Posted on | September 11, 2014 | No Comments
Read the original post at agpolicy.org
During the last week in August attention to the issue of water quality and the need to reduce the levels of nitrogen and phosphorus from entering US waterways moved from Ohio and the Chesapeake Bay to Iowa and its contribution to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. On Monday, August 25, 2014, the Iowa Soybean Association, the Iowa Corn Growers Association, and the Iowa Pork Producers Association announced the formation of the Iowa Agricultural Water Alliance (http://tinyurl.com/nsbyhwq).
According to their website, “the Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance is a nonprofit organization committed to advancing the success of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy by increasing farmer awareness of the initiative and their adoption of science-based practices proven to have quantifiable environmental benefits.”
The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (http://tinyurl.com/khflofq) was developed as Iowa’s response to the 2008 Gulf Hypoxia Plan that called for the states bordering the Mississippi River to reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus reaching the gulf by at least 45 percent. The strategy was prepared by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and Iowa State University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and released in May 2013.
The Strategy is not limited to agriculture but includes elements to deal with both point and nonpoint sources of pollution. In Iowa the point sources of nitrogen and phosphorus include 102 major municipal wastewater treatment plants and 28 industrial facilities. These facilities are required to obtain a discharge permit before they can release polluted water into Iowa’s waters.
“For the first time, discharge permits issued to these 130 facilities will require implementation of technically and economically feasible process changes for nutrient removal. These changes are designed to achieve targeted reductions of at least two-thirds in the amount of nitrogen and a three-fourths reduction in the amount of phosphorus from levels currently discharged by these facilities.
“If successful, this strategy will reduce by at least 11,000 tons per year the amount of nitrogen and 2,170 tons per year the amount of phosphorus discharged annually by municipal facilities alone. These figures represent a 4 percent reduction in nitrogen and a 16 percent reduction in phosphorus in the estimated statewide amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus discharged to Iowa waters from both point and nonpoint sources.”
Doing the math, that means if the goal is a 45 percent reduction, then agriculture, as the major nonpoint source, has to bear the lion’s share of the nitrogen and phosphorus reduction goals—41 percent for nitrogen and 29 percent for phosphorus, respectively.
Why does agriculture end up bearing responsibility for such a large share of the nitrogen and phosphorus goals? To paraphrase a statement attributed to bank robber Willie Sutton, “because that is where the nitrogen and phosphorus are.” Depending on municipal systems alone, the state could not reach the 45 percent reduction goal for both nitrogen and phosphorus. Agriculture has to be a part of the solution.
Similarly, agriculture will not be able to meet its portion of the goal if very many farmers—or those whose farm release large amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus— decide to continue doing business as usual, the remaining farmers will not be able to meet the targets.
The report says, “possible nutrient reduction practices identified fall into three categories—nitrogen and phosphorus management, erosion control and land use, and edge-of- field. Management practices involve such things as application rate, timing, and method, plus the use of cover crops, and living mulches.
“Land use practices include such things as perennial energy crops, extended rotations, tillage methods, grazed pastures, land retirement and terraces. Edge-of-field practices involve drainage water management, wetlands, bioreactors, buffers and sediment control.”
The Iowa Water Management Association was developed by the three agricultural groups as an alternative to regulation by state and national agencies. The chair of this group is Kirk Leeds, CEO of the Iowa Soybean Association.
In a DTN column, “Ag Groups Form Alliance to Champion State Nutrient Strategy,” Chris Clayton writes, “Leeds acknowledged more effort is needed to educate farmers. Despite conservation practices now in place, current farming practices won’t effectively reduce nutrient loads by the volumes needed…. Leeds added that farmers also need to be aware that consumers and the public are watching and want to see results.”
Posted on | August 26, 2014 | No Comments
Read the original post at agpolicy.org
Growing up, one of the events we looked forward to was the church pot luck dinner. There were so many delicious choices to choose from as we worked out way down the table that it was easy to overfill the plate and the desserts were still ahead. It took more than one pot luck dinner to finally come to the conclusion—well mothers and a stomach ache or two helped—that it was possible to have too much of a good thing.
In the recent algae bloom that shut down the public water system, we have been faced with the problems caused by too much of a good—and necessary—thing, as excess phosphorus, some of which came from agricultural production, in Lake Erie fed the algae bloom.
A United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Brief, “Nitrogen Management on U.S. Corn Acres” (http://tinyurl.com/k35oyto), points out that while nitrogen is an important input that allows farmers to “produce high yields profitably,” excessive application can lead to problems. They note that “nitrogen compounds released into the environment can also be a source of environmental problems, including eutrophication and hypoxia in aquatic ecosystems, visibility-impairing haze, and the loss of biodiversity.”
According to another USDA publication, “Nitrogen In Agricultural Systems: Implication for Conservation Policy” (http://tinyurl.com/p23hda4), “agriculture is the predominant source of reactive nitrogen emissions into the environment. In the United States, agriculture contributes 73 percent of nitrous oxide emissions…84 percent of ammonia emissions…and 54 percent of nitrate emissions.” [In what follows, quoted material taken from the Economic Brief will be marked (A) and from the second publication will be marked (B)]
Despite all that we know about the problems created by crop nutrients that make their way into the environment, “in 2006, 65 percent of cropland (producing eight major field crops) did not follow what are considered to be nitrogen best management practices” (A).
In addition, “USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) found that improvements in at least one aspect of nitrogen management…Nitrogen Management” were needed on 86 percent of cropland rotations in the Upper Mississippi Basin, 87 percent of cropland rotations in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, 82 percent of cropland rotations in the Great Lakes watershed, and 93 percent of cropland rotations in the Ohio-Tennessee Basin” (A).
The problem that farmers face is that they do not know what the weather will be like in a given year and so they seek “to maximize economic returns by setting an optimistic yield goal for a given field based on an optimum weather year to ensure that the needed amount of nitrogen for maximum yields is available…. Thus, during the years in which weather is not optimal for maximizing yields, nitrogen will be overapplied from an agronomic standpoint. Almost by definition, optimal conditions are infrequent, so farmers overfertilize crops in most years” (B).
While giving farmers the best shot at high yields to maximize income in an optimum weather year, overfertilization shifts costs to others. It is “estimate[d] that consumers spend over
$800 million each year on bottled water due to nutrient-related taste and odor problems” (B).
In addition, “Using data from water treatment plants, ERS estimates the cost of removing nitrate from U.S. drinking water supplies is over $4.8 billion per year…. Based on the contribution of nitrate loadings from agriculture…agriculture’s share of these costs is estimated at about $1.7 billion per year. Most costs are borne by the large utilities, due to the volume of water treated” (B).
The use of three basis practices by farmers can reduce the amount of nitrogen that is released into the environment:
- “Rate. Applying no more nitrogen (commercial and manure) than 40 percent more than that removed with the crop at harvest, based on the stated yield goal, including any carryover from the previous crop. This agronomic rate accounts for unavoidable environmental losses that prevent some of the nitrogen that is applied from actually reaching crops.
- “Timing. Not applying nitrogen in the fall for a crop planted in the spring.
- “Method. Injecting (placing fertilizer directly into the soil) or incorporating (applying to the surface and then discing the fertilizer into the soil) nitrogen rather than broadcasting on the surface without incorporation” (A).
While these recommended practices are generally well known among producers, the application of all three practices apparently has a long way to go.
Without significant progress in adopting all three practices, societal pressure will likely force stricter enforcement of existing conservation compliance rules on producers participating in farm programs or subsidized crop/revenue insurance programs. The next step could the introduction of far more onerous rules.
Posted on | August 20, 2014 | No Comments
Read the original post at agpolicy.org
On Saturday, August 2, 2014, a toxin, microcystin, was found at the municipal water treatment plant in Toledo, Ohio. That discovery plunged a city of 500,000 people into a tap water ban that lasted several days and had people combing stores for bottled water while the Ohio National Guard was called upon to deliver untainted water to the city’s residents.
The microcystin was produced by a particular type of cyanobacteria found in the water of Lake Erie where Toledo gets its water. Ingestion of microcystin can result in the death of dogs and other small animals. In a large enough concentration, it can result in liver damage and even death in humans, thus the concern of the Toledo Mayor and Ohio Governor as they announced the tap water ban.
Unlike many other water contaminants, boiling the water does not destroy the threat, but instead serves to increase the concentration of the toxin in the water and thus its lethality.
We would not be writing about this event—though it is certainly newsworthy—but for its connection to agriculture. It seems that the growth of cyanobacteria is fed, in part, by phosphorus that is contained in runoff from agricultural land. In the presence of key nutrients like phosphorus, the rapid growth of cyanobacteria results in algae blooms that can cover vast areas of Lake Erie. In this case one of those areas this year was right over the inlet pipe for the Toledo municipal water system.
But runoff from cropland into the Maumee River is not the only source of nutrients like phosphorus. Other sources of contamination include the fertilization of urban yards, livestock facilities, and municipal waste treatment plants that release their treated effluent into Lake Erie.
With the support of the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, the state passed a law that requires crop farmers to take a one-day class in order to receive a license to spread fertilizer on their land. It is expected that the classes will provide farmers with information they need to reduce the amount of fertilizer they use while maintaining yields. Animal agriculture is not affected by this legislation.
Will this be sufficient? Probably not, though it will help. But it is going to take more than legislation; it is going to take a change in the mindset of urban residents and urban officials who operate wastewater treatment facilities as well as crop and livestock farmers.
For too long, all of us have been willing to look the other way as our activities have resulted in problems for others. We have known that runoff results in a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico larger than the state of Connecticut. And yet the response to date has been minimal. On the other hand, no municipality has a water inlet under the dead zone, thus the lack of urgency.
Talk about the water pollution problems in the Chesapeake Bay and you will observe people acting like those in the political cartoon by Thomas Nast where Boss Tweed and others are pictured standing in a circle with each person pointing his finger at the person to the right.
It is our observation that the longer we deny an obvious problem, the more likely we are going to be faced both with increasingly serious problems and inflexible regulations.
The event in Toledo can be seen as a threat to business as usual as we whistle in the dark hoping that nothing else is going to happen. Or we can begin to work to find sensible solutions to problems that if ignored can only get worse. The Ohio Farm Bureau acting on behalf of its crop farmers has made a reasonable start. Will they be joined by others whose actions have also contributed to the problem that resulted in the two day tap water ban in Toledo?
Posted on | August 14, 2014 | No Comments
NFU President Roger Johnson’s recent op-ed in The Hill detailing why Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL) ought to continue has left the business lobby and its multinational meatpacker friends running through the halls of Congress yelling “the sky is falling.”
Johnson’s guest opinion column simply argued that COOL is the law of the land and is extremely popular. Pointing out that American consumers– roughly 90 percent of them – strongly support COOL, Johnson argued that “Congress understood that consumers have a right to know where their pet food, and their own food, comes from, and in 2008 passed a law known as COOL. In short, COOL says that muscle cuts of meat, and some fruits and vegetables, must be labeled with the country’s name where it was produced.”
The business lobby’s argument is that if the U. S. doesn’t roll over and play dead if the World Trade Organization (WTO) rules against COOL, then our economy will fall apart. That is simply a ridiculous stretch by a group that has opposed COOL since its inception and has stopped at nothing to keep it from being enacted even after it became the law of the land.
COOL has been assaulted in U.S. courts on three occasions by the powerful multinational meat industry and the well-monied business lobby. Their arguments have been soundly rejected by U.S. courts. Additionally, the business lobby has supported efforts by our largest trade competitors – Canada and Mexico – to take COOL to the WTO.
And now they have the audacity to argue that all they really want is for USDA to suspend COOL indefinitely only upon a final adjudication of noncompliance by the WTO, which everyone suspects will issue a very mixed decision. This strategy, if wrongly agreed to by Congress, would be a guaranteed suspension of COOL. The business community should own up to their games. This isn’t reform. It is repeal.
The implication is that they’d like American consumers to be able to know where their meat and vegetable products come from but simply can’t support the notion because the WTO might allow other countries to retaliate. And they make that argument with a straight face.
Whose side are they on anyway?
So if they don’t convince us all that the sky will fall because of COOL, they have one last desperate but quasi-clever trick up their sleeves: An attempt to gut COOL in the name of ”reform” by insisting that products from Canada, Mexico and the U.S. be labeled “Product of North America.”
Johnson pointed out the ridiculousness of that ploy in his recent op ed: “Simultaneously, powerful lobbying groups are bankrolling efforts to ‘reform’ COOL in Congress, and by reform, they mean gut it. Instead of ‘Born, Raised and Harvested in the U.S.,’ they’re pushing for ‘Made in North America’ labels so consumers can’t differentiate between products of Mexico, Canada or the United States.
“What’s next?” he asks. “’Made on Earth’ labels?
“America has the safest, best homegrown food supply in the world. Let’s be proud, not ashamed, of that accomplishment,” he concludes.
The business lobby has shown which side they are on – and it’s not the side of consumers, family farmers or the American people. They’ve played Chicken Little before , and their latest ploy to scare Congress into rolling back COOL is not cause for taking away consumers’ right to know more about their food.
Posted on | August 12, 2014 | No Comments
A recent op-ed in The New York Times, Bren Smith does a wonderful job pointing out the many barriers faced by today’s farmers. Making a full-time living farming for many, like the author, has become a dream that they will never have.
One main reason is consolidation in agriculture, which has pinched the small farmer to the point that many of them have abandoned farming altogether. And the big just keep getting bigger, as we are seeing with the Tyson-Hillshire petition to merge.
Thankfully, many farm families have found a way to make a living growing this nation’s food, feed and fuel supply, and have blessed this nation with an incredible bounty that most consumers see as a birthright.
National organizations like National Farmers Union (NFU), founded at the turn of the last century, will continue to fight for family farms and the rural communities they support. NFU’s membership is growing, and the segment of the farming population addressed in Smith’s piece represents the fasting growing segment of NFU’s membership. These farmers are making an important contribution to their local economies and filling the food bins of the nation.
USDA has taken a leadership role in helping new farmers get started, while grassroots organizations like NFU will continue to help new and expanding farmers identify new niches and seize new growth opportunities.
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