Friday, 30 May 2014

Carbon Solutions

There's certainly no shortage of stories about the environmental impact of agriculture, and there are bad operators out there.  I continue to think that the financial squeeze from cheap imports and a brutally competitive food marketing system play a part. I also think that with the right incentives, agriculture can play a very positive role in solving environmental problems, like sequestering carbon. A couple of stories that speak to the possibilities, and the risks of pushing farmers to continually get bigger in order to survive.

A Price Tag on Carbon as a Climate Rescue Plan

KEWAUNEE, Wis. — Bryan T. Pagel, a dairy farmer, watched as a glistening slurry of cow manure disappeared down a culvert. If recycling the waste on his family’s farm would help to save the world, he was happy to go along.
Out back, machinery was breaking down the manure and capturing a byproduct called methane, a potent greenhouse gas. A huge Caterpillar engine roared as it burned the methane to generate electricity, keeping it out of the atmosphere.
The $3.2 million system also reduces odors at Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy, one of the largest in Wisconsin, but it would not have been built without a surprising source of funds: a California initiative that is investing in carefully chosen projects, even ones far beyond its borders, to reduce emissions as part of the battle against climate change.
“When they came out here and told us they were willing to send us checks, we were thrilled,” Mr. Pagel said.

California’s program is the latest incarnation of an increasingly popular — and much debated — mechanism that has emerged as one of the primary weapons against global warming. From China to Norway, Kazakhstan to the Northeastern United States, governments are requiring industries to buy permits allowing them to emit set levels of greenhouse gases. Under these plans, the allowable levels of pollution are steadily reduced and the cost of permits rises, creating an economic incentive for companies to cut emissions.

The system encourages companies to find the least expensive ways to make the cuts, either by adopting cleaner energy technology or by investing in outside emission-control projects, like the Pagels’ methane digester.
Congress rejected a national plan of this type during President Obama’s first term, but 10 states, including most of those in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic, have developed their own programs. And the approach is expected to get a huge lift on Monday when Mr. Obama unveils a long-awaited national plan requiring states to lower their power plant emissions. One likely effect will be to encourage more states to adopt systems like California’s.
Already, the approach is spreading worldwide, with the number of people living in places that have such a system nearing one billion, or 14 percent of the world’s population, including about 80 million Americans.
“The point now is to say, look, this can work, it can be scaled, and please join,” said Frank A. Wolak, an economist at Stanford University.
Yet in the decade it has been used to tackle global warming, this approach has had a turbulent history. The world’s largest such system, in Europe, has had severe problems, including gyrations in the prices that polluters have to pay. Given a lack of evidence that the system can actually solve the emissions problem, some environmental groups and scientists have developed serious reservations.
“The reason I don’t support what we’re doing is not that I don’t think something needs to be done,” said Myles R. Allen, a leading British climate scientist at Oxford University. “I just don’t think it’s effective, and I don’t see it ever being effective.”
Drought-plagued California, which Gov. Jerry Brown recently called the “epicenter” of climate change, hopes to prove that capitalism can work in the fight against global warming. The state took great care in setting up its system, which is now being seen as a global test case.

Eighteen months into the venture, it is still too soon to tell how well it will work. But the state has so far managed to avoid some of the mistakes that have plagued efforts in other parts of the world. Hundreds of industrial facilities have been brought under the plan, prompting those businesses to study how to use less energy, and fuel suppliers will be pulled into it next year.
By the end of the decade, the state is expected to collect about $5 billion a year in permit fees, with the bulk of the money being recycled into clean-energy projects.
Worldwide, other approaches to global warming are also being considered. A more ambitious push could be made on renewable energy, like solar and wind. Power companies might be ordered to capture their carbon emissions and bury them underground. Forests could be preserved or allowed to regrow to absorb more carbon dioxide from the air.
But all those methods have drawbacks, and interviews by The New York Times with more than 80 experts in nine countries revealed sharp disagreements about which to embrace.

Experts say that limiting the effects of the human-induced warming will almost certainly cost trillions of dollars over generations and require an unprecedented level of cooperation across states and nations — if it can be done at all.
“How do we deal, as a global civilization, with a problem that is decades in the making and is caused by everything we do?” asked Peter Miller, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco. “It’s the challenge of our time, and there is no road map.”
Drought, Rain and Fire
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body of scientists and other experts appointed by the United Nations, found last year that total emissions of carbon into the atmosphere must be kept below one trillion tons if global warming is to be held to tolerable levels. More than half that amount has been emitted since the beginning of the industrial era, and at the rate emissions are going up, the limit will be reached in 30 years or less.
Already, the effects are being felt far and wide. A recent report, the National Climate Assessment, found that every corner of the United States was being hit hard, with more droughts in some regions, more torrential rains in others, worsening forest fires, melting land ice, and the deaths of millions of acres of trees from heat-loving insects.
This month, the global stakes were made clear yet again when researchers reported that ice sheets in the western section of Antarctica had begun an irreversible breakup that could ultimately raise the level of the sea by 10 feet or more.
“Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present,” the National Climate Assessment said.
Some environmental groups have contended that the best way to combat climate change would be for governments to impose tight regulations on businesses that produce greenhouse gases.
Economists have argued, instead, that governments should put a price on emissions. The simplest way to do that would be a tax — the same sort of sin tax applied to liquor and cigarettes, albeit on a vastly larger scale.
In the 1960s, economists in Canada and the United States developed an alternative concept: a market in pollution rights, which they believed would allow companies to decide for themselves how to limit their emissions at the lowest cost.
That approach got its first major tryout in 1990 when the administration of George Bush embraced it to battle acid rain, persuading reluctant congressional Democrats to go along. It reduced emissions of sulfur dioxide far more cheaply than expected, and it was seen as a triumph of conservative thinking about the environment.

The strategy, called cap and trade, is now being applied to greenhouse gases. Governments impose a limit, or cap, on the amount of the gases that can be spewed into the atmosphere by polluters like power plants and refiners. It then issues permits, often called carbon allowances, equal to the level of the cap, with each permit representing a ton of emissions.
The government requires industries to acquire enough permits to equal their emissions. Companies that need permits buy them, either from the government or on a commodity market, with the value set by supply and demand. Over time, the government reduces the cap and the number of permits, driving up their value.
The system is intended to ensure that polluters reduce their emissions, but do it in a way that makes the most financial sense. A company might spend money to upgrade to more efficient equipment, for instance, if that is less expensive than buying permits at the market price at that time. The sale of permits also creates a flow of funds to reduce emissions in economic sectors not covered by the permit system, such as farming or forestry.
Over the past decade, carbon allowances have become the world’s newest commodity. Thousands of people — in small offices in San Francisco, on trading floors in Houston, at power stations all over Europe — now buy and sell the permits every day. They are not all representing polluters; some are simply speculators placing bets on what will happen to carbon prices over time. Thomson Reuters Point Carbon, a research firm, expects permits representing more than nine billion tons of emissions to trade hands this year, with a transaction value of nearly $90 billion.
Yet a few of these government-created markets have been seriously flawed, and some experts argue that time is being wasted on an effort that could, ultimately, fall short.
Problems in Europe
While the United States has been embroiled in a political argument over the past decade about whether climate change is even real, the European Union has largely embraced the science and moved forward. The European Emissions Trading System, which went into operation in 2005, has proved that a market in pollution permits can be made to work across barriers of language and national interest. Yet the European Union has also come to be seen as a case study in what can go wrong if such a system is not set up carefully.
Early on, instead of scrutinizing data on emissions, European regulators trusted companies to tell them how much greenhouse gas they were emitting. Since those numbers would be used in setting the initial emissions cap, the companies had an obvious incentive to exaggerate. When it finally became clear in 2006 that they had done so, and emissions were actually lower than traders had been led to believe, permits suddenly became less valuable and their price crashed in a matter of hours.
Then, just as Europe was tightening its rules, the global financial crisis hit in 2008 and 2009. “You produced less electricity, less steel, less toilet paper — less of everything that was included in the system,” said Stig Schjolset, chief carbon markets analyst with Thomson Reuters Point Carbon in Oslo.
The European Union had put no mechanism in place to respond to these changing economic conditions, so governments kept cranking out carbon permits even as the decline in output meant that fewer were needed. Carbon prices tanked yet again.
Recently the European Union adopted changes that have firmed up prices somewhat. But at just over $7 per ton of carbon dioxide, they are still far below their peak, and below the $30 level that many analysts believe is needed to spur investment in cleaner energy sources.

Moreover, the Europeans have yet to agree on long-term emission targets that would drive up carbon prices and reward investors in clean energy, though proposals are under discussion. “Through the 2020s, there is no clear signal about how the cap will tighten,” said Adrian Gault, chief economist with Britain’s national Committee on Climate Change, which advises the government on the problem.
Europe’s broader goals have by no means been a complete failure. The European Union set a target of lowering emissions 20 percent by 2020, and that appears likely to be met — but several studies suggest that is less a result of the carbon market than of economic weakness, as well as subsidies for renewable power. Many experts in Europe fear that later, more ambitious goals will prove unattainable if companies have too little incentive to invest in clean technology. The experts believe emissions throughout the developed world need to fall 80 percent or more by 2050.
“Even if we’re fine to meet the emissions target for 2020, it will be very challenging to meet Europe’s long-term targets,” Mr. Schjolset said. “For that, you need a higher carbon price now.”
California as Pioneer
Mary Nichols cut her teeth as a young lawyer by successfully suing the California state government for violating the federal Clean Air Act. She has long since become an insider, running the most powerful state environmental agency in the country, California’s Air Resources Board.
Ms. Nichols — chosen by a Republican governor and kept on by the Democrat who succeeded him — said that when her agency set out to create a carbon market, her European counterparts were candid in advising the state how not to repeat their mistakes. “It was an act of great generosity on their part,” she said.
California’s Global Warming Solutions Act, signed in 2006 by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, set a goal of lowering California’s greenhouse gases in 2020 to the 1990 level, a cut of 28 percent from the level they had been expected to reach in 2020 without the law.
Even after it was signed, the law was the subject of political and legal battles, with oil companies and other polluters fighting to overturn it. When voters were asked whether they wanted the state to tackle global warming in 2010, they voted 62 percent to 38 percent to move forward with the law, which requires more efficient cars, more renewable power on the state’s electric grid and many other steps. A centerpiece was a provision capping emissions from big polluters, including power generators and gasoline refiners, and setting up a permit-trading system.
California spent several years developing regulations, then began its cap-and-trade system in 2013. The project is taking hold gradually. California adopted rules shielding companies vulnerable to out-of-state competition, as well as residential electricity customers, from the full impact of the costs. In the early days, it is giving away many of the required carbon permits for free to ease companies into the system.
Nonetheless, at just over $11 a ton, the carbon price in California is now the highest in any cap-and-trade market, 60 percent above the price in Europe.
In setting up the market, California took measures to prevent the wild price gyrations seen in Europe. The state spent years getting accurate emissions data, for instance. And it established de facto floor and ceiling prices for its permits. The price so far has been highly predictable, trading in a range from $11 to $14 a ton.

As part of its plan, the state decided to allow emission-lowering projects in sectors not covered by the cap-and-trade system, such as forestry and farming. These “offset projects,” which can be located anywhere in the United States, are subject to strict auditing. The projects create credits that can be sold in the California market.

New companies have sprung up to serve as middlemen, helping farmers, forest owners and others set up eligible offset projects. One of those companies, TerraPass of San Francisco, matched the Pagel dairy farm in Wisconsin with California’s money.
John T. Pagel, the owner, said that he had thought for several years about installing a system to reduce odors and capture methane emissions from the manure of thousands of cows. But he could not figure out how to make the economics work. “It’s the right thing to do, but it has to support itself, too,” Mr. Pagel said.
Then he met a TerraPass representative at an agricultural fair several years ago and learned he could receive payments totaling tens of thousands of dollars a year.
On a tour of his farm near Kewaunee, Mr. Pagel proudly showed off the gear. A 20-cylinder Caterpillar engine, powered by methane from cow manure, throbbed in a large building behind his barns. As it turned a generator, it was pumping enough renewable power into the local electric grid to supply about 1,200 homes.
“I love that thing!” Mr. Pagel said.
One of his sons, Bryan, described meticulous oversight from California, including instruments that send a stream of data back to TerraPass headquarters to verify that the system is working properly. Otherwise, said Peter Freed, a former TerraPass employee who helped set up the deal, the state might disallow the carbon credits. “The California system doesn’t have a real tolerance for error,” he said.
Still, it will not be clear for years how successful the state’s carbon market has been in lowering emissions, or in spurring investment in clean energy. In the meantime, the Obama administration must decide how hard to push other states toward copying California’s program.
“What’s good for California, and what others will ultimately look to, is success,” said Richard Corey, chief executive of the Air Resources Board. “The ultimate test of success is going to be: Did it work?”

Questioning Cap and Trade
Some environmental groups and academics have never reconciled themselves to the idea of a market in pollution rights, and Europe’s problems have heightened their doubts. So far, they point out, global emissions are still rising.
“I would throw the markets out and start over with something different,” said Doreen Stabinsky, a professor of global environmental politics at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Me. “I think we can’t be sidetracked by playing around with a market, because this objective is so important, so pressing and so difficult.”
Economists and analysts who support cap and trade say they are confident the problems can be worked out, and they believe California is in the process of proving it. The key issue now, they say, is whether governments that adopt these systems will tighten the emissions caps, driving up carbon prices — and do it soon enough to make a real dent in global warming.
A second carbon market operating in the United States shows that the gradual lowering of emissions targets can have an impact. That system, known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, started with far more modest goals than California’s, covering a smaller segment of the economy, and for much of its history carbon prices were below $2 a ton.
But the system has worked smoothly for several years, generating $1.7 billion that nine state governments in the Northeast have used largely to support clean-energy projects. Those investments, as well as utilities’ switch to cleaner natural gas, have sharply reduced carbon emissions in the region.
Recently, the nine states decided to cut their emissions cap by 45 percent and to let carbon prices rise. They have nearly doubled, to $4 a ton, and the revisions are expected to spur still more clean-energy investment.

Some experts believe that in the long run, carbon markets will make a substantial contribution only if they can be tied together across political boundaries. That would allow polluters to search the world for the cheapest ways of cutting emissions.
To a limited extent, such networking has already begun. Europe has allowed billions to flow abroad to developing countries, underwriting projects that have, for example, helped poor families switch to more efficient coal-burning stoves. California and Quebec have tied their markets together, and trading between them began early this year.
The world’s biggest carbon polluter, China, has begun experimenting with markets in seven cities and provinces, with a view toward forming a national carbon market this decade. Both California and Europe are tentatively speaking to the Chinese about future linkages.
As such developments take hold, the once unthinkable has begun to seem plausible, if by no means inevitable: a linked global carbon price high enough to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy.
“We might be witnessing the birth of a new system, without quite realizing it,” said Glen P. Peters, a climate researcher at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo. “When you think of all these bottom-up initiatives around the world, maybe we are living through the transformation right now.”

Experts who support cap and trade contend that a market mechanism can reach more deeply into the economy than any other approach, changing the behavior even of people and companies that might not necessarily care about global warming.
The Wisconsin dairymen perhaps serve as an example of that.
Even as the methane-powered generator roared on his property, John T. Pagel said he was not convinced that the climatic changes happening in the United States were a result of human emissions. He suspects they might be part of a natural cycle. But with Californians dangling cash in exchange for his willingness to cut emissions, he jumped at the chance to build his digester.
“We are doing exactly what they asked us to do to get paid to reduce carbon,” Mr. Pagel said. “If somebody else believes in it enough to put up the money, that’s all I need to know.”
Reporting was contributed by Mark Scott from London, Keith Bradsher and Chris Buckley from Hong Kong, and Felicity Barringer from San Francisco.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Timing is Right to Say Hello to a Local Farmer

Don't often compliment the Globe and Mail for its coverage of agriculture, but this article had a nice balance of good information for consumers, while acknowledging that producers play a part in the story too. And it wasn't too whiny that consumers will be paying more. I esecpially like this part:

“The good news to all this is farmers are making money for a change, so that’s nice,” Mr. de Waal said in an interview. “[And] the margin of difference between properly produced, sustainably raised, ethically treated animals and commodity beef is starting to shrink. So folks who used to make their purchasing decisions based on dollars and cents are now saying, ‘Hang a second: I am going to have to eat less beef anyway because of the price – I may as well as well spring for the extra few cents a pound and buy something that is locally produced.’ So we are seeing a lot of people coming in that we haven’t seen in the past.”

Meat prices soar in time for grilling season

Canada’s inflation rate is tame, but meat lovers see a different picture – prices for steaks and chops are soaring, just in time for barbecue season.
The price of a sirloin steak has risen 12 per cent, and pork chops are up 16 per cent in the past year, Statistics Canada says. By comparison, overall inflation is just 2 per cent, or 1.9 per cent for a broad range of food.
The reason? A piglet-killing virus has sent hog prices soaring, and fewer cattle are being sent to slaughter as herds have been slow to recover from years of culling. At the same time, North American grilling season is here, and slaughterhouses are bidding up prices to meet rising demand from grocery stores and butcher shops.
At Halifax butcher shop Getaway Farm, owner Chris de Waal has refused to pass on the higher costs to his clientele, until this past Saturday, when prices for pork and beef went up.
“The price of any animal has skyrocketed,” said Mr. de Waal, whose family business buys calves and raises them to market weight on a farm in the town of Canning, N.S., before slaughtering them and selling the beef to customers at the downtown shop.
Livestock might be raised locally, but it is priced in Chicago. The price of live hogs on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange has risen 45 per cent this year. Cattle futures are up 14 per cent. The increases have helped Canadian ranchers and pig farmers, who have endured years of soaring costs, but it means processors and consumers are paying higher prices. Maple Leaf Foods Inc. recently said it matched the industry’s 14-per-cent price hike for bacon and hot dogs in the first quarter of the year, and more increases would follow.
Unless consumers switch en masse to chicken and other cheaper meat, high prices for beef and pork will not ease for a few years, given the time it takes to raise cattle, and the deadliness of the pig virus that has no cure, said Kevin Grier, a livestock and meat market analyst with George Morris Centre, a food and agriculture research institute in Guelph, Ont.
Producers need to be confident prices will remain high before they decide to withhold cows from the market to breed. It takes at least a year to raise a calf to market. A pig gets slaughtered at about six months, but Mr. Grier reckons porcine epidemic diarrhea will reduce the number going to market in August and September by 46,000 in Ontario.
“The bottom line is the farmer has to decide, ‘Hey, things are really good, and I’m going to retain these females and instead of steaks, I’m going to make them into mothers.’ Right now, it’s just too tempting to keep them going to the market,” Mr. Grier said.
Mr. de Waal, who has been in business for five years, says he has been able to limit his price increases to the point there is not a big difference between the price of the pasture-raised meat he sells and the supermarket.
“The good news to all this is farmers are making money for a change, so that’s nice,” Mr. de Waal said in an interview. “[And] the margin of difference between properly produced, sustainably raised, ethically treated animals and commodity beef is starting to shrink. So folks who used to make their purchasing decisions based on dollars and cents are now saying, ‘Hang a second: I am going to have to eat less beef anyway because of the price – I may as well as well spring for the extra few cents a pound and buy something that is locally produced.’ So we are seeing a lot of people coming in that we haven’t seen in the past.”
Jessi Gillis, owner of Halifax butcher and produce store Highland Drive, said she is paying about 30-per-cent more lately for beef and pork. The downtown shop has been has been absorbing some of the higher costs, but has been forced to gradually raise prices.
Ms. Gillis, who sells beef from two local farms that raise cattle in pastures without hormones, said some customers have been questioning the increases. But she said most seem to understand farmers are facing higher costs for such things as feed, and want to support businesses that produce food sustainably.
“They’re pretty good at seeing the big picture,” Ms. Gillis said.
Follow on Twitter: @ericatkins2

Friday, 23 May 2014

The Cost of Doing the Right Thing

Two outstanding bits of writing from  last week, looking at critical food/farm issues. I appreciate them because it's not the black/white, good/evil diatribes we so often see, but a real effort to understand complex issues, and things that matter.  The CBC piece on our old pal neonictinoids is one of the best I've seen in years, presenting all sides of the issue. I do think that the defenders of the systemic pesticide are beginning to sound a little hollow.  And the first piece talks about something very important, the cost of proper crop rotations. When farmers buy land they'll amortize the cost over fifteen or twenty years,  but with proper crop rotations, there's a paying crop in those fields only every three to five years.  It's a similar  issue for local livestock producers. It's easy to sell the prime cuts, the steaks, roasts, and chops, but what about the rest of the carcass.

What Farm-to-Table Got Wrong

POCANTICO HILLS, N.Y. — IT’S spring again. Hip deep in asparagus — and, soon enough, tomatoes and zucchini — farm-to-table advocates finally have something from the farm to put on the table.
The crowds clamoring for just-dug produce at the farmers’ market and the local food co-op suggest that this movement is no longer just a foodie fad. Today, almost 80 percent of Americans say sustainability is a priority when purchasing food. The promise of this kind of majority is that eating local can reshape landscapes and drive lasting change.
Except it hasn’t. More than a decade into the movement, the promise has fallen short. For all its successes, farm-to-table has not, in any fundamental way, reworked the economic and political forces that dictate how our food is grown and raised. Big Food is getting bigger, not smaller. In the last five years, we’ve lost nearly 100,000 farms (mostly midsize ones). Today, 1.1 percent of farms in the United States account for nearly 45 percent of farm revenues. Despite being farm-to-table’s favorite targets, corn and soy account for more than 50 percent of our harvested acres for the first time ever. Between 2006 and 2011, over a million acres of native prairie were plowed up in the so-called Western Corn Belt to make way for these two crops, the most rapid loss of grasslands since we started using tractors to bust sod on the Great Plains in the 1920s.
Lakeview Organic Grain Farm, owned by Klaas and Mary-Howell Martens.
How do we make sense of this odd duality: a food revolution on one hand, an entrenched status quo on the other?
I got a hint of the answer a few years ago, while standing in a field in upstate New York. I was there because, many years before, I’d decided I wanted local flour for my restaurants. I chose Lakeview Organic, a grain farm operated by Klaas and Mary-Howell Martens. Klaas was growing a rare variety of emmer wheat (also known as farro), nearly extinct but for the efforts of a few farmers.
Milled and baked into whole wheat bread, the emmer was a revelation — intensely sweet and nutty. I spoke routinely about the importance of local grain and the resurrection of lost flavors. I was waving the farm-to-table flag and feeling pretty good about it, too.

Visiting Klaas those years later, hoping to learn what made the emmer so delicious, I realized I was missing the point entirely. The secret to great-tasting wheat, Klaas told me, is that it’s not about the wheat. It’s about the soil.
In fact, on a tour of his farm, there was surprisingly little wheat to see. Instead, Klaas showed me fields of less-coveted grains and legumes like millet, barley and kidney beans, as well as cover crops like mustard and clover, all of which he plants in meticulously planned rotations. The rotations dictate the quality of the soil, which means they dictate the flavor of the harvests as well. They are the recipe for his delicious emmer.
Each planting in the sequence has a specific function. Klaas likes his field rotations to begin with a cover crop like the mustard plant. Cover crops are often grown to restore nutrients depleted from a previous harvest. Plowed into the soil after maturity, mustard offers the added benefit of reducing pest and disease problems for subsequent crops.

Next Klaas will plant a legume, which does the neat trick of fixing nitrogen: grabbing it from the atmosphere and storing it in the plant’s roots. Soybeans are a good choice; or kidney beans, if the local processor is paying enough to make it worth his while; or cowpeas, which he harvests for animal feed. If there’s a dry spell, he’ll forgo beans altogether and pop in some hardy millet. Oats or rye is next; rye builds soil structure and suppresses weeds. Only then is Klaas’s soil locked and loaded with the requisite fertility needed for his wheat.
As much as I cling to tried and true recipes, Klaas doesn’t. Depending on what the soil is telling him, he may roll out an entirely different rotation. If there’s a buildup of fungal disease in the field, the next season he’ll plant a brassica like cabbage or broccoli, followed by buckwheat, and then barley. Barley is among Klaas’s favorite crops. In addition to cleansing the soil of pathogens, it can be planted along with a nitrogen fixer like clover, further benefiting the soil. Once again, the soil is ready for wheat.
Standing in Klaas’s fields, I saw how single-minded I had been. Yes, I was creating a market for local emmer wheat, but I wasn’t doing anything to support the recipe behind it. Championing Klaas’s wheat and only his wheat was tantamount to treating his farm like a grocery store. I was cherry-picking what I most wanted for my menu without supporting the whole farm.
I am not the only one. In celebrating the All-Stars of the farmers’ market — asparagus, heirloom tomatoes, emmer wheat — farm-to-table advocates are often guilty of ignoring a whole class of humbler crops that are required to produce the most delicious food.
With limited American demand for local millet, rye and barley, 70 percent of Klaas’s harvest was going into livestock feed for chickens, pigs and dairy cattle. In general, Klaas earned pennies on the dollar compared with what he’d make selling his crops for human consumption. And we were missing out as well, on nutritious foods that are staples of the best cuisines in the world.
Diversifying our diet to include more local grains and legumes is a delicious first step to improving our food system. Millet and rye are an easy substitute for rice or pasta. But that addresses only the low-hanging fruit of Klaas’s farm. More challenging is to think about how to honor the other underutilized parts of his rotations — classic cover crops like cowpeas and mustard, which fertilize the soil to ensure healthy harvests in the future.
Today, the best farmers are tying up valuable real estate for long periods of time (in an agonizingly short growing season) simply to benefit their soil. Imagine if Macy’s reserved half of its shelf space at Christmas for charitable donations. A noble idea. But profitable? Not so much. By creating a market for these crops, we can provide more value for the farmer and for our own diets, while supporting the long-term health of the land.
In Klaas’s field, I bent down and ripped off a green shoot of Austrian winter peas. I took a bite. Inedible? No, delicious! Thirty acres of the most tender and sweet pea shoots I’d ever tasted. (Harvesting the leaves would somewhat reduce the amount plowed back into the soil, but the plant’s soil benefits would remain.) In the distance I could make out a field of mustards. Klaas plants Tilney mustard, similar to the spicy green you find in a mesclun mix. I realized I wasn’t just looking at a cover crop. I was looking at a salad bowl.
Back at the restaurant, I created a new dish called “Rotation Risotto,” a collection of all of Klaas’s lowly, soil-supporting grains and legumes, cooked and presented in the manner of a classic risotto. I used a purée of cowpea shoots and mustard greens to thicken the grains and replace the starchiness of rice. As one waiter described the idea, it was a “nose-to-tail approach to the farm” — an edible version of Klaas’s farming strategy.

It’s one thing for chefs to advocate cooking with the whole farm; it’s another thing to make these uncelebrated crops staples in ordinary kitchens. Bridging that divide will require a new network of regional processors and distributors.
Take beer, for example. The explosion in local microbreweries has meant a demand for local barley malt. A new malting facility near Klaas’s farm recently opened in response. He now earns 30 percent more selling barley for malt than he did selling it for animal feed. For other farmers, it’s a convincing incentive to diversify their grain crops.
Investing in the right infrastructure means the difference between a farmer’s growing crops for cows or for cafeterias. It will take the shape of more local mills (for grains), canneries (for beans) and processors (for greens). As heretical as this may sound, farm-to-table needs to embrace a few more middlemen.
Perhaps the problem with the farm-to-table movement is implicit in its name. Imagining the food chain as a field on one end and a plate of food at the other is not only reductive, it also puts us in the position of end users. It’s a passive system — a grocery-aisle mentality — when really, as cooks and eaters, we need to engage in the nuts and bolts of true agricultural sustainability. Flavor can be our guide to reshaping our diets, and our landscapes, from the ground up.

Dan Barber is the chef and co-owner of the Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurants and the author of the forthcoming book “The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food.”

Bee researchers raise more warning flags about neonicotinoid pesticides

By Janet Thomson, CBC News Posted: May 20, 2014 

This spring most Canadian corn and soybean growers will be planting another crop of pesticide-coated seeds, even as researchers raise new warnings that the practice may have deadly side effects for bees and other wildlife.
The heated debate around the use of the neonicotinoid-coated seeds, developed by Bayer CropScience and introduced here about a decade ago, has divided farmers, beekeepers and scientists, and turned Canada into a kind of environmental battlefront.
To protect its bees, Europe banned the use of neonic pesticides last year, while U.S. authorities have so far taken a more cautious approach, saying these pesticides are just one possible factor in the collapse of so many bee colonies. Bayer filed a court challenge against the EU ban in August last year, saying the EU has wrongly linked the pesticide to bee deaths.
Bayer and Health Canada maintain that proper planting practices minimize the risk to bees, while others say use of neonics should be suspended until the questions being raised by researchers and beekeepers have been answered.
Over the past few years, neonicotinoids have become the dominant insecticide in everything from corn and canola to flea collars for pets.
But some believe this insecticide, particularly the version that coats the seeds and protects the plant as it matures, is responsible for the decline in honey bees.
When Health Canada tested dead bees last spring it found neonicotinoid on 70 per cent of them. At the time, it was thought the bees had become exposed to the dust that's kicked up during the planting process.
"Current agricultural practices related to the use of neonicotinoid-treated corn and soybean seed are not sustainable due to their impacts on bees and other pollinators," Health Canada then declared in a statement dated Sept. 13, 2013.
To address the dust concern, Health Canada's pesticide regulatory agency and the makers of the insecticide developed new best practices guidelines for farmers to go into effect this spring.
As part of the initiative, Bayer introduced a new lubricant that its lab tests suggest will help the treated corn seed flow through the planter, reducing total dust by 90 per cent and the active ingredient by 40 to 70 per cent.
Bayer told the CBC: "The new fluency agent has been shown to dramatically reduce dust when compared to the current industry standard lubricants."
But when the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food tested the new lubricant under field conditions, it found dust was still problematic. OMAF field crop entomologist Tracey Baute says, "the lubricant, the fluency agency, does reduce the amount of active ingredient in the dust by 21 per cent."
"We're still trying to determine if a balance can be made in the use of these products and protecting the pollinators," Baute adds.
Veteran Ontario beekeeper Tibor Szabo Jr. is not impressed. "A 21 per cent reduction of something that's very, very toxic isn't going to make me feel better," he says. "Do I think it's going to save the bees? Heck no.
"There's a heck of a lot more to this than dust."

New research

Indeed now some researchers are saying that dust from planting could be just part of a bigger issue with neonics.
Canadian environmental scientist Madeleine Chagnon has spent the past 20 years studying honey bees.
When she analyzed dead bees she discovered a bio-marker that suggested the bees had come into contact with neonicotinoids whether they had been exposed to planting dust or not. This suggests that they were exposed to the pesticide while collecting pollen from maturing plants, says Chagnon.
Madeleine Chagnon
University of Quebec environmental scientist Madeleine Chagnon has been studying the problems facing bee colonies for 20 years. (CBC)
"They're taking in something that they will ultimately die from, and they're taking this into the hive and feeding on it all winter, then we wonder why we have winter mortality."
For Chagnon, this means no amount of dust-reducing agents, better communication or labelling will prevent what is happening to honey bees. She's pushing for neonic products to be banned.
 Other bee researchers have reached the same conclusion. Dutch toxicology consultant HenkTennekes told the CBC, "there is little doubt that neonicotinoids are implicated in bee decline."
And a new study by a Harvard University researcher and two Massachusetts' beekeepers, published earlier this month in the journal Bulletin of Insectology, also put the blame squarely on neonicotinoids for what has been called colony collapse disorder.
Tennekes's book The Systemic Insecticides: A Disaster in the Making has been compared to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, which warned of the impending disaster of DDT in the environment in the 1960s.
"Even if Bayer were to succeed in reducing one route of exposure to virtually zero, many other routes of exposure are not affected," he said.
He suggests that the continued use of neonics will "cause a collapse of the ecosystem" because they create breaks in the natural food chain.
Not everyone agrees with these dire assessments.
Ernesto Guzman is one of the most respected bee researchers in Canada, and a world expert on pathology in honey bees. As head of the Honey Bee Research Centre at the University of Guelph, Guzman does not see pesticides as the main culprit.
Guzman says that bee mortality in the spring is caused in part by pesticides, as evidenced by Health Canada's spring mortality results of 2013. But he insists that whether or not systemic insecticides are the main threat to honey bee health is still debatable.
Ernesto Guzman
Ernesto Guzman, head of the Honey Bee Research Centre at Guelph University, says pesticides are not the main culprit when it comes to the mass deaths of honey bees. (CBC)
"Certainly pesticides are in fashion now and we hear a lot about them, but other factors also have to do with colony mortality, such as parasites like the Varroa mite," he says.
Guzman is not alone, either, in this assessment. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency said last May, following a long study, that pesticides are just one of the many stressors contributing to the declining health of honey bees.
And there are scores of scientists who say neonics, when used properly, are safe for all non-target wildlife.


It was thought that insecticide-treated seeds were less harmful to the environment because the pesticide is planted underground along with the seed.
Seed supplier Steve Denys, a grain farmer and vice-president at Pride Seeds in Chatham, Ont., says that is one of the selling features: "Once the insecticide is in the ground there's no impact on the honey bees, and less impact on the environment than insecticides that are sprayed on crops."
Steve Denys
Steve Denys, a corn farmer and vice-president of Pride Seeds in Chatham, Ont., says coated seeds are a huge improvement for the environment over previous spraying practices. (Courtesy Steve Denys)
But there is new research that indicates the insecticide may stay active in the soil and the groundwater.
During and shortly after spring planting last year, Laval University entomologist Valerie Fournier tested rainwater in cornfields. "Water samples, collected either in May or in June [2013], were shown to contain neonics in concentrations that are concerning for the bees," Fournier says.
She adds that insecticides in the water could cause "multiple sublethal effects" for bees, such as "impaired foraging behaviour, reduced food consumption, increased viral load and reduced fecundity and queen production."
A 2013 Dutch study from Utrecht University found that surface water collected from neonicotinoid-treated potato, horticultural and chicory fields "contained so much insecticide that it could actually be used directly as a lice-control pesticide."
Dutch researcher Jeroen Van der Sluijs says a bee drinking that water would die within a day.
Fournier notes that once a bee comes into contact with the insecticides, no matter the concentration, the effect is irreversible. The neonics bind with nerve cells and block their ability to function, which explains why some bees cannot find their way back into the hive.

Systemic behaviour

Last July, in a study funded partially by the Grain Farmers of Ontario association,  Baute took samples of pollen from foraging bees as they returned to their hives and as Ontario corn was starting to tassel.
Valerie Fournier
Laval University entomologist Valerie Fournier is finding high concentrations of neonics in groundwater. (CBC)
She found that the pollen had been primarily collected from corn and soy beans.
When she tested the neonicotinoid levels in the pollen she found an average above five parts per billion.
While that is well below Health Canada's lethal dose benchmark of 38 pbb, beekeeper Tibor Szabo suggests that it is enough to contribute to chronic poisoning in honey bees.
Knowing that the corn pollen continues to express active pesticide well into the late summer shows the systemic nature of the neonicotinoids, Szabo says.
As the bees feed on the stored pollen all winter long, the pesticide causes a "delayed toxic effect in the beehives," he suggests.
"We're all still trying to learn more about the sublethal side of this", says Baute. "Chronic or sublethal, it's very hard to separate the two."

Trace amounts

University of Saskatchewan biologist Christy Morrissey studied the levels of neonics in Prairie wetlands and concluded that "upwards of 80 to 90 per cent of the wetlands adjacent to tens of millions of acres of neonicotinoid-treated canola are contaminated."
Though the concentrations are only in the parts per trillion range, under chronic exposure that would have toxic effects on sensitive aquatic invertebrates, she says.
Dead bees in Nova Scotia
N.S. apiary Scotian Bee Honey lost over 50 per cent of its hives this past winter, 2013-14, primarily because of the cold, it said. (CBC)
"You should be aware that these compounds are much more toxic and are in the water far longer than other insecticides used on the market," Morrissey says. "So they [bees] basically are being hit continuously with the chemical."
However, Steve Denys, the Ontario seed supplier and corn farmer, says if researchers go looking for minute traces of just about anything they could find it. "I could probably find coffee residue from a Tim Horton's cup in the field if I looked hard enough for it",  he says.
Virtually all of the 21 million acres of canola planted in Canada is neonicotinoid-treated, says Canola Council of Canada market access manager Brian Innes. But he says "there have been no reported problems of harm from neonics on pollinators in any of the fields."
Barry Brown, a Saskatchewan beekeeper whose hives are in a "sea of yellow" — meaning they are surrounded by canola fields — says he lost 23 per cent of his hives over the winter.
"We don't have the smoking gun, but I don't think he could actually say no bees have been harmed by neonics in Saskatchewan," Brown says about Innes's assertion.
Meanwhile, in a 32-square-kilometre area in central-east Saskatchewan, Morrissey says she found concentrations of the chemical three to four times higher than what has been deemed habitable for insects. Morrissey's water and sediment samples were collected from wetlands in agricultural fields.
"We're not talking about a little regional problem. We're talking about something that's happening over tens of millions of acres," she told CBC News. "The longer that the chemical is in the water, the longer the exposure time for the bugs."

Birds and amphibians

Based on her findings, Morrissey says she also suspects that further up the food chain there's an impact on birds. She concludes that there are potential consequences for wetland-dependent species such as amphibians, waterfowl and aerial insectivorous birds.
She's not alone. In March 2013, former Environment Canada senior researcher Pierre Mineau, whose specialty is pesticide ecotoxicology, co-authored a paper for the American Bird Conservancy called, The Impact of the Nation's Most Widely Used Insecticides on Birds.
The main chemical compounds used in neonics are imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam, and Mineau's findings show the chemicals stay on the seeds that are then eaten by birds.
The study found that a single kernel of imidacloprid-treated corn can kill small and "blue jay-sized birds," and sicken larger ones. It concluded that "imidacloprid is too acutely toxic to be used as a seed treatment insecticide on any seed type."
Jim Coneybeare
Ontario bee keeper Jim Coneybeare, one of the people calling for a ban on pesticides. (cbc)
Third generation Ontario beekeeper Jim Coneybeare is among those calling for a ban on the insecticides "as soon as possible, because [otherwise] we are going to lose the bee-keeping industry."
But he is not optimistic this is going to happen.
"I think we're into neonics so deep … because chemical companies are making billions of dollars on the usage of these products."
Denys insists that the new seed technology is an improvement not only for farmers, but for the environment. "On my bean crop, before neonics, I used 100 times the amount of active ingredient to provide protection."
What's more, he says because farmers spend less time tilling their fields they burn fewer fossil fuels than before.
Health Canada shows no signs of pursuing a ban, and instead is working with the industry to try and find better ways to reduce the chances of exposing non-target insects to the pesticide.
A spokesperson recently told the CBC, "The [regulatory] agency is currently re-evaluating the neonicotinoid insecticides, which will include an examination of residues in the environment."
Bayer CropScience, the makers of the controversial seed coating, told the CBC that the company "will continue to promote better collaboration between farmers and beekeepers to improve bee health and ensure the adoption of best management practices."
Bayer adds that it is "committed to meaningful stewardship efforts to safeguard honey bee health and maintain sustainable agricultural practices."

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Toto, I've got a Feeling We're Not in the Garden of Eden Anymore

Whenever I'd go food shopping there would always be someone complaining about commercial farmers and the use of pesticides.  I would always listen to the complaint, and glance into the shopping cart at the same time.  If it had been a bad day and my patience was worn I'd suggest that the food in their cart said more about their position on pesticides than what they said. If it was full of processed products and imported produce, I said that's the kind of agriculture they were supporting. If it had more raw, local stuff, the odd organic product I'd be a little more patient.  I feel the same way about people's lawns.  There are bad players and dangerous chemicals out there, but how can we get all worked up about pesticide use by farmers who face great risks from pests and diseases, and a marketplace that demands nothing but perfection, but think it's just fine to drag out the 2-4-D (it will have a more upbeat commercial name) to kill dandelions.

A strong piece today in the New York Times about "lawn chemicals". Two important points among many:

"Occasional localized use to deal with an otherwise uncontainable infestation, or to deal mindfully with an invasive species, is not the problem, but routine, frequent and widespread use is."

"The United States Fish and Wildlife Service says homeowners use up to 10 times more chemicals per acre than farmers do."

The Toxic Brew in Our Yards

IN much of the country, it’s time to go outside, clean up the ravages of winter and start planting. Many of us will be using chemicals like glyphosate, carbaryl, malathion and 2,4-D. But they can end up in drinking water, and in some cases these compounds or their breakdown products are linked to an increased risk for cancer and hormonal disruption.
Some of those chemicals are also used by farmworkers, and there is a growing recognition that they can be hazardous. The Environmental Protection Agency is proposing regulations that will limit farmworkers’ exposure to dangerous pesticides and is accepting comments on these changes through June 17. These new rules are meant to reduce the incidence of diseases associated with pesticide exposure, including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, prostate cancer, Parkinson’s disease and lung cancer.
Homeowners who use these toxins on their yards and gardens are exposing themselves to the same risks. They aren’t necessary. We don’t need them to have pleasant environments. Together we can make a substantial improvement in our water quality simply by refraining from using synthetic pesticides, weedkillers and fertilizers on a routine basis. Occasional localized use to deal with an otherwise uncontainable infestation, or to deal mindfully with an invasive species, is not the problem, but routine, frequent and widespread use is.
The United States Fish and Wildlife Service says homeowners use up to 10 times more chemicals per acre than farmers do. Some of these chemicals rub off on children or pets, but most are washed with rainwater into our streams, lakes and rivers or are absorbed into our groundwater. These are the sources of our drinking water, and tests show these chemicals are indeed contaminating our water supply.
A study by the United States Geological Survey released in 1999 found at least one pesticide, and often more than one, in almost every stream and fish sample tested, and in about half of the samples drawn from wells throughout the country. These pesticides are going from our lawns and gardens into our drinking water and into our bodies.
The amounts of these chemicals are small and often considered “acceptable,” but scientists now know that they have a cumulative effect. Many chemicals that we use very casually on our lawns cause long-term health problems in ways that have only recently been understood. They “disrupt,” or throw out of whack, the endocrine system, made up of glands and hormones that control almost every aspect of our bodies’ functions.
In 2009 the Endocrine Society, a group of doctors, researchers and educators who specialize in diseases related to the hormonal system, published a scientific statement based on 485 citations from research papers showing growing evidence that there are significant health threats caused by endocrine-disrupting substances in our environment. In terms of scientific research, 2009 is relatively recent. Epidemiologic studies take decades, and developing a battery of reliable laboratory tests also takes many years. This means that there are more studies implicating older chemicals, many of which are no longer sold because of known toxicities.
But many scientists expect similar chemicals now in widespread use to cause the same problems. Endocrine disrupters are linked to an increased risk for breast and prostate cancer, thyroid abnormalities and infertility. The Endocrine Society paper and others also present evidence that links exposure to chemical contaminants to diabetes and obesity.
These chemicals are not safe just because they are available in stores. Regulations governing the sale of chemicals do not reflect this new scientific information, because scientists are only now working on standardized tests both in laboratory animals and cell cultures to evaluate whether a chemical disrupts the hormonal system, and if so, at what level.
What we put on our lawns and down our drains winds up in our drinking water, and it is not removed by water treatment. Bottled water is not a solution because it comes from the same sources and is susceptible to the same contaminants. But if we don’t put these chemicals in our yards, they won’t be in our drinking water.
In the last decade or so, plenty of homeowners have been rejecting the emerald green lawn and planting with species that do not demand chemicals and constant watering. But not nearly enough of us have taken that step. We need to see a perfect lawn not as enviable, but a sign of harm.
Natural care of our yards and gardens is surprisingly easy. Increasing diversity in a lawn by adding clover helps supply nutrition naturally because clover fixes nitrogen from the air and makes it available to other plants. Leaving grass clippings not only returns nitrogen to the lawn, but also prevents it from drying out. Letting grass grow to four inches allows the roots to grow long so the grass can absorb more water and excess nutrients during a storm, and withstand a drought. Plants that are native to your region require less water and care and support animals and wildlife, so you will see more birds and butterflies.
In my yard in New York, native Annabelle hydrangeas, echinacea and bee balm take almost no care, are beautiful and provide nectar for bees and butterflies. American elderberry, Carolina rose and bayberry are resilient attractive shrubs that also support our local wildlife. Bats can live under the loose bark of our shagbark hickory, and oaks support woodpeckers, deer, mice and birds. We have learned to appreciate clover and dandelions because they supply sustenance to endangered monarch butterflies until milkweed blooms later in the season.
This is a surprisingly easy way to leave cleaner water and a healthier population.