers left in this country to waste time being at war with each other,” Willey said. The hope is to eventually replicate a farmers’ network for organic vegetable producers that is akin to No-till On the Plains, which connects conventional growers from the Great Plains and Midwest regions.

Several hurdles to organic vegetable no-till have become immediately clear, said Jeffrey Mitchell, cooperative extension specialist at U.C. Davis and the lead on the CIG no-till project.

One of them is seed size. Unlike corn and soy, which will germinate well and emerge robustly in soil blanketed with thick cover crop residue, most vegetables seeds are very small and delicate. They don’t have the same ability to push out of mulch-covered soil and establish themselves. The lack of expensive no-till equipment in California is another challenge, said Mitchell, who over the past two decades has conducted reduced tillage studies in conventional farming systems. The farmers in the organic no-till project have “scrambled, borrowed, and modified” existing tools, he said.

California also has unique climate characteristics that make reducing soil disturbance more difficult. Unlike in the Midwest, there is no real winter or hard frost, which means year-round, hardier weeds. And for most of the year, California lacks the rainfall that Midwestern farmers depend on to add moisture and help integrate nutrients into the soil without tillage.

“For high-value vegetable organic farmers in California, the switch to reduced soil disturbance is high-cost and high-risk, so it’s been very challenging to break in with it in our state,” Mitchell said.

Using a ‘Cadillac System’ to Boost Soil Health

To Park, who grows processing tomatoes, dry beans, seed crops, wheat, rice, millet, quinoa, and corn, those risks are all too real.

February found him trying to understand what went wrong with the combination of grazing, double cover crops, and reduced tillage he’d deployed last year. He refers to it as his “Cadillac system,” because it’s a deluxe approach that uses multiple practices that are typically used piecemeal to support soil health.

Following a wheat crop, which Park chopped and used as mulch, he planted a multi-species summer cover crop. Once it matured, he brought in about 6,000 goats to graze it. He then spread compost and shallowly tilled it in 2–3 inches deep, planted a winter cover crop, mowed and lightly tilled the following spring, then planted tomatoes, corn, and sunflowers.

Park’s standard practices include eight soil disturbances (down from about 20 on a typical vegetable farm), but on the trial fields he has further reduced them to four light disturbances.

Park believes that combining multiple regenerative farming practices can improve the soil to a point where it can have a symbiotic relationship with the plants. Such soil can make more nitrogen available to the crops, while cutting down on pest and disease pressure. It also holds a lot more water.

“The idea is to flow with nature and not have to fight nature back,” he says. But this latest attempt at amping up his practices turned out to be a “complete disaster.”

The cover crops added plenty of biomass into the soil. And the fields had 70 percent of normal water and enough time to digest the residue, he said. But something—the decision to vastly reduce the number and depth of tillage passes, the grazing, or both—had “tied up” the nitrogen and starved the plants, he said. Park added granular organic fertilizer to 70 acres of the Cadillac fields, but it didn’t help.

Park is not the only farmer in the reduced-till trials who is seeing a yield drag, and knowing that provides motivation to continue the experiment. Thus far, all of the farmers who are part of the project have seen yield reductions ranging from 20 to 50 percent in most of their trial fields.

Given the weed control and yield issues, Park isn’t sure that organic growers in California will ever be able to cut out tillage completely

“There’s unbelievable interest in moving the dial and I’m 100 percent behind it,” said Park. “But every farm has its own personality and its own needs . . . These practices have to fit your crops.”

Cover Crop–Cash Crop Match-Making

Two-hundred miles south of Park’s farm, on California’s Central Coast, farmer Phil Foster was getting ready to plant carrots and lettuce in his reduced till trial fields. Foster, who co-owns Pinnacle Organically Grown Produce, has a much smaller farm than Park—300 acres split among two ranches—but grows 60 different organic fruits and vegetables in a carefully orchestrated year-round rotation.

During the on-farm trials, Foster and the other farmers have come to realize that cover crops are the key to sustaining a reduced or no-till practice. These crops, planted between cash crops, mainly for their benefit to the farming system, perform different functions: they may suppress weeds, fix nitrogen, or improve the soil microbial community. In recent years, research has pointed to the benefit of cover crop mixes—as opposed to a single species—because they mimic the natural ecosystem.

Farmer Phil Foster stands in his no-till organic field. (Photo credit: Chico State Center for Regenerative Agriculture)Farmer Phil Foster stands in his no-till organic field. (Photo credit: Chico State Center for Regenerative Agriculture)

Cover crops also must be chosen based on cash crops’ planting time and attuned to the crops’ nutritional, pest control, and water needs. And the various species should all have a similar maturation rate. Given all this, Foster say it will take time and a lot of experimentation to find that attunement with all his crops.

“We are continuing to learn the many nuances to cover species,” he said.

Foster has been farming organically for 30 years and keeps careful soil records. By cover cropping about half his acreage every year and incorporating the green manure and compost, he has been able to raise his soil organic matter by several percentage points. “I have seen how much more dynamic the soil is and how much easier it is to farm,” said Foster. “If you can attain a certain organic matter level, the soil takes care of the crops a lot better.”

But over the past decade, the organic matter on his farm plateaued, which lead him to consider reducing his tillage and a renewed focus on cover crops.

“We’re still disturbing the soil, but we’re bringing our soil disturbance from historical levels of 8 to 15 inches with discs and chisels, which we don’t run anymore, to 4 to 5 inches or even just a couple of inches,” Foster recently said during a presentation on the project at the EcoFarm Conference.

After joining the no-till trials, Foster upped his cover crop acreage by 20 percent. He also has increased the diversity of his cover crop mixes, with vetch and oats as the workhorses, and is now using “cocktails” of 5–10 species in different ratios that also include rye, field peas, safflower, sunflower, phacelia, mustard, flax, and tillage radish.

Like Foster, Full Belly Farm’s Muller is also expanding his mixes and now uses 10–12 different species. Muller is trying to make more use of cover crop grasses in his trial fields, including rye or sudangrass, which grow quicker than legumes such as vetch and provide a large amount of biomass. Grasses don’t decompose as rapidly, which has a down side in that they can tie up nitrogen and keep it from getting to the cash crops, but they also provide thick mulch that keeps weeds down for a longer window.

“We want to armor our soil as much as possible through the year,” Muller said. “That’s why we need to keep as much cover on the ground as possible at all times.”

For Park, whose tomatoes get planted in early spring, the options are slimmer. He has resorted to planting vetch in the fall, which matures quickly and can be terminated in March. While its residue supplies a quick boost of nitrogen to the tomatoes, it doesn’t suppress weeds, meaning that Park still has to till a few inches deep to get rid of them.

“Figuring this all out has been “a school of hard knocks,” he adds.

On Phil Foster’s farm, immaculate, uniform vegetables growing on the right side, compared with a high-residue set of beds on the left. (Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Mitchell, UC Davis Cooperative Extension.On Phil Foster’s farm, immaculate, uniform vegetables growing in tilled soil on the right side, compared with a high-residue set of beds on the left. (Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Mitchell, UC Davis Cooperative Extension)

By far the biggest challenge, Foster said, is figuring out when and how to kill—or terminate—the cover crops and to manage their residue on the planting beds before seeding. For instance, not all cover crops terminate well with the roller-crimper. In Foster’s no-till melon field, for example, the cover crop did not die when flattened with the machine and grew back, “meaning competition with the melons and lower yields,” Foster said.

Muller had a similar experience two years ago, when he tried a cover crop mix with oats. The oats didn’t die when flattened multiple times, and he finally brought in sheep to graze them down. It took three weeks to terminate the cover crop.

To deal with the problem, the farmers have mostly resorted to using a vertical tillage tool with undercutting knives or repeated mowing, although the fine clippings don’t keep weeds down for long.

Like Park, Foster isn’t quite ready to take his farm to zero till—mainly because planting the cash crops amidst the cover crops is still a work in progress. For now, he and the other farmers are using a strip tiller, which tills only a narrow, shallow strip for planting seeds in—a technique that’s still rare in California.

Does Plastic Hold the Keys to Vegetable No-till?

Foster and Willey, the retired Madera farmer, have been experimenting with cutting out all tillage on Foster’s trial fields via plasticuture and occultation, techniques often used by no-till gardeners and very small-scale farmers. They involve the use of plastic tarps and cardboard or other barriers to suppress weeds and retain moisture.

The plasticulture trial is the only experiment in the project thus far that has successfully addressed one of the major challenges for organic vegetable no-till in California: how to add fertility to the soil and prevent yield reductions.

Typically, organic producers incorporate compost and cover crop or crop residue into the soil through tillage. But with no-till, the residue and compost are left on top of the beds. Leaving plant “nutrition” on top isn’t a problem in rainier environments, Willey said, since the moisture turns the residue and compost into mush and brings it down to the plant roots. But that’s not the case in the arid West. And most California farms have switched to drip irrigation, which is buried in the soil and doesn’t help break down what’s on the top layer of soil.

The plasticulture and occultation trial fields have avoided this problem, Willey said, by mimicking or re-creating an artificial Midwest or Northeast climate through sprinkler or drip irrigation under the plastic “mulch.” The plastic helps retain moisture and keeps the soil warm. And the moisture, in turn, helps the decomposition of organic matter, which releases nutrients for plants to take in.

Last season, when Foster and Willey grew melons and watermelons this way, they saw high yields. It was a victory, though ironically Foster has worked for years to eliminate plastic from his fields and said he isn’t thrilled to use it on a large scale again.

Muller ran a similar experiment last year, also using a thin sheet of plastic on top of his beds. The eggplants he transplanted into the system had “great plant vigor, earlier set of fruit and better consistent yields,” he said.

Closing the Nitrogen Loop with No-Till

While most of the trials in the no-till project have seen less-than-stellar results so far, Muller takes the long view. He believes that with time, going to continuous no-till will be possible and advantageous to organic vegetable farmers.

“It’s going to take us time and we have to commit to reestablishing the soil microbiome and to providing a habitat for those organisms that fix nitrogen for the plants,” said Muller.

Muller, who was born and raised on a conventional farm, grew up seeing the impact of pesticides on both farmers and farmworkers. Like Foster’s operation, Muller’s 450-acre farm in the Capay Valley west of Sacramento grows over 80 varieties of vegetables, fruits, and nuts. And he has focused on natural practices to maximize the vitality of his farm and his soil, including cover cropping and applying compost. Now, he hopes cutting down on tillage can take the effort further.

Muller hasn’t tilled his trial field for nearly three years. He likes to walk through it examining the soil; he brings a shovel, but it’s easy to dig in with his hands.

Paul Muller standing in his cover-cropped field. (Photo courtesy of the Chico State Center for Regenerative Agriculture)Paul Muller standing in his cover-cropped field. (Photo courtesy of the Chico State Center for Regenerative Agriculture)

“There’s more earthworms, more vitality, more fungal activity, and much better water retention,” he said of the soil. The cover crops have also attracted beneficial insects like ladybugs and lacewings. “I’m not a scientist, but I can see the differences.”

Muller has been rethinking his views about soil fertility and “how farming practices determine the health of microbial communities, on which plants depend for nutrient acquisition, their diversity, who dominates and how both water and nutrient cycling are impacted.”

He and the other farmers are looking to emerging soil health research to understand the impacts of reduced or zero tilling on the living processes happening below ground. In recent years, scientists have come to understand that the soil’s fungi-to-bacteria population ratio is a good indicator of plant growth and nutrient uptake. Most tilled soil is higher in bacterial growth than fungi, which is damaged by tilling. But the ideal is to balance the two.

Higher inputs of nitrogen fertilizer have also been shown to cause lower fungi-to-bacteria ratios. In fact, studies show that adding any nitrogen inputs, including animal manure or other organic soil amendments, to soil can be detrimental to the mutually beneficial relationships mycorrhizal fungi form with plants.

“When you add nitrogen to the soil, you make the plants and bacteria lazy,” Muller sums it up.

The farmers in the trial have been influenced by the work of Australian soil scientist Christine Jones, who has found that the best way to mimic nature and ensure a robust microbial community is by having green plants grow in the soil year-round. Jones’ work has shown that cover crop mixes in a no-till system can create a self-sustaining closed loop in which bacteria and fungi will naturally do the work of fixing nitrogen and make it available to plants as long as enough carbon is available for them to digest. Such a system would decrease fertilizer greenhouse gas emissions as well as input, labor, and fuel costs.

“There’s emerging scientific evidence that diverse soil microbial communities can deliver never-imagined levels of nutrients to crops if our farming practices facilitate, rather than interfere with, their ability to do so,” Willey said.

Is Organic No-Till Farming Even Possible, or Worth It?

If these three California farmers do figure out how to eliminate tillage in their production systems, it’s not clear how long they can sustain such practices.

In experiments at the Rodale Institute, for instance, Moyer has seen that after five years without tillage “things start to break down.” There’s often a shift from annual weeds to perennial weeds, which are more challenging to control. In some areas, shrubs and trees start popping up in the fields. And groundhogs can become a problem.

“In the Northeast, our landscape wants to be hardwood forest . . . so the soil will try to revert back to that. In the Plains states, it wants to be grass prairie,” Moyer said. (In California, which has a Mediterranean climate, lack of rainfall limits forest growth, so this issue may bear less weight.)

“I don’t think we’ll be able to fight back the succession of species with mulch forever,” he added.

It may be, Moyer said, that agricultural soil that isn’t tilled needs an occasional reboot, much like a computer. For organic growers, “tillage is the reboot system,” Moyer said, “while for conventional farmers it’s increasing or changing the chemistry.” Organic farmers can quickly mitigate the damage from the occasional tillage by applying compost or animal manure and immediately planting a cover crop, he added

For the California farmers, who are planning to continue with the on-farm experiments beyond the four years of the CIG grant, the experiment is worthwhile. And they’re hoping other organic farmers will join the conversation. Ultimately, farmers need to figure out whether the overall benefits of reducing tillage outweigh the drawbacks in large-scale vegetable production systems. But the answers may not be far off.

“It’s one of the most exciting times I’ve had as a farmer,” said Muller. “The scientific body of knowledge is making wonderful leaps in our understanding of soil ecology. The hunches we had as organic growers . . . are now being borne out and understood.”

Gosia Wozniacka

Gosia Wozniacka is a senior reporter at Civil Eats. A multilingual journalist with more than fifteen years of experience, Gosia is currently based in Oregon. Wozniacka worked for five years as a staff reporter for The Associated Press in Fresno, California, and then in Portland, Oregon. She wrote extensively about agriculture, water, and other environmental issues, farmworkers and immigration policy. Email her at gosia (at) civileats.com and follow her on Twitter.

Indigenous Food Sovereignty Movements Are Taking Back Ancestral Land

Civil Eats

Indigenous Food Sovereignty Movements Are Taking Back Ancestral Land

From fishing rights off Nova Scotia, to grazing in Oklahoma and salmon habitats on the Klamath River, tribal groups are reclaiming their land and foodways.

The first day of commercial fishing in 2019 on the Klamath River. (Photo courtesy of the Yurok Tribe)The first day of commercial fishing in 2019 on the Klamath River. (Photo courtesy of the Yurok Tribe)

Last November, escalating tensions between the Mi’kmaq First Nations people exercising their fishing rights and commercial fishermen in Nova Scotia resulted in an unexpected finale: A coalition of Mi’kmaq tribes bought 50 percent of Clearwater Seafoods, effectively giving them control of the billion-dollar company and one of the largest seafood businesses in North America.

The Mi’kmaq people, who compose 13 distinct nations in Nova Scotia alone, have relied on fishing for tens of thousands of years and were granted treaty rights to a “moderate livelihood” by Canada’s Supreme Court. Despite these protections, the Mi’kmaq faced resistance, hostility, and even violence from commercial fishermen when exercising their rights.

By becoming majority owners of Clearwater Seafoods, the Mi’kmaq gained full ownership of Clearwater’s offshore fishing licenses, which allow them to harvest lobster, scallop, crab, and clams in a large area extending from the Georges Bank to the Laurentian Channel off Cape Breton. Tribal leaders hope the purchase guarantees the food security and economic sustainability of Mi’kmaq communities for generations.

Indigenous food sovereignty activists across the world stood in solidarity with the Mi’kmaq and applauded their unexpected victory. The deal represents a growing trend: Indigenous people are regaining access to—and control of—their traditional foodways.

For centuries, Native Americans in the United States have endured countless atrocities, from massacre to forced removal from their ancestral lands by the federal government. This separation from the land is inextricably tied to the loss of traditional foodways, culture, and history.

Now, there is growing momentum behind the Indigenous food sovereignty movement. Over the past few decades, Native American tribes in the U.S. have been fighting for the return of ancestral lands for access to traditional foodways through organizing and advocacy work, coalition building, and legal procedure—and increasingly seeing success.

In recent years, the Wiyot Tribe in Northern California secured ownership of its ancestral lands and is working to restore its marine habitats; the nearby Yurok Tribe fought for the removal of dams along the Klamath River and has plans to reconnect with salmon, its traditional food source; and the Quapaw Nation in Oklahoma has cleaned up contaminated land to make way for agriculture and cattle businesses.

“A big part of [land reclamation] is for food sovereignty,” stressed Frankie Myers, vice chairman of the Yurok Tribe. “We depend on the land to eat, to gain protein. It’s what our bodies were accustomed to, it’s what we as a people are accustomed to—working out in the landscape. It’s where we feel home. It’s good for our mental health. Oftentimes, folks have to be reminded that [food] is our original medicine.”

At the heart of the tribes’ different approaches to food sovereignty is a shared common goal: reclaiming ancestral lands for habitat restoration, access to healthy, culturally relevant diets, and economic opportunity.

In Eureka, an Unprecedented Land Return—and the Restoration of Marine Habitats

Between California’s northern coastline and the redwood forests, the Wiyot Tribe has practiced its way of life for centuries, celebrating ceremonial dances on Tuluwat Island, its place of origin. The island sits in the Arcata Bay of the present-day city of Eureka and provided access to essential nourishment, including oysters, clams, mussels, and fish.

A historical photo of Tuluwat Island, before the Wiyot Tribe began reclamation work. (Photo courtesy of the Wiyot Tribe)A historical photo of Tuluwat Island, before the Wiyot Tribe began reclamation work. (Photo courtesy of the Wiyot Tribe)

“For us, it’s a giant Costco. Everything that we needed was right there,” explained Ted Hernandez, Wiyot tribal chairman and cultural director, in a recent interview.

That was until 1860, when gold-rush era settlers ambushed and massacred between 80 and 250 Wiyots peacefully gathered on Tuluwat Island for a renewal ceremony. The surviving Wiyots were forced off the island and moved to Fort Humboldt, where Wiyots say that nearly half of the tribe died of exposure and starvation. They were then forcibly relocated to reservations at Klamath, Hoopa, Smith River, and Round Valley. In the early 1900s, a local church group bought land to house the Wiyots on what is known today as the Old Reservation. But after briefly losing federal recognition and a lack of potable water, the tribe moved to the Table Bluff Reservation, where it currently resides.

In 2000, after an acre and a half of the ancestral Tuluwat Island went up for sale, tribal elder Cheryl Seidner organized fundraisers to buy it for $106,000. This purchase gave the tribe momentum and hope that it could secure more land. Seidner led the Wiyots in negotiations with Eureka city leaders, and the city agreed to return most of the island to the tribe in 2019.

“With Tuluwat, it’s the first example of a city ever repatriating land to a tribe, which I think is great—but it’s also pretty sad that that never happens,” said Adam Canter, a natural resource specialist for the Wiyot Tribe.

Since then, the Wiyot people have used local community partners, volunteers, and state and federal resources to clean up the island, which was left in toxic disarray after years as the site of a shipyard for non-Native commercial fishermen. “There was a huge [Environmental Protection Agency] cleanup there,” said Canter, who leads the restoration effort. “The soil was contaminated with dioxins and pentachlorophenol oils, and all kinds of bad stuff.”

Tuluwat Island in 2011, after the Wiyot Tribe began restoration work. (Photo courtesy of the Wiyot Tribe)Tuluwat Island in 2011, after the Wiyot Tribe began restoration work. (Photo courtesy of the Wiyot Tribe)

But this hasn’t deterred the Wiyots, who are 600 members strong and have a vision of restoring the crucial marine and land habitats that have for so long nourished the tribe. The Wiyots hope to improve health outcomes for tribal members and create a sustainable food system that emphasizes food sovereignty and security. “Now we’re in the process of completing that healing process by bringing back the traditional plants that were . . . in the waterways so our eels, and our oysters can grow back in the bay,” explained Hernandez. “And once that’s complete, then we can start the healing process for the whole world. But in order for us to do that, we need our traditional foods.”

In her role as natural resource technician-in-training, Wiyot tribal member Hilanea Wilkinson is working on removing invasive species and reintroducing native, edible plants to the island. She sees her work as even more urgent in light of the ongoing pandemic. “It has really shed light on the need for sustainable food for lots of reservations and Native communities—all communities,” she said. “Native communities are in more rural areas and don’t have easily accessible grocery stores.”

The Wiyot Tribe is also bolstering its food sovereignty movement through education. Currently, it’s fundraising to build the Food Sovereignty Lab & Cultural Workshop in partnership with Humboldt State University’s (HSU) Native American Studies program. The goal is to indigenize the HSU campus and inspire future generations of Indigenous botanists and biologists who can help preserve Native American communities’ food security and sovereignty.

California’s Largest Tribe Restores Crucial Salmon Habitats

About 100 miles north of the Wiyot, the Yurok Tribe, California’s largest, is working to restore once-thriving salmon populations, which are culturally and spiritually significant in addition to being a major food source.

The Yurok people reside along the Klamath River, which was once a bustling artery that connected Northern California tribes and provided a food system of salmon, berries, elk, and acorns. Since the construction of the Klamath River Dams in the early 1900s for hydroelectric power and farmland irrigation, the salmon populations have been devastated to near-extinction. Most notorious was the Klamath River Fish Kill of 2002, where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that 34,000 salmon died from infection in a disaster caused by warm water temperatures and low dam water flow rates (Some counts say as many as 70,000 salmon died.)

Dwayne Davis, a Yurok Fisheries Department watershed restorationist, planted hundreds of trees for a salmon habitat restoration project on the lower Klamath River. (Photo courtesy of Matt Mais/Yurok Tribe)Dwayne Davis, a Yurok Fisheries Department watershed restorationist, planted hundreds of trees for a salmon habitat restoration project on the lower Klamath River. (Photo courtesy of Matt Mais/Yurok Tribe)

Since the early 2000s, the tribe has built coalitions with local community groups and advocated for dam removal to state and federal authorities. They recently celebrated a historic agreement to remove four obsolete dams along the Klamath River (Iron Gate, Copco 1 and Copco 2 in California, and J.C. Boyle in Oregon) to clear the river and revive the traditional salmon runs.

If all goes according to plan, the four dams will be officially decommissioned by 2023 in what would be the world’s largest dam removal project.

“We know from generations past that if we let the salmon die, then we follow along with [them],” said Myers. “The median [household] income on the upper reservation where I live is $11,000. The protein that salmon provides is actual sustenance people need to live.” (In California, the median household income is $75,235, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.)

While awaiting the final green light from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on dam removal, the Yurok Tribe is collaborating with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Fish, and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and California Department of Water Resources to build the Blue Creek salmon sanctuary—a permanently protected portion of the salmon’s river habitat—and restore native plants to the area.

They’ve also secured control of more than 60,000 acres of ancestral lands, through both direct purchase and a land transfer from Western Rivers Conservancy.

Building a beaver dam analogue on Yurok land. (Photo courtesy of Matt Mais, Yurok Tribe)Building a beaver dam analogue on Yurok land. (Photo courtesy of Matt Mais, Yurok Tribe)

Ultimately, the Yurok Tribe hopes to become a fully sovereign nation that can sustain its people, both physically and economically, from the Klamath River and its salmon. “There is a way to survive and live and thrive here in the basin that isn’t just hunter-gatherer,” Myers said. “Because we used to have . . . an economy that was also based on salmon, and we feel like we could get there again.”

Restoring a Toxic Wasteland for Cattle Grazing and Agriculture

Across the country, in Northeast Oklahoma, the Quapaw Tribe has been working on land cleanup for its own food sovereignty initiatives. The Quapaw, or O-Gah-Pah (meaning “downstream people”), were a plains tribe that inhabited present-day Arkansas along the Mississippi River. When the Quapaw were moved to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) in 1834, they could no longer practice their traditional hunting and gathering, according to Devon Mihesuah, co-editor of Indigenous Food Sovereignty in the United States. Out of necessity, they became ranchers, like many others relegated to reservations.

In the 1890s, lead and zinc were discovered on Quapaw land. In the documentary “Tar Creek,” Quapaw members described how the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Department of the Interior often leased this land to mining companies without tribal approval, or through coercion. These companies mined lead and zinc to supply the war efforts until the 1970s. The mines, now long-abandoned, have polluted local water and land, leading to developmental delays in Indigenous and non-Indigenous children.

While the local residents of the nearby towns all received buyouts to relocate, the Quapaw people are still on their land and determined to make it hospitable again. The tribe secured a contract with the EPA more than a decade ago to remediate the land at the Tar Creek Superfund Site and repurpose the land for agriculture. The tribe has also seen recent success protecting tribal land sovereignty in Oklahoma.

“We are reclaiming it little by little and regaining land. And we’re doing whatever we can [to] remediate and put it back into ag use,” says Mitchell Albright, Quapaw tribe member and agriculture director.

Today, the restored land is used for more than 1,000 cattle and bison grazing under the Quapaw Cattle Company. The Quapaw have also been able to grow row crops (canola, non-GMO corn, soybeans, and wheat primarily used for animal feed) on restored lands, and they have built greenhouses to grow heirloom, pesticide-free vegetables. In 2017, the Quapaw Tribe also opened the country’s first tribally owned, USDA-approved cattle processing plant.

With rural geography, the Quapaw know the difficulties in transporting mainstream foods to their tribe. That’s why their priority is self-sufficiency, along with cultural preservation and job creation.

Through their farm, they supply the casino and restaurants located on the reservation. They also boast a coffee roaster, craft beer production, and a strong honeybee pollination program. Albright recalls that when he took over as ag director around eight years ago, there were around 15 employees. Today, there are upwards of 100.

“There’s gonna be a time—maybe not in our lifetime, but at some point—[when] maybe you can’t go to Walmart or your local grocery store and get what you need to survive,” Albright said. “And that’s what I love about Native people when they come together. They come up with ideas [that] can feed our people.”

The Future of Indigenous Food Sovereignty

Myers sees the land reclamation work of his and other tribes as more pressing than ever in light of climate change. “[We are at] the frontlines of this war to reclaim our history, our land, our culture . . . We have a system that can not only be saved but restored. And not just kept from going extinct, but being able to flourish in abundance. We’re ready for some victories.”

Deb Haaland speaks to a consituent in Sept. 2020. (Photo courtesy Rep. Deb Haaland's office)Deb Haaland speaks to a consituent in Sept. 2020. (Photo courtesy of Rep. Deb Haaland’s office)

The confirmation of Secretary Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) to lead the Department of the Interior is a huge symbol of hope to the nation’s 574 federally recognized tribes. As a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe of New Mexico, Haaland has firsthand understanding of Indigenous issues such as land sovereignty. Although the #LandBack movement wants Haaland to endorse land reparations for Indigenous people, and she has so far refrained from doing so, Myers and others say her confirmation is enormously significant.

Myers is optimistic about the way forward. “We’ve gone a few hundred years never having anyone in that seat that understood the tribes from a member’s perspective. And now we do,” he said. “Regardless of what happens, things are going to get better because there’s an understanding that was never there before.”

This article was updated to correct the spelling of the Quapah phonetical and to update the name of Western Rivers Conservancy.

Avatar

Melissa Montalvo is a freelance writer who primarily focuses on the food and agriculture industry, cantinas, and all things Mexico.

Texas oil pipelines face dry months as production languishes

Texas oil pipelines face dry months as production languishes

Devika Krishna Kumar                     April 13, 2021

 

NEW YORK (Reuters) -Nearly half of all oil pipelines from the Permian basin, the biggest U.S. oilfield, are expected to be empty by the end of the year, analysts and executives said.

Pipeline companies went on a construction spree throughout 2018 and 2019 to handle blistering growth in U.S. crude production to a record 13 million barrels per day (bpd). However, the coronavirus pandemic crushed both fuel demand and oil production, and neither have recovered fully, leaving many pipelines unused.

Major pipeline companies are exploring ways to ship other products in those lines and considering selling stakes in operations to raise cash.

The coronavirus pandemic upended the global energy supply system and worldwide fuel demand. U.S. gasoline consumption is now estimated to be past its peak and as refiners process less crude, producers are not filling pipelines used to transport it.

By the fourth quarter, total utilization of the largest oil pipelines from the Permian is expected to drop to 57%, consultancy Wood Mackenzie said. The nadir during the last market bust in 2016 was roughly 70%.

U.S. crude output is currently about 11 million bpd, and is not expected to grow much until 2022. But more pipelines were already set to come online, growing the gap between production and capacity covered by long-term contracts to a record over 1 million bpd in February, according to energy research firm East Daley Capital.

“We do not expect to be at pre-COVID production levels by end-2022,” said Saad Rahim, chief economist at commodities merchant Trafigura.

REVENUES HIT

The top three Permian pipeline companies are offering discounts to entice shippers and stem the fall in volumes. Companies rely on long-term contracts that require customers to ship a certain volume of oil or pay a penalty. Now companies are renegotiating those agreements at lower rates when they are close to expiring, to keep their customers.

Magellan Midstream Partners LP’s transportation and terminals revenue slid 9% to about $1.8 billion in 2020, the lowest since 2017. The company has only enough long-term contracts to fill its 275,000-bpd Longhorn pipeline to 70% capacity over the next six years, Magellan said.

With more pipelines adding to competition, Magellan expects daily volumes on Longhorn to drop to an average 230,000 bpd this year versus 270,000 bpd in 2020. A Magellan spokesman said the company could use its marketing arm to buy space on the Longhorn line and sell it to ad-hoc buyers.

Plains All American Pipeline LP’s transportation revenues fell about 13% to $2 billion in 2020, and warned that earnings could suffer further if production declines. Plains did not comment for this story.

Pipeline companies can make some money even when oil is not flowing through pipelines. Producers pay what are known as deficiency payments – penalties for not shipping oil. Still, those payments are small. Plains reported $71 million in deficiency payments in 2020, less than 4% of its overall transportation segment revenue.

Some companies are considering retrofitting pipelines to ship liquids besides crude, such as renewable fuels.

Enterprise Products Partners LP’s co-Chief Executive Jim Teague recently told analysts that he was fielding queries from a petrochemical company that needs pipeline transport and storage for potential hydrogen projects.

Enterprise’s crude pipelines and services revenues plunged 35% in 2020. In February, it said it has long-term contracts to ship about 1 million bpd through 2028 and beyond, compared with average volumes of 2 to 2.2 million bpd over the past two years.

The company did not comment for this story.

As pipeline companies have struggled, investor returns have suffered. The Alerian MLP index, which tracks the performance of midstream companies, is down 24% since the beginning of 2020, compared with a 27% return for the S&P 500.

“A lot of companies had to cut their dividends,” said Rob Thummel, senior portfolio manager at TortoiseEcofin. “It has created some skepticism on the investor base about the sustainability of the sector.”

(Reporting by Devika Krishna Kumar in New York; additional reporting by David FrenchEditing by Marguerita Choy)

Nervous North American farmers set to ‘seed in faith’ into parched soils

Nervous North American farmers set to ‘seed in faith’ into parched soils

Rod Nickel and Julie Ingwersen                       April 12, 2021

 

FILE PHOTO: Hay bales rest in a field in Killdeer, North Dakota

 

WINNIPEG, Manitoba/CHICAGO (Reuters) – Fields across the Canadian Prairies and the U.S. Northern Plains are among the driest on record, raising production risks in one of the world’s key growing regions for canola and spring wheat.

As planting season begins, the dusty soils generate fears that seeds will fail to germinate or yield smaller crops in a year when demand for canola already far outstrips supply. Unusually strong wheat exports to China for animal feed have also lowered global supplies of the main ingredient in bread and pasta.

Prices of canola, which is processed into vegetable oil and animal feed, hit all-time highs in February and Canadian supplies look to dwindle by midsummer to an eight-year low.

Spring wheat futures are trading near their highest levels since 2017, the last time significant drought gripped the northern U.S. Plains.

“I guess we seed in faith, hoping it’s going to rain,” said Steven Donald, 41, a fourth-generation member of a family-owned grain and cattle farm near Moosomin, Saskatchewan. “It’s the driest that we can remember.”

Donald’s fields are powder-dry. His pastures crunch under his boots and contain gaping cracks.

In eastern Saskatchewan and Manitoba, a dry winter followed scant rainfall during the last growing season, said Bruce Burnett, director of markets and weather at Glacier FarmMedia.

Much of western Manitoba had the driest or close to the driest winter in more than a century of records, according to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada data. Most of arable Manitoba and southern Saskatchewan faces severe to extreme drought, the federal department said on Friday.

Many farmers are adjusting by scaling back canola plantings, said Neil Townsend, FarmLink Marketing Solutions’ chief market analyst, citing surveys. Canola is especially vulnerable to drought that can prevent seeds from germinating.

RECORD-BREAKING DRYNESS IN NORTH DAKOTA

Across the border in North Dakota, the top U.S. spring wheat producer, the last six months have been the driest in records dating to 1895, said Adnan Akyuz, the state’s official climatologist. The latest weekly U.S. Drought Monitor showed 70% of North Dakota in “extreme drought,” up from 47% the previous week.

The Drought Monitor shows a better outlook for corn and soybeans, the main U.S. cash crops, mostly grown farther south.

Rain and snow are expected in North Dakota this week, according to meteorologist Greg Gust with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

But it is unlikely to amount to much relief, although showers are possible in the 16-30-day period, said Joel Widenor, agriculture meteorologist with the Commodity Weather Group. Most of the state’s wheat crop is planted in late April and May.

Statistics Canada will issue its first report on planting intentions on April 27. Farmers are likely to seed 4% more canola, mainly in northern areas with more soil moisture, Agriculture Canada said on March 18.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture last month projected that North Dakota farmers would plant 7 million acres of soybeans, making it the state’s most-planted crop, while spring wheat acres would fall 2% to 5.6 million.

Soil erosion is a concern as winds whip the region, said Jim Peterson of the North Dakota Wheat Commission. As a result, wheat may lose more acres to soybeans, which farmers can plant into June without stirring up fields to apply fertilizer, he said.

Conditions are the driest that Minto, Manitoba, farmer Jake Ayre and his family have seen since emigrating to Canada from England in 2002. But most planting in the region, known for its volatile weather, occurs in May.

“We’re not panicking,” Ayre said. “My dad said, ‘We’re always three weeks away from a drought, three weeks away from a flood.'”

(Reporting by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg and Julie Ingwersen in Chicago; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

No community should suffer this’: Florida’s toxic breach was decades in the making

‘No community should suffer this’: Florida’s toxic breach was decades in the making

Paola Rosa-Aquino                               April 11, 2021

It’s been a week since a significant leak at a long-abandoned fertilizer plant in the Tampa Bay area threatened the surrounding groundwater, soil, and local water supplies.

Last weekend, officials ordered more than 300 families living near the 676-acre Piney Point plant site in Manatee county to evacuate. The sheriff even emptied out his jail’s first floor of inmates in case a “20-foot wall of water” came rolling their way.

By Monday, local officials said they thought the crisis had been averted; they lifted evacuation orders on Tuesday afternoon. But what they meant was that imminent catastrophe had been postponed. The long-term, slow-moving crisis of toxicity, decades in the making, remains – and is echoed at dozens of radioactive ponds across the state.

“We’re nowhere near out of the woods yet on this – there’s a long way to go,” says Glen Compton of ManaSota-88, an environmental non-profit that has been urging officials for decades to do something about the industrial waste pile.

Piney Point has a long history of polluting the water and air around it, dating to when the plant was built in 1966, Compton says. Just two years later, in 1968, Compton founded ManaSota-88 to oppose the site’s phosphate mining. (“The 88 stood for 1988 because we were supposed to solve all the problems within 20 years,” Compton says. “So now, the 88 stands for 2088.”)

Effluent spews from a pipe into a ditch at Port Manatee, where a breach in a nearby wastewater reservoir on the site of a defunct phosphate plant forced an evacuation order.
Effluent spews from a pipe into a ditch at Port Manatee, where a breach in a nearby wastewater reservoir on the site of a defunct phosphate plant forced an evacuation order. Photograph: Octavio Jones/Reuters

 

Within a year of Piney Point being built, its original owners – a subsidiary of Borden, the glue and milk company – were caught dumping waste into nearby Bishop Harbor, a marine estuary that flows into Tampa Bay. The plant repeatedly changed hands throughout the years, all the while continuing causing numerous human health and environmental disasters and incidents.

In 1989, for instance, a 23,000-gallon leak of sulfuric acid from a holding tank forced the evacuation of hundreds of people.

After the owner went bankrupt, the Piney Point fertilizer plant was shut down in 2001. But the waste from more than three decades of phosphate mining still sits in massive piles at the site – the environmental equivalent of a ticking time bomb. An intense storm could easily send overflow, for instance.

Before phosphate can be used to help crops grow in fertilizer, it goes through a polluting chemical process. Phosphate ore mined from the soil is treated to create phosphoric acid – a main component of fertilizer. Phosphogypsum is the radioactive waste left over. For every ton of desirable phosphoric acid produced for fertilizer, more than five tons of phosphogypsum waste remains.

The fertilizer industry that produced that waste then dumps it in large piles known as “gyp stacks” – mountains hundreds of feet tall and hundreds of acres wide. And at the top of these mountains are huge lagoons, containing hundreds of millions of gallons of wastewater that is highly acidic and radioactive with heavy metal contaminants. A breach at another stack in the state after a 2004 hurricane led to millions of gallons of polluted water being spilled into Tampa Bay.

This toxic industry has plagued the state for decades. Central Florida is the phosphate capital of the world; the state produces 80% of the phosphate mined in the US, as well 25% of the phosphate used around the world. An estimated 1 billion tons of phosphogypsum is housed in about two dozen stacks that dot the Florida landscape, some looming as high as 200ft, each with its own pond of acidic wastewater on top. And every year, about 30m more tons are added to them.

“Florida can’t keep ignoring the catastrophic risks of phosphate mining and its toxic waste products,” says Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “No community should have to suffer the consequence of this toxic legacy for some corporation’s short-term financial gain.”

According to Compton, what happens at Piney Point sets a precedent in Florida regarding industrial waste from phosphate mining. “Everything that can go wrong has gone wrong here,” he says.

A view of a wastewater holding pond in Piney Point, Florida, in October.
A view of a wastewater holding pond in Piney Point, Florida, in October. Photograph: Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Tech/AFP/Getty Images

 

About 223 million gallons remained in the leaking pond at Piney Point on Friday, according to the Florida department of environmental regulation; so far, about 215m gallons of wastewater have been pumped into Tampa Bay. Still, environmental advocates fear how the plant’s toxic stew might affect water quality: on Wednesday, the state agency said there were elevated levels of phosphorous detected where wastewater was being discharged.

Two additional stacks with wastewater containment ponds remain at Piney Point, and officials fear an unaddressed breach could lead to a sudden rush of water out of the other two stacks, which are more toxic and acidic. If that were to happen, Compton says, “we’d expect to see major impacts to Bishop Harbor, which is one of the prettiest places in the state of Florida”.

Should either of those stacks fail, he adds, the harbor “would be totally annihilated. It is really not too strong a term to use.” The nutrient-laden water could fuel algae blooms, endangering already vulnerable marine life.

At the end of Wednesday, with pumps still gushing out millions of gallons of wastewater, state senators passed an amendment that would allocate $3 million – what appears to be the first tranche of funds in a $200m plan to close and clean up the site – to dispose of the wastewater.

Compton says the plan entails building a well injection in order to get rid of the wastewater – an idea facing opposition from surrounding residents, national organizations, and anybody who has an interest in agriculture in the area. “When you put wastewater into the ground, you really have no idea where it goes next. There’s no 100% foolproof way to monitor which way the aquifer flows and where it ultimately ends up.”

The Piney Point site is shaping up to be a costly environmental catastrophe, and Compton thinks the fertilizer industry should be accountable for disposing of its waste, rather than passing the cost on to taxpayers. But even with talks of the fertilizer plant’s cleanup and closure on the horizon, he’s not optimistic the threat of pollution from its wastewater will soon disappear.

“There’s a local saying that if you go to a Manatee county commission meeting 50 years from now, there’s two things that’ll be on the agenda: sewage spills and Piney Point,” Compton adds. “This isn’t going away anytime soon.”

Western U.S. may be entering worst drought in modern history

Western U.S. may be entering worst drought in modern history

Jeff Berardelli                              April 11, 2021

Western U.S. may be entering worst drought in modern history.

 

Extreme drought across the Western U.S. has become as reliable as a summer afternoon thunderstorm in Florida. And news headlines about drought in the West can seem a bit like a broken record, with some scientists saying the region is on the precipice of permanent drought.

That’s because in 2000, the Western U.S. entered the beginning of what scientists call a megadrought — the second worst in 1,200 years — triggered by a combination of a natural dry cycle and human-caused climate change.

In the past 20 years, the two worst stretches of drought came in 2003 and 2013 — but what is happening right now appears to be the beginning stages of something even more severe. And as we head into the summer dry season, the stage is set for an escalation of extreme dry conditions, with widespread water restrictions expected and yet another dangerous fire season ahead.

 / Credit: NOAA
/ Credit: NOAA

 

The above image is a time series of drought in the western states from 2000 to 2021. This latest 2020-2021 spike (on the right) is every bit as impressive as the others, but with one notable difference — this time around, the area of “exceptional drought” is far larger than any other spike, with an aerial coverage of over 20%. As we enter the dry season, there is very little chance conditions will get better — in fact it will likely only get drier.

With this in mind, there is little doubt that the drought in the West, especially the Southwest, this summer and fall will be the most intense in recent memory. The only real question: Will it last as long as the last extended period of drought from 2012 to 2017? Only time will tell.

Right now, the U.S. Drought Monitor places 60% of the Western states under severe, extreme or exceptional drought. The reason for the extensive drought is two-fold; long term drying fueled by human-caused climate change and, in the short term, a La Niña event in which cool Equatorial Pacific waters failed to fuel an ample fetch of moisture.

 / Credit: CBS News
/ Credit: CBS News

 

Consequently, this past winter’s wet season was not very wet at all. In fact, it just added insult to injury, with only 25 to 50% of normal rainfall falling across much of the Southwest and California. This followed one of the driest and hottest summers in modern times, with two historic heat waves, a summer monsoon cycle that simply did not even show up and the worst fire season in modern times.

The image below shows what is called the precipitation percentile from October through March, comparing this past six months to the same six-month stretch in each of the past 50 years.

 / Credit: ClimateToolbox.org
/ Credit: ClimateToolbox.org

 

The light brown shading shows areas in which the most recent six-month stretch was in the driest 10% of the last 50 years. The dark brown shade indicates the areas which experienced their lowest precipitation on record during this latest six-month span. Almost all areas are covered by one of those two shades.

Kelsey Satalino, the Digital Communications Coordinator from NOAA’s National Integrated Drought Information System, says that during the past few months, several states including NevadaArizonaNew Mexico and Utah experienced their most intense period of drought since the Drought Monitor began back in 2000. As a result, soil moisture content is at its lowest levels in at least 120 years.

The Pacific Northwest, however, is faring much different this season. The northern half of the West experienced normal to even above normal snowfall this winter, on par with what is expected during a typical La Niña event featuring a further north jet stream storm track. That good fortune did not extend further south, however, with most areas now at only 50 to 75% of normal snowpack.

 / Credit: SNOTEL/ Credit: SNOTEL

 

Since the West relies on melting snowpack to fill lakes, reservoirs and rivers, like the Colorado, water availability will be limited this summer. The Colorado River and its tributaries provide water for around 40 million people and 5 million acres of farmland. The amount of water flowing into Lake Powell, on the Arizona-Utah state line, in the coming months is only expected to be around 45% of the typical amount. Lake Meade, on the Arizona-Nevada state line, is only at 40% capacity.

But this lack of snowpack is not a one-time issue; it is a trend. Over the past 40 years, snowpack has declined by about 25% over the Western states. Meanwhile, the population continues to increase. Thus, as of late, water demand has been outstripping what mother nature can deliver.

 / Credit: Climate Central
/ Credit: Climate Central

 

In general, these water woes are not expected to improve. While there will be wet years, the overall trend is towards drying. Scientists say this is a result of human-caused climate change, which is leading to less reliable rain and warmer temperatures — both consistent with what has been projected by climate computer models. The image below shows a clear trend toward worsening drought since 1900.

 / Credit: Climate Central
/ Credit: Climate Central

 

New research from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that over the past several decades, precipitation has become more erratic and dry periods between rain storms have expanded. Even if rain or snow falls heavier, that’s less important than consistency. Soil moisture and vegetation thrive on precipitation that is spread out more evenly over time, rather than heavy events which tend to run-off, resulting in wasted moisture.

At the same time, temperatures across the Western U.S. have increased by a few degrees over the past 50 years. The warmer air provides more heat energy to evaporate moisture from vegetation and soil. As a result, the ground continues to dry out, providing flammable fuel for escalating fire seasons.

In fact, 2020 was the worst fire season in the modern history of the West, with California and Colorado experiencing their largest fires on record. As can be seen in the below visual, the intensity of fires and acres burned tracks with increasing temperatures. Simply put, the warmer and drier it gets, the larger fires become.

 / Credit: CBS News
/ Credit: CBS News

 

Because of a warming climate, fire season in the West is now two to three months longer than it was just a few decades ago. That means, with the dry season already getting underway in the West, the time to prepare for wildfires is fast approaching.

Scientists Warn 4°C World Would Unleash ‘Unimaginable Amounts of Water’ as Ice Shelves Collaps

Scientists Warn 4°C World Would Unleash ‘Unimaginable Amounts of Water’ as Ice Shelves Collapse

By Jessica Corbett, Common Dreams                April 11, 2021 

 

Scientists Warn 4°C World Would Unleash 'Unimaginable Amounts of Water' as Ice Shelves Collapse
Pexels

 

A new study is shedding light on just how much ice could be lost around Antarctica if the international community fails to urgently rein in planet-heating emissions, bolstering arguments for bolder climate policies.

The study, published Thursday in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, found that over a third of the area of all Antarctic ice shelves — including 67% of area on the Antarctic Peninsula — could be at risk of collapsing if global temperatures soar to 4°C above pre-industrial levels.

An ice shelf, as NASA explains, “is a thick, floating slab of ice that forms where a glacier or ice flows down a coastline.” They are found only in Antarctica, Greenland, Canada, and the Russian Arctic—and play a key role in limiting sea level rise.

“Ice shelves are important buffers preventing glaciers on land from flowing freely into the ocean and contributing to sea level rise,” explained Ella Gilbert, the study’s lead author, in a statement. “When they collapse, it’s like a giant cork being removed from a bottle, allowing unimaginable amounts of water from glaciers to pour into the sea.”

“We know that when melted ice accumulates on the surface of ice shelves, it can make them fracture and collapse spectacularly,” added Gilbert, a research scientist at the University of Reading. “Previous research has given us the bigger picture in terms of predicting Antarctic ice shelf decline, but our new study uses the latest modelling techniques to fill in the finer detail and provide more precise projections.”

Gilbert and co-author Christoph Kittel of Belgium’s University of Liège conclude that limiting global temperature rise to 2°C rather than 4°C would cut the area at risk in half.

“At 1.5°C, just 14% of Antarctica’s ice shelf area would be at risk,” Gilbert noted in The Conversation.

While the 2015 Paris climate agreement aims to keep temperature rise “well below” 2°C, with a more ambitious 1.5°C target, current emissions reduction plans are dramatically out of line with both goals, according to a United Nations analysis.

Gilbert said Thursday that the findings of their new study “highlight the importance of limiting global temperature increases as set out in the Paris agreement if we are to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, including sea level rise.”

“If temperatures continue to rise at current rates,” she said, “we may lose more Antarctic ice shelves in the coming decades.”

The researchers warn that Larsen C—the largest remaining ice shelf on the Antarctic peninsula—as well as the Shackleton, Pine Island, and Wilkins ice shelves are most at risk under 4°C of warming because of their geography and runoff predictions.

“Limiting warming will not just be good for Antarctica—preserving ice shelves means less global sea level rise, and that’s good for us all,” Gilbert added.

Low-lying coastal areas such as small island nations of Vanuatu and Tuvalu in the South Pacific Ocean face the greatest risk from sea level rise, Gilbert told CNN.

“However, coastal areas all over the world would be vulnerable,” she warned, “and countries with fewer resources available to mitigate and adapt to sea level rise will see worse consequences.”

Research published in February examining projections from the Fifth Assessment Report of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as well as the body’s Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate found that sea level rise forecasts for this century “are on the money when tested against satellite and tide-gauge observations.”

A co-author of that study, John Church of the Climate Change Research Center at the University of New South Wales, said at the time that “if we continue with large ongoing emissions as we are at present, we will commit the world to meters of sea level rise over coming centuries.”

Parties to the Paris agreement are in the process of updating their emissions reduction commitments—called nationally determined contributions—ahead of November’s United Nations climate summit, known as COP26.

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.

Yellen pushes minimum corporate taxes, ending fossil fuel breaks, to pay for infrastructure

Yellen pushes minimum corporate taxes, ending fossil fuel breaks, to pay for infrastructure

David Lawder                     April 7, 2021

 

WASHINGTON, April 7 (Reuters) – U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on Wednesday fleshed out the details of a corporate tax hike plan linked to President Joe Biden’s infrastructure investment proposal, aiming to raise $2.5 trillion in new revenues over 15 years by deterring tax avoidance.

Yellen’s plan relies on negotiating a 21% global minimum corporate tax rate with major economies and a separate 15% minimum tax on ‘booked’ income aimed at the largest U.S. corporations. Dozens of big U.S. companies have used complex tax strategies to reduce their federal tax liabilities to zero.

Yellen said that promised boosts in U.S. capital investment by corporations and turbocharged growth failed to materialize after Republican tax legislation in 2017 cut the corporate rate to 21% from 35%.

Instead, the Trump-era cuts halved U.S. corporate tax collections as a share of economic output to 1% from its long-term 2% average, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The average for the 37 OECD member countries is 3.1%.

“Our tax revenues are already at their lowest level in a generation. And as they continue to drop lower we will have less money to invest in roads, bridges, broadband and R&D,” Yellen said.

The bulk of U.S. tax collections https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-taxes-revenue-explainer/explainer-the-4-trillion-u-s-government-relies-on-individual-taxpayers-idUSKBN26J30F are deducted from the regular paychecks of individual wage earners, but Biden has pledged not to raise any taxes on Americans earning less than $400,000 a year.

The Treasury plan seeks to end provisions in the 2017 tax cuts that Democrats say provide continued incentives for companies to shift investments, intellectual property and profits to lower-tax countries.

Its biggest target is revamping the 2017 tax act’s first stab at a minimum tax, the 10.5% Global Intangible Low-Taxed Income tax (GILTI). Treasury would eliminate a U.S. deduction for the first 10% of income from foreign assets and raise the GILTI minimum rate to 21%.

GILTI, which acts as a kind of “top-up” tax to offset lower rates in other countries, would be applied on a country-by-country basis, rather than a global average rate, which Democrats say encourages some use of tax havens. This change alone could raise $500 billion in revenue over a decade, Treasury said.

Treasury would also replace a separate 10% Base Erosion and Anti-abuse Tax (BEAT), aimed at preventing shifting profits to entities in tax havens, with a new 21% tax that aims to deny deductions on income from countries that do not agree to a global minimum tax. It is rebranding this as the SHIELD tax, for “Stopping Harmful Inversions and Ending Low-Tax Developments.”

A Treasury official told reporters that this new tax would act as an incentive for countries to agree to a global minimum tax by denying companies the benefits of using tax havens.

FOSSIL FUEL BREAKS

The Treasury plan also would eliminate a range of tax breaks for the fossil fuel industry, a move it said would raise revenues by $35 billion over 10 years. It will replace these with new clean energy tax incentives including for electric vehicles and efficient electric appliances.

Treasury also is proposing a new 15% alternative minimum tax for large corporations, based on booked income reported to shareholders, to ensure that they cannot use complex tax avoidance schemes to pay no taxes.

Treasury said it estimates that some 45 corporations would have seen an average $300 million additional annual tax liability under the proposed minimum, raising some $13.5 billion in new revenues.

(Reporting by David Lawder, David Shepardson, Jarrett Renshaw and Tim Gardner; Editing by Heather Timmons, Andrea Ricci and Chizu Nomiyama)

Building an interstate system to move electricity could cost $50 billion — or less than what the Texas freeze and power outages cost users

The Conversation

Opinion: Building an interstate system to move electricity could cost $50 billion — or less than what the Texas freeze and power outages cost users

James D. McCalley                             April 5, 2021 

A macrogrid would make it easier and cheaper to move power across the five North American power grids
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

 

Many kinds of extreme events can disrupt electricity service, including hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, wildfires, extreme heat, extreme cold and extended droughts. Major disasters can leave thousands of people in the dark. The Texas deep freeze in February knocked out 40% of the state’s electric generating capacity.

During such events, unaffected regions may have power to spare. For example, during the February blackouts in Texas, utilities were generating electricity from hydropower in the Pacific Northwest, natural gas in the Northeast, wind on the northern Plains and solar power in the Southwest.

Today it’s not possible to move electricity seamlessly from one end of the U.S. to the other. But over the past decade, researchers at national laboratories and universities have been working closely with industry engineers to design an interstate electricity system that can. And President Biden’s infrastructure plan would move in this direction by allocating billions of dollars to build high-voltage transmission lines that can “move cheaper, cleaner electricity to where it is needed most.”

My engineering research focuses on electric power systems. At Iowa State University we have worked to quantify the benefits that macrogrids can bring to the U.S. These high-capacity transmission systems interconnect energy resources and areas of high electricity demand, known as load centers, across large geographic regions.

A national highway system for electricity

Dwight Eisenhower had been thinking about a national interstate highway system for decades before he was inaugurated as president in 1953. Eisenhower argued that such a system was “as necessary to defense as it is to our national economy and personal safety.”

Congress agreed and passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which authorized the federal government to pay 90% of the cost of this $114 billion system, with states covering the rest.

Eisenhower was worried about evacuating cities in the event of nuclear war. The security argument for a macrogrid focuses on extreme events that disrupt the power grid. And the economic argument centers on moving wind, solar and hydro power from areas where they are plentiful to areas with high power demand.

A macrogrid would use different peak demand periods to reduce electricity costs.

Today the North American power grid is actually five grids, also known as interconnections. Two large ones, the Eastern and Western Interconnects, cover most of the lower 48 states and large swaths of Canada, while three smaller grids serve Texas, Alaska and northern Quebec. Each of these grids uses alternating current, or AC, to move electricity from generators to customers.

The Eastern, Western and Texas Interconnects are linked by high-voltage direct current, or HVDC, lines that make it possible to transmit power between them. These facilities are aging and can only transfer small quantities of electricity between grids. One way to think of a macrogrid is as an overlay that pulls together the existing U.S. grids and makes it easier to move power between them.

Sharing power across regions

President Biden has proposed sweeping action to achieve a clean energy transition in the U.S., including making electric power carbon-free by 2035. This will require adding a lot of new renewable generating capacity over the next 15 years.

What Biden’s First 100 Days Mean For You and Your Money
How will the new stimulus package affect the economy? Understand how today’s market dynamics, tax policies and more impact you with real-time news and analysis from MarketWatch. Our instant market data and insights will help you take action immediately—no matter your investing experience.

Wind and solar costs have fallen dramatically in recent years. Today power from new, large-scale wind or solar plants is cheaper than electricity from existing coal plants. Yet renewables provide only about 21% of U.S. electricity.

A macrogrid would reduce the cost of electricity from new wind and solar plants in two ways. First, it would enable high-quality renewable power – mainly Midwestern wind and Southern solar, and potentially Canadian hydropower – to supply coastal load centers. It is cheaper to build transmission systems that can move this power over long distances than to generate it from lower-quality, weaker sun and wind resources closer to cities.

Second, a macrogrid would make it possible to share energy production and grid services between regions. This strategy takes advantage of time differences due to time zones and the fact that electricity demand tends to peak at certain times of day, such as when people arrive home in the evening. And electricity prices rise and fall during the day with demand.

For example, at 3 p.m. Pacific Time, power demand is relatively low on the West Coast, which means the cost of that electricity is also low. Excess Western electricity could be used to supply demand on the East Coast, which peaks daily simultaneous with this 3 p.m. West coast “low” which occurs at 6 p.m. Eastern Time. Four hours later, when the West Coast hits its 7 p.m. Pacific Time daily peak, it would be 10 p.m. on the East Coast, which would have extra generation to share westward.

Capacity sharing also works because annual peak power demand occurs at different times of year for different regions. Each region is required to have access to enough generation capacity to meet its annual peak load, with some margin to cover generation failures. A macrogrid would enable regions to share excess generating capacity when it’s not needed locally.

This strategy provides benefits even when annual peaks in two regions differ by only a few days. When they differ by weeks or months, the payoff can be large. For example, power demand in the Pacific Northwest typically peaks in winter, so the region could borrow capacity from the Southwest and Midwest, where demand peaks in summer, and vice versa.

Building transmission saves money

In a study that I published in 2020 with academic and industry colleagues, we showed that without a macrogrid it would cost more than $2.2 trillion from 2024 through 2038 to develop and operate the nation’s electric power system and achieve 50% renewable power generation in 2038. This includes the costs of adding 600 gigawatts of new generating capacity that would be almost entirely wind and solar; operating costs for remaining fossil and nuclear power plants; and building new AC transmission lines to connect new power plants to customers.

However, we calculated that if the U.S. spent $50 billion to develop a macrogrid, the total long-term cost of developing and operating the nation’s electric power system and achieving 50% renewable electricity in 2038 would decrease by more than $50 billion. In other words, by making it possible to share power across regions and deliver high-quality renewable power from remote areas to load centers, the macrogrid would more than pay for itself.

Some observers may worry that a nationally connected grid would be more vulnerable to cascading blackouts than our existing system. In fact, a macrogrid would actually be more reliable because HVDC provides increased grid control capability through its flexible converter stations.

Industry leaders and clean energy advocates are calling for the U.S. to pursue macrogrid development. But North America is lagging behind most of the world in developing interregional power lines to tap low-cost clean energy resources. And if $50 billion seems like a big investment, consider this: It’s also the estimated minimum cost of outages and energy price spikes during the Texas deep freeze.

Also read: After power outages end, Texas must debate its electricity independence

And: ‘The sheer number of claims are extraordinary’: Texans pay a lot for insurance — but will that help them now?

James D. McCalley is a professor of electrical engineering at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. This was first published by The Conversation — “The US needs a macrogrid to move electricity from areas that make it to areas that need it“.

A Lush Lawn Without Pesticides

A Lush Lawn Without Pesticides

Catherine Roberts                            April 6, 2021

 

Shortly after Lydia Chambers had her first child, in 1995, her family moved to a new home in Ohio. “It was this neighborhood with perfect lawns,” recalls Chambers, now 60. In her previous home, when a swath of dandelions appeared shortly after she and her husband moved in, she spent two weeks pulling them out by hand.

In their Ohio home, however, she had no time to take care of the yard. So she hired a service to come and treat it. At the time, she didn’t realize that the chemicals the service used might be dangerous. “Even though I kind of sensed it . . . I didn’t know,” she says.

In her professional life as a hydrogeologist, Chambers was beginning to learn about how long-term, low-dose exposures to dangerous chemicals could lead to cancer and other chronic diseases. This made her increasingly suspicious of the pesticides her landscaping company applied. By 2005, her family had moved to New Jersey and her elementary school-aged kids were playing in the yard constantly. As she did more research, she learned a particularly disturbing fact: One common weed killer, 2,4-­dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D), was also an ingredient in Agent Orange, a chemical used during the Vietnam War.

“I guess if anything flipped a switch, it was that,” she says. Chambers and her husband finally committed to taking care of their yard with no synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers—even if that meant it sprouted a few weeds. “I was proud that I had a few weeds in my grass,” she says. “It was a symbol I was doing the right thing.”

For many Americans, however, a pristine lawn is the goal, and weed-free grass is big business. American consumers spend about $35 billion per year on lawn and garden products, according to market research firm Mintel. Professional lawn-care services and consumers going the DIY route choose from a variety of pesticides and fertilizers, many with familiar brand names, such as Roundup and Scotts.

The sense of unease that Chambers felt about pesticides is grounded in evidence: A growing body of research has linked many of them, even at low levels, to potential health problems such as cardiovascular disease, says Consumer Reports senior scientist Michael Hansen, PhD, an expert in environmental health.

Also, while synthetic lawn-care products may be helpful to your yard in the short term, they can harm beneficial organisms in soil and won’t lead to a healthy ecosystem in the long run. “You wonder,” asks Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides, a nonprofit that advocates for transitioning away from synthetic pesticides, “why are we still using these things?”

Part of the problem is that even when consumers look for alternatives to traditional lawn chemicals, navigating the marketplace can be tricky. Unlike with food, there’s no legal definition of “organic” when it comes to lawn products, so it’s hard to assess the safety of a product that advertises itself as “organic,” “natural,” or “environmentally friendly.”

Still, it’s possible for consumers to move away from conventional lawn care. It just requires a bit of strategy, a few new habits, and some fresh ideas about what your yard should look like.

Health Harms of Lawn Care

On one hand, it’s a minority of lawn owners who hire lawn-care companies or add fertilizers or pesticides to their lawns. In a February 2021 CR nationally representative survey of 1,772 lawn owners, 51 percent said they don’t use any pesticides or fertilizers on their lawns. And according to Peter Groffman, PhD, a professor at the Advanced Science Research Center at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, who studies ecosystem ecology, “the biggest group of homeowners are what we call passive land managers—they just mow.”

Still, many American homeowners strive for a perfectly uniform, bright green lawn. And according to research by Paul Robbins, PhD, professor and dean at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, many do this in spite of misgivings about the sometimes mysterious chemical inputs involved.

Lawn chemicals pose short- and long-term risks to health, and children are particularly vulnerable. Kids can accidentally ingest pesticides if they get their hands on them. Although acute poisonings are relatively rare, poison control centers still logged around 34,000 cases regarding pesticide exposure among children 5 and younger in 2019, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.

The long-term risks of chronic exposure to chemicals on our lawns are much harder to quantify than acute poisonings, but plenty of research has been conducted into how it may affect health. One thing we know: Lawn chemicals don’t just stay on the lawn. Research has demonstrated that pesticides can be tracked inside on shoes and clothes, where they then settle into the dust on floors and other surfaces. There, children, especially young ones who crawl around on the ground and explore the world by putting things in their mouths, are more likely to get these substances into their system.

The prenatal period and early childhood are also times when people are more vulnerable to the risks of these repeated tiny exposures, which may have long-term effects, says Sheela Sathyanarayana, MD, a pediatrician and an environmental epidemiologist at the University of Washington and the Seattle Children’s Research Institute.

Still, the specific health effects of cumulative exposure to individual pesticides are difficult to tease out, in part because pesticides are designed to be toxic to living organisms. Scientists don’t typically expose people to them on purpose to find out what happens, as they do with medications. The evidence we do have—based on observational studies and experiments in animals and in cells—is open to interpretation.

Take, for example, the herbicides 2,4-D and glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup). They were the two most common active ingredients found in home and garden pesticides used in 2012, the last year for which data on national pesticide usage was available from the Environmental Protection Agency. The International Agency for Research on Cancer, a part of the World Health Organization that investigates the causes of cancer in humans, classifies 2,4-D as a possible carcinogen and glyphosate as a probable carcinogen.

Still, the science isn’t perfectly clear. The IARC’s classifications of carcinogens only indicate the strength of the evidence showing a given substance’s link to cancer. But chemicals in the same category could pose very different levels of real-world risk. Bayer, glyphosate’s manufacturer, told CR that the IARC’s analyses of carcinogens “do not reflect real-world exposure,” meaning the agency doesn’t say whether the amount of a substance you would typically be exposed to is enough to be dangerous.

The EPA has ruled that there isn’t good enough evidence to say whether 2,4-D causes cancer in humans—and that glyphosate probably doesn’t. The EPA also says that although 2,4-D was indeed an ingredient in Agent Orange, it was a different component, known as dioxin, that was found to cause cancer. And Lindsay Thompson, executive director of the Industry Task Force II on 2,4-D Research Data, told CR that regulators have “consistently found 2,4-D not to have adverse human health impacts” when used as directed on the label.

A variety of studies, particularly among agricultural communities exposed to pesticides through their work or by proximity to farms, have linked these and other common lawn chemicals to an increased risk of other health problems, too. These include neurological issues, respiratory irritation, asthma, and liver and kidney damage. One 2015 study even suggests that both 2,4-D and glyphosate could be contributing to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

What’s more, several common lawn pesticides are suspected endocrine disrupters, meaning they might interfere with the body’s hormones. This is thought to occur at very low doses during certain vulnerable phases of life, such as the prenatal period and early childhood. Endocrine disruption may contribute to a range of issues, including diabetes and reproductive and developmental problems.

Still, industry groups maintain that the EPA’s approval of existing lawn pesticides means the chemicals should be safe to use as directed on the label. Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment, an association representing pesticide and fertilizer industry players, says the EPA reviews hundreds of studies to arrive at its approval of a pesticide. And Andrew Bray, vice president of government relations for the National Association of Landscape Professionals, says, “We look at EPA as the experts.”

The Limits of Regulation

It can be hard for consumers to know what to make of all this, especially when studies come to contrasting conclusions. After all, if these chemicals posed a real danger, why would they still be on store shelves?

In fact, David Dorman, PhD, a professor of toxicology at NC State College of Veterinary Medicine in Raleigh, N.C., says many dangerous products have been banned in the U.S., including DDT. Modern pesticides, he says, are “so much safer than what was used even 40, 50 years ago. So progress has been made.”

In theory, the EPA’s approach to regulating pesticides is precautionary—it requires manufacturers to demonstrate a chemical’s safety before bringing it to market. But many consumer advocates, including CR’s Hansen, say the EPA’s testing requirements are outdated and don’t reflect the latest in toxicological science. That allows some significant harms of pesticides to go undetected.

The problem, says Laura Vandenberg, PhD, associate professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is that a clearer understanding of some of the most serious potential effects—such as cancer—may take decades to emerge. In that time, millions of people will have already been exposed unnecessarily, she says.

The EPA told CR that it is in the process of incorporating endocrine disruption into its standard tests for pesticide safety, and that it is implementing a set of new evaluation methods designed to reduce the need for animal testing. The agency says its risk assessment “ensures that when a pesticide is used according to the label, people and the environment are adequately protected.”

Environmental Impact

Lawn chemicals don’t just stay on your lawn or end up in your household dust. They can also sink deep into the soil, float off into the air, and be carried off by stormwater, ultimately causing harm to a range of organisms they were never meant to target.

A major component in conventional lawn care, fertilizer, is a key source of water pollution. The excess nutrients get washed out by rain into local waterways or sink into groundwater.

Once the nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizer reach a lake or pond, they can prompt an overgrowth of algae, which eat up the oxygen in the water. That can cause fish to die en masse and sometimes makes water toxic.

Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides may also gradually degrade the health of your soil by diminishing beneficial microbes and fungi. Healthy soil, along with being great for your grass, can help keep carbon out of the atmosphere, an important bulwark against climate change, says soil scientist Asmeret Berhe, PhD, professor of soil biogeochemistry at the University of California, Merced.

What’s a Consumer to Do?

If you’re concerned about the potential health and environmental effects of synthetic lawn chemicals, you might think the answer is choosing organic chemicals instead, or employing a green lawn-care service. But that can be harder than it sounds.

For agriculture, the federal government enforces regulations for food producers that would like to label their food as organic. But no federal laws exist for “organic” lawn-care products or service providers.

Before you hire a provider advertising organic lawn care, ask plenty of questions, says Michele Bakacs, associate professor and county agent with the Rutgers Cooperative Extension in New Jersey. “If the first thing the landscaper talks to you about is the type of product that they’re using, well, that may be a little bit of a warning sign,” she says. Instead, look for a provider that offers a soil test and talks to you about improving the health of your soil, putting the right plant in the right place for your yard and using several types of turfgrass. These are signs of a provider interested in the unique ecology of your yard.

Although uncertainty remains about the extent of the harms of lawn products, reducing risks to people and the environment is easy: Avoid using synthetic lawn chemicals. There are other ways to achieve the same goals that are better for your lawn and for your family (see “How to Rehab Your Yard”).

It can take a bit of a mindset shift, says Joseph R. Heckman, PhD, an extension specialist and professor of soil science at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. “If you want to have an organic lawn, you have to have a little bit of tolerance for something less than perfect,” he says.

Over the years, the practice of pesticide-free yard care has evolved for Lydia Chambers and her husband. They still live in New Jersey, and Chambers now considers herself an environmental activist. Their latest effort: converting much of their 3-acre property from lawn into meadow. Soon, in place of acres of trimmed turf, they’ll have a spread of native wildflowers and grasses. The meadow will encourage a more diverse ecology in her lawn, she says—and there’s a bonus: “It will be way easier than handling more flower beds.”

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the May 2021 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.