Agriculture can be environmentally damaging — yet there are alternatives. From adjusting our avocado consumption, to a sustainable (and underrated) crop of the future: beans.
Agriculture can be environmentally damaging — yet there are alternatives. From adjusting our avocado consumption, to a sustainable (and underrated) crop of the future: beans.
TERBOL, Lebanon — Ali Shehadeh, a seed hunter, opened the folders with the greatest of care. Inside each was a carefully dried and pressed seed pod: a sweet clover from Egypt, a wild wheat found only in northern Syria, an ancient variety of bread wheat. He had thousands of these folders stacked neatly in a windowless office, a precious herbarium, containing seeds foraged from across the hot, arid and increasingly inhospitable region known as the Fertile Crescent, the birthplace of farming.
Mr. Shehadeh is a plant conservationist from Syria. He hunts for the genes contained in the seeds we plant today and what he calls their “wild relatives” from long ago. His goal is to safeguard those seeds that may be hardy enough to feed us in the future, when many more parts of the world could become as hot, arid and inhospitable as it is here. But searching for seeds that can endure the perils of a hotter planet has not been easy. It has thrown Mr. Shehadeh and his organization, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, or Icarda, squarely at a messy intersection of food, weather and war.
Icarda, though it received no state funding, was once known as a darling of the Syrian government. Based in Aleppo, its research had helped to make Syria enviably self-sufficient in wheat production. But a drive to produce thirsty crops also drained Syria’s underground water over the years, and it was followed by a crippling drought that helped to fuel the protests that erupted into armed revolt against the government in 2011.
Icarda, in turn, became a casualty of the war. By 2014, the fighting drew closer to its headquarters in Aleppo and its sprawling field station in nearby Tal Hadya. Icarda’s trucks were stolen. Generators vanished. Most of the fat-tailed Awassi sheep, bred to produce more milk and require less water, were looted and eaten. Mr. Shehadeh and the other scientists eventually sent out what they could — including a few of the sheep — and fled, joining half the country’s population in exile.
And Icarda’s most vital project — a seed bank containing 155,000 varieties of the region’s main crops, a sort of agricultural archive of the Fertile Crescent — faced extinction.
But the researchers at Icarda had a backup copy. Beginning in 2008, long before the war, Icarda had begun to send seed samples — “accessions” as they are called — to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the so-called doomsday vault, burrowed into the side of a mountain on a Norwegian island above the Arctic Circle. It was standard procedure, in case anything happened.
War happened. In 2015, as Aleppo disintegrated, Icarda’s scientists borrowed some of the seeds they had stored in Svalbard and began building anew. This time, they spread out, setting up one seed bank in Morocco and another just across Syria’s border with Lebanon in this vast valley of cypress and grapes known as the Bekaa.
“We are doing our best to recreate everything we had in Aleppo,” Mr. Shehadeh said.
The Aleppo headquarters still contains the largest collection of seeds from across the region — 141,000 varieties of wheat, barley, lentils, fava and the like — though neither Mr. Shehadeh nor his colleagues know what shape it’s in. They haven’t been able to return.
Seed banks have always served as important repositories of biodiversity. But they’re even more crucial, said Tim Benton, a food security expert at the University of Leeds, at a time when the world needs crops that can adapt to the rapid onset of climate change.
“We have to grow considerably different things in considerably different ways,” Mr. Benton said. “Certainly for our prime crops, like wheat, the wild relatives are thought to be really important because of the genes that can be crossed back into the wheat lines we have in order to build resilience and adaptation to climate change.”
Especially important, Mr. Benton said, because they could easily vanish without protection.
How much Syria’s agricultural crisis was to blame for the outbreak of war is debatable. There is little debate, though, about the impact of global warming on the region, which seems certain to make agriculture here extremely precarious.
Temperatures have climbed by at least 0.2 degrees Celsius per decade across the Middle East from 1961 to 1990, and risen by close to 0.4 degrees Celsius in the period since then, according to Andrew Noble, who until recently was Icarda’s deputy director of research.
This summer, in already hot, dry countries like Iraq, temperatures shot up well past 50 degrees Celsius, about 120 degrees Fahrenheit, on some days. Droughts are more intense and more frequent. Where farmers rely entirely on the rains, as they do in most parts of the Middle East, the future of agriculture, Mr. Noble said bluntly, “is pretty bleak.”
This, Mr. Shehadeh says, is why he is obsessed with the wild relatives of the seeds that most farmers plant today. He eschews genetically modified seeds. He wants instead to tap the riches of those wild ancestors, which are often hardy and better adapted to harsh climates. “They’re the good stock,” he said.
He hunts for the genetic traits that he says will be most useful in the future: resistance to pests or blistering winds, or the ability to endure in intensely hot summers. He tries to select for those traits and breeds them into the next generation of seeds — in the very soil and air where they have always been grown.
Wheat is a staple of the Middle Eastern diet, and the Middle East is what Laura Wellesley, a researcher at the London think tank Chatham House, calls the “greatest wheat importing region in the world.” Syria was once the exception, but war has made wheat a potent weapon, and it, too, now imports wheat to feed its citizens who remain.
As summer draws to a close, Mr. Shehadeh’s greenhouses are nearly empty. In one, there are wild barley seeds, normally found in highland pastures, held together in small canvas pouches. In another, there are small pots of clover.
The seeds will soon be taken indoors, dried, bagged, and labeled. Some are for the collection here, contained in a series of walk-in cold storage rooms. Some are for farmers to try out in the fields. One full set of seeds is for Svalbard: Icarda is gradually putting back into the seed bank what it withdrew. In early September, Mr. Shehadeh carried 31 boxes of seeds in the latest shipment to Norway.
Icarda’s entire collection houses seeds that have sustained the people of the Middle East for centuries, including some 14,700 varieties of bread wheat, 32,000 varieties of barley, and nearly 16,000 varieties of chickpea, the key component of falafel. The Lebanon seed bank houses about 39,000 accessions, and Morocco, another 32,000. Most of it is backed up in Svalbard.
In Sudan, Icarda has introduced a wheat variety it hopes will be more resistant to drought and heat. It is breeding a fava bean variety that can withstand a parasitic weed and lentils that can mature in a short growing season.
That’s useful not just for the Middle East, Mr. Noble said. The hot, dry summers that are common to the Middle East may well become familiar to many other parts of the world. “The climates of the future will be similar to the climates we are experiencing,” he said.
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businesses from Bayer for $7 billion
4 MIN READ
FRANKFURT (Reuters) - BASF has agreed to buy seed and herbicide businesses from Bayer for 5.9 billion euros ($7 billion) in cash, as Bayer tries to convince competition authorities to approve its planned acquisition of Monsanto.
The logo of Germany's largest drugmaker Bayer is pictured in Leverkusen April 26, 2014. REUTERS/Ina Fassbender/Files
BASF, the world’s third-largest maker of crop chemicals, has so far avoided seed assets and instead pursued research into plant characteristics such as drought tolerance, which it sells or licenses out to seed developers.
But Bayer’s $66 billion deal to buy U.S. seeds group Monsanto, announced in September 2016, has created opportunities for rivals to snatch up assets that need to be sold to satisfy competition authorities.
Bayer had offered to sell assets worth around $2.5 billion. The European Commission said in August that the divestments offered by Bayer so far did not go far enough and started an in-depth investigation of the deal.
Bayer has to sell the LibertyLink-branded seeds and Liberty herbicide businesses because they compete with Monsanto’s Roundup weed killer and Roundup Ready seeds.
LibertyLink seeds, used by soy, cotton and canola growers, are one alternative to Roundup Ready seeds for farmers suffering from weeds that have developed resistance to the Roundup herbicide, also known as glyphosate.
The spread of Roundup-resistant weeds in North America has been a major driver behind Liberty sales.
“BASF’s decision to acquire seeds assets represents something of a change to its prior view on its needs to respond to recent industry consolidation in agriculture,” Morgan Stanley analysts said.
“Nonetheless, the proposed assets for acquisition are high margin and high growth and represent a sensible bolt-on addition,” they added.
The sale to BASF values the assets at around 15 times 2016 operating profit (EBITDA) of 385 million euros, which Bankhaus Lampe analyst Volker Braun said was “reasonable” considering the assets had to be sold anyway.
BASF will finance the acquisition through a combination of cash on hand, commercial paper and bonds. It expects the acquisition to add to its earnings by 2020.
A cyclist rides his bike past the entrance of the BASF plant in Schweizerhalle, Switzerland, July 7, 2009. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann/Files
Shares in Bayer rose 1.3 percent to the top of Germany’s blue-chip DAX index by 0845 GMT, while BASF fell 0.7 percent.
The businesses Bayer is selling to BASF generated 2016 sales of 1.3 billion euros.
While the Commission could block the deal, it has approved others, such as Dow’s tie-up with DuPont and ChemChina’s takeover of Syngenta - although only after securing big concessions.
Bayer said it continued to work with the authorities to close the Monsanto deal by early 2018.
As part of the asset sale to BASF, which is conditional upon the Monsanto acquisition going through, more than 1,800 staff, primarily in the United States, Germany, Brazil, Canada and Belgium, will transfer to BASF.
BASF has committed to maintaining all permanent positions, under similar conditions, for at least three years after the deal closes, Bayer said.
As part of the deal, BASF will acquire Bayer’s manufacturing sites for glufosinate-ammonium production and formulation in Germany, the United States, and Canada, seed breeding facilities in the Americas and Europe as well as trait research facilities in the United States and Europe.
Bayer said it would use the proceeds of the sale to partially refinance the planned acquisition of Monsanto. It would provide an update on expected synergies from the acquisition by the time the deal closes.
BofA Merrill Lynch and Credit Suisse acted as financial advisors to Bayer. Its legal advisors are Sullivan & Cromwell, Dentons, Cohen & Grigsby and Redeker, Sellner & Dahs.
($1 = 0.8442 euros)
Reporting by Maria Sheahan; Editing by Tom Pfeiffer and Keith Weir
Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.
This could be the company’s “Big Tobacco” moment.
By Rene Ebersole
Today 6:00 am
In 1970, John E. Franz, a 40-year-old chemist from Springfield, Illinois, hit upon a discovery that would profoundly change agriculture: a chemical that works its way into the leaves of weeds and down to their roots, eventually killing them. Franz sold the patent for the breakthrough to his employer, Monsanto, for $5. Four years later, Monsanto released Roundup.
This story was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, a nonprofit investigative-news organization.
“Weeds? No problem. Nothing kills weeds better,” announced the actors in the commercials for Roundup as they attacked dandelions with spray bottles. The product was an instant success, and in 1987 Franz won the National Medal of Technology for his discovery. Today, Roundup is the most popular herbicide in the world, generating more than $4 billion in annual revenue for Monsanto.
Roundup’s active ingredient, glyphosate, is widely perceived to be innocuous in the environment because it targets an enzyme not found in animals or humans. When it comes to plants, however, the chemical kills indiscriminately—except for those plants genetically designed to withstand it. In the 1990s, Monsanto began to sell its patented “Roundup Ready” seeds, allowing farmers to spray for weeds without damaging their crops. The combination of herbicide and resistant seeds helped Monsanto become one of the world’s most powerful agriculture corporations. Today, over 90 percent of domestic soy, corn, and cotton crops are genetically engineered to be glyphosate–resistant, accounting for more than 168 million acres.
But the future of the ubiquitous herbicide is in question. Monsanto is currently fighting allegations that glyphosate might not be as safe as advertised, particularly when combined with other chemicals in Roundup. In 2015, an international science committee ruled that glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen, countering previous determinations by regulatory agencies in the United States and other countries. Soon after, more than 200 people sued Monsanto in a federal case now centralized in California, claiming that Roundup caused them to develop non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a common blood cancer. Over 1,000 people have filed similar suits against the company in state courts in Arizona, Delaware, Missouri, Nebraska, and elsewhere.
Attorneys and activists have accused Monsanto of manipulating the science around glyphosate’s health impacts—in essence, of following the playbook written by Big Tobacco. Documents revealed in the federal case also suggest a cozy relationship between the company and regulators at the Environmental Protection Agency, which is currently reviewing glyphosate’s safety. For its part, Monsanto maintains that Roundup is harmless. “Our lawyers have produced over 10 million pages of documents, and the plaintiffs’ lawyers managed to cherry–pick a handful that reflect the use of some inappropriate language by some Monsanto folks,” said Scott Partridge, Monsanto’s vice president for global strategy. “There’s not a single document that reflects that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, causes cancer.”
Tobias Okwara is a farmer in Kayoro Parish in southeastern Uganda. In the midst of a long drought that began in May 2016, he and his neighbors got together to discuss what to do. Food was becoming scarce, and they hoped to recover quickly once the rains started again. They decided they would pool their meagre resources and plant a large communal field of maize. By spring 2017, the rains had finally returned, and their maize was thriving.
Then the fall armyworm appeared seemingly out of nowhere. Larvae of the nondescript gray moths hatched and ate their way through the field of young corn.
Endemic to North and South America, the fall armyworm was first spotted in January 2016 in Nigeria. No one knows for certain how it arrived on the African continent, but since its initial appearance the pest has spread to more than 28 countries, including South Africa, Burundi, Rwanda, Kenya, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and most recently, Sudan and Mali. As it has spread, it has destroyed more than 740,000 acres of maize, the staple food for more than 200 million Africans.
The fall armyworm is closely related to the African armyworm, which is native to the continent. Both pests feed not just on corn, but also on other cereal crops like rice, sorghum, and wheat. Kenneth Wilson of Lancaster University has studied the African armyworm for 25 years and is now part of a working group with the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization that is examining how to deal with the newly arrived pest.
Wilson says that while the African armyworm has long been a problem, it typically attacks one area and then moves on to another, making it only a sporadic threat to crop production in any given location. Not so with the fall armyworm. Once it has eaten its way through the cereal crops in a particular area, it sticks around to see what else it can eat. “If you’re a smallholder farmer who plants a little bit of maize, some sorghum, some beans, some tomatoes,” Wilson says, “all of those crops are potentially at risk from the fall armyworm.” It’s been known to feed on at least 80 plant species. In Uganda, over 40 percent of the crops are infested.
Uganda, like much of the rest of Africa, is already reeling from the effects of climate change.
Erratic weather patterns and intensifying cycles of drought and rain have taken a heavy toll on subsistence farmers like Okwara, who have no alternate food supply when it rains too much or too little and crops fail. The fall armyworm comes at a time when farmers throughout rural Africa are grappling with rising food insecurity because of climatic changes.
Climate change may also be a factor in the fall armyworm’s rapid spread across the continent. Wilson says that while it’s too early to know for sure about the new pest, 50 plus years of data on the native African armyworm show that the population explodes after periods of drought. He thinks it’s possible that the intensifying droughts brought on by climate change may favor both varieties of armyworm.
In South America, where the fall armyworm has plagued crops for decades, farmers have used a combination of genetically modified crops and pesticides to keep it mostly in check. But this is an expensive and ecologically damaging approach that Wilson does not think is viable for the majority of farmers in Africa. For one thing, he says, “we know that resistance is developing already both to GM crops and pesticides.”
Wilson specializes in biological pesticides, which are developed from bacteria, baculoviruses, and fungi that naturally prey on pests. He has already identified a virus that kills the African armyworm, but to his frustration it doesn’t kill the fall armyworm. Wilson is currently testing a range of biopesticides to see if there are any commercially available products that could work as a short term alternative to the chemical pesticides that African governments are relying on to address infestations.
As for the long term? Wilson points to parts of Central America, where the fall armyworm hasn’t been as big of a problem. “Farmers there say that it’s because they’ve got good integrated pest management practices. They fertilize the soil with organic fertilizer, they painstakingly search their crops for eggs, they’ve got mixed vegetation, like flowering plants that help to foster natural enemies.”
Such an effort will take time and significant outside investment. Fortunately, Wilson thinks countries outside of Africa are taking the threat seriously. It’s only a matter of time, he says, before the fall armyworm makes its way to Yemen and southern Europe. “For Europe and Asia, there should be an element of self-interest. It’s a global problem. It’s going to be everywhere.”
In hyper-fertile Central Illinois, sustainable farmers seek local support, but end up trekking their wares to Chicago.
BY LYNN FREEHILL-MAYE | Agroecology, Local Eats, Young Farmers Unite
When Wes Jarrell and Leslie Cooperband took jobs as soil scientists at the University of Illinois 13 years ago, they bought a farmhouse outside Champaign-Urbana, and set off on a bike ride. The glacier-smoothed land was flat as paper, so pedaling was a breeze. The corn and soybean fields seemed to stretch into eternity. But something felt off: in a 10-mile ride past dozens of farms, they spotted just one vegetable garden.
“It was kind of shocking, “Jarrell remembered. “All these farms with the best soils in the world and a great climate—and one garden.”
Soon after that eye-opening bicycle ride in 2004, the newcomer couple established Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery, the state’s first licensed Grade-A goat dairy and farmstead creamery, featuring a small orchard and a herd of milking goats.
Jarrell and Cooperband are among the more than 200 new, sustainable farmers who have recently established operations on the fertile farmland of Central Illinois, 100 miles and more south of Chicago.
Wes Jarrell. (Photo courtesy Prairie Fruits Farm.)
In the Corn Belt region—otherwise dominated by expansive industrial corn and soy operations—these small farms represent anomalies, producing everything from peppers to chicken using sustainable methods like integrating livestock and crops. Yet despite their commitment to growing food sustainably for their communities, many of these small enterprises find themselves facing a significant challenge: the local community does not embrace their product fully enough to keep them in business, forcing them to make faraway sales in Chicago.
It’s a problem faced by food producers targeting their local markets around the country; at the same time, a number of organizations and strategies are cropping up to build local support for local food.
The Land Connection, a Champaign-based nonprofit that advocates for sustainable farming in Central Illinois, continually struggles to drum up more residents’ interest in homegrown food, according to Birgit McCall, the organization’s interim executive director. When McCall, a Michigan native, came to the area 13 years ago, she was startled by the limited demand she saw for local meat, dairy, and produce.
“Nationwide, people are starting to realize that fresh, local food is important and good for you,” she says. “Here, I drive home through the cornfields and there’s thousands of acres of food that’s primarily fed to livestock. The vast majority of farm ground here is not feeding local people, and we would like to increase the percentage of farm ground that’s used to feed local people.”
While Prairie Fruits farm has since supported Jarrell and Cooperband they too encountered a limited appetite for local food. Their first year, they had success selling at the Urbana farmers’ market, said Cooperband, but by the second year, they realized they needed to expand their customer base.
“Once you saturate the tiny portion of the population that cares [about local sourcing], you’re sunk,” Jarrell said last March, while taking a break from birthing kids. “We realized if we were going to be profitable, Chicago had to be part of the equation.”
And so the couple headed north to the Green City Market, the largest and first year-round sustainable farmers’ market in Chicago. A weekly routine began: a 280-mile roundtrip journey, made in a 14-hour day that started at 3:30 a.m. and cost $300 for gas and expenses. They quickly found the trek worthwhile—star Chef Rick Bayless became a customer, and they could gross $1,500 per trip. But the journey was exhausting.
The next day is “unprofitable,” Jarrell said diplomatically. “It’s hell,” Cooperband added.
Stoking Local Demand
Some small, sustainable farmers in Central Illinois have encountered downright hostility toward the work they’re doing. Cara Cummings, the former executive director at the Land Connection, explained how one resident got in her face to argue that the land is meant to grow corn for ethanol, animal feed, or corn syrup. She took it to mean the that flatness of Midwestern farmland allowed hundreds of acres can support the same crop—unlike in hillier places like Vermont or Wisconsin—and the land should be used accordingly.
Photo courtesy of PrairiErth.
Still, the Land Connection has continued to promote community-based food systems by offering education for beginning farmers and finding ways to build the market.
Two hundred people have gone through Land Connection training in the past 12 years, and the organization launched a new farmers’ market in downtown Champaign two years ago. Because neighboring Urbana has a more established weekend market, the Tuesday-evening event aims to give beginning farmers a start.
There is an ongoing discussion about why more customers haven’t turned out at the market and beyond hasn’t been stronger. Is it because of meal-delivery services like Blue Apron? The new “vegetable butchers” at Whole Foods? Supermarket greenwashing?
Based on the idea that people will buy more local food if it’s convenient, the Land Connection has encouraged farmers to consider things like greater social-media presence, delivery services, online ordering, and community-supported agriculture (CSA) shares that include multiple farms.
Selling to Chicago
For many of the next-generation farmers, selling to the people of Chicago feels compulsory. That usually means going it alone, since farmers’ market rules often prohibit working together—individual producers can sell only what they’ve grown.
Farmers in the area take a number of different approaches to make the trek less demanding. On PrairiErth Farm, a 350-acre spread near Lincoln, Katie and Hans Bishop raise a diverse array of food and animals. Bright-faced thirty-somethings, the Bishops do everything the Land Connection recommends. They’re social-media leaders, maintain an in-demand CSA program, and are experimenting with delivery service and cooking classes. They make about one-eighth of their income by selling to Chicago, Katie estimates.
Katie and Hans Bishop of PrairiErth Farm.
Because of the farm’s size, PrairiErth can work with a wholesaler to avoid the long haul. “I’ll take a little less money for not having to go up there myself,” Katie says.
Slagel Family Farm, an 800-acre farm outside Fairbury, takes a different approach. Realizing in his early 20s that a market existed for pastured, more naturally raised meat like theirs, LouisJohn Slagel began connecting with city chefs in 2007. He now sends four trucks north each week, making deliveries to between 120 and 150 well-known restaurants, like The Publican and Girl & the Goat.
Delivery days are grueling, requiring a 5 a.m. wakeup to start loading trucks and an 11 p.m. return back home. But the siblings, and occasionally employees, rotate in and out to spread the burden. “It’d be a lot harder to do what we do without a lot of family help,” Slagel said.
While the Slagels sell some locally, they make more on drives to Chicago due to the price-consciousness they encounter downstate. “We’re raising it differently, and we’re going to charge a premium,” he said. “If we weren’t charging a premium, we wouldn’t be able to do it the way we are.”
LouisJohn Slagel leading a butchering demo at the Slagel Family Farm dinner and farm tour. (Photo courtesy of Slagel Family Farm.)
At the Land Connection, McCall—who took over from Cummings this summer—hopes she can figure out the keys to expanding local demand. The organization will keep pushing sustainable farmers to sell at their downstate Tuesday farmers’ market, offering farmers trainings in marketing and outreach, and many other efforts.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” McCall says. “This is the fourth year of our market, and the numbers are way up over last year. We’re helping to build awareness that, hey, this is grown locally, this is good for you.”
Whatever might limit or expand Central Illinoisans’ appetites for the homegrown, for now the massive market of Chicago—through its farmers’ markets, wholesaling, or restaurants—figures heavily into sales calculations for many Central Illinois sustainable farmers.
“Building a local market is a great thing, and if the Land Connection can figure out how to do that, wonderful,” said Jarrell of Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery. “But until that happens, we either go out of business or we go to Chicago.”
Top photo: Hans Bishop driving a tractor on PrairiErth Farm. (Photo courtesy of PrairiErth.)
The last taste of honey you enjoyed likely came from bees exposes to neonicotinoids, the world’s most widely used class of insecticides.
That’s the takeaway from a paper, published last week in the journal Science, by a team of Swiss researchers. They found traces of the bug-killing chemicals in 75 percent of honey samples drawn from around the world—and 86 percent of the samples from North America.
For human honey eaters, there’s probably nothing to worry about. The authors report that in all of the tested samples, the levels found were “below the admissible limits for human consumption according to current EU and U.S. regulations.” (They note, however, that while neonics are generally considered relatively benign to humans, there has actually been very little peer-reviewed research on the topic. This recent analysis from George Washington University professors underscores that point.
But for honeybees—which for about a decade have been suffering steep annual winter and (more recently) summer die-offs—the new findings are troubling, full stop. The Swiss team points to a burgeoning body of research showing that even at tiny doses, neonics burden bees with “growth disorders, reduced efficiency of the immune system, neurological and cognitive disorders, [impaired] respiratory and reproductive function, queen survival, foraging efficiency, and homing capacity.”
The Swiss team notes that the chemicals turned up in honey at an average concentration level of 1.8 nanograms per gram; and that ill effects from exposure to them have been documented at levels as low as 0.1 nanograms per gram. Nearly half of all the honey samples they tested carried neonics at that concentration or higher.
Neonics are produced primarily by the Swiss/Chinese agrichemical titan Syngenta and its German rival Bayer, which is currently in the process of merging with Monsanto. The companies vigorously deny that their blockbuster insect-killers do any harm to bees and other pollinators, but research to the contrary is piling up.
In its June 30, 2017, issue, Science published two papers that, it concluded, “confirm that neonicotinoids negatively affect pollinator health under realistic agricultural conditions. In one, a Canadian team found that bee hives near neonic-treated corn fields showed “increased worker mortality and were associated with declines in social immunity and increased queenlessness over time”—and fared even worse when they those corn fields were also sprayed with a commonly used fungicide. In the other, a UK team documented health declines in both honeybees and wild bees near treated fields in three countries.
And in a May 2017 paper published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, a team of researchers led by Purdue University entomologist Christian Krupke found that in the corn-heavy state of Indiana, 94 percent of the state’s honeybees are exposed to neonics during the corn-planting season. They also found that corn treated with neonics did not grow any faster or deliver higher yields than untreated corn—meaning that the damage to honeybees was not offset by any advantage to corn farmers.
That finding echoes a 2014 conclusion by the Environmental Protection Agency about soybeans. The EPA has since removed the paper from its website, but I quoted its conclusion at the time: “There are no clear or consistent economic benefits [to farmers] of neonicotinoid seed treatments in soybeans.”
Yet as the new Science paper on honey shows, neonics are ubiquitous in the environment on a global scale. The authors note that honey bees are “distinctive sentinels of environment quality,” because they gather nectar and pollen from as far away as 12.5 kilometers (7.7 miles) from their hives. What shows up in their honey is a “measure of the contamination in the surrounding landscape”—and this neonic news is anything but sweet, given that the chemical are suspected of harming not just honey bees, but also wild bees, birds, and aquatic insects.
Drainage districts, one of the lowest tiers of Iowa government, could play a big role in addressing nitrate pollution that threatens water quality, according to a new report from an Iowa think tank.
Drainage districts “probably have the power and the obligation” to address nitrate pollution, according to David Osterberg, co-founder of the Iowa City-based Iowa Policy Project and its lead staff researcher on energy and environment.
Historically, drainage districts have not been held accountable for ag-sourced nitrate pollution, according to a paper by Osterberg and colleagues Sarah Garvin, an IPP research associate, and Michael Burkart, a 34-year career researcher with the USDA before joining the Iowa State University faculty.
Although earlier this year the Iowa Supreme Court dismissed the Des Moines Waterworks case against three northwest Iowa county boards of supervisors for nitrate contamination in the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers, the researchers suggested that should not prevent drainage districts and county supervisors from taking action.
“If we’re going to start somewhere, we might as well start somewhere where we have the infrastructure in place to do something about it,” Garvin said. “It’s necessary. We’re past the tipping point.”
About two-thirds of Iowa land is used for row-crop agriculture, primarily corn and soybeans. Much of that land is heavily tiled for drainage to remove excess water.
Osterberg believes drainage district managers “have the power and the obligation” to take action on their own. Existing statutory authority gives drainage districts the power to level fees and to use eminent domain, powers that could be used to clean up Iowa waters and the Mississippi River.
If they don’t, Garvin said, they could be vulnerable to legal action.
“Just because this last case failed, it still leaves the door open for another group or another entity to come and approach it from another direction,” she said.
Referring to drainage pipes emptying into open ditches that run into streams, rivers and lakes, Osterberg said if those pipes “were any other entity doing any other kind of business, they would be regulated.”
Burkart argued the convergence of low commodity prices, an emerging plant breeding and seeding industry and the “perennialization” of commodity crops makes the timing right for new approaches by drainage districts.
One of the causes of nitrate pollution is that seasonal crops such as corn and beans go dormant in the winter. The use of perennial cover crops that would continue to draw water and nitrates out of the ground year-round would help alleviate the problem, Burkart said.
TRUJILLO ALTO, Puerto Rico (Reuters) - In the lowlands of Trujillo Alto, a sprawling suburb of San Juan, clean water once again flows in the homes of most residents. But in the mountainous part of the city, which is largely poor and semi-rural, finding clean water remains a daily struggle.
Across Puerto Rico, officials say, altitude matters. While workers are making steady progress restoring power and running water to coastal regions, where the territory’s largest cities are located, the mountainous regions at the island’s center are proving challenging.
“Are people in the mountains in a worse situation than urban people? Of course,“ said Puerto Rico’s minister of public policy, Ramon Rosario, “because they are more distant from the power generators on the coasts.” Without electricity, he noted, the pumps that carry water up into the mountains can’t operate or must rely on generators.
A mix of Puerto Ricans live in the “Cordillera Central,” or central range of Puerto Rico, which is far more sparsely populated than coastal regions. Many residents are poor, living in rural, agrarian-based communities. But the region also has wealthy residents seeking the cooler temperatures and beauty of the cordillera.
In Trujillo Alto, a community of 85,000 that sits partly on flat land but also extends into the mountains, hurricane recovery varies sharply by altitude.
Lydia Perez Molina, 72, still relies on government-provided food and water in her mountain-top home, where she weathered hours of howling winds and hammer-blow rains during the Sept. 20 storm.
“Water came in through the window and the wind was like a monster,” Perez Molina said.
Now, she said, tears welling up in her eyes, her son spends his time “searching and struggling to bring us what we need. He’s standing in line for water at one place and for food at another.”
On Monday, Lourdes Zayas, president of the Trujillo Alto town council, gathered with dozens of other volunteers in the municipality’s basketball gym to put together care packages of rice, beans, milk and other basic foods that are trucked out several times a day to hard-hit parts of town.
“We can keep supplying food and drinking water as long as we need to,” Zayas said. “As for the electricity, who knows.”
Trujillo Alto Mayor Jose Luis Cruz said 70 percent of the richer, low-lying parts of town now have steady supplies of water, but there is no electricity to pump water up to the poorer parts of the municipality.
Moving heavy trucks and machinery into mountain areas to clear hazards and restore electrical lines is proving difficult, too, said a civilian employee of the Army Corps of Engineers, who was deployed to Puerto Rico to work on restoring the electrical grid.
He said he was sent to Florida after Hurricane Irma to work on restoring power, but that the two situations were starkly different.
“Irma was a repair job,” he said, asking that his name not be used as he was not authorized to speak to the press. “This is a rebuild.”
For many people, a toasted bagel topped with honey might sound like a healthy breakfast choice. Others might prefer a bowl of oatmeal or cornflakes or a hot plate of scrambled eggs. Few would likely welcome a dose of weed killer that has been linked to cancer in their morning meal.
Yet that is exactly what private laboratory tests in the United States started showing with alarming frequency in 2014: residues of the world’s most widely used herbicide were making their way into American meals.
Testing since then, by both private and public researchers, has shown glyphosate residues not only in bagels, honey, and oatmeal but also in a wide array of products that commonly line grocery store shelves, including flour, eggs, cookies, cereal and cereal bars, soy sauce, beer, and infant formula.
Indeed, glyphosate residues are so pervasive that they’ve been found in human urine. Livestock are also consuming these residues in grains used to make their feed, including corn, soy, alfalfa and wheat.
The United States allows among the highest levels of glyphosate residues, which critics say underscores the level of influence Monsanto has with regulators.
Glyphosate residues have been detected in bread samples in the United Kingdom for years, as well as in shipments of wheat leaving the United States for overseas markets. “Americans are consuming glyphosate in common foods on a daily basis,” the Alliance for Natural Health said in its April 2016 report, which revealed glyphosate residues detected in eggs and coffee creamer, bagels and oatmeal.
In North Dakota, an agronomist at the state university, Joel Ransom, became so curious about glyphosate residue that in 2014 he ran his own tests on flour samples from the region. North Dakota grows much of America’s hard red spring wheat, a type that is considered the aristocrat of wheat and carries the highest protein content of all classes of American wheat.
It is used to make some of the world’s finest yeast breads, hard rolls, and bagels. But growing the wheat and bringing a healthy crop to harvest is not always easy in a state known for cold and damp conditions. To make harvesting the crop easier, many North Dakota farmers spray their wheat crops directly with glyphosate to help dry the plants a week or so before they roll out their combines. The practice is also common in Saskatchewan, across the border in Canada. So when
Ransom ran his tests on flour samples from the area, including flour from Canada, he expected to find some samples with glyphosate. He certainly did not expect all of them to have glyphosate residues. But they did.
Since at least the 1960s, world food and health experts have sought to gauge how much of a pesticide can be ingested on a daily basis—an “acceptable daily intake” (ADI)—over a lifetime without any noteworthy health risk.
The United States allows among the highest levels of glyphosate residues, which critics say underscores the level of influence Monsanto has with regulators. The EPA even has gone so far as to say that safety margins called for by law to protect children from pesticide exposures could be reduced when it comes to glyphosate.
The Food Quality Protection Act calls for the EPA to use an extra tenfold (10X) safety factor when assessing exposure risk and establishing allowable levels for pesticide residues in food, unless the EPA determines the extra margin is not necessary to protect infants and young children because the substance in question is so safe. That’s exactly what the regulatory agency decided with glyphosate, saying it had adequate data to show that the extra margin of safety for glyphosate could be eliminated.12
Even with the EPA’s generous allowances for glyphosate residues, many of the various individuals and organizations doing their own testing have found levels that exceed the tolerances, though many tests do show residues falling within the allowed thresholds.
Still, critics say even residues that the EPA says are at safe levels may in fact be harmful to human health when consumed meal after meal, day after day. They believe that the EPA’s analysis is outdated and not sufficient to protect people from the pervasiveness of many pesticides, such as glyphosate, that are often combined in food.
The private and nonprofit attempts to test foods for glyphosate residues were well under way when the World Health Organization’s cancer experts made their March 2015 decision to classify glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen. But testing efforts doubled after that, in large part because WHO’s decision didn’t stand alone; rather, it added to warnings that many scientists had been making for years.
It’s not just glyphosate residues that people worry about, of course. Fears about a range of chemical residues in food have been growing in recent years. Pesticide residues can be found in everything from mushrooms to potatoes and grapes to green beans.
One sample of strawberries examined by the USDA in an annual testing program found residues of twenty pesticides in the berries. In fact, roughly 85 percent of more than 10,000 food samples tested by the USDA in 2015 carried pesticide residues.
Most of those foods were fruits and vegetables, both fresh and processed—foods consumers generally consider healthy. Residue levels higher than what the government allows have been found in spinach, strawberries, grapes, green beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, and watermelon.
Even residues of chemicals long banned in the United States were found as recently as 2015, including residues of DDT or its metabolites found in spinach and potatoes. U.S. regulators have also reported finding illegally high levels of the neonicotinoid insecticide thiamethoxam in rice.
The USDA asserts that all these pesticide residues are nothing for people to worry about. The agency states that “residues found in agricultural products sampled are at levels that do not pose risk to consumers’ health and are safe.” But many scientists say there is little to no data to back up that claim. The animal studies the regulators rely on to set the allowable pesticide levels are typically conducted by, or on behalf of, the pesticide companies and look only at the effects of one pesticide at a time.
Regulators do not have sufficient research regarding how consuming residues of multiple types of pesticides affects us over the long term, and government assurances of safety are simply false, say the skeptical scientists.
“We don’t know if you eat an apple that has multiple residues every day what will be the consequences twenty years down the road,” said Chensheng Lu, associate professor of environmental exposure biology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “They want to assure everybody that this is safe, but the science is quite inadequate. This is a big issue.”
Fall is always a good time to create new habits, and coffee chains know it.
These days, they are desperately trying to find any excuse to get you to drink their java.
Many chains used National or International Coffee Day, just passed, as a reason to offer their coffee at a discount, or even for free — with some conditions, of course.
For restaurant operators, there’s no better hook than coffee to get repeat business. It’s a great scheme that seems to be working for some. Given what’s looming on the horizon, however, offering free coffee may no longer be an option for businesses.
Coffee demand around the world is shifting. Europe still accounts for almost one third of the coffee consumed worldwide, but China has doubled its consumption in just the last five years.
As for Canada, numbers remain robust as more than 90 per cent of adult Canadians drink coffee. Several recent studies suggest coffee is a healthy choice, possibly one factor in the rise in coffee drinkers.
Either way, demand is strong in most Western countries, which puts more pressure on coffee-producing countries. However, as climate change looms, there’s a real threat to coffee’s global success story.
Coffee grown in more than 60 countries
Coffee is the most traded commodity in the world after oil.
Coffee beans are grown in more than 60 countries and allow 25 million families worldwide to make a living. Brazil is by far the largest producer, followed by Vietnam and Colombia.
Globally, 2017 could be a record year, as the world will likely produce well over 153 million 60-kilogram bags of coffee. Coffee futures are down as a result, but we are far from seeing a bumper crop.
Production has been modestly shifting over the past few years. With good rainfalls in Brazil and favourable weather patterns in other regions of the world, Mother Nature has so far spared coffee growers, but their luck may be running out.
Despite not being a staple in any diet, coffee is big business. At the farm gate, coffee is worth over US$100 billion. In the retail sector, the coffee industry is worth US$10 billion.
But there is growing consensus among experts that climate change will severely affect coffee crops over the next 80 years. By 2100, more than 50 per cent of the land used to grow coffee will no longer be arable.
Ethiopia could be profoundly affected
A combination of effects, resulting from higher temperatures and shifting rainfall patterns, will make the land where coffee is currently grown unsuitable for its production.
According to the National Academy of Science, in Latin America alone, more than 90 per cent of the land used for coffee production could suffer this fate. It’s estimated that Ethiopia, the sixth largest producer in the world, could lose over 60 per cent of its production by 2050. That’s only a generation from now.
As climate conditions become critical, the livelihoods of millions of farmers are at risk and production capacity is jeopardized. Other potential contributors to this predicted downfall are pests and diseases.
With climate change, pest management and disease control are serious issues for farmers who cannot afford to protect their crops. More than 80 per cent of coffee growers are peasant farmers.
Pests and diseases will migrate to regions where temperatures are adequate for survival, and most farmers won’t be ready. Many will simply choose to grow other crops less vulnerable to climate change. Others may attempt to increase their coffee production, but the quality will almost certainly be compromised.
Coffee quality will suffer
Higher temperatures will affect the quality of coffee. Higher-quality coffee is grown in specific regions of the world where the climate allows the beans to ripen at just the right time. Arabica coffee, for example, which represents 75 per cent of world coffee production, is always just a few degrees away from becoming a sub-par product.
This will undoubtedly affect coffee prices and quality for us all. Thanks to the so-called Starbucks Effect, the quality of the coffee we now enjoy is far superior to that of just a decade ago. Good beans may become more difficult to procure in the future.
Right now, coffee futures are valued at US$1.28 per pound and are being exposed to downward pressures. At this rate, the record price of US$3.39 per pound, set in 1977, could return in just a few years.
The coffee wars we are seeing are not just about gaining market shares and getting consumers hooked on java. They are also about how we connect with a crop that is under siege by climate change.
Short of fighting climate change, we could be forced to alter our relationship with coffee. As current coffee-producing countries attempt to develop eco-friendly methods and embrace sustainable practices, Canada could be the next country where coffee is actually grown, not just roasted.
Within the next decade, with climate change and new technologies, perhaps producing coffee beans will be feasible in Canada. After all, if Elon Musk thinks we can start colonizing Mars by 2022, why can’t we grow coffee in Canada?
So if a coffee chain is offering free coffee, take it. It won’t be long before coffee could become a luxury.
Professor in Food Distribution and Policy, Dalhousie University
By Josephine Marcotty Star Tribune OCTOBER 9, 2017 — 10:24PM
BRIAN PETERSON, STAR TRIBUNE
Livestock graze along the Chanarambie Creek in the city limits of Edgerton, Minn.
When Marla Waseka converted the gracious Franciscan nunnery northwest of St. Cloud to a boutique lakeside resort and retreat in 2008, the nitrate levels in her well were low. A few years later they were so high she had to warn her guests not to drink the water. And when authorities warned they’d shut her down if it weren’t fixed, she spent $12,000 to drill a deeper well for clean water.
Now Minnesota is poised to roll out its first-ever strategy to protect drinking water from the farm fertilizers that carry nitrates — one of Minnesota’s worst pollution problems. What makes Waseka angry is that it won’t do nearly enough to clean up the water.
“This should be a much higher priority,” said Waseka, who has followed the state’s proposed plan since her well problem. “Incurring a cost is one thing. Not being able to continue in business is another.”
And though they have expressed support for the strategy in carefully couched comment letters, Minnesota’s top environmental officials agree with her. They say the state’s long-awaited nitrogen fertilizer management rule will place farmers’ yields above groundwater protection — and continue to put drinking water at risk.
“The unfortunate part is that it’s impossible to raise crops without an impact on groundwater,” said Randy Ellingboe, head of the Health Department’s drinking water section.
The contradiction between supporting farmers and protecting water may be inevitable in a state where agriculture contributes $19 billion annually to the economy. Every year, farmers plant 16 million acres with corn and soybeans, using close to 800,000 tons of fertilizer.
State officials acknowledge that some of it is still going to leach into water even if farmers follow the Agriculture Department’s new rules and all the best guidance to prevent it.
Bruce Montgomery, the scientist who helped develop the department’s new strategy, said the proposed rule will generate a shared responsibility for water quality, through the creation of local agricultural committees that will educate farmers on best ways to reduce the impact of nitrogen.
For the first time, Montgomery noted, the state will have authority to step in with the few farmers who don’t adopt them voluntarily. But, he said, the state doesn’t have legal authority to dictate what landowners grow — an interpretation of state law that some legislators and environmental groups may challenge.
What’s clear, said Ellingboe, is that the costs of keeping drinking water safe will “continue to be borne by others.”
2,000 tainted wells
In the last decade, nitrate contamination in drinking water has emerged as one of Minnesota’s most vexing water pollution problems. Above 10 parts per million — the maximum allowed by state and federal health standards — nitrates present a risk to pregnant women and infants. Babies who drink water or formula made with contaminated water can develop a condition known as blue baby syndrome, which reduces the oxygen supply in their blood. Some research also suggests a link to increased risks of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in adults.
In 2014, the Health Department reported that 729 municipal well systems had excessive nitrate levels, a number that has continued to grow. Multiple cities, from Hastings to Perham, Minn., have had to install costly water-treatment technologies, at cost of about $3,500 per household.
An Agriculture Department survey of 20,000 private wells found that one in 10 are at or above the legal limit for nitrates, primarily in southeastern and central Minnesota.
Homeowners can choose whether to do something about elevated nitrate levels in their own wells. But cities, nursing homes, churches and businesses like Waseka’s Olive Branch Retreat in Grey Eagle are required to address it.
One reason nitrate rates are rising, even though farmers now use far less per acre than they once did, is that global markets drove up the amount of Minnesota farmland devoted to corn and soybeans. As a result, fertilizer sales have continued to climb.
But those economics mean “we are growing a system that is not sustainable environmentally,” said Gyles Randall, a retired soil scientist at the University of Minnesota who analyzed the new rules for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, which has questioned their effectiveness.
He said the new strategy will help: It presses farmers to use less nitrogen and apply it at the right time. Even so, he added, the minimum amount of fertilizer to maximize a farmer’s yield is more than enough to contaminate Minnesota’s water.
Anchored in the state’s 1989 Groundwater Protection Act, the rule is Minnesota’s first effort to regulate farmers’ use of fertilizer. It’s expected to be complete in late 2018, after another public comment period.
Even so, it has generated fierce debate across the state.
In hundreds of comments submitted to the Agriculture Department after 17 community meetings this year, many farmers vehemently objected to a proposed ban on fertilizer applications in the fall and on frozen soils. Research has shown that much of the fertilizer ends up in the water under such conditions, and it is the least beneficial to corn.
“One rule does not fit all,” wrote Terry Eidem of Felton, echoing a common refrain. He grows sugar beets, he said, and he can’t do all his applications in the spring.
Some even said that in high nitrate areas, they might be forced out of business. “If the karst area of southeast Minnesota is going to be forcefully returned to acres and acres of cow pasture, I want to sell … before the general public knows what economic destruction is going to occur,” said Todd Stockdale of Le Roy.
Kirby Hettver, president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, said farmers are grudgingly coming to accept the prospect of a rule, and that it will drive them to better manage nitrogen.
“We want to reduce the environmental impact — and remain sustainable from a yield and profitability standpoint,” Hettver said.
Environmental groups, however, say the rule fails in its primary mission. It doesn’t even kick in until local wells show rising nitrate levels, they note, and by then it’s too late.
Officials from other state agencies and some legislators also note that the rule fails to address areas like Dakota County, where drinking water is already contaminated and the majority of farmers already use fertilizer best practices.
Officials from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency said even the best fertilizer management doesn’t always achieve the drinking water standard. They’re pressing for more aggressive measures in high-nitrate areas, such as requiring farmers to idle some land or plant cover crops that hold nitrogen on the land.
Ultimately, said Randall and others, protecting Minnesota’s water might require a more diversified agricultural landscape — one that includes more grains, grass and cattle.
But Montgomery said that’s out of the state’s hands.
“Corn and soybeans is not going to go away,” he said.
Montgomery said he’s confident the strategy will work because it taps the willingness and ability of farmers and local communities to solve the problem together. Their ingenuity, combined with new technologies, will provide solutions — but it might take a generation to see results, he said.
“It’s a huge problem, and you wonder if there is hope,” he said. “But then you see what growers are doing.”
As soybean and cotton farmers across the Midwest and South continue to see their crops ravaged from the weed killer dicamba, new complaints have pointed to the herbicide as a factor in widespread damage to oak trees.
Monsanto and BASF, two of agriculture’s largest seed and pesticide providers, released versions of the dicamba this growing season. The new versions came several months after Monsanto released its latest cotton and soybean seeds genetically engineered to resist dicamba in 2016.
Since then, farmers across the Midwest and South have blamed drift from dicamba for ruining millions of acres of soybeans and cotton produced by older versions of seeds.
Now, complaints have emerged that the misuse of dicamba may be responsible for damage to oak trees in Iowa, Illinois and Tennessee.
In Iowa, the Department of Natural Resources has received more than 1,000 complaints about oak tree damage from unknown pesticides, some of which cited dicamba as a cause.
In Illinois, retired biologist Lou Nelms who was a researcher at the University of Illinois, has documented damage to oak trees across the state from dicamba and filed numerous complaints with Illinois Department of Agriculture.
In Tennessee, the Department of Agriculture investigated and confirmed complaints that dicamba had damaged oak trees at the state’s largest natural lake.
“I’ve seen (pre-planting damage) year after year after year,” Nelms said of dicamba’s effect. “I’ve been seeing these signs for 40 years. To me, it’s just obvious.”
When reached for comment, Monsanto spokeswoman Charla Lord requested more time to respond.
But Monsanto officials have said publicly that crop damage is caused by misapplication of dicamba or the sale of the herbicide under other labels.
BASF spokeswoman Odessa Hines said the company is aware of issues with oak trees and encourages growers to contact the company with any concerns.
“We don’t believe volatility is a driving factor based on past research and experience. For Engenia herbicide to receive registration from federal and state authorities, including authorities in Illinois, we conducted and submitted results from a wide range of studies needed to fulfill regulatory requirements,” Hines said.
Lobbyist corresponds with state officials
But, in the cases of oak tree damage, internal Monsanto emails indicate that the company has tried to shift blame away from dicamba to other pesticides.
The emails were written by company lobbyists who shared them with the Illinois agriculture department. The emails were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Damage rises as weeds become resistant to Roundup
An increasing number of weeds have become resistant to glyphosate, the most widely used weed killer in agricultural production commonly known as Roundup.
In response, farmers are augmenting Roundup with other weed killers, like dicamba and 2,4-D.Both are becoming more commonly used to kill weeds before crops are planted, when trees are most susceptible to damage.
Lou Nelms, a biologist who formerly worked as a research assistant at the University of Illinois and operated a prairie seed nursery, has gone across Illinois tracking much of this damage and filing complaints with the Illinois agriculture department.
He filed his first complaint in May about damage at his home in Mason County.
Nelms filed more complaints in August about damage at the Sandra Miller Bellrose Nature Preserve, an area officially recognized by the Illinois Natural Preserve Commission, and at the 412.7 acre Revis Hill Prairie, an official state natural area.
The Monsanto correspondence followed Nelms filing complaints with the department.
Nelms filed one of his complaints on the morning of August 16, with the agriculture department about dicamba damage to oak trees at the state nature preserve Funk’s Grove.
Funk’s Grove, about 10 miles south of Bloomington, Illinois, is one of just 654 undisturbed natural areas in the state of Illinois. The 25-acre forest is famed for its sugar maples and the syrup they produce. The nature preserve, a popular destination along the famed Route 66, is also home to oak trees hundreds of years old.
But this year, the leaves on the historic oak trees “cupped” and died, exhibiting clear signs of harm from either 2,4-D or dicamba, which is the most widely used weed killer of this type, Nelms said.
Darrell Hoemann/Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting
Oak trees with cupped leaves, a sign of damage from drifting pesticides like dicamba.
Just one hour later after Nelms’ August 16 complaint, Jeff Williams, a Monsanto lobbyist based in Springfield, Illinois, sent an email to Dave Tierney, the regional director governmental affairs in Des Moines, Iowa.
In the email, Williams wrote he had talked with Warren Goetsch, deputy director of the Illinois Department of Agriculture, and Wayne Rosenthal, the director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources the night before.
Williams wrote that they told him that Illinois was starting to receive complaints about oak trees being damaged by herbicides.
Later in the day, Tierney sent an article written by Iowa State professor Robert Hartzler, writing,“Here is a good piece that really quieted the situation here in Iowa. Ironically I just talked to the head of Iowa DNR about it again today.”
Hartzler’s published his article in June as a response to media reports of about 1,000 complaints in Iowa about oak tatters, another condition where oak leaf tissue disappears along the veins. The condition, present in oak trees since the 1980s, has been linked to another Monsanto weed killer called acetochlor getting absorbed in the atmosphere and falling as rain on oak trees, according to University of Illinois research.
Hartzler wrote that the oak tatters damage was so much more severe than in past years, even though less acetochlor was being used. He said it was likely something else was causing the damage but did not mention dicamba.
Williams quickly forwarded the message to Goetsch and Rosenthal, writing, “Here you go gents … hope this helps.”
In an interview with the Midwest Center, Hartzler, a weed scientist, said his article was about oak tatters and not dicamba damage.
Hartzler also said the damage cited in Nelms’ complaints was likely caused by dicamba, or another herbicide, 2,4-D.
“That’s definitely dicamba or a related herbicide,” Hartzler said.
Hartzler said after his piece, Monsanto approached Iowa State forestry officials about potentially researching the cause, but Monsanto’s interested waned as dicamba damage spread.
Three months later, Hartzler said he still isn’t sure why the oak tatters were so widespread. He does not believe it is dicamba or acetochlor but he has no idea why it's so bad.
“I don't think we have any idea what the cause is and maybe it's acetochlor, but it just doesn’t make sense to me,” Hartzler said.
Betti Wiggins has been working to feed urban children—consistently, systematically, and healthfully—for going on 30 years. She’s credited most recently with turning around Detroit’s inefficient public school food program as director of the district’s office of school nutrition. About four month before Hurricane Harvey wrought unprecedented destruction on the Gulf Coast, Wiggins started a position as the Houston school district’s officer of nutrition services, where she planned to continue her decades-long mission.
Wiggins moved to Houston in April 2017 and was gearing up to serve the 218,000 children in the district’s 289 public schools when Harvey hit and introduced some unexpected challenges. With many school buildings damaged and flooded and others being used as emergency shelters, schools superintendent Richard Carranza delayed the opening of the hardest-hit schools, with some schools opening on September 11, and the rest opening in phases throughout the month.
As of September 21, most Houston schools had opened their doors. In the meantime, Wiggins said, “We have provided meals for teachers who are attending professional development, and for students who are on specially organized field trips. These meals allow people to handle the things that matter as opposed to worrying about where to go for lunch or what to send with their student.”
Wiggins is honored in the September/October issue of EatingWell magazine as a Food Hero for her work “addressing hunger to make a difference in kids’ lives.” In Detroit, Wiggins had introduced a free three-meal-a-day program and a garden-to-cafeteria initiative, abolished junk food, and began sourcing produce from local farms—all in the interest of serving more than 55,000 school-aged children, a whopping 87 percent of whom qualify for free-or-reduced-price meals. In Houston, in the aftermath of Harvey, she was optimistic she could get proposed programs in gear-eventually.
She took a break from her work to share her philosophy on nutrition, her path to her current position, and her plans for the future.
What do you think about being hailed as a “hero?”
I prefer the word servant, in that I work for these kids. It’s not heroic to simply fulfill my obligation to children; I’m just doing what you’re supposed to do if you’re committed to feeding to children and are interested in them as real live human beings.
Did you experience hunger yourself as a young person?
Absolutely not. I grew up on a farm in southern Michigan where we raised our own food. We were not big land barons, but we had a garden, pigs, chickens, and cash crops like corn and soybeans. But I got acquainted with hunger. I became aware of the Black Panthers pulling kids off the street and feeding them, which was the forerunner to the school breakfast program; [they knew that] a hungry child cannot learn. Studying nutrition [at Wayne State University in Detroit], we would do public health practicums, working with the elderly who had no Social Security and were eating Alpo [dog food]. So, I had an awareness of hunger. And I grew up with the idea that you help people.
How did you initially come to work in schools and with kids?
I had been working in the healthcare sector as a hospital food director, and I got disenchanted. So, I applied to be a sub in Detroit’s school lunch program, washing pots and pans, putting up stock, learning what school lunch is all about. Eventually, Marriott Corporation hired me to be a food service director. They taught me the business side of nutrition, customer relations, ethics—it was good training. Eventually, I left Marriott and went to Southeast Washington, D.C. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing in the school lunch program—food with worms in it. I thought children were being used for adult purposes, and I pissed a lot of people off to take care of children there.
When you returned to Detroit, to its school system, you implemented multiple, major changes in a relatively short period of time. How did you manage that?
Marriott taught me about forming coalitions to accomplish a goal; how do both of us get what we want? To create a school garden in a vacant lot, I said, “Who do my partners need to be?” I need a university if we’re going to do research and grant writing; I need an extension service if we’re going to learn to grow food; I need a healthcare provider if our emphasis is going to be on health; and I need a not-for- profit that’s already out in the field. I just sat down and started engaging the people I needed.
What benefits have you seen out in the field to feeding hungry children nutritious meals?
Detroit has a needy population, and those parents are grateful I cared about their kids. There’s a real trust between a parent and a school lunch lady. The first thing a parent says to a kid who’s getting off the bus, after you look at them and see if they’re intact, is, “Are you hungry?” Food and nourishment are the first ways we show caring for kids. I related to women so well because I’m a single mom myself and know how lucky it is that I made enough money. A lot of women [in Detroit] did not have the opportunities I had.
What will some of the challenges of Houston be for you?
Houston is so much like Detroit in so many ways—it has the same kinds of issues with lack of food inclusion—except it’s not plain broke. In Detroit, I started building that program by myself, creating gardens out of the back of my car with bricks I stole from abandoned houses. I didn’t have anybody in Detroit to partner with except foundations. Here in Houston, I’ve got Exxon and all these different resources.
I have four times the number of students here, but I also have four times the number of employees. Here there’s a staff with skills, eagerness, and readiness; Houston came for me and provided me with everything I need. I can sit down and talk about ideas and assign things to people. I have a food manufacturing facility, the largest for a school district in the country, and I’m going to make my own bread, cook my own entrees—I’m working on making a cereal bar. I’m trying now to put a garden program together. I’ve got a culinary staff to put good food on kids’ trays; they do not lack skills or desire here. We’re gonna get it done, as they say.
How are your proposed programs faring in the wake of Harvey?
Hurricane Harvey has certainly impacted our program. In addition to sustaining damage at our production facility, quite a few of our vendors sustained damage [as well]. This, in turn, prevented them from filling orders as planned. Our milk deliveries did not begin until [September 13] and produce is still limited. Other vendors are tackling the problem of product availability. While inconvenient, this is to be expected after a natural disaster of this scale. We’ve had to alter our menus and include substitutions for items we planned to receive.
Our first priority will always remain ensuring our kids have food that will fuel their learning. That won’t change. We remain committed to our mission of serving good food that is simple, wholesome and nutritious. We’ve been able to reach those goals by receiving a waiver from the Texas Department of Agriculture, which allowed us to [offer the meals for free].
Can other “lunch ladies” apply what you’ve done to their own districts?
What I’m doing is scalable. You just have to decide what you’re committed to. I might not come [personally] from a hungry-kid paradigm, but I come from the idea that we need to feed all equally, as a right.
The painkiller, taken by half of pregnant women worldwide, could be contributing to rising rates of reproductive system problems and neurodevelopmental disorders like ADHD and autism.
"If we look at the rate of carbon emissions, most is emitted by the developed and industrialized countries, but the problem is poor countries like Bangladesh are the main sufferers."
Working with youth writers on a climate-fiction screenplay has opened my eyes to the power of the arts in confronting environmental crises.