by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Climate change

Nov 28 2018

Climate change report: bad news for agriculture

The US Global Change Research Program released its 4th report on climate change Wednesday night, coincidentally or deliberately during the slow news Thanksgiving holiday.

The U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) is a Federal program mandated by Congress to coordinate Federal research and investments in understanding the forces shaping the global environment, both human and natural, and their impacts on society.

USGCRP comprises 13 Federal agencies that conduct or use research on global change and its impacts on society, in support of the Nation’s response to global change.

The report comes in two volumes, a technical report and an assessment report.

Don’t look for any good news here, especially for agriculture.

U.S. agriculture and the communities it supports are threatened by increases in temperatures, drought, heavy precipitation events, and wildfire on rangelands (Figure 1.10) (Ch. 10: Ag & Rural, KM 1 and 2Case Study “Groundwater Depletion in the Ogallala Aquifer Region”Ch. 23: S. Great Plains, KM 1Case Study “The Edwards Aquifer”). Yields of major U.S. crops (such as corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, sorghum, and cotton) are expected to decline over this century as a consequence of increases in temperatures and possibly changes in water availability and disease and pest outbreaks (Ch. 10: Ag & Rural, KM 1). Increases in growing season temperatures in the Midwest are projected to be the largest contributing factor to declines in U.S. agricultural productivity (Ch. 21: Midwest, KM 1). Climate change is also expected to lead to large-scale shifts in the availability and prices of many agricultural products across the world, with corresponding impacts on U.S. agricultural producers and the U.S. economy (Ch. 16: International, KM 1).

Chapter 10 has four key messages, none of them cheerful:

1:  REDUCED AGRICULTURAL PRODUCTIVITY: Food and forage production will decline in regions experiencing increased frequency and duration of drought. Shifting precipitation patterns, when associated with high temperatures, will intensify wildfires that reduce forage on rangelands, accelerate the depletion of water supplies for irrigation, and expand the distribution and incidence of pests and diseases for crops and livestock. Modern breeding approaches and the use of novel genes from crop wild relatives are being employed to develop higher-yielding, stress-tolerant crops.

2: DEGRADATION OF SOIL AND WATER RESOURCES: The degradation of critical soil and water resources will expand as extreme precipitation events increase across our agricultural landscape. Sustainable crop production is threatened by excessive runoff, leaching, and flooding, which results in soil erosion, degraded water quality in lakes and streams, and damage to rural community infrastructure. Management practices to restore soil structure and the hydrologic function of landscapes are essential for improving resilience to these challenges.

3.  HEALTH CHALLENGES TO RURAL POPULATIONS AND LIVESTOCK: Challenges to human and livestock health are growing due to the increased frequency and intensity of high temperature extremes. Extreme heat conditions contribute to heat exhaustion, heatstroke, and heart attacks in humans. Heat stress in livestock results in large economic losses for producers. Expanded health services in rural areas, heat-tolerant livestock, and improved design of confined animal housing are all important advances to minimize these challenges.

4: VULNERABILITY AND ADAPTIVE CAPACITY OF RURAL COMMUNITIES: Residents in rural communities often have limited capacity to respond to climate change impacts, due to poverty and limitations in community resources. Communication, transportation, water, and sanitary infrastructure are vulnerable to disruption from climate stressors. Achieving social resilience to these challenges would require increases in local capacity to make adaptive improvements in shared community resources.

The recommendations: reduce greenhouse gas emissions, now.

Aug 2 2018

Eat meat and reduce carbon emissions. How? Feed cattle on grass.

In response to my post last week about a new report on the effects of meat production on climate change and the need to eat less meat, Ridge Shinn, a producer of 100% grass-fed beef reminded me that meat has a place in the diet and raising cattle does not have to harm the planet.

The whole point of cattle raising is to graze the animals on land that cannot be used to produce food for people and let them turn grass into edible meat.  Raising cattle on grass, sustainably, regenerates the land and reduces carbon emissions.

Shinn summarizes the evidence in comments that he and other sustainable livestock farmers submitted to the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.

As ranchers and farmers who produce 100% grass-fed beef, we submit that the research on our product is already in. We are already employing techniques that soil scientists have validated since the 1990s. We know that corn is bad for cattle and that corn-fed meat is unhealthy for humans. Therefore we raise our beef on grass and pasture alone. We are managing our pastures and our herds to foster the soil microbes that science has shown to be critical to producing healthy meat, sequestering carbon, restoring soil fertility, and retaining water.

He also sent other useful resources on this issue.

A 2016 scientific paper by WR Teague et al in the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation on the role of ruminant animals in reducing carbon footprints.

Incorporating forages and ruminants into regeneratively managed agroecosystems can elevate soil organic C, improve soil ecological function by minimizing the damage of tillage and inorganic fertilizers and biocides, and enhance biodiversity and wildlife habitat. We conclude that to ensure longterm sustainability and ecological resilience of agroecosystems, agricultural production should be guided by policies and regenerative management protocols that include ruminant grazing.

A 2010 essay by Tara Kelly in Time Magazine based on a book review.

in his new book, Meat: A Benign Extravagance, Simon Fairlie, a British farmer and former editor of the Ecologist magazine, tears apart the theory that being carnivorous is bad for the planet — and says that eating moderate amounts of meat could be greener than going vegan.

A 2010 article by the journalist Lisa Abend, also in Time Magazine.

Environmentalists have been giving cows a bad rap in recent years. Between what bovines eat and what they excrete, cattle production emits a lot of greenhouse gas. But if fed solely grass, cows could play a key role in reversing climate change.

I think the arguments are compelling.  Animals have a place in human diets when they are raised sustainably and as humanely as possible.

Raising animals this way means fewer of them.  We still have to eat less meat—and eat meat of better environmental quality.

We could do this….

Jul 25 2018

Eat less meat: more evidence from climate change and health

GRAIN and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) have issued a devastating report on the effects of meat and dairy production on climate change.

 

The report’s principal finding:

At issue are demands for growth in the meat and dairy industries.

The report explains:

Current industrial levels of production cannot be sustained, nor can growth models for meat and dairy remain unchanged. The paradox of the corporate business model based on high rates of annual growth versus the urgent climate imperative to scale back meat and dairy production and consumption in affluent countries and populations is untenable.

Its inevitable conclusion:

cheap meat and dairy comes at a high cost due to social, environmental and animal welfare problems that continue to be under-regulated. In addition, this production is only made possible because the corporations receive an indirect subsidy from taxpayers in the form of government-funded price supports that keep grain cheap.  

It is past time to regulate the industry and redirect the massive subsidies and other public expenditures that currently support the big meat and dairy conglomerates towards local food and farming systems capable of looking after people and the planet.

That’s the challenge.  The need to address it is urgent.  Let’s get to work.

Also see:

Meat consumption, health, and the environment.  Science July 20, 2018.  Authors: H. Charles J. Godfray, Paul Aveyard, Tara Garnett, Jim W. Hall, Timothy J. Key, Jamie Lorimer, Ray T. Pierrehumbert, Peter Scarborough, Marco Springmann, Susan A. Jebb.

This lengthy, extensively illustrated and referenced article covers much of the same territory but with greater emphasis on the health impact of meat consumption, and the amounts of water used in meat production, primarily from feed.

Jan 25 2018

USDA Secretary issues guiding principles for farm bill

Secretary Sonny Perdue has released his blueprint for the 2018 farm bill.

Its goal is to “improve services while reducing regulatory burdens on USDA customers” [translation: Big Ag].

USDA, he says, supports legislation that will do a great many things for farm production, conservation, trade, food and nutrition services, marketing, food safety, research and education, and natural resources.

There are a lot of words here and it’s hard to know what they mean, even reading between the lines.

For example, here are USDA’s principles for SNAP (food stamps), with my [translations and questions]:

• Harness America’s agricultural abundance to support nutrition assistance for those truly in need.  [This sounds like a food distribution program, but I’m wondering how “truly in need” will be defined.]
• Support work as the pathway to self-sufficiency, well-being, and economic mobility for individuals and families receiving supplemental nutrition assistance.  [This means work requirements, but where will the jobs come from?]
• Strengthen the integrity and efficiency of food and nutrition programs to better serve our participants and protect American taxpayers by reducing waste, fraud and abuse through shared data, innovation, and technology modernization. [This means spending hundreds of millions a year on fraud prevention].
• Encourage state and local innovations in training, case management, and program design that promote self-sufficiency and achieve long-term, stability in employment.  [The jobs?]
• Assure the scientific integrity of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans process through greater transparency and reliance on the most robust body of scientific evidence.  [Weren’t they always based on the available science?  This sounds like a way to prevent the guidelines from suggesting eating less of junk foods].
• Support nutrition policies and programs that are science based and data driven with clear and measurable outcomes for policies and programs. [This one translates to you can’t set nutrition policies unless you can demonstrate beneficial outcomes—fine in theory, but policy-blocking in practice].

Reading through the other sections is equally non-reassuring.  Where is a vision for a farm bill that promotes health, sustainable agriculture, and small or mid-size farms, protects farm workers, and reduces greenhouse gases?

Maybe the next one?

Jun 7 2016

World Resources Institute report

The World Resources Institute has a new paper out: Shifting Diets for a Sustainable Food Future.

This is the most recent item in its series: World Resources Report: Creating a Sustainable Food Future.

The paper is about how food choices affect land, water and climate change.  It provides further evidence that eating less meat and dairy would be more sustainable.

Resources:

Aug 5 2015

Obama’s Clean Power Plan will reduce methylmercury in seafood. Yes!

Earlier this week, President Obama announced a plan to reduce toxic emissions from coal-burning power plants.  The purpose of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan  is to reduce greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

But from the standpoint of food politics, the new rules do something really important.  They will force coal-burning power plants to further reduce emissions of mercury.

In 2005, the EPA promulgated a rule to control mercury emissions from fossil fuel-fired power plants under section 111(d): the Clean Air Mercury Rule (CAMR). The EPA established a nationwide cap-and-trade program that took effect in two phases: In 2010, the cap was set at 38 tons per year, and in 2018, the cap was lowered to 15 tons per year. The EPA expected, on the basis of modeling, that sources would achieve the second phase, 15-ton per year cap cost-effectively by choosing among a set of measures that included shifting generation to lower-emitting units.

Mercury from coal-burning power plants is the largest human-induced source of methymercury in the fish food chain, accounting for 40% of the amount that gets into oceans (most of the rest comes from underseas volcanos).  Mercury is converted to toxic methylmercury in seawater, and the toxin moves up the fish food chain as bigger fish eat smaller fish.  Methylmercury does very bad things to the nervous system of the growing fetus (recall the mass poisonings in Minamata, Japan in the 1950s and the shocking photos of the victims). 

Fish advisories

Large, predatory fish have the most methymercury and should not be eaten in large amounts, or at all by pregnant women.

Fish advisories expect pregnant women to know the kinds of fish they can and cannot eat, and how much.  This is not easy.

Wouldn’t it be better to prevent mercury from getting into seawater in the first place?

I like to use eliminating methylmercury as an example of why public health (“upstream”) approaches work better than personal responsibility (“downstream”) approaches.

An exceptionally clear example is how to avoid toxic levels of methylmercury in fish.   We can teach pregnant women to recognize which fish are high in methylmercury and hope this works well enough so they will avoid buying such fish (personal responsibility) or we could–as a society–require coal-burning power plants to scrub their emissions so mercury doesn’t get into ocean or lake waters in the first place (public health).

That’s what this rule does.

For explanations of how the Clean Power Plan will work, see the Union of Concerned Scientists’ review.

Vox.com explains:

The basics of the Clean Power Plan are fairly simple. The EPA is giving each state an individualized goal for reducing emissions from their electric power plants. States can then decide for themselves how to get there…. Power plant emissions have already dropped 15 percent between 2005 and 2013, thanks to a brutal recession, cheap natural gas pushing out coal, the rise of wind power, and improved efficiency. So with this new plan, EPA is expecting a further 20 percent cut in power-plant emissions from 2013 levels by 2030.

For what Obama stands to gain from this rule, see the New York Times.

But hold the celebration.  Politico Pro Energy reports that Republicans in Congress view the rule as a key component of the administration’s “war on coal” and will try to block it or sue to stop it.   The Supreme Court says that the EPA has the authority to issue this rule, but “Challengers are expected to argue that the rule is invalid because it exceeds EPA’s authority, contradicts a Clean Air Act provision meant to avoid duplicative rules, and violates the 5th and 10th Amendments to the Constitution.”   And, of course, a post-Obama president could undo the whole thing, as it is an executive branch action, not a law passed by Congress.

Yesterday’s New York Times had a front-page story on how coal lobbyists and corporate lawyers started organizing more than a year ago to fight this plan.

An important ally in the effort was the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a conservative advocacy group that pushes policy through state legislatures. Typically, the council’s committees of corporate members will craft a model bill designed to push through policies it supports, such as rolling back environmental regulations.

The Clean Power Plan deserves massive support.

This may be a climate-change plan, but it is also a critically important public health measure.

Anyone who likes eating fish should do everything possible to support this measure.

May 14 2015

Milan Food Expo: A highly preliminary assessment

Throughout my travels in Italy the last couple of weeks, I was constantly asked for an assessment of the Milan Food Expo.

My answer: it’s too early to tell.  It’s only been open for two weeks and has lots more to do between now and the end of October.

In my posts on the Expo, I’ve talked about the logistics and a few of the pavilions.

But what about the overall content and take-home messages?  Expos are trade fairs, but this one is about feeding the planet—adequately and sustainably.

expo

The U.S. Pavilion carries out this theme:US

Most countries created exhibits based on these themes.  Many displayed vegetable gardens in raised beds or, in the case of the US pavilion, on a long, undulating wall.

2015-05-02 13.08.25

It’s useful to start with the United Nations’ Zero Hunger Pavilion.  Its gigantic ticker-tape display tells you the price of food commodities throughout the world in real time.

2015-05-12 11.35.33

The scrolling messages in English and Italian:

  • The food sector: reality vs. abstraction.
  • Extreme price volatility is a threat to food security.
  • The gap between supply and demand is mainly caused by increasing food consumption, climate variability, expansion of agro-energy production, and financial speculation.
  • Lack of transparency and profits for a few speculators intensify inequality in food distribution.
  • New rules are needed for agricultural governance.

Like most of the exhibits, this one states the problems and says what is needed to solve them.  But it leaves it up to you to figure out how to set or obtain the new rules for agricultural governance.

My view from this brief visit: The very existence of Milan Food Expo 2025 is a strong statement that food issues are worthy of serious public attention, worldwide.

For that alone, it succeeds magnificently.

Jun 3 2014

Dietary Guidelines Committee under attack for caring about how food is produced

I received an e-mail from the communications director of the Independent Women’s Forum, a group whose mission is to “improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty.”

Interesting.

The group and its friends have just sent a letter to USDA and HHS complaining that the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) is exceeding its mandate.

Among our most acute concerns is the “mission creep” of the Committee, which has expanded to include non-dietary factors such as “carbon footprints,” “climate change,” “urban agriculture,” and “green cleaning and pest control practices.”

This likely reflects the composition of the Committee, which is nearly all epidemiologists from elite academic institutions with no direct experience in the practical realities of how food is produced and what average Americans may choose to eat.

We need only consider the strongly negative reaction to recent changes to the school lunch rules to understand what is at risk if this Committee attempts to dictate over-reaching changes to the American diet.

This would be funny if it weren’t part of the Republican agenda to roll back improvements in nutrition advice and practice aimed at preventing obesity and its related chronic diseases.

What the IWF is saying is that its members know better about what’s good for health than all those elite epidemiologists, scientists, and other experts on the committee who are worried about what climate change will do to our food supply.

Let’s hope the agencies ignore this letter.