Farm Bill or Food Bill? U.S. agriculture policy has grown fat and lazy--and hasn't helped our waistlines either
A mixed bag: Federal policies promote contour farming to reduce erosion, but also the overproduction of commodity crops like soybeans.
It's tempting to take for granted summer's bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables. But if you care about how that succulent tomato gets to your table, your beach reading should include delving into the Farm Bill, the much-overlooked legislation authorized by Congress every five years that sets the direction of the U.S. food system. The 2007 version could be a food, health, and environment bill, or it could continue, as it has since its inception in 1949, to dish out millions in subsidies each year to the growers of the five main commodity crops: corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, and cotton. Congress will decide between local, organic apple pie or one filled with ersatz fruit oozing high-fructose corn syrup.
With Democrats now in charge in Washington, D.C., chances are good that there will be more money for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's conservation programs, which help farmers employ practices that improve water quality and reduce soil erosion. Currently, these programs account for a mere one percent of the $400 billion spent over the six-year life span of the Farm Bill. Legislators are already targeting more money for programs that prevent agricultural pollution, encourage sustainable farming, and distribute fruits and vegetables to schools. One bill, introduced by Representative Ron Kind (D-Wis.), would also promote clean-energy development on farms, which are often hugely dependent on fossil fuels.
One of the more interesting proposals in this year's debate--particularly because it requires no funding--would permit institutions that buy food using public funds to favor local farmers. Allowing a geographic preference for procurement would result in "stronger farms and less farmland loss," says Jimmy Daukas, director of the American Farmland Trust's Farm Policy Campaign. In addition, the soaring U.S. obesity rate, spurred by subsidies to corn and soy (and a lack of support for fresh produce), might begin to shrink. When the Farm Bill is seen as a food bill, consumers and farmers will benefit. --Mark Winne
MORE INFORMATIONRead Food Fight: The Citizen's Guide to a Food and Farm Bill, by Daniel Imhoff with a foreword by Michael Pollan (University of California Press, 2007).
WWatch Keeping Tabs on Washington
CHEMICAL WARFARE Nearly six years after September 11, the Department of Homeland Security has decided to protect the nation's 15,000 chemical plants from terrorists--by requiring a small portion of the facilities to assess their own security risk using online forms. A few hundred plants will then have to create security plans and perhaps even erect fences. Underwhelmed? So are the leaders of the states that have adopted or are considering tougher security standards. New Jersey already requires chemical plants to use less toxic chemicals whenever possible. Its stricter laws could be torpedoed by weak federal regulations, a result Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) calls "unacceptable."
DUDLEY DO-NOTHING In April, President George W. Bush put an outspoken opponent of government regulation in charge of all government regulations. Susan Dudley, the new administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, has questioned the wisdom of limiting arsenic in drinking water and has suggested that it would be better for people with asthma to stay inside on smoggy days than for the government to control air pollution. The furor over Dudley's appointment, which was made during Congress's spring recess to avoid confirmation hearings, may be behind the president's decision to withdraw two controversial nominations at the EPA.
CORN-O-COPIA The Bush administration has announced that U.S. motorists will be required to use 4.7 billion gallons of alternative fuels like ethanol this year, a move EPA administrator Steven Johnson claims will protect the environment and help farmers. Environmentalists note that regulating tailpipe emissions and raising fuel-economy standards would do far more to stop global warming.
Adding fossil fuel to the fire, the EPA also decided to relax air-pollution standards for the facilities that make ethanol. Before, plants that emitted more than 100 tons of air pollutants were bound by clean-air regulations. Now the limit is 250 tons, a change the EPA concedes might encourage ethanol plants to use coal to power the production process, thereby negating corn ethanol's minuscule carbon-reduction benefits. The rule will affect the nearly 200 ethanol production plants currently operating or under construction. --Dashka Slater
Water, Water Not Everywhere
Population and water distribution don't always correspond, often leaving highly populated regions with little access to this precious resource. The continent of Asia, for example, supports 60 percent of the world's population with only 36 percent of the planet's water.
Within regions, survival depends on how efficiently water is distributed. According to the United Nations Development Programme, some of the world's poorest people pay more for a gallon of water than residents of New York City or London. More than a billion people worldwide rely on water from polluted sources, and 2.6 billion lack access to proper sanitation. --Reed McManus
Biting the Wrong Bullet
California condors, whose numbers fell to as few as 22 birds in the 1980s, are soaring back from the brink of extinction, largely due to an aggressive, decades-long captive breeding program. Some 130 condors, North America's largest land bird, now fly free over Arizona, California, and Mexico. But they still face the same threats that nearly wiped them out before--most notably, lead poisoning from hunting ammunition.
These scavengers feed on animal carcasses and often ingest lead bullet fragments in gut piles left be-hind by hunters. Last August, researchers from the University of California at Santa Cruz used isotopic fingerprinting techniques to match the lead in bullets to the lead in condor blood samples, conclusively proving the connection. At least 13 condors have died from lead contamination since the breeding and reintroduction program began in 1992, and dozens more have required chelation treatments to survive.
This summer, the California Fish and Game Commission is voting on whether to ban lead bullets and shot in condor territory. Meanwhile, in Arizona, conservationists are giving away copper bullets as a less toxic alternative. For more information, visit biologicaldiversity.org/swcbd/species/condor/index.html. --Amy Ettinger
Harry Potter and the Trees of Sustainability
Publishing company Scholastic plans to print 12 million copies of the seventh and final installment in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, which will require 16,700 tons of paper. Thanks to an agreement between the publisher and the Rainforest Alliance, nearly two-thirds of the paper will be certified by the Forest Stewardship Council as originating in sustainably managed forests. Each 784-page tome will also contain 30 percent postconsumer fiber.
Two thousand Google employees in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa are receiving free Raleigh bicycles and helmets. The search-engine giant hopes that its staff will use their new steeds to commute to work. Its U.S. employees aren't getting bikes, but they're still feeling lucky--a fleet of 32 biodiesel-powered (and Internet-equipped) shuttle buses traverse 230 miles of freeways carrying them to work.
Big Green Bus
The nation's first plug-in hybrid school buses have begun carting kids to class in Florida, Pennsylvania, and Washington State. The buses, built by Illinois-based IC Corporation, get 12 miles per gallon, twice the mileage of a diesel bus, and can be plugged into an outlet for overnight charging. Their ability to save fuel and reduce emissions has school districts in 11 states placing orders.
A California nonprofit is offering $10 million to anyone who can do what the automotive industry hasn't done--create a commercially viable, low-emission car that gets more than 100 miles per gallon. The X Prize Foundation, whose goal is "to bring about radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity," hopes the prize will prod automakers to aim higher than today's 20-mpg average. The winning car can use any kind of fuel but must come with a business plan showing that 10,000 of them can be manufactured at a cost comparable to current gas-guzzlers. --Dashka Slater
As The World Warms Signs of a changing planet
WHAT'S IN STORE Without major changes, here's what we have to look forward to: extinction of 30 percent of the earth's animals and plants, 1 billion people without enough water, and hundreds of millions of others affected by rising sea levels, violent storms, and spreading diseases. That's the bad news from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which released a major report in April dealing with the environmental and social effects of global warming. The good news, from a subsequent IPCC report, is that climate stabilization is possible at a relatively minor price--but only if the world acts now to start slowing emissions. (The full reports are at www.ipcc.ch.)
SLIPPING BACKWARD James Connaughton, chair of the White House's Council on Environmental Quality, claimed that the IPCC reports "reinforce" Bush administration policy. That policy calls for a 20 percent reduction in gasoline consumption over ten years by switching to alternative fuels--but it won't be completed until December 2008, just before President Bush leaves the White House. Meanwhile, the EPA reports that U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions have increased by 16.3 percent since 1990.
NATIONAL SECURITY Calling global warming a "threat multiplier for instability," General Gordon Sullivan, former Army chief of staff to President George H. W. Bush, says the country's National Intelligence Estimate should regularly include issues related to climate change. Also in mid-April, 11 retired generals, including General Anthony Zinni, warned of growing instability "in already fragile areas ... as food production declines, diseases increase, clean water becomes increasingly scarce, and large populations move in search of resources."
LAND RUSH Melting Arctic sea ice is revealing hitherto icebound islands, setting off a melee among northern nations as they race to stake new claims to the
resource-rich region. Denmark and Canada have both sent warships to raise the flag on tiny Hans Island, at the entrance to the now frequently ice-free Northwest Passage. As for that long-sought-after sea route from the North Atlantic to Asia, Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper promises to send military icebreakers there "to assert our sovereignty and take action to protect our territorial integrity."
SIGNS AND PORTENTS The worst drought in a century may lead Australia to stop irrigating major crops. Rice production has all but ceased, and some areas only have enough water for human consumption. Prime Minister John Howard called on the nation to pray for rain. "This is very much in the lap of the gods," he said. --Paul Rauber
Winning Streak Bush policies thwarted in courts
This just in from the nation's courts to the Bush administration: The law is the law. In a string of remarkable decisions in recent months, the federal courts have repeatedly slapped down the White House on topics ranging from global warming to logging in Giant Sequoia National Monument. (District court judge Charles Breyer said that the administration's plan to allow commercial logging there was "incomprehensible.")
On one heady April day alone, the U.S. Supreme Court issued two landmark rulings. In the first, which Earthjustice attorney Howard Fox called "one of the most important environmental cases in history," the court ruled 5-4 that greenhouse gases are indeed pollutants. "At least five of the justices still see that it's their job to enforce environmental laws," says Pat Gallagher, director of the Sierra Club's Environmental Law Program. In the second decision, the court ruled unanimously that power companies need EPA permits for renovation work if it would result in an annual increase in emissions. The ruling, says Gallagher, will boost Sierra Club suits against recalcitrant utilities all over the country.
Other notable wins this spring include a ruling that "mountaintop removal" mining violates the Clean Water Act, a refusal to allow a weakening of the "dolphin-safe" tuna label, a finding that the dams on the Snake and Columbia Rivers violate the Endangered Species Act, the overturn of a U.S. Forest Service attempt to limit public participation in logging decisions, and a legal settlement in which the Forest Service abandoned nine large timber sales in southeast Alaska's Tongass National Forest.
A common thread in all the cases was the Bush administration's attempt to either ignore or circumvent the nation's environmental laws and regulations. It has taken some time, but the slow machinery of justice is finally catching up. --P.R.
Green Fire Dying The U.S. Forest Service tries to take the "wild" out of wilderness
The U.S. Forest Service is seeking sweeping new powers to kill bears, wolves, mountain lions, and other predators--inside designated wilderness areas. The proposed rule change would allow the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services agents to use traps and poison baits to wipe out entire local predator populations, all in the interest of increasing numbers of game species like deer and elk.
"Even a cynical old bastard like me was slapped silly by the agency's shameful plan," says Earth First founder (and former Sierra Club Board member) Dave Foreman. Foreman's latest project is the Rewilding Institute, whose vision for large carnivores is pretty much the opposite of the Forest Service's. Sierra found him at his Albuquerque, New Mexico, office.
What exactly is being proposed? Not only would the rule change allow federal hunters--and perhaps others--to go into wilderness areas and kill predators, but it would also allow helicopter landings and the use of off-road vehicles within wilderness areas to transport the gunners and poisoners. It's clearly a violation of the Wilderness Act.
So "untrammeled by man" no longer applies? That's certainly out the window. This shows an appalling ignorance on the part of the people who run the Forest Service. It's something that's being done as a favor to ranchers and certain hunters.
How will they benefit? Some hunters still mired in the 19th century see predators as "bad animals" and elk and deer as "good animals." Pressure is also coming from politically powerful ranchers who are absolutely intolerant of wolves and grizzly bears.
What can we do? If the Forest Service is foolish enough to allow this to go through [at press time, it had not], we need to go directly to our members of Congress and tell them not to close the book on wilderness. --Paul Rauber
Population Bust Human fertility is slowing, but it's still awfully crowded in here
There is hope for our species yet. In what may be the most astonishing demographic shift in history, the runaway train of world population is slowing to a stop--and will soon run in reverse. Global population is expected to grow from the current 6.5 billion to 9 billion by 2050, but demographers now predict that immediately afterward it will go into decline. Some countries are already experiencing "depopulation": Russia, for example, is shrinking by some 700,000 a year. Japan's population has been declining since 2005, leading to an official campaign to encourage procreation (and to the health minister's unfortunate reference to women as "baby-making devices"). Singapore has even established a government-run dating service in hopes of boosting its flagging numbers. Hong Kong's fertility rate is less than half the replacement rate.
Across the globe, fertility rates are collapsing. No major industrial country--with one glaring exception--meets the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman. Germany is at 1.4. Italy is 1.3. Even China is at 1.7. The high numbers common in the past--five or six children per woman--are now found only in the Arab Gulf States, Pakistan, the Philippines, and parts of Africa. By 2050, the United Nations predicts that 75 percent of all countries will be below replacement level.
This "birth dearth" is due, demographers say, to a confluence of factors: greater literacy and employment opportunities for women, increasing availability of contraceptives, and the continuing trend toward urbanization. On the farm, children are free labor, but in a city slum, they're just more mouths to feed.
The glaring exception? The United States, where the fertility rate is 2.1. Future U.S. growth depends on immigration--although with Latin American birthrates falling as well, that may soon be a moot point. --P.R.
At the end of April, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced that it would lease 48 million acres in Alaska's Bristol Bay, the eastern Gulf of Mexico, and the central Atlantic off Virginia for offshore oil and gas exploration. The plan calls for leasing for the first time 5.6 million acres of Bristol Bay, an area that had been protected from energy development by presidential directive until early this year. Drilling in the 3 million acres that are 50 miles off the Virginia coast would require Congress to lift the moratorium that has safeguarded federal waters near the coasts of California, Florida, and 12 other states since 1982. (See "Lay of the Land," March/April.)
MAKE YOURSELF SCARCE
Julie MacDonald, the Bush Interior Department appointee accused of meddling with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists' recommendations to protect animals and plants under the Endangered Species Act, abruptly resigned a week before a congressional oversight committee was set to review allegations of political interference. Representative Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), chair of the Natural Resources Committee, announced the hearings would continue, saying: "The problems at the Fish and Wildlife Service are not merely a matter of people and personalities; the faults run much deeper than Julie MacDonald." (See "Decoder," March/April.)
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lifted protections for Yellowstone-area grizzly bears in March. While the bear's numbers there have increased from under 200 to more than 500 since it was listed as threatened in 1975, environmental groups maintain that the population is not enough to ensure long-term survival. In April, the Sierra Club and seven other environmental groups notified the feds that they intend to sue if the agency does not reverse its decision. (See "What Grizzlies Want," July/August 2002.)
Disinformation Superhighway Small newspapers become roadkill
Rural Texans don't like people telling them what to do with their land, so it's not surprising they don't like Republican governor Rick Perry's plan to construct a 12-lane toll road that stretches from the Mexican border to Oklahoma. Building the 500-mile-long Trans-Texas Corridor will require using eminent domain to acquire 9,000 square miles from the state's farmers and ranchers. Some of the loudest voices opposing the project have been heard in community newspapers such as the Waxahachie Daily Light and the Bonham Journal, which are owned by American Consolidated Media.
Now comes news that ACM's chain of 40 small-market newspapers has been acquired for $80 million by a sister company of Macquarie Infrastructure Group, which is vying for the toll-road contract, estimated to be worth between $145 billion and $183 billion. Macquarie Media Group insists it wants the papers because they make money, but toll-road opponents smell a rat. "It sure would make it a lot easier for [Macquarie's] business if they weren't being torn up in the newspapers every week," Sal Costello, one of the leading critics of the project, told the South Bend (Indiana) Tribune.--Dashka Slater
This article has been corrected subsequent to publication.
Reel Toxic Mercury everywhere you dip a line
The mountain stream where you caught that trout may appear unspoiled, but chances are the fish, like so many of its seagoing brethren, contains mercury. That's the conclusion of researchers from the EPA and Oregon State University, who tested 2,700 fish in more than 600 rivers and streams across 12 western states. Every kind they sampled had detectable levels of the neurotoxin, and more than half of the larger predatory species, such as northern pike, bass, walleye, and pikeminnow, had levels at or above the limit of what the EPA says is safe to eat. Trout and other salmonids generally had mercury levels below the agency's 0.3-parts-per-million safety threshold.
The contaminated fish are further evidence that the Bush administration's efforts to regulate mercury pollution are inadequate. In 2006, 16 states challenged the administration's proposed mercury regulations for power plants, the nation's top mercury culprit. In February, nine states and six environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, sued the EPA over its failure to set adequate standards for the portland cement industry, the country's second-largest mercury emitter. For more information, check out the Sierra Club's Mercury Campaign at sierraclub.org/mercury. --D.S.
Smaller Footprint Vancouver's plan to spread upward
Vancouver, British Columbia, is already a compact green city. The number of people living in downtown highrises there has doubled since the 1980s. Now, in order to address climate change, the city wants to increase the density of its entire metropolitan area.
Some options being explored in Mayor Sam Sullivan's EcoDensity program include zoning changes to allow "secondary suites," or in-law apartments; triplexes; and narrow streets with houses that abut property lines. To deflect NIMBY objections, city planners are using an "ecological footprint" analysis, which measures the resources required to support a given lifestyle, and expressing it in terms of how many planets would be needed if everyone lived that way.
"Think about one neighborhood arguing that it should be able to live on eight planets' worth of resources while another one lives on three," says Brent Toderian, Vancouver's planning director. "For the first time, we are making the link between urban patterns and issues of environment and climate change." --Linda Baker
Photo by Lynn Betts/USDA NRCS; used with permission.
Illustrations, from top: Debbie Drechsler, Peter Hoey (Source: UNESCO/International Hydrological Programme Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean; original graphic by International Networks Archive/Jonathan Harris), Josef Gast; used with permission.