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Waste deep in the big muddy

Has modern agriculture cleaned up its dirty runoff act?

Even the best conservation measures could be thwarted by severe weather leading to floods like this one in North Dakota, 2013
USDA photo by Keith Weston
Even the best conservation measures could be thwarted by severe weather leading to floods like this one in North Dakota, 2013

While I was in Iowa recently, Chris Jones, an environmental scientist at the Iowa Soybean Association, showed me this fascinating graph (based on this study). It basically shows how much dirt was in one of the main rivers flowing through Iowa's farmland over the last century:

Christopher Jones

It doesn’t look like much at first, but becomes more and more interesting as you study it. Because the span of time here is so long (1916 to 2009) and because changes in agricultural policy have had a big effect on the erosion of topsoil into rivers, you can see historical events reflected in these numbers.

That big peak in 1973? That came just after Earl Butz, then the secretary of agriculture, urged farmers to plant fencerow to fencerow. Farmers cut into marginal land, and then heavy rains followed in Iowa. The newly disturbed soil washed off the fields and into the rivers, creating the spike on the graph.

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How seeds could be our saviors — if we save them first

The seed vault "ark" in Svalbard, Norway.
Seeds of Time
The seed vault "ark" in Svalbard, Norway.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner and Irish conciliator John Hume once observed that when people are divided, victories are not solutions.

The insight works just as well for modern agriculture as it did in the context of the Irish troubles, and Cary Fowler, an evangelist for seeds, repeats the observation part way through the new documentary, Seeds of Time. “Victories and solutions are not the same thing,” Fowler says, “and, I think, too often people try to win without actually looking to create solutions.”

The documentary, directed by Sandy McLeod, is a portrait of Fowler -- one that also provides an object lesson in what it looks like to search for genuine solutions.

It’s a welcome change in tone. As eaters have moved farther from the places where their food grows, a lot of the media about farming has taken the form of exposés, alerting us to the hard realities of agriculture. There's a place for exposés, but if we spend all our time talking about the people who are doing agriculture wrong, we may forget that no one has figured out a way to truly do it right.

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Vetting antibiotics: How the FDA’s new rules look at hog’s-eye level

David Struthers
Joseph L. Murphy/ Iowa Soybean Association

We're about to enter the post-antibiotic era, in which perhaps the most transformative medical technology ever discovered becomes obsolete. We don't have good backups, and so officials are trying to do whatever they can to slow the speed at which bacteria are developing antibiotic resistance.

As part of that program, the FDA has told livestock producers that they can no longer use antibiotics as growth promoters. Official are still hammering out the final details, but we know that antibiotics for livestock will no longer be sold over the counter, and instead will require a prescription from a veterinarian.

What we don't know is whether the new rules will actually work. Will farmers comply? Are the regulations worded in such a way as to make a real dent in antibiotic use?

To explore these questions, I visited a veterinary clinic while I was in Iowa. I drove out to the town of Colfax and met with veterinary doctor Sarah Myers and hog farmer David Struthers.

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Un till: An Iowa farmer finds that less (plow) is more (profit)

Nate Johnson- Grist-11a

In writing about the next steps needed to build a more sustainable food system, I’ve been focusing on local and regional agriculture. But if we’re interested in sustainability, we should also be interested conventional farming. Because conventional ag is conventional -- that is, the norm -- improvements there have a big and immediate effect. So when the Iowa Soybean Association invited me to come talk with farmers in Des Moines, I got on a plane to see what people in that part of the world were doing to improve the environment.

On my first day in Iowa, I drove to the small town of Jefferson to meet David Ausberger, who has taken a special interest in conservation. Ausberger met me at the door of his three-story Victorian with a pair of ski pants and a bulky Carhartt jacket to supplement my thin California layers.

Ausberger grew up on the farm, but he had no obvious affinity for farming.  “I was never one of those guys wearing seed-corn hats and playing with tractors,” he told me, as we rumbled out of town in his big black truck, between fields of broken cornstalks patched with snow.


Photo crop: Iowa high schoolers explain where your food comes from

Click to embiggen. See more photos at the bottom of the story.
The Lexicon of Sustainability
Click to embiggen. See more photos at the bottom of the story.

You’ll recognize the Lexicon of Sustainability images if you’ve seen them around (perhaps here at Grist). The work of Douglas Gayeton and Laura Howard-Gayeton, they each compress a sustainable-food lesson down to a few phrases scrawled on a mosaic of photos. They’re also showing up in a book, in pop-up shows, and in the form of short movies airing on PBS.

But there’s something different in the latest crop of images in the works: They’re all made by high school students. The result is a set of intensely local artworks that manage to avoid the pitfalls of other awareness-raising projects, and could just make an actual difference.

It all started when the Lexicon team noticed that a high school in Ames, Iowa, had organized an unusual number of shows around the Lexicon project. Typically, they'll mail prints to a group that agrees to do five shows; this high school had done nearly 20. “Who are these guys?” Gayeton remembers thinking.

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Fairer fare: How to turn food system kinks into win-wins for growers and eaters

Fair Food Network

This is part of a series in which we're asking what pragmatic steps we can take to make regional food systems more sustainable. We previously spoke with organic farmer Tom Willey, the people at Veritable Vegetable,  a Slow Money guy, and the folks trying to improve school lunches.

As I read Oran Hesterman's book, Fair Food, I realized he may be one of the people alive today who is most experienced at trying to figure out how to make food more sustainable.

00_FairFood-Cover_web_0He grew up, in part, on a cattle ranch in Northern California, then helped develop a farm at U.C. Santa Cruz that would become the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems. In the early 1970s, he founded a successful company growing alfalfa sprouts and studied plant science, eventually earning a PhD in agronomy and plant genetics. Then he taught at Michigan State before moving to the nonprofit side to promote sustainable food systems, first with the Kellogg Foundation, and then with the Fair Food Network. He seems to know everyone, and every initiative that's been tried to improve the state of food in the U.S. in the last 20 years. We spoke by phone.

Q. A lot of the work involved in making food systems more sustainable has to do with getting people to see and pay for costs that are typically hidden from them. One group that’s achieved that is the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. And I think that, though many of us have heard of them, we may not exactly understand what they are doing. What was the innovation that the CIW figured out?

A. The innovation that I saw Lucas Benitez and his group come up with pretty early on, was that rather than fighting the growers to get more money for the farmworkers, he started looking at the problem from a more systemic perspective, and looking for a multiple-win solution. In their case the multiple-win solution was saying, hey, rather than having the growers as our enemy, what if we had the growers as our allies? If the workers are paid better and have better conditions it’s going to make the growers more productive. But the growers are in as much of a financial pinch as anyone, so they followed the trail of money up.

A generation ago, you can think of farmworkers having a boycott -- I think of Cesar Chavez and the grapes. What Lucas Benitez and his coalition are doing now is a buycott instead of a boycott. A penny more a pound for tomato going on a burger, or on a taco at Taco Bell, doesn’t relate to very much increase to the end consumer. But it’s a huge boost to the farmworkers picking that tomato, if that penny actually gets to them.

So first they looked beyond the obvious problem, at the bigger system, and then they did it in a very transparent way, so that you could see the penny was actually getting back to the farmworkers.

Q. So, if this works, why don’t we see it replicated everywhere?

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It’s official: People around the world really are eating more and more alike


You've probably heard that the food people eat worldwide is getting more and more homogeneous. As the Western diet spreads, we are relying on just a few staple grains and meats. This is a commonly held belief -- yet it's never been authoritatively studied.

Now it has. The results were just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (one of the more prestigious journals) -- and it turns out that this commonly held belief is ... totally right, and actually more dramatic than some expected.

See? Sometimes conventional wisdom really is wise.

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Feedlot frenzy: Should we shun grass-fed beef for the sake of the climate?

Photo by istock.

We eat too much meat in the United States, and eating less of it is one of the most effective ways to reduce our carbon footprint. But in certain parts of the world where people are malnourished, meat can be the most efficient way to get people nutrients like iron. So what do you do about that?

Recently a group of researchers, many from the International Institute for Applied Systems in Austria, concluded that we probably shouldn’t be raising the price of meat to discourage people from eating it. Instead, we should be raising animals in more efficient ways so as to make meat available to the poor without pumping out as much greenhouse gas.

On the face of it, this seems to be saying that feedlots are environmentally correct. I have no doubt that some will wield this study as a bludgeon against anyone arguing for grass-fed beef. (“If you don’t like CAFOs, you want the Earth to cook and the poor to starve!”) Before that starts, let’s look at what this analysis actually shows.

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How big meat recalls hurt small cattle ranches

West Marin cattle
Terrie Schweitzer

Whenever there’s a giant meat recall, the first and often only reaction is disgust. It’s entirely justified self-interest: People want to be sure that their ground chuck hasn’t ever shared a vat with pathogens. But these recalls also have an effect on the other end of the food chain, which we rarely consider.

After “diseased and unsound animals” were killed without a full inspection, the USDA closed the Rancho Feeding slaughterhouse in Petaluma, Calif.  While the numbers sound huge -- 9 million pounds were recalled -- the reality is fairly small scale. As Grist commenter Rachel pointed out, 9 millions pounds translates to killing fewer than 10 cows an hour over a year. Large operations slaughter hundreds an hour.

Rancho won’t reopen; at least not in its current form. The abattoir lost its right of inspection, meaning it will have to start from scratch, rebuilding and replacing equipment to bring the facility up to modern standards.

Meanwhile, the ranchers that rely on the plant are struggling to survive. Having a local slaughterhouse is vital to maintaining local agriculture. Much of the land around Petaluma is ideally suited for raising seasonal, grass-fed cattle. But without a means to kill those cattle, those ranches won’t be viable. The next nearest slaughterhouse is a three to four hour drive away. As my colleague Heather Smith has pointed out, if omnivores want to eat local, we have to kill local.


GMO, yeah? 5 surprises from an otherwise boring look at genetically modified crops

GMO tomato, anybody?

Researchers at the USDA’s Economic Research Service have stepped back to look at the effect of genetically engineered crops since they were introduced in the U.S. It’s a pretty dry and unsurprising document, but when read carefully a few interesting things jump out. Here’s five.

1. How many GMO trials are there? Tons

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