Archive for the ‘Agriculture’ Category

This Was The First Year It Ever Went To Zero

via The Guardian

via The Guardian

Yes, it really is that bad. California is shriveling up before our eyes. Staggering under the worst drought in history, the state is confronting the possibility that it might just plain run out of water. Cities and counties around the state are imposing draconian penalties on water wasters  – don’t water that brown lawn, don’t wash that filthy car – and the state is scrambling desperately to divert precious water from where there is some to be found to where there is none. Governor Brown just signed legislation putting a $7.545 billion water bond before the voters. There’s an impressively long and (mirabile dictu) bipartisan list of supporters of the bill ranging from environmental groups through agricultural and construction organizations to the state chamber of commerce. But all that broad support still leaves unanswered the central question of how to divide a disastrously diminishing water supply around a state as populous and diverse as California. Who is more deserving? Almond farmers or vintners? The Los Angeles megacity or the small towns in the Sierra foothills where the ground is literally sinking because wells have run dry?

In the shadow of those snow-bereft mountains, California farmers are emptying their wells of ground water – the aquatic equivalent to eating your seed corn. When that water is gone it’s as good as gone forever: replenishing aquifers is a job of decades and centuries. Jeffrey Sutton of a Sacramento area canal authority is struggling with the fact that this year for the first time, some of its customers will receive no water. Nothing. Zip. Nada. “This was the first year it ever went to zero,” he says. “You can’t allocate water that’s not there.”

If you crane your neck, you can look back 500 years or more to find the Anasazi people who disappeared from the southwestern US. Decades of relentless drought did them in. That was a disaster for them. What to do with the tens of millions of present day Californians? What happens when a whole state finally runs dry? No one sees any easing of the current drought coming anytime soon. And there’s really no question that global warming will only make things worse.

California has always had a parlous relationship with water. There’s a road much loved by sports car drivers called Mulholland Drive that hugs the crest of the Santa Monica Mountains. It’s named after William Mulholland, the man who so famously brought water to a sleepy little desert town called Los Angeles. If you want a terrific history of the politics behind that feat, watch Roman Polanski’s brilliant 1974 film Chinatown which is based on Mulholland’s audacious accomplishment. It’s a compelling illustration of just how ugly the politics around water has always been in the Golden State. It doesn’t promise to get any prettier.

Update: In an editorial in today’s Los Angeles Times Jay Famiglietti, a senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, warns bluntly that the state has “only enough water in storage to get through the next 12 to 18 months, and that’s it.”

New EPA Regulations Put Much-Needed Safety Measures on Pesticide Use

Photo by Michael D. Heckman. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Michael D. Heckman. Some rights reserved.

Late last week, the EPA released a pre-publication copy of a Federal Register proposed rule increasing safety measures surrounding pesticide use by agricultural workers and farmers. The new standards would impose new restrictions and requirements in an effort to better protect America’s 2-million strong agricultural workforce. Seems like a good time to do so – the last time the standards were updated was 1992, and obviously a lot has changed, agricultural-technology wise and everything-else wise, in the last two decades. As it stands, 12,000 workers are afflicted with acute pesticide poisoning in the U.S. every year, and it’s been suggested that this figure is actually a very conservative estimate, as cases of poisoning go extremely under-reported.

The new protocol as set forth in the EPA’s proposed rule will require a yearly training course on pesticide use and safety for all agricultural workers (the old standards required these only every five years), which seems like a no brainer. They also require farms that use pesticides to construct “buffer zones” around the area where pesticides are used to protect those nearby from drifting toxins, and for No Entry signs to be put up in these areas. So far so good! Perhaps the most significant restriction imposed by the new rules is that agricultural workers must now be 16 years of age or older to work on a farm that uses pesticides (family farms being the exception). Of course, this may also be the hardest component of the rule to implement, without creating some sort of expensive task force to go farm to farm and enforce it.

The rules will now enter a 90-day comment period following their publication in the Federal Register. The EPA hopes to publish the final rule by next year.

Pondering the Future of the Salton Sea

Photo by Geographer. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Geographer. Some rights reserved.

The Salton Sea – one of California’s least dazzling but most important geographical features. Spanning 350 square miles across the Imperial and Coachella Valleys in Southern California’s Colorado Desert, the Salton Sea is the largest lake in the state. It also provides a habitat for over 400 species of migrating birds flying along the Pacific Flyway, which runs down through Mexico. For these birds, the Salton Sea is a crucial oasis, but it is also of great importance to humans – the Salton Sea warms winds that blow down from the north, causing a unique microclimate at the south end of the lake that is ideal for agriculture, and its in this area that 80 percent of the U.S.’s winter crops are grown.

The Salton Sea was created in 1905, in a particularly rain-and-snow heavy year. Flooding of the Colorado River caused a re-routing of the Alamo Canal that in turn forged two new waterways, carrying huge amounts of water into the Salton Sink. In the 1950’s and 60’s, small resort towns with quaint names like Salton City and Desert Shores began to pop up around the lake’s perimeter, drawing the overflow of tourists from Palm Springs. However by the late 1960’s, it became evident that the salinity levels of the Sea were dangerously high, causing a threat to some fish species – the Sea continued to be fed from the Colorado River as well as agricultural runoff from the Imperial Valley, but the amount varied year to year and the runoff often carried pesticides. Quickly, Salton Sea was abandoned as a vacation destination and left largely to sit dormant until interest picked up again in the 1990’s under the renewed efforts of Congressman Sonny Bono, who spearheaded efforts to save the Salton Sea when scientists discovered another problem: the Salton Sea was shrinking, and if trends weren’t reversed, it could disappear entirely.

Cut to the present and very recent past, after decades of losing water to the California Drought. In 2003, the Quanification Settlement Agreement was signed by the Department of the Interior, California, and its water-related agencies, agreeing on a method and timeline to slowly scale back the amount of water being siphoned into Salton Sea from the Colorado River, leaving more water for San Diego and its surrounding cities. A looming deadline of 2018 has been set, at which California’s Imperial Irrigation District must stop sending “mitigation” water to the lake. California is currently entitled to 4.4 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado River a year, about thirty percent of the total volume. Of the 4.4 million, 2.6 million acre-feet are being used in the Imperial Valley alone, and the state as a whole regularly overdraws on its allotment, leaving neighboring states Arizona and Nevada with a smaller portion.

But the Salton Sea is so crucial as both a natural habitat and a vital component of the region’s agricultural productivity that efforts to preserve the Sea, at least in some sort of realistic, piecemeal fashion, are already underway. Pipelines are being shored up to prevent as much runoff in the transportation of water, and naturalists are researching which areas of the lake are most vital to migrating birds. It’s now up to California farmers, who are being asked to invest in more efficient water-saving technology that will result in less waste water, to make their contribution. But is the government in California doing enough to help this region’s farmers in making the transition, and can the conservation goals be met by the mandatory 2018 deadline? National Geographic looks more closely at the farmers in this area, fallowing programs, and the agricultural implications of a drier Salton Sea.

Sicilian Farmers Take Over Mob Land

Photo by gnuckx. Some rights reserved.

Photo by gnuckx. Some rights reserved.

I don’t know that I’ve ever met a mobster in real life; in fact I think it would be safe to assume I haven’t. Still, I’ve seen enough about the mafia in film and television to know you wouldn’t want to make them angry by, say, stealing their stuff. Yet in a way, that’s exactly what Sicilian agricultural group Libera Terra are doing. Well, they’re not stealing, exactly – instead, they’re using land in Sicily formerly owned by the mafia (since seized by the government) as shared farming space to grow grains, fruits, olives, etc.

The story of Libera Terra (which I have to credit Modern Farmer for turning me on to) begins in 2001, when the Cooperativa Placido Rizzotto (one of the branches of Libera Terra – each is named after a slain mob victim from the region) began operations. Those involved say it was slow goings at first – many in the area feared retaliation from the Cosa Nostra for what could be interpreted as disrespect for former mafia property. However, over the following years, with little violence to point to as evidence and with the assistance of a police presence protecting the farmland, local farmers began to change their attitude.

Now, there are over 200 people involved in the Libera Terra network’s eight different coops, producing a total of over 70 products (wines, oils, jams, and other artisinal goods) sold internationally for a gross annual income of over 6 million Euros (or $8.2 million). Those are impressive figures for any coop, let alone one built from the ashes of a criminal empire!

The Many Complexities of This, Our World of Food

Photo by Kheel Center. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Kheel Center. Some rights reserved.

People love to argue about food. I know it and you know it. Our diets are also windows into ourselves and our beliefs, and as such we get a little defensive about what to eat and how to eat from time to time. That’s all just on a personal level – when arguments spider out into a global context, things can get particularly dicey. Do humans need to eat more or less meat, and is there even a consistent answer to this question? Is raising livestock on smaller communal farms more or less environmentally harmful than  livestock raised in a larger, industrial farm complex? Is it reasonable to hold the third world up to similar standards for GHG emissions when it comes to food production?

The complications are a little dizzying. A new study released last week by Mario Herrero, the chief research scientist at CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, aims to demystify, or at the very least clarify, some of the factors involved in these discussions and why there often isn’t a cut and dry answer to the question “what is the best and most sustainable diet for all humans?” As the study explains, there are often too many contradictions and complications to determine a “one system” approach that would work for all. Taking some of the questions posed above as an example: While cows raised in smaller farms in the developing world may release substantially more methane per pound of protein their meat provides (due to their being raised as grazing animals, where the grains they are eating are metabolized in a way that produces more methane) than a cow raised in an efficient factory farm (in fact, the grazing cow will release 100 times as much methane than the industrial cow), but then one must also take into account that the whole industrial apparatus surrounding the more “carbon efficient” cow is raised in, the chemicals and pesticides and transportation costs, etc. It becomes a more complicated argument.

On an even more basic level, many reports recently make the claim that humans as a whole need to start eating less meat and animal products. While this may be true for a majority of humans, its not as feasible or even as advisable for poorer countries where meat and dairy make up the bulk of protein consumption, and where removing meat from a diet could cause a wave of malnourishment. The bottom line (if there is one to be found) seems to be this: surprisingly, the U.S. meat industry is perhaps not responsible for nearly as much environmental impact as smaller farms in the developing world, because of sheer numbers. However, the U.S. could stand to cut back on its meat consumption and production considerably, as its those people in poorer countries that are using their animal products in the most nutritionally effective way. “If we account for how much we consume in general terms — and the fact that we are responsible for most of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions — then we should modify our diets and eat fewer animals products, if we can,” says Herrero. “We have a higher responsibility, because we are the ones that can make that choice.”

Let’s Us Talk Lettuce

Photo by leeksandbounds. Some rights reserved.

Photo by leeksandbounds. Some rights reserved.

It’s perhaps not the most exciting vegetable in the world, but no healthy American would deny that lettuce (in all of its wonderful varieties) is a crucial component of American cuisine. Hard facts seem to back that up – in terms of production value, lettuce is one of America’s leading crops, with the value of exported lettuce coming in at a whopping $439.3 million in 2010, with 327,628 metric tons exported. That makes the U.S. the second largest producer of lettuce (behind China – we’re a distant second, but still) and the second largest exporter of lettuce (behind Spain). We’re pretty heavily invested for produce that some Americans might consider “the food their food eats!

On the other hand, the majority of our lettuce in grown in California – the Salinas Valley on the central California coast. specifically. 60% of our lettuce is grown there, and while its an agriculturally fertile region now, it’s susceptible to the effects of climate change and could see very real effects in the next hundred years. Last year was the hottest year on record. Lettuce requires a temperate climate to grow, but with spiking temperatures, lettuce has no choice but to adapt – either that, or we lose our most crucial salad vegetable forever.

Modern Farmer magazine has the story of Beiquan Mou, a research geneticist for the Department of Agriculture who’s currently stationed in El Centro, a small Southern California town just miles from the Mexican border where daily temperatures peak at over 100 degrees. Mou has been working on growing “superlettuce” – a federally funded (to the tune of $38 million) project testing the growth of all different types of lettuce in severe heat conditions, grouping varieties of lettuce by their tolerance to heat and taste, and growing mutant lettuce breeds (that may be less exciting than it sounds) that could be more durable in the more extreme weather conditions of the semi-near future.

Climate Change Is a Wallflower at the Risk Factor Ball

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

Rising seas. Extended drought. Raging floods. Market disruptions. Food scarcity. All these, and more, are predicted consequences of global climate change. Last month’s deluge in Colorado was another foretaste of what may be in store for us.

Publicly traded companies are no less immune to the consequences of global climate change than anyone else. Some companies have largely ignored the implications; others have seized on environmental transformation as a business opportunity. The insurance industry has been notably forward thinking in this respect. But then, insurance companies have a vested interest in assessing other companies’ risk factors. Either way, it’s a rare industry which won’t be affected one way or another.

Three years ago, the Securities and Exchange Commission issued guidance on how publicly traded companies should disclose the climate change risks they face. Recognizing the current and potential effects on companies’ performance associated with both climate change and with efforts to ameliorate the change, the commission laid out steps companies should take to inform the public how they intended to deal with future environmental disruption.

The SEC’s guidance seems to be honored in the breach by the great majority of U.S. companies.  According to a report by Inside Climate News, nearly 75 percent of  the nation’s publicly traded companies are ignoring the commission’s disclosure requirements.  This figure comes to us compliments of a retired database developer named Lawrence Taylor, a one-time assessor of air pollution data for the Orange County and San Diego land planning departments. Taylor spent five months and 1,100 hours poring over company filings on the SEC website. Of the 3,895 companies whose most recent annual reports he reviewed, only 27 percent mentioned “climate change” or “global warming” at all. Of the businesses which mentioned climate change, fewer still provided any real specifics. The general exceptions to the rule were carbon-intensive businesses like coal, oil, and natural gas companies, but even they tended to shy away from discussing long-term environmental or regulatory risks. For the most part, the disclosures focused on taxes or changes in market demand.

Seattle’s NPR station, KUOW followed up on Taylor’s research and found that the heavy corporate hitters in Washington State likewise tend to ignore the disclosure requirement. KUOW’s reporter searched the annual 10-K filings of Washington’s biggest companies, looking for the words “climate,” “warming,” “greenhouse” and “carbon.” Of the Fortune 500 firms based in Washington, only Weyerhaeuser revealed how climate change will affect its operations, which makes sense given that it’s a forest products company at heart. Microsoft contented itself with noting that “Changes in weather where we operate may increase the costs of powering and cooling computer hardware we use to develop software and provide cloud-based services.”

The SEC guidance covers a sobering list of climate change disclosures, including the impact of legislation and regulation, international accords, the indirect consequences of regulation and business trends, rising insurance costs, and the myriad physical impacts of climate change including violent storms, rising sea levels, the arability of farmland, and the availability and quality of water. The commission points out that the consequences of climate change can cause catastrophic harm to physical plants and facilities and can disrupt manufacturing and distribution processes. In understated terms, the commission concludes that, “Registrants whose businesses may be vulnerable to severe weather or climate related events should consider disclosing material risks of, or consequences from, such events in their publicly filed disclosure documents.”

But apparently the great majority of firms are breezily ignoring the SEC’s guidance. General Mills, for instance, mentions climate change only in passing as one of a list of disruptions (along with fire, terrorism, strikes, and import restrictions) that might “adversely affect” its business. For a company so heavily dependent on grains from a region experiencing record-setting drought, this seems like whistling past the graveyard.

Ignoring the potential impacts of climate change isn’t going to make them go away, and it isn’t doing investors any favors.

I would like to underscore the 1,100 hours Taylor spent searching filings on the SEC website. If he had gone to our Risk Factors page, he could have finished his research in a fraction of the time. 

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