On the Environment
Tuesday, November 18, 2014
By Guest Author, Hillary Aidun, YLS '17
Last month I delivered a letter to California Governor Jerry Brown when he visited Yale Law School. Signed by twenty-two members of the Yale Environmental Law Association, the letter asks Governor Brown to place an indefinite moratorium on the use of unconventional oil extraction techniques such as fracking.
Governor Brown has made climate change a policy priority, but development of shale oil threatens to undermine his state’s progress. According to the California Air Resources Board, much of the state’s oil is more carbon intensive than the Alberta Tar Sands, one of the most climate-threatening reserves on the planet. Depending on whom you ask, we need to leave either two-thirds or 80% of proven fossil fuel reserves in the ground in order to restrict global temperature rise to two degrees Celsius. We should at least stop extraction of the most climate-disrupting energy sources, such as California oil.
Climate change threatens California in a number of ways, including by exacerbating drought. But unconventional extraction also contributes to drought in the immediate term by wasting at least two million gallons of water every day. Governor Brown has vowed to place water “front and center” as his state suffers from a drought so severe that cities are restricting residents’ water usage. He could save Californians enormous amounts of water by halting fracking and similar methods. These water-intensive drilling techniques are especially harmful because they permanently remove precious water from California’s supply; the chemicals employed and produced during fracking are so toxic that wastewater cannot be reused for other purposes.
Because fracking involves carcinogenic pollutants such as benzene and formaldehyde it poses enormous threats to human health and the environment through both air and water pollution. According to nationwide industry data, five percent of wells leak immediately, and more than half leak after 30 years. An investigation by the Associated Press has confirmed cases of water contamination in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Texas. In Los Angeles and Orange Counties, oil companies used 45 million pounds of air toxic materials for fracking and similar techniques between June 2013 and July 2014 alone. These toxins included crystalline silica, a known carcinogen, and hydrofluoric acid, which can cause severe damage to the eyes, skin and lungs. Californians have reported other health impacts in areas where fracking has been taking place for years.
Because fracking wastewater cannot be reused, operators dispose of it through underground injection. Federal seismologists have linked this practice to earthquakes. In the last five years Oklahoma has endured 2500 earthquakes, which scientistsblame on wastewater injection. More than half of California’s wastewater injection wells are within ten miles of a recently active fault line. Needless to say, California does not need to amplify its seismic risk.
Our letter—like fracking in California—focuses on oil, but it is important to note that most fracking in the United States takes place in pursuit of natural gas. Many consider natural gas a relatively harmless fossil fuel because it emits less carbon dioxide than coal when burned. But natural gas’s primary ingredient, methane, is up to 105 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Studies have found that methane leakage rates can be as high as 10% — meaning that in many cases natural gas is even worse for the climate than coal.
Pick your poison—fracking is extraordinarily dangerous for a number of reasons. That is why nearly 70% of Californians want a halt to all fracking, and communities around the state are moving forward to prohibit the practice or calling on the Governor to do the same. I hope that Governor Brown will take note of fracking’s threats, and lead the nation on this pivotal environmental and human health issue.
Wednesday, September 10, 2014
By Guest Author, Avana Andrade, Yale F&ES '15
Mother Latvia stands in the center of Latvia’s capital Riga and immediately evokes the people’s struggle for freedom from Russia, and alternating German and Soviet occupations. Liberty, a woman cast in copper, lifts up three stars representing different Latvian regions and her posture, head slightly bowed and both arms raised high, conveys a sense of sacrifice that Latvians still recall from a not-so-distant past. Having gained independence in 1991, the country now pursues its own desired and expected development.
The Latvian government has committed itself to sustainable development. In the words of former Minister for Environmental Protection and Regional Development of Latvia, His Excellency Edmunds Sprudzs, Latvia is dedicated to “environmentally sound, sustainable policy and growth.” However, the definition of what “sustainability” means to the Latvian national identity, and in the face of increasing Western European influence, is up for debate.
After decades of invasion and occupation, rural landscapes are dotted by derelict farms, some of which may appear to be more wild than agricultural after decades of abandonment. The country is marked by large and eerily untouched sanctuaries of land and coastline, which, thanks to historic Soviet dictates that prohibited any access (fishing, farming etc.), now harbor multiple endangered species. As a result, ideas about wild and rural landscapes and how each evokes Latvian national heritage are sources of contention among government officials, rural communities, and international and domestic non-governmental conservation organizations. At the center of these debates is what “Latvianness” is and how landscapes might be managed in that image.
During the 1990s, for example, the fight over sustainable forestry within Latvia was largely driven by the politics of conservation and national identity, namely the tension between two opposing views, “liberal internationalism” and “agrarian nationalism.” Conservative forestry officials defended the sustainability of their forestry practices against the reformists’ arguments (including those of timber companies) that government practices were ecologically harmful and far from “sustainable.” The reform coalition argued for decreased state intervention, and endeavored to facilitate private and foreign owned commercial forestry, thereby revealing a distinct vision for Latvian development. That is, the reformists foresaw a future defined by involvement in international markets, private enterprise, and civil society. Just as the government foresters envisioned their traditional role as protectors of the forest for the Latvian people, so too did the reformists’ liberal sustainable development agenda rely on the idea of a peasant’s deep respect for nature. Both reflected a national consciousness of the Latvian people derived from a relationship with the land. In several ways, therefore, contention over national identity as embedded in the landscape shaped the debate over how to manage natural resources.
Having studied the emergence of national parks in the United States, I wonder, in creating reserves and attracting Western European tourists to experience its wild and “untouched” nature, will the ecological integrity of Latvia’s sanctuaries be jeopardized? And to what extent will Latvian culture (given the multiple definitions of what this is) be commodified by government administrators or non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for international consumption?
To help guide development, NGOs often come to play key roles in coordinating community-based conservation projects. The role of the environmental NGO is complex, and one that I came to think critically on during my internship this summer at the Baltic Environmental Forum (BEF) in Hamburg Germany. The organization recently kicked off its multi-year VivaGrass project that will restore and maintain grasslands in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.
The grasslands themselves are a quickly vanishing, an extremely rich ecosystem that has co-evolved with human activity along the Baltic coast over hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. Ancient and modern grazing and farming practices have kept shrub and tree growth in check and allowed a staggering diversity of plant and animal species to flourish. In recent decades, however, the local farming communities that once maintained these grasslands were destroyed by Soviet farm collectivization and have remained debilitated under the infusion of food and goods from Western Europe.
Since the VivaGrass project kickoff meeting in May, I came to appreciate how intertwined the environmental conservation goal of the project is with rural development and how, even though BEF’s primary issue is grasslands, it is inevitably acting within a much larger context of history, national identity, and national politics. Latvian, Lithuanian, and Estonian professionals within BEF, in close coordination with rural farmers and local government administrators, are the leaders of the VivaGrass project. Regardless of the heritage of BEF’s team, though, VivaGrass will deal with more than monitoring grassland health.
As BEF’s VivaGrass project begins to create socially and ecologically “sustainable” grassland management models for its Baltic project sites, it is inevitably involved in political and cultural discourses of rural landscape conservation and development. In its early stages, the project will involve rural stakeholder engagement and grassland rehabilitation (shrub and tree removal). Over time, and in coordination with farmers and municipal leaders, the project will establish long-term maintenance schemes. Such maintenance in other grassland conservation projects around Europe has typically entailed purchasing sheep or cows and a fencing or transporting system. These project often hire shepherds to tend to the animals or enlist local farmers to perform the work. Local farmers ideally would be able to sell meat or milk products for profit to local markets or tourists. In some cases, the products from the animals are coupled with the sale of other locally produced goods.
In remaking select Baltic grasslands, VivaGrass also will be re-fashioning the rural landscape, which is both a cultural and agricultural act. Although local stakeholders may not explicitly state the narratives embedded in the landscape, “liberal internationalist” and “agrarian nationalist” stances may nevertheless shape collective impressions about what is an appropriate appearance and form of grassland rehabilitation. BEF, therefore, is poised to advance a cultural and/or political vision of rural development. Even if it does not officially endorse a particular viewpoint, BEF’s awareness of the implications of either narrative is key in anticipating outcomes of the project as it proceeds and balances local and national developmental needs and desires. Furthermore, a sensitivity to the power dynamics associated with rural development and continually assessing to what degree local populations have control over their own development is a critical question that will impact the long-term viability of VivaGrass.
While Mother Latvia has been a central symbol for the country’s embattled path to independence, the history behind her image does not offer a clear path forward now that the Latvian people have rural landscapes and wild spaces of their own. Competing ideas about national identity and responsible socio-economic development create a backdrop against which any non-profit environmental organization’s efforts are organized. The protection of grasslands within the Baltic region are a particularly poignant case in conservation simply because these ecosystems actually rely on human activity. They are, in other words, biological expressions of an ancient human-nature relationship. As such, BEF’s efforts to protect endangered grassland ecosystems is as much cultural as it is ecological. After decades of war and foreign occupation, Latvian government officials, rural community members, and farmers face the socio-biological consequences of land abandonment and farming community collapse. Non-governmental organizations like BEF may be uniquely positioned to help bring about environmentally and socially sound paths of conservation and development.
Avana Andrade is a Master of Environmental Management candidate at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. She earned her B.A. in International Studies and Western European History at Colorado State University in 2010. Before returning to school, she worked as a public historian and backcountry ranger with the Student Conservation Association and the National Park Service in both Northern Arizona and Southern Utah. Her work has focused on the history of grazing and cultural resource management in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Canyonlands National Park. Work and recreation on the Colorado Plateau motivates her primary interest in grad school, environmental conflict mediation. Avana is a Colorado native and an avid backpacker and gardener.
Tuesday, August 19, 2014
By Guest Author, Dena Adler, Yale Law & Yale F&ES '2016
As if somehow aware of the arrival of over ten thousand diplomats, researchers, and observers focused on climate change, the weather in Bonn, Germany turned a humid and hot 90 degrees Fahrenheit during the June 2014 international climate negotiations. While participants cleared security and swiped badges to enter the air-conditioned halls of the Hotel Maritime, the contrast stood out starkly between the “weirding” climate outside, and climate-controlled world of international policy inside.
For some climate policy wonks, winter weather is the hallmark of international negotiations, as the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change meets at the beginning of December each year. However, these annual COP’s form only one piece of the negotiating puzzle, as evidenced by huge turnout for the recent—and distinctly summery—meeting in Bonn. Other crucial meetings occur throughout the year leading up to the December COP. These meetings may not capture major media attention like the COPs, but they play a critical role in developing timelines, focusing issue topics, and preparing negotiating text. Meetings must also flesh out agreements from previous COPs and build tangible action from ink and paper. The June 2014 Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany brought these process issues into play.
While much of the talk about climate negotiations focuses on the big policy questions, the nuances of diplomacy in the international process factor into many of the answers. As a new follower of the negotiations, what I found most striking was how observing the process actually provided context for understanding the policy issues at play. Much of the coverage of international negotiations consists of general news synopses for the mass public and technical policy analyses so laden with acronyms as to be unapproachable for the uninitiated. This post seeks to draw a middle path, drawing on my experience at the June 2014 negotiations to explain how some of the larger technical issues are currently moving through the negotiation process. Admittedly the jargon and acronyms can prove a little difficult to digest, but I will introduce them with relevant explanation since they are crucial to understanding the process.
Ad-Hoc Working Group to Advance the Durban Platform (ADP)
During the second week of the Bonn June 2014 negotiations, I followed the daily meetings of the ADP (Ad-Hoc Working Group to Advance the Durban Platform.) This group works to fulfill a two-pronged responsibility. Under Workstream 1, the ADP aims to create a protocol, legal instrument, or other agreed outcome with legal force that will bind parties to achieve certain greenhouse gas emission reductions beginning in the year 2020. Previous international agreement mandates that Parties complete a Workstream 1 agreement no later than 2015 so that they can adopt the agreement at the 2015 COP in Paris. The Paris Agreement would then go into effect in 2020.
However, in order for the Parties to maintain a chance of limiting global warming to 2°C, (the target agreed on by Parties at the Cancun COP in 2010), Parties must significantly scale up actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions before 2020. Hence, Workstream 2 advances action to close the “ambition gap”—which describes the gap between the emissions reductions countries’ have pledged to make before 2020 and the more extensive reductions that they must make before 2020 if they hope to avoid more than 2°C of warming. Hopefully, Workstream 2 will help Parties stay on track cutting greenhouse gas emissions at home so that they can agree to more ambitious targets for the 2015 agreement.
Milestones for Milestones
Several facets of the negotiating process stuck out to me as a first-time observer. First, I had not fully appreciated that parties need to hammer out not only a substantive text, but the process and timing of creating that text as well as how it fits with complementary, preceding, and follow-up processes. Everything needs to be fleshed out and there is skin in the game of determining what process the parties will follow.
For example, staying on track to achieve a 2015 agreement requires not only hitting certain milestones, but also determining those milestones and when they must be reached (milestones for the milestones). During the most recent COP in Warsaw, the parties had agreed to an accelerated timeline to advance the 2015 agreement, which would require producing a draft negotiating text in time for the 2014 COP in Lima, Peru. The June 2014 negotiations presented a crucial opportunity to progress toward a Lima draft text by developing expectations and timetables including producing INDCs (initial nationally determined contributions), relaying the commitments Parties will undertake post-2020.
Ideally, Parties should propose their commitments early in 2015 to allow the requisite months to consider proposals, the fairness of their relative ambition levels, and how they collectively stack toward limiting warming to 2°C. However, to prepare their INDCS for early 2015, Parties need to take immediate steps to agree on what information these commitments must contain. Arriving at agreement speedily can require trade-offs in the ambition, complexity, or specificity of commitments. For example, adaptation and climate finance commitments may require different models or metrics that take additional negotiating time to develop.
Negotiating to a Negotiating Text
Another active area of process negotiations revolves around whether the draft text will be formed as a large compilation of submissions from countries or whether the co-chairs will introduce a draft text based on parties’ submissions. On the one hand, a compiled document from Parties ensures that the initial document captures every country’s complete wish list and compromises from that baseline. However, such a compiled document would be hundreds of pages long and extremely difficult to narrow to an acceptable negotiating text on the current timeline. Alternatively, the co-chairs can produce a shorter document based on party submissions, which can more realistically be narrowed in the allotted timeframe, but as an abridged document its baseline will not include all desired items. Some observers considered the Parties pushing the huge, compiled document to be “obstructionist.” Others considered it a reasonable reaction from parties concerned about transparency in the wake of a Copenhagen 2009 COP that had splintered between a mainstream process and a closed-door side process.
The character of the negotiation meetings themselves also surprised me. I had expected a back and forth debate, but the first few meetings followed a pattern that consisted of the co-chairs presenting bullet points to frame discussion topics and then hours of parties taking turns to state their countries positions for the record. Obviously, negotiations require ample time to air all positions before Parties can reach common ground. Further, if co-chairs will later draft a text, parties have incentives to publicly voice their requests. However, until seeing the meetings in person, I had not appreciated how much of the scantily available face time it takes for countries to accomplish this preliminary objective before back and forth negotiations can begin. More detailed coverage of individual Parties stances is available here.
As the second week of negotiations continued the discussions haltingly made progress despite these tensions. Nicaragua on behalf of the Like-Minded Developing Countries (LMDC) submitted text, bringing to the forefront the tension between party submissions and co-chair developed text. While this caused a stir among Parties, the co-chairs agreed to fold in the positions of the LMDC text into their proposed text. Even as the session neared its close, many questions continued to swirl through the conversations: Would developing countries need to make commitments? What corresponding financial and technological commitments of support would developed countries need to make? What role would adaptation play in the upcoming agreement? If adaptation required different terms was it worth potentially delaying the agreement to include them? How would verification and compliance be undertaken? Would INDCs be locked in as part of the Paris Agreement itself or a corresponding decision that could be more easily updated and adapted if countries had to tweak their commitments?
By the end of the session, though hammering out specifics continued to be difficult, a number of larger players had stepped forward with outlines. Still, some Parties voiced disappointment over the lack of a set timeline to complete concrete steps before the December 2014 meeting in Lima. However, as one clear step in the right direction, the co-chairs promised to release documents to further draft negotiating text based on the parties stances in the wake of the June meeting. On July 7th, they put forward a “non-paper” summarizing “Parties’ views and proposals on the elements for a draft negotiating text” including points of conflict.
Parties are now moving to prepare for a World Leader’s Climate Summit scheduled by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to occur in September. With President Obama and other world leaders expected to attend, this meeting can highlight positive progress and build further momentum or bring insufficient progress under close scrutiny. Before reaching Lima, parties have their work cut out for them to cross the many points of conflict to create draft negotiating text and expectations for INDCs. Further, the interested public has its work cut out when it comes to understanding the important components of this process and pressuring their leaders to achieve timely action. Slowly but surely, everyone is plodding a path forward.
Tuesday, August 12, 2014
By Guest Author, Chris Halfnight, MEM Candidate '15
The following blog was written for the Natural Resources Defense Council Switchboard blog and is available here as originally posted.
A short walk from the famous Whalemen’s Chapel of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, offshore wind power is getting a major push. With construction of a new, $100-million marine commerce terminal well underway in New Bedford, Massachusetts, the city is on track to become a central hub for the emerging offshore wind industry in the United States – good news for the local economy, wind developers, and clean energy advocates alike. Recently, I had a chance to tour the site for this new marine commerce terminal and learn more about its goals and prospects. I’m grateful to Apex Companies’ Project Manager Dario Quintana for showing me around, and to Bill White and Matt Kakley at the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center for arranging the visit.
Called the New Bedford Marine Commerce Terminal, the new port is the first of its kind in North America, specifically designed with the size and heavy capacity necessary to be a major staging ground for assembling and deploying large offshore wind turbines along the Atlantic coast. Developed by the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center – a key force behind the state’s nation-leading support for clean energy policies – the 28-acre terminal sits just north of New Bedford harbor’s hurricane barrier. In addition to handling offshore wind, the terminal is also designed to manage other forms of bulk, container, and large specialty marine cargo.
Governor Deval Patrick broke ground on the project in the spring of 2013. On my recent visit, the future terminal was beginning to take shape: over the past year, the project team has filled and built much of the dock’s foundation and remediated contaminated soils in the harbor, which is a Superfund site. Construction is set to finish this coming December, with completion of a newly dredged, 30-foot-deep shipping lane to accommodate the large-scale vessels used in assembling and installing offshore wind turbines.
This impressive new terminal is helping revitalize New Bedford, a city with 350 years of maritime history and once the world’s preeminent whaling port. It’s also heralding the imminent rise of a new and robust American industry: offshore wind power, which theDepartment of Energy estimates could create by 2030 more than 43,000 permanent jobs, along with 1.1 million job-years in manufacturing and installation.
Indeed, the terminal is already bringing significant benefits to the local economy: about40% of the project’s 120 jobs have gone to South Coast residents, the terminal’s general contractor is New Bedford-based Cashman-Weeks NB, and construction has relied on supplies and services from at least ten local businesses – a huge boon for a city that has suffered high unemployment in recent years.
New Bedford is well positioned to help Massachusetts capture substantial first-mover benefits from the emerging offshore wind industry, including a wealth of local jobs and economic development – a head start on building a skilled workforce that may soon be in high demand along the east coast. The potential windfall for first-movers is enormous, with the federal government having already designated more than 1.5 million acres off the Atlantic coast for wind energy development – a total area that could feasibly provide over 16,000 megawatts (MW) of electricity capacity and could power more than 5 million homes. The New Bedford Marine Commerce Terminal is located and engineered to be able to handle the staging, assembly, and deployment for many of these potential projects. One of these developments – the nearby Cape Wind offshore wind project – has cleared all of its regulatory hurdles and is set to begin construction in the next year.
New projects in the area are also on the way: last September, Deepwater Wind secured the nation’s first competitive lease in federal waters off Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The company plans to develop approximately 1000 megawatts of generating capacity in the site, which it estimates would power 350,000 homes and displace more than 1.7 million tons of carbon dioxide annually – equivalent to removing four million cars from our roads. And, on the same day as my visit, the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management hosted a public meeting in New Bedford to advance the leasing process for another wind energy area 12 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard.
Offshore wind power – with huge potential capacity, no fuel costs, and no air pollution – is set to become a central pillar in our clean energy future. Europe leads the way on offshore wind, with 73 offshore wind projects already producing carbon-free electricity. But momentum is building here in the United States, and continued policy and infrastructure investment will finally bring this enormous clean energy source online. Properly designed and well-sited offshore wind power makes good sense for local and national economies and the environment alike. Massachusetts and New Bedford are smart to invest now in the clean energy future.
Wednesday, July 02, 2014
By Guest Author, Pamela Jao, MEM/MBA candidate '17 and Daphne Yin, MEM candidate' 16
By 2100 it may be impossible for humans to work outside. If the world continues on its business-as-usual growth trajectory, global temperatures could rise beyond 95 degrees Fahrenheit – the highest tolerable “wet bulb temperature” – as the new norm in many parts of the world. Particularly in urban areas, where heat island effects can add up to 10 degrees Fahrenheit, temperatures would be especially unbearable.
How do we avoid such a bleak future? On June 19, Diana Ürge-Vorsatz – coordinating lead author of the buildings chapter of the IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report on Climate Change Mitigation – shared her thoughts here at Yale on the potential to counter climate change through building efficiency.
The map in the top right-hand corner shows the BAU greenhouse gas emissions scenario, also known as RCP 8.5 in the scientific community.
Passive House Standard
Ürge-Vorsatz made the case, based on emissions data, that the most cost-effective way to mitigate climate change is through building efficiency improvements, compared to emissions reductions in other sectors. In particular, she highlighted one building concept – the passive house – that not only can guide reductions in our carbon footprint but also help us “weather the weather.”
The Passive House Standard, launched in Germany, specifically targets energy efficiency (in contrast to holistic standards like LEED). Employing high-quality insulation and ventilation, passive houses require incredibly little energy for space heating and cooling. Case studies show that passive houses reduce energy consumption by much as 80 to 90 percent compared to typical buildings in central Europe. The buildings themselves can be residential or nonresidential, new or retrofits, and are relatively low-cost over their lifetime, although they do require additional upfront costs for the design and higher-quality building components. Ürge-Vorsatz’s research conservatively estimates that if all current building stock were to achieve passive-house levels of energy reduction, world energy consumption would fall by 30 percent. These energy reductions could help us avoid the 2100 BAU scenario, though they would obviously need to happen sooner than later.
While it’s been proven that passive houses require very little energy to regulate temperature, can this technology be scaled? How well do passive houses perform outside of Central Europe, their temperate birthplace, particularly in more extreme climates? The airtight insulation of passive houses apparently excels in retaining warmth in cold climates, most prominently in Iceland where rough forms of the passive house date back to the Middle Ages. However, it was argued during the talk’s Q&A that while the concept is less adept at providing cooling in hot, humid climates. If this is true, how would passive houses fare in a country like India, which suffered its worst heat wave in over 60 years this summer?
Intrigued, we researched what work has been done to pilot passive houses in hot climates. A 2013 study by the Passive House Institute says passive house design can thrive in tropical climates (Jakarta, anyone?) if adjusted to include features such as interior insulation, solar control glazing, fixed window shades, and ventilation with heat and energy recovery.
Of course, it would help to know how much warm-climate adjustments would cost – particularly in developing countries where upfront costs may already be higher due to the relatively limited number of manufacturers that are versed in passive building components. To the extent that the passive house concept is flexible, countries can adapt it using their own design techniques.
Another area for exploration concerns air quality. Although passive houses should have good air quality by design and be made of non-toxic materials, any cutting of corners (e.g., substituting cheap toxic materials) could prove troublesome given the extreme insulation.
A global map of where passive houses are currently located is available here.
Living Building Challenge
Another green building concept, the Living Building Challenge (LBC) was presented on last week by the Connecticut Collaborative. LBC is the most stringent and holistic of green building certifications, surpassing both LEED and Passive House Standard in their approaches to efficiency.
The Living Building Challenge (LBC) incorporates criteria that are non-traditional metrics of green buildings, including considerations of equity, human health and happiness, and beauty. While LEED-certified buildings can still have negative environmental impacts, living buildings must provide real environmental benefits. For example, they must be net energy and water positive, and cannot use combustion-based energy sources.
While the LBC philosophy and movement are inspirational, it is hard not to recognize the uphill battle living buildings face in achieving commercial adoption. Currently, there are only five certified living buildings in the whole world. Building them can be cost-prohibitive, especially when current financial models for buildings don’t account for healthcare cost reductions, and increased productivity.
Getting retro right
Independently, the Passive House Standard and Living Building Challenge present two promising solutions to avoid the “lock-in” scenario Ürge-Vorsatz described. She stressed that shallow retrofits – anything resulting in less than 80 percent in energy reduction – are harmful, as they risk locking buildings into a path-dependent scenario of sub-optimal performance. Since both standards have stringent energy reduction requirements, they represent potential standards that could be scaled up and prevent the future nightmare BAU scenario of 2100.
If you want to get more involved with the Living Building Challenge, like “Living Building Challenge Connecticut Collaborative” on Facebook and check out the International Living Future Institute website where you can sign up to be an ambassador.
Austrian Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia. Credit: Timothy/Austrian Embassy Jakarta.
Omega Center for Sustainable Living in Rhinebeck, New York. Credit: Farsid Assassi/BNIM Architects.
Thursday, June 19, 2014
By Guest Author, Sara Kuebbing, Gaylord Donnelley Environmental Postdoctoral Associate, Yale Institute for Biospheric Studies
In a quest to reduce dependence on foreign oil, the United States government is increasing its mandatory minimum levels of renewable biofuel production each year. Because the US’s first large-scale foray into biofuels—corn for ethanol—was heavily criticized, many non-food plant species are now under consideration for biofuel production. However, this search for non-food biofuels has another, currently underappreciated, impact: The introduction and spread of invasive plant species across the US.
The problem with using nonnative plants for biofuel is that successful biofuel crop traits —short generation time, pest resistance, high growth rates, high water-use efficiency—are the same traits of many invasive plants.
Nonnative plants are those humans introduce into an area from far-off geographic regions. If these plants spread far beyond the place where they were originally planted, they are considered invasive. Not all nonnative plants turn invasive, but recent research indicates that the species the US government is considering for biofuels are three times more likely to be invasive than a random sampling of nonnative species. For more on the plants currently under consideration, see the sidebar Potential Invasives Awiting Approval below.
To address this, the National Environmental Coalition on Invasive Species brought invasive plant experts from around the nation to the Washington, DC last week to meet with members of Congress, congressional staff, and federal agencies The goal of the meetings was to dissuade policymakers from providing federal support for the use of nonnative, invasive plants as biofuel feedstock.
The Environmental Protection Agency gave the green-light nearly a year ago to businesses wishing to grow two well-known invasive grasses: giant reed (Arundo donax) and napiergrass (Pennisetum purpureum). Ironically, the EPA is not the only governmental agency thinking about these species. Giant reed, an aptly named grass that can easily grow stalks over 30 feet in height, is growing unabated along the US-Mexico border. This weed presents such a problem for border patrol agents with the Department of Homeland Security that DHS has commissioned the US Department of Agriculture’s help in coming up with a method to reduce the giant reed populations in Texas.
So why would the EPA approve the wide-spread planting of invasive species? It comes down to strict and literal adherence to laws passed by Congress a few years back. Currently, the EPA reviews potential biofuel feedstocks as part of the Renewable Fuel Standards (RFS) Program, created under the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and revised in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. These laws, in short, demand that the transportation fuel must be a blend of traditional carbon-intensive oil as well as renewable fuels with lower carbon emissions.
EPA conducts a greenhouse gas (GHG) lifecycle analysis on potential biofuel feedstocks to determine if they have lower carbon emissions than traditional fuels. Biofuel producers and purchasers can (and must) petition the EPA to consider their specific biofuel “pathway” to see if it is eligible for renewable fuel standard credits. Because the only explicit requirement in the Energy Independence and Security Act is for EPA to perform GHG analysis, the EPA is sticking to this bare minimum in its environmental review, and has chosen to ignore other existing mandates, such as a presidential Executive Order requiring federal agencies to prevent the introduction and spread of invasive species.
Although EPA doesn’t explicitly consider the potential invasiveness of a plant species under the RFS program, the agency did respond to the unanimous outcry from scientists in 2012 when it first approved giant reed and napiergrass as RFS compliant. However, EPA’s concession did not signal a commitment to consider the ecological impacts of potential feedstocks. Instead, EPA determined that if these invasive plants spread beyond the original planting, necessary control and management efforts would increase their “carbon-costs.” In other words, EPA determined that in some cases, invasion may have climate implications.
EPA ended up withdrawing the original 2012 ruling, and replacing it in 2013 with a supplemental ruling that required producers to submit a “Risk Mitigation Plan” that lays out a plan for keeping these species from spreading beyond the biofuel plantations. So far, no company has submitted a plan. And the scientific community is skeptical about the effectiveness of any self-enforced plan.
For those of us who think using invasive plants for biofuels is a bad idea, the ultimate frustration is that many other plants could make excellent feedstock. There does not have to be a “business vs. environment” trade-off when choosing renewable biofuel plants. Although the traits of biofuels and invasive plants strongly overlap, scientists have a resoundingly solid track record of predicting what species are at “high risk” of becoming invasive, and they’ve developed many practical and useful Weed Risk Assessment tools that allow users to evaluate the potential invasiveness of a species. These tools are so accurate that some governments, including Australia and New Zealand, require that all plant species pass an assessment before introduction into the country.
The scientific recommendation is that Weed Risk Assessments are made a fundamental component of any federal decision on biofuel production. Plants that are considered “low-risk” should be prioritized and incentivized over those that are “high-risk” for invasive potential. Last week, there was some indication that this could be a possibility. Scientists with the National Environmental Coalition on Invasive Species had positive reception from some agency staff, namely the Department of Energy’s Bioenergy Technologies Office that provided R&D funding for many potential biofuel feedstocks. These staffers were already aware of the invasive potential of some biofuel feedstocks, and seemed receptive to using more formalized assessment tools in their own internal decisions on what species should receive federal funding.
However, it appears that under the current status quo, ecological invasions are likely to increase. The passing of the Energy Independence and Security Act increased EPA’s workload without increasing staffing to complete the task. This has, in part, probably led to EPA’s decision to stick with only the limited consideration of lifecycle GHG emission. And, in another round of agency irony, the Department of Agriculture is touting the transformation of field pennycress (Thlaspi arvense) from “nuisance weed to biofuel” as if the new use will change its ecological properties or limit its invasion.
USDA has a long history of importing invasive plants into the United States. Through the Department of Agriculture Soil Conservation program, many nonnative species were promoted for preventing soil erosion and improving wildlife habitat. The most infamous of these species is kudzu (Pueria lobelata) “the vine that ate the south,” but also includes the highly invasive bush honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii), autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) and Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia).
Would it really be too much to ask for our federal agencies to learn from their past mistakes and avoid promoting kudzu’s successor?
Want to know more about invasive species and US biofuel policies? Check out these good reads:
Lewis KC and RD Porter (2014.) Global approaches to addressing biofuel-related invasive species risks and incorporation into U.S. laws and policies. Ecological Monographs 171. http://dx.doi.org/10.1890/13-1625.1
Quinn LD, Gordon D, Glaser A, Lieurance D, and SL Flory. (accepted, in press) Bioenergy feedstocks at low risk for invasion in the US: A white-list approach. Bioenergy Research.
Potential Invasives Awiting Approval
While it seems highly unlikely that the EPA will revise its final ruling on giant reed and napiergrass, more potential invasive plants are sitting in the EPA’s docket. Most of these petition listings are so vague that it is impossible to evaluate the invasiveness potential without further clarification of the exact species under consideration. Currently, the EPA has four different petitions for “grain sorghum,” one for “biomass sorghum,” one for “jatropha,” and one for “pennycresss.” Although scientists and taxonomists purposely use a consistent and widespread convention for naming plants and animals so that they can avoid confusion between different languages or even different regional slang, these petitions are most likely intentionally vague to protect proprietary information about the exact variety of the plant under consideration.
For example—and using the proper conventional nomenclature—the plant genera Sorghum contains a few highly invasive plants species: Sorghum bicolor (which has a slew of common names including shattergrass, Sudangrass, and, sometimes, grain sorghum) is listed as a noxious weed in six states, and its close relative Sorghum halepense (Johnsongrass) is listed in a 19 states. Likewise, the genera Jatropha contains two members of the IUCN’s infamous “100 of the World’s Worst Invasive Alien Species.” Some proactive researchers have already red-flagged these species because of Weed Risk Assessment results: Jatropha curcas was resoundingly rejected by three different assessments, Sorghum halepense and Thlaspi arvense (field pennycress) by one, and Sorghum bicolor was recommended for further evaluation three times.
Thursday, May 29, 2014
By Guest Author, Verner Wilson III, Yale F&ES '15
On April 23, during National Park week and just after Earth Day, Tom Kizzia, author of the acclaimed Pilgrim’s Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier, concluded the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy’s 2014 Climate and Energy Bookshelf series sponsored by the Yale Climate and Energy Institute. Kizzia’s lecture, delivered to a crowd of more than 80 people, was titled “Frontier Gothic: Transcendentalists, Puritans, and Pilgrims in Alaska” and explored, in part, the implications of the biggest conservation act in world history.
In 1980, the U.S. Congress passed the Alaska National Interests Lands Conservation Act, or ANILCA, creating over 100 million acres of national parks, preserves, forests and wildlife refuges within the state, transferring ownership of about 60 percent of all lands in the state to the federal government, and setting up a fierce debate between state residents and federal bureaucrats on land ownership and authority. One of the protected areas established was the Wrangell St. Elias National Park, an area about as large as Switzerland with one glacier alone the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.
The only town in the park is the village of McCarthy, a former mining settlement that had seen a boom and then bust copper operation in the 1930s. In early 2002, Robert Hale, who called himself Papa Pilgrim, purchased hundreds of acres near an old mine site outside of McCarthy and moved his wife and 15 children there to be away from what he considered a corrupted civilization. In the wilderness he was able to raise his children in his own, unique, religious faith and without the influences of the outside world.
To build up his property, Hale expanded and improved an old mining road. The environmentally destructive improvement lead to conflict with the National Park Service (NPS) – with its mission to preserve the park from development – and highlighted the tensions between private landholders within the park and the NPS
Enter Tom Kizzia, a respected Alaska journalist. Kizzia and his wife owned a cabin near McCarthy. Kizzia asked Hale if he could interview the “Pilgrim” family about the conflict and, in a rare move, Papa Pilgrim agreed after learning that Kizzia was a neighbor. Soon “Neighbor Tom” spent long periods with the family, something he described as living in another world. Without revealing too much of how the story ends, eventually the sordid details of Papa Pilgrim’s ideal biblical living were exposed.
The story of the Pilgrims, who fought federal officials in order to build access to their property in the park, is one of many intriguing land conflicts within the United States, and especially in my home state of Alaska. I am from the Bristol Bay region, an area with two large national parks, a national wildlife refuge and the nation’s largest state park, and I know firsthand how questions of ownership and authority over lands in Alaska are still hotly contested, decades after ANILCA set off a firestorm between local Alaskans and decisionmakers in Washington, D.C.
One example is the proposed Pebble Mine, a copper and gold mine on state land located in an area between two national parks, Lake Clark and Katmai. The state of Alaska and the mining company, Northern Dynasty Minerals, contends that the Pebble deposit is in an area open for mineral exploration and development. They argue it would be worth $300-$500 billion given today’s mineral prices, provide thousands of jobs, and much revenue to the state. The federal government claims that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has the final authority on whether the mining activities can go forward. The EPA argues that because the mine will affect waters of the United States, the EPA has final authority through the 1972 Clean Water Act. The Act allows the EPA to veto or restrict development activities that can impact drinking water, recreational, fishery or wildlife areas. Through a final EPA study released earlier this year, EPA found the Bristol Bay region produces nearly half of the world’s wild sockeye salmon—salmon on which my family depends for our livelihood. EPA subsequently started a process to veto the development of the Pebble Mine. Religious leaders have also come out against the proposed mine because they fear it will pollute God’s creation in the region.
The use of religion for preservation is an interesting argument in both the cases of the proposed Pebble Mine and the Pilgrim family. Yale Divinity School’s 2009 conference discussed this very issue. It brings us back to the lessons learned from Tom Kizzia’s book and lecture at Yale, that religion can be used in cases of both development and preservation. Through the intriguing story of the Pilgrims, undeveloped wilderness was the reason that they purchased the land and subsequently why they fired off a thunderstorm of land conflicts when they tried to develop part of it.
Verner Wilson, III, is a rising second-year Master of Environmental Management candidate at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He is originally from Bristol Bay, Alaska, and obtained a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies in 2008 from Brown University. He previously worked for the World Wildlife Fund, as well as a coalition of Alaska Native tribes, on issues related to sustainable wild salmon fisheries, environmental justice, mining, oil and gas, and climate change.
Wednesday, May 28, 2014
By Guest Author, Christopher Halfnight, Yale F&ES '15
Unconventional oil and gas development is fundamentally changing the U.S. energy landscape, bringing both new challenges and new opportunities. Federal and state laws regulate some aspects of the shale oil and gas development life-cycle, but the pace and scale of shale plays in states from Pennsylvania to Texas to North Dakota risks a host of potential impacts at the local level – impacts that may fall through a governance gap without effective exercise of municipal land use and zoning authority.
Researchers at the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy and the Land Use Law Center at Pace Law School, with support from the Oscar M. Ruebhausen Fund at Yale Law School and the Yale Climate and Energy Institute, are leading an outreach, analysis, and guidance effort to help address this potential shale gas governance gap at the local level. As outlined in the team’s White Paper, outright bans on fracking risk state preemption, while uncontrolled drilling risks negative community and environmental impacts. The project team aims to support municipal leaders in developing sound, balanced, and effective local regulatory, non-regulatory, and planning practices to address the impacts of shale oil and gas development. With the proper tools, local authorities can effectively govern many aspects of fracking by better interfacing with state regulators and industry, or exercising local powers to mitigate land use impacts and environmental damage, while ensuring safeguards for net economic, social, and community benefits.
As part of this ongoing effort, the Yale and Pace team recently convened a facilitated discussion at Yale Law School with diverse stakeholders from industry, advocacy, government, and academia. Titled “Closing the Shale Gas Governance Gap,” the session in late March focused on local strategies and best practices for governing unconventional oil and gas development. The team’s research is turning up novel and notable examples of local regulation of fracking – overlay zones, parcel size restrictions, insurance requirements, and noise limits, to name just a few. We sought to enhance and expand our efforts through collaborative discussion with a group of experts from the field.
Professor Hannah Wiseman from Florida State University College of Law opened the discussion with an overview of current federal and state regulatory efforts, highlighting potential impacts and governance gaps at the local level. Participants then heard from three distinguished speakers with firsthand knowledge of local government attempts to address the impacts of fracking.
John Smith, Solicitor for Cecil Township in Pennsylvania and attorney for the municipalities in the recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court case Robinson Township v. Commonwealth, spoke of a wide range of local challenges in the communities he represents, from water use to road traffic, and silica dust to seismic testing. Attorney Smith also discussed unique strategies in Cecil Township, including local ordinances requiring sound walls around drill sites and advance notice of drilling.
Similarly, Terrence Welch, Partner at Brown & Hofmeister LLP, in Richardson, Texas, offered valuable perspective on crafting the Dallas local ordinance governing oil and gas development in an urban and suburban setting in the Barnett Shale region of north Texas. Public attention in the nearby suburb of Flower Mound focused heavily on the issue of setbacks, and local government experience there highlighted the importance of property value studies to justify those setbacks, as well as the need to anticipate variance claims, the threat of takings lawsuits, and issues unique to parkland.
Lastly, Stephen Ross, formerly the County Attorney for Santa Fe County, New Mexico, discussed Santa Fe’s recent gas development ordinance, providing unique insight into the county’s efforts to facilitate public participation, initiate a temporary moratorium, draft general plan amendments, and build a collaborative interaction with state government.
Through these presentations and the discussion that followed – moderated by Professor John Nolon from Pace Law School – two clear lessons emerged: local governments have the legal capacity to address many impacts of hydraulic fracturing and they exhibit a wide variety of approaches and strategies. The team is using these lessons to bolster and guide future efforts. With the right tools, local governments can play a large role in filling the shale governance gap; leading practices and robust training will help prepare municipal leaders as they grapple with the challenges and opportunities of a shale oil and gas play.
The March workshop represented a key step forward in the project team’s ongoing efforts to help local governments address the impacts of hydraulic fracturing. The discussion built on our December 2013 expert panel and workshop at Pace Land Use Law Center’s Annual Conference which aimed to test the governance-gap hypothesis: that federal and state regulatory schemes are failing to address a range of local impacts from hydraulic fracturing.
At that workshop, a diverse group of stakeholders collaborated to identify and discuss potential impactsand concerns at the local level, ranging from the positive effects of increased economic activity, to risks of water contamination, air pollution, and pressure on local roads and services. The impacts of unconventional oil and gas development vary according to local factors. But the group at the December session emerged with a strong a consensus that federal and state regulatory measures are often inadequately addressing those impacts – a consensus that helped transition the project toward identifying local strategies and best practices.
The Yale and Pace team is excited to continue building on our collaboration with expert participants from these two workshops. As we refine our research on leading practices for local governments, the project team is shifting toward fashioning a comprehensive suite of tools and a robust training program to equip local leaders with the knowledge and capacity to deal confidently with hydraulic fracturing. With multiple-stakeholder input, we aim to empower local communities to chart an informed and responsible path through the potential benefits and risks of fracking.
We expect to develop a variety of tools and programs in the coming months. Expanding on our research and outreach to date, the team is creating a thorough guide to potential impacts and issues that local governments may face and may wish to address – including rising local government revenues from sources such as sales taxes, property taxes, or state-collected severance taxes, booming real estate markets, new bunk-housing, well fires, pipeline breakage, seismic testing, and flaring noise. This substantive framework and checklist will help orient communities to the various benefits and risks of fracking, including potential environmental, health, and socio-economic impacts that municipal leaders will need to evaluate. Grounded in research and case studies such as those discussed in the March workshop, this issues framework will also provide a substantive foundation municipalities can use to justify potential regulatory and non-regulatory actions. With a solid knowledge base tailored to local conditions, municipal leaders will be better positioned to effectively manage gas development and to engage industry and state regulators in productive dialogue.
We also intend to continue building on the March workshop to complement the issues framework with detailed strategic options and alternatives for local governments tailored to each of the potential impacts. We anticipate including leading practices for both regulatory and non-regulatory strategies, drawing from our previous facilitated discussions and further research and collaboration. The procedural options framework may include model planning and zoning documents, such as comprehensive development plan amendments to address unconventional oil and gas development, special use permits, and draft ordinances focusing on setbacks, use restrictions, overlay strategies, insurance requirements, noise limits, and other aspects within the purview of local government. As a counterpart to regulatory options, the framework will also include non-regulatory strategies and templates, such as policy statements, funding strategies, model road use agreements, community benefit agreements, processes for seeking better support from state regulators, and other means of securing local advantages from shale gas development while safeguarding against potential negative effects. These non-regulatory strategies can help communities work collaboratively with industry to ensure baseline testing, high performance standards, post-development bonding, and other local needs.
Ultimately, the team intends to communicate the entire package as part of a robust training program for municipal leaders – first as a pilot project and eventually at large. We also expect to develop new mechanisms – potentially online – to distribute project materials and to facilitate communication between municipalities, particularly in regional frameworks to address cumulative impacts of gas development. In so doing, we hope to promote dialogue between communities and industry, and between municipal and state authorities.
Our work to date – and the generous support of experts and sponsors – has positioned the Yale and Pace team to move forward with the next phase of addressing the local impacts of hydraulic fracturing, and is already receiving positive media attention. For better or worse, the shale boom continues. Unconventional oil and gas development brings the prospect of significant economic gain for often-frail local economies, and the specter of long-lasting environmental harm and community detriment. With the proper tools and knowledge base, municipal leaders will be better equipped to navigate an effective path between those two poles, mitigating potential negative impacts, while securing net economic and social community benefits.
Tuesday, May 27, 2014
By Josh Galperin, Associate Director
The following post comes curtesy of Gabe Levine YC '14. Gabe graduated from Yale College last week, an important accomplishment in itself. However, Gabe also received the Wrexham/Heinz Prize for the best senior essay in the social sciences. In the post below Gabe summarizes his essay titled "'Has It Really Come to This?": An Assessment of Virtue Ethical Approaches to Climate Engineering."
It has become common to frame conversations about climate engineering by asking two questions: 1) Do you think the risks of climate change pose a deep, serious problem to civilization?, and 2) Do you think that abandoning fossil fuels is an extremely difficult task? These were the questions that Oliver Morton, a science writer for The Economist, asked about 150 people at an MIT lecture hall in 2013. The occasion? A panel discussion entitled, “Debating the Future of Solar Geoengineering.”
For some of those inclined to answer “yes” to both of Morton’s questions, solar geoengineering—lowering global average temperatures by reducing the amount of energy absorbed by the atmosphere from the sun—might be an appealing prospect. In principle, it offers a way of avoiding the worst effects of climate change at a fraction of the cost of mitigation, and much more quickly. But even proponents of solar geoengineering (or, as I refer to it, climate engineering) know that nothing would really be so simple: it could have vast, unintended consequences for global precipitation patterns; we might find it impossible to govern; it might commit us to a future in which humanity is perpetually on the verge of climate catastrophe, where governments continually need to disperse ever more radiation-reflecting chemicals into the stratosphere. In short, engineering the climate might be a really bad idea.
But even if it were, in some sense, a good idea, even if scientists and governments could figure out a way of engineering the climate that were safe, reliable, and easy to govern, some moral philosophers think we should still have deep reservations about doing it. These philosophers, including Stephen Gardiner, who served on the MIT panel, think that climate engineering would express inappropriate moral attitudes. In my essay
, I assess Gardiner’s argument, and others like his. I argue that Gardiner’s description of climate engineering as a “tarnishing evil,” which would be a “reckless, callous, and shallow” response to one of humanity’s most fundamental challenges, is misguided. Gardiner does not provide good reason for us to be especially wary of climate engineering, beyond our usual concerns about costs and governance.
I then survey three further critical approaches to climate engineering that, like Gardiner’s, focus on the attitudes that climate engineering would express. Only one of these, raised by Holly Jean Buck, Andrea R. Gammon, and Christopher J. Preston, persuasively describes an important concern that cannot be easily expressed in terms our “usual concerns.” To engineer the climate, they argue, is to treat climate change as a technical, rather than a social problem, in which the concerns of those most affected are treated only in general terms. This, Buck, et al. argue, would reinforce global structures of oppression.
Buck, et al.’s argument, however, requires empirical substantiation. Moreover, even if it were correct, I argue, their argument would not defeat many sophisticated arguments for climate engineering. It would only raise important concerns regarding just how to go about engineering the climate. None of the arguments I examine, then, is both persuasive and strong enough to stop us from seriously considering engineering the climate. I argue that this is because of the complex distribution of responsibility for any attempt to engineer the climate. It is difficult to claim that any one actor, or set of actors, would express bad enough attitudes by engineering the climate that other considerations—such as the difficulty of abandoning fossil fuels—should be morally irrelevant. I therefore conclude that, though very serious concerns about climate engineering may remain, it is probably morally permissible to research it, provided that the research is undertaken responsibly.
Wednesday, April 30, 2014
By Guest Author, Avana Andrade, Yale F&ES '15
John Wesley Powell’s 1878 Report on the Lands of the Arid Region set out his master plan for water management, land tenure, and settlement across the western United States. Even from his mid-nineteenth-century perspective, Powell could see the water wars coming. In his plan, Powell recommended that settlements and agriculture be organized around the natural flow of water over the landscape, according to a region’s given watershed. He envisioned water managed not through large diversions, transfers, or dams but through small dams and canals, with the water never leaving its watershed.
In this model, Powell foresaw farmers and communities with more power over their region’s water management. His vision, as utopian as it may strike us now, never came to pass, but his foresight still holds relevance today. The idea of organizing resource management according to natural features of the landscape is reflected in the growing national interest to orient food production and consumption to local or regional capacities. As more local and regional food systems emerge nationwide, they may not be aligning themselves with watersheds as Powell hoped, but they are responses to particular local needs and regional trends, and place more control over food production in the communities’ hands. With the help of the federal government, these networks may be creating something more akin to “foodsheds” instead.
In her April 16th presentation, “2014 Farm Bill: What’s in in for Sustainable Food Systems?” Ariane Lotti gave listeners a brief overview of the congressional lead-up to the current bill and provided a more detailed look into the nuts and bolts of the farm bill programs and subsidies. The portion of the bill that addresses sustainable agriculture is one small segment of the entire bill, but it focuses attention on local and regional food systems, the next generation of farmers and ranchers, research and extension, and farm subsidy reform. In looking closer at this one facet of this bill, and local and regional systems of agriculture, it quickly becomes clear that various realms of the farm bill overlap significantly, and likely by design. The purposes of micro-loan or crop-insurance programs, for example, bolster the up-and-coming farmers who no longer see their predecessors’ large corn or soybean fields as economically or environmentally viable.
Take, for instance, John D. Jackson’s family farm in southern Illinois, in the heart of the Corn Belt, which has grown corn for ethanol and cattle feed for decades. Recently, however, Mr. Jackson has begun to convert a portion of the farm into fruits and vegetables. He is among a growing number of Midwestern farmers responding to the economic advantage in diversifying the family farm. Apparently, the financial gain from a transition, even a partial one, can be significant. According to a February, 2014 New York Times article, “The Seeds of a New Generation,” (which cites Iowa State University crop analysts), a farmer can expect on average $284 from an acre of corn, while a one-acre apple orchard could bring in $2,000 or more. This shift in economics is due, in large part, to strengthened regional food systems. The story of one farmer’s son returning to the family corn operation and bringing with him apple trees, blackberry bushes, and rows of vegetables is striking because the more common picture is of the corn farmer’s children running far and wide, never to return. Accordingly, this blog is devoted to highlighting a few towns and regions where a more localized and diverse approach to agriculture has already caught its trade winds or where recent federal funding has pushed another proverbial ship to sea.
What is “local food?” What is “regional food?” Is there a difference between the two? What do we mean when we say “food system” anyway? While the terms may seem self-evident to some, it is worth pointing out where the terms overlap and diverge. A food system refers to the multitude of processes through which food is grown, distributed and consumed. Put simply, a food system is “a process that includes the production of agricultural goods, purchasing and processing of those goods, distribution and marketing of value added products, end-user preparation and consumption, and waste disposal.” Local and regional food systems both encompass farmers markets, community-supported agriculture (CSA), food hubs, roadside stands, and u-pick operations. These elements refer to the type of market structures available to farmers in a certain locale; however, there is no universal definition for either “local” or “regional.” A “local food system” generally refers to the processes of growing and selling the food close to the consumer. A close proximity could mean within state lines or, according to the New Oxford American Dictionary, within a 100-mile radius of a given location. While economists might define local and regional food systems according to marketing methods (i.e. direct-to-consumer markets), the general public often brings a more nuanced definition. Consumers may emphasize “small-scale (and attractive) farms, locally value-added products, and the choice of non-commodity foods,” as key traits of a local and regional food system.
A “regional food system” may be a term used to reference the importance of local agriculture to “scale up to be sustainable or self-reliant.” Regional boundaries tend to be larger but are never set, remaining flexible according to social and economic demands. However a regional food system can be useful in articulating not just a particular agricultural network, but the social, geographic, economic, and climatic traits of a certain area. Advocates of regional food systems approach see local farms as one part of a more comprehensive, if spatially bounded, and self-reliant agricultural system. This view of a multi-faceted and dynamic regional food network envisions a “nested” food system that could infuse a fragile mono-crop economy with resiliency. For a much fuller discussion of how local and regional food systems are defined and who defines them check out the USDA report, “Local Food Systems: Concepts, Impacts, and Issues” (May 2010).
One regional food system that has received attention in recent years is in the Hadwick region of Vermont’s “Northeast Kingdom.” The area has been a leader in establishing its food system through the Northeast Kingdom Food Systems Strategic Plan (NEKFSP). The regional planning commission initiated the plan in 2010 to engage in a more thorough analysis of the region’s food systems and economic development. The planning commission selected the Center for an Agricultural Economy (CAE) to draft a plan that would create a “conceptual working model to assess and plan for the regional food system.” This planning process involved a broad-based assessment of the stakeholders and potential participants in the food system through a committee composed of community members from every aspect of the production, distribution, marketing and consumption facets of the food system. CAE also conducted interviews throughout the region with farmers, value-added producers, seed company owners, and retail distributors (to name a few) and, after public review sessions, CAE issued its plan, the NEKFSP, along with a set of goals, targets, and measures as the plan was implemented. The goals address a wide range of agricultural, social, economic, and educational realms of development in the Hadwick region and are each paired with recommendations. A few of these goals and select recommendations are listed below. Not only does the plan align with Vermont’s Farm to Plate plan, which is a state-wide effort to boost Vermont’s farming and food sector, but the NEKFSP establishes “a set of food systems performance measures and a plan for how to track them over time.” Another strength of the plan is a governance network map of primary actors in the food system and their roles and responsibilities in the plan’s implementation, a feature that helps administrators manage wide-ranging action items. For more information about this approach and the plan itself, consult the June 2011 “Full Report” by the Center for an Agricultural Economy and the Northeastern Vermont Development Association.
Select goals and recommendations for the Northeast Kingdom Food Systems Strategic Plan:
Goal 1: The Northeast Kingdom will have increasingly localized, affordable, and sustainable farming and production inputs including energy, fertilizer, seeds, forage, and feed.
Recommendation 1.1: Invest in renewable energy for food production and energy efficiency programs, and increase the amount of on-farm power generation.
Goal 2: More food will be produced in the Northeast Kingdom for local and regional markets; production will continue to diversify, and farmers and food producers will be able to be profitable
Recommendation 2.1: Study the challenges, activities, and profitability of diversified farms and assist farms transitioning to diversified farming
Recommendation 2.2: Promote the production of niche markets (e.g. aquaculture, dairy, beef, hogs, etc) if there is evidence of demand.
Goal 8: Agricultural land will remain open and available to future generations of farmers and the food system will have increasingly positive impacts on environmental quality.
Recommendation 8.1: Develop new and support existing programs to increase access to farm land
Recommendation 8.2: Encourage sustainable production and waste management methods that reduce negative environmental impact.
In southeastern Ohio, another regional food system is gaining momentum, largely because of recent farm bill funding. On March 20, 2014, the USDA announced its grant to support the Ohio food hub. The nearly $200,000 grant will assist the Rural Action and the Southeast Ohio Food Hub Network in broadening the local food network by providing “business support, technical assistance and shared infrastructure support for the region’s local agricultural economy.” The grant, in particular, aims to increase rural Ohio community access to economic and job opportunities generated by local agriculture, which, in turn, may serve to make nutritious foods more available. Rural Action, a nonprofit organization that assists the new food hubs claims that the grant could help the organization maintain 275 existing food-sector jobs, and create another 65.
Ohio’s regional food systems are increasingly centered on the concept of a “food hub.” Food hubs, according to the USDA, are “businesses or organizations that connect producers with buyers by offering a suite of production, distribution, and marketing services.” In other words, these are simply marketing venues for farmers looking to reach local consumers. Ohio food hubs include the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks, Local Matters, and the West Side Market.”
In yet another context, the San Mateo Food System Alliance (SMFSA) is one example of a regional food system but in a more urban setting. Upon its 2006 establishment SMFSA was the first Food System Alliance in California. The group works to bring this California county’s food system into a unified and robust food economy and grew out of a realization that San Mateo County’s own residents did not have access to the region’s own rich agricultural bounty. In response to this disjuncture, SMFSA creates garden recognition programs, supports public schools, hospitals and government buildings in serving county-sourced food, and helps incoming farmers find land. Among its 2011 projects, SMFSA continues to identify mechanisms to distribute the counties produce in its local institutions, to support school garden programs, and assist urban youth education projects.
Regional and local food systems may not abide by the defined boundaries of their watersheds but they can enhance the ability of farmers and community members to use resources more efficiently, while improving their food stability and economic opportunities. Powell would likely heartily endorse these attributes of these emerging food systems, even if they are enabled by a water system propped up by behemoth water works that we can’t easily change the course of now. In her April 16th presentation, Ariane Lotti pointed out the ways in which the 2014 Farm Bill is reaching out to new farmers and, in some ways, endeavoring to encourage and support more environmentally responsible farming practices. These efforts are seen by many individuals as among the first of many in a long and labored journey toward a sustainable American food system. As the cases in Vermont, Ohio, and California indicate, local farming systems are one component in bringing this transformation about.
For a recording of Lotti’s talk please see this link: https://vimeo.com/92902443.
Avana Andrade is a first year Master of Environmental Management candidate at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. She earned her B.A. in International Studies and Western European History at Colorado State University in 2010. Before returning to school, she worked as a public historian and backcountry ranger with the Student Conservation Association and the National Park Service in both Northern Arizona and Southern Utah. Her work has focused on the history of grazing and cultural resource management in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Canyonlands National Park. Work and recreation on the Colorado Plateau motivates her primary interest in grad school, environmental conflict mediation. Avana is a Colorado native and an avid backpacker and gardener.
Wednesday, April 23, 2014
By Guest Author, Joanna Dafoe, Yale F&ES '14
Aviation and maritime transportation make up an important part of the transportation sector—so, too, are the emissions associated from their fuel use. This article reflects on the progress made to address greenhouse gas emissions within the International Civil Aviation Organization and International Maritime Organization, and presents a blueprint of activity within the coming year.
Member States to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) make decisions related to aviation emissions under the Organization’s sovereign body, the ICAO Assembly. ICAO’s 38th Assembly met on 13 October 2013, and its outgoing resolution on climate change summarizes the Organization’s progress and challenges addressing emissions.
Under ICAO Assembly Resolution A38-18, Member States agreed on, among other things, three elements related to greenhouse gas emissions. First, Member States repeated their resolve to work toward a global annual average fuel efficiency improvement of 2 percent until 2020 (with a long-run aspirational efficiency improvement rate of 2 percent per year from 2021 to 2050). Second, Member States requested the ICAO Council to develop a global CO2 certification Standard for aircraft (with a view to adoption by Council in 2016)—the purpose of which is to reduce aircraft CO2 emissions through fuel-efficient technologies in aircraft design. Third, the Assembly agreed to further its support for Member States’ action plans to reduce aviation emissions through capacity building and assistance. For an example of this capacity-building work, see our IISD calendar entry on ICAO States’ Action Plan Seminar for the South American Region and North American, Central American and Caribbean Region.
The second big topic of work within ICAO is related to market-based measures. During the 38th Assembly, this issue was the source of difficult and protracted debate between Member States. Paragraph 19(d) within Resolution A38-18 suggests a general roadmap of work before the 39th Assembly in 2016. Member States requested the Council to identify problems with, and corresponding recommendations for, market-based measures. Member States also requested the Council to identify the “mechanisms for the implementation of the scheme from 2020 as part of a basket of measures.” Thus, technical work remains for the coming year. This includes work on environmental and economic impacts and possible options for a market-based measure scheme. Finally, in the Annex of Resolution A38-18, Member States agreed on guiding principles for the design and implementation of market-based measures.
Just as ICAO had a busy year of work on climate issues, so too has the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Member States within IMO have been working to address greenhouse gas emissions from international shipping, which is estimated to make up approximately 2.7 percent of global emissions. IMO Member states address issues related to greenhouse gas emissions under the Martine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC).
This past year the Committee focused on technical and operational measures relating to energy efficiency for ships. In particular, the Committee focused on developing technical and operational energy efficiency regulations under the new chapter 4 of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) Annex VI, which went into effect on 1 January 2013. This chapter includes requirements for new ships under the Energy Efficiency Design Index and the Ship Energy Efficiency Management Plan.
In addition to regulation, IMO has also been working on energy efficiency developments through research and capacity building. The 65th session of the Committee adopted resolution MEPC.229(65) on promoting technical cooperation and transfer of technology relating to energy efficiency of ships. The MEPC also approved the terms of reference to initiate a study to update emissions estimates for international shipping. Despite these areas of progress, the MEPC was unable to agree on a discussion for market-based measures and related issues. Member States thus decided to suspend this issue to future sessions. The 66th Session of the MEPC met from 31 March to 4 April. Among other items, the 66th Session considered technical and operational measures for enhancing energy efficiency of international shipping and reducing greenhouse gas emissions from ships.
Looking back on the past year, IMO and ICAO have both taken up important issues related to greenhouse gas emissions from fuel used for international aviation and maritime transport. Future meetings will largely focus on technical and operational issues related to emissions, but there is also room for important policy developments in the background. We will have to wait until future meetings to know what exactly is on deck—or, perhaps also, on the runway—for the rest of 2014.
A version of this blog entry initially appeared on the International Institute for Sustainable Development Reporting Services Climate Change Policy and Practice site.
Monday, April 21, 2014
By Guest Author, Verner Wilson, III, Yale F&ES '15
The last speaker in the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy’s 2014 Climate and Energy Bookshelf speaker series is a fellow Alaskan. I have been reading journalist and author Tom Kizzia’s stories since I first started following the news as a teenager. As a reporter for Alaska’s largest newspaper, the Anchorage Daily News, Mr. Kizzia has been on the front lines of our state’s most pressing issues for years.
His recent book Pilgrim’s Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier, one of Amazon’s best books of 2013, details the strange (but true) journey of the self-proclaimed Papa Pilgrim, who established his wife and fifteen children in America’s largest national park in south-central Alaska. The Wrangell St.-Elias Park, at over thirteen million acres, is larger than the states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Jersey combined. When the Pilgrims moved there in 2002, they challenged the National Park Service’s authority to conserve the nation’s protected areas, and their attempts to bulldoze thirteen miles of road and to develop their property inside the park touched off one of the most-visible controversies between environmentalists, government officials and local land-rights advocates in a generation.
The Pilgrims story will be the focus of Mr. Kizzia’s lecture "Frontier Gothic: Transcendentalists, Puritans, and Pilgrims in Alaska" on Wednesday April 23 at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies (also available for live stream at http://new.livestream.com/YaleFES/frontier-gothic). If you are interested in battles over national parks or protected areas, public land vs. private property disputes, religious connections to the wilderness, or Alaska’s many environmental debates, this talk is for you.
Today Wrangell St. Elias Park, with about 25 percent of its land is covered by glaciers, is a hotbed not only for the land conflicts between the federal government and the region’s sparse inhabitants, but also a nexus between climate change and its impacts on wilderness areas. The National Park Service and other organizations, such as the National Parks Conservation Association, are monitoring how climate change is impacting the area’s glaciers and weather. They claim melting glaciers and ice within the region are uncovering many Native American and former mining industry artifacts that were left after the area’s early 1900s copper mining rush, artifacts that archaeologists are trying to preserve amidst global change. I look forward to seeing everyone at the lecture.
Verner Wilson, III, is a first-year Master of Environmental Management candidate at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He is originally from Bristol Bay, Alaska, and obtained a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies in 2008 from Brown University. He previously worked for the World Wildlife Fund, as well as a coalition of Alaska Native tribes, on issues related to sustainable wild salmon fisheries, environmental justice, mining, oil and gas, and climate change.
Monday, April 14, 2014
By Guest Author, Avana Andrade, Yale F&ES '15
On Wednesday, April 16, we will continue our conversation about the farm bill and the future of farming with Ariane Lotti, assistant policy director at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. Lotti will speak with us about how the 2014 farm bill shapes emerging alternative food systems and will give us insight into spaces for subsidy reform in the coming years.
A farm subsidy is essentially a financial “safety net,” which is designed to help agricultural producers weather unstable markets from year to year. This security is intended to even out the fluctuations in market prices, demand, and weather and protect the agricultural community from collapse as a result of one or two bad years. These subsidies, however, are not disseminated broadly within the entire agricultural system of the United States. Rather, they are heavily weighted towards the five commodity crops: corn, soybean, cotton, and rice. Dairy and sugar producers are also bolstered by a separate market and cost control system.
These subsidies are government intervention in the food systems that began in the United States during the New Deal and Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 (though the United Kingdom has much earlier versions of such government action). Although these subsidies grew out of economic necessity, they have come under increasing attack in recent years. While proponents point to the need for subsidies in order to make domestic products competitive in the international market, others argue that they distort markets. This distortion, detractors hold, is not only detrimental to poor farmers in developing countries but also places excessive burden on domestic taxpayers, while incentivizing environmentally harmful agricultural practices, thereby leaving more environmentally friendly techniques underfunded.
Commodity programs dispense billions of dollars every year to farmers and in order to access these funds, farmers may put marginal land into production, a decision that can lead to overproduction, and a prompt price collapse as in the rice industry of the 1980s. Opponents of historic farm subsidies quickly point to the overuse of fertilizers and pesticides that farmers use to make marginal cropland more productive, a behavior incentivized by subsidies. The resulting nutrient loading and pollution, they argue, creates an unnecessary environmental problem.
While the 2014 Farm Bill may have upheld historic trends in maintaining an agribusiness protected by farm subsidies, it does invest more than $1.2 billion over the next five years for programs for beginning farmers, local food, and organic agriculture. The Farm Bill also “reconnects crop insurance subsidies to basic conservation requirements,” a good sign for those concerned about the impact of modern industrial agriculture on U.S. ecosystems. However, as Ariane Lotti will demonstrate, the Bill’s persistent subsidy structure leaves much to be desired if truly innovative farming practices are to take hold.
Arianne Lotti holds a Master of Environmental Management from Yale University and, in addition to her work at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, she has served as the policy director for the Organic Farming Research Foundation. Lotti is a published author and her research remains focused on organic and conventional farming in the US and in Europe. Lotti also serves on USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service Advisory Committee.
To register for Lotti’s talk, please see this link: https://www4.gotomeeting.com/register/576821455.
Our final speaker in our Frontiers in Food and Agriculture series is Sarah Carlson, research coordinator at the Practical Farmers of Iowa. Carlson will be concluding this series with her talk “Driving Sustainability: Empowering Growers with On-Farm Research.” For more information about her talk please visit our events page here:http://envirocenter.yale.edu/events. To register for this final webinar see this link: https://www4.gotomeeting.com/register/470665063.
By Guest Author, Verner Wilson III, Yale F&ES '15
University of Oregon environmental and natural resources law Professor Mary Christina Wood tries to minimize her personal travel to reduce her carbon footprint. But as a professor, she believes that it is extremely important to constantly engage with future leaders who will have to deal with the growing impacts of climate change. That is why she traveled across the nation to offer her expertise at the Yale Law School on April 3rd.
Her message to the future leaders at Yale offered a glimmer of hope and a new way of thinking about how environmental law can help battle the perils of climate change and other environmental issues. The paradigm shift that she urges the environmental community to undertake in order to help solve the climate and environmental challenges of our time is also eloquently stated in her new book Nature’s Trust: Environmental Law for a New Ecological Age.While reading her book, listening to her lecture, and having conversations with her throughout her visit at Yale, I was intrigued with this new way of thinking.
It’s no secret that the many current environmental statutes and the strategies that the environmental movement has used to try to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have failed in many ways. It was all too evident this past week in Berlin, Germany, where the world’s governments along with its most expert and credible scientists met to finalize an updated scientific report by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The report, released on Sunday April 13, is to be used for discussion at the 2015 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) conference in Paris where expectations are high for a strong international greenhouse gas reducing treaty.
In putting together the IPCC document, scientists agreed that humans are fuelingthe extreme storms and weather to which many parts of the world have fallen victim in the past decade. They also agreed that there needs to be a global shift on how we get our energy, and that moving to renewable energy sources will be critical. Yet many of the world’s political leaders used the IPCC process in Germany to try to hack away the strong language that scientists agreed on. For example, Saudi Arabia’s officials did not want the report to contain scientific findings that declare that emissions need to go down 40 to 70 percent by 2050 for the world to stay below a warming of two degrees Celsius. Saudi Arabia would stand to lose a lot if countries ultimately acted upon that language, since its economy relies heavily on the oil industry. While the language remained in the scientific document, it is unlikely to be ratified at the UNFCCC because the process requires unanimous consent.
Here in the United States, a recent Supreme Court ruling also paved the way for wealthy special intereststo influence the political process even more, which will likely have a lasting impact on climate-related law and policy. In the case McCutcheon vs. the Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court ruled earlier this month that there can be no limits on how many candidates for federal office a single private donors can give to. Under the previous rules, a donor could only give a maximum of $123,200 in federal races and parties in each two-year election cycle. Now an individual donor can give up to $3.6 million in federal U.S. Senate and House races. Thisallows rich political donors connected to the fossil fuel industry, such as coal company CEO Shaun McCutcheon who brought the suit, to have more political influence.
Professor Wood argues that because of the grip that fossil fuel interests hold on the political process, we must look at another way to fight climate change. She argues that the Public Trust Doctrine surpasses legislative and regulatory environmental efforts that have thus far failed to curb greenhouse gas emissions. The doctrine, enshrined in constitutional and common law, states that governments hold certain natural resources needed by everyone, such as clean air and water, in trust. Government officials cannot just give those resources away for private ownership, and may not permit the demise of those resources. Public officials also have a continuous duty to safeguard the long-term preservation of those resources for the benefit of future generations. Professor Wood argued that the founding fathers recognized that the people rely on clean natural resources such as wildlife and streams to exist, and that our government must act as a trustee for these resources.
Use of the doctrine for environmental protections is reaching a critical point. In a recent groundbreaking case, on December 19,2013 the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that Robinson Township in eastern Pennsylvania was allowed to ban the practice of hydrologic fracturing or “fracking” for natural gas within their jurisdiction to protect their town’s water supplies. In that decision, former Chief Justice Ronald Castille cited the Public Trust Doctrine and wrote that there are certain environmental rights that we all hold, such as a right to clean air and water, and in addition to being identified in the Pennsylvania constitution, these rights are inherent to the public at large.
The Public Trust Doctrine is currently being tested in federal court by a group of young people who argue that their rights to clean air are being compromised by increased greenhouse gas emissions. The youth are trying to force the Obama Administration to create a comprehensive Climate Recovery Plan in order to protect the “Atmospheric Trust” that they argue young people and future generations are entitled to. The Washington D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals will decide the case on May 2nd, and Professor Wood will undoubtedly be paying attention to what she believes will be a historic ruling.
Verner Wilson, III, is a first-year Master of Environmental Management candidate at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He is originally from Bristol Bay, Alaska, and obtained a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies in 2008 from Brown University. He previously worked for the World Wildlife Fund, as well as a coalition of Alaska Native tribes, on issues related to sustainable wild salmon fisheries, environmental justice, mining, oil and gas, and climate change.
Wednesday, April 09, 2014
By Guest Author, Avana Andrade, Yale F&ES '15
In response to Craig Cox’s March 26th webinar, “The Farm Bill and the Environment: Missed Opportunities and Where to Next” and audience members’ unanswered questions, I’ve dedicated this blog to looking at a variety of techniques available to farmers that reduce the environmental impact of modern farming. One might call them “sustainable” farming techniques, insofar as they implement more ecologically minded thinking into a system completely decoupled from such considerations. In the very least, these practices offer farmers concerned about what’s happening to our nation’s soil, ground- and surface waters, and insect pollinators (just to name a few) methods to mitigate the damage. While none of these practices represent a “silver bullet” solution to what we’ve come to realize is a flawed agricultural system, they are responses to the question that Craig Cox posed to listeners at the very end of his webinar: “What do we want from agriculture? Mountains of corn? Or something different, like clean water?”
Techniques such as conservation tillage, crop rotation, cover cropping, and integrated crop livestock systems fall within the sustainable agriculture paradigm and demonstrate that we are gradually articulating a response appropriate for the 21st century.
Conservation tillage is simply any form of cultivating the soil that leaves the vegetative remains of the previous years’ crop, such as corn stalks or dried stems of wheat, on the ground before and after planting. At least 30% of the soil surface must be covered with such plant material in order for benefits such as erosion reduction, water conservation, and wildlife food and cover to be realized. Conservation tillage can also reduce the energy required to till the field, thereby conserving fuel and reducing diesel emissions.
Crop rotation is a practice that farmers have long used, and is even evidenced in ancient Roman farming practices. Modern-day crop rotation typically involves rotation between just a few select plants, corn and soybean being the most common. However, rotating among even a small variety of crops from year to year, rather than planting corn every single year can bring multifold benefits to both the farmer and the environment. The alternation between corn and soybeans, or other legumes, for example, can be key in reducing pests each year. Four- or five-year rotations eliminate a steady food supply for one insect, which might not feed on the alternate crop. Legumes, furthermore, can help replenish nutrients, such as nitrogen, in the soil and, in turn, can reduce fertilizer use. In small-scale gardening, where the landowner might grow a wide variety of crops, crop rotation schedules can be an effective way to enhance soil fertility and drastically minimize the need for insecticides.
Cover cropping, or planting to cover bare soil in the off-season, can protect soil during the late fall, winter, and early spring when it is exposed to the elements. These secondary plants can provide livestock forage too. This practice is shown to increase water infiltration into soil, thereby reducing flooding and runoff, enhancing biodiversity, and attracting honeybees and other beneficial insects. For farmers, this translates into reduced erosion, better soil quality, nutrient retention, weed suppression, and even disease cycle disruption. For more detail on each of these benefits see the University of Minnesota’s Organic Risk Management chapter on rotation,found here. Plants such as hairy vetch, clover, or annual ryegrass are common cover crops. Farmers, however, are often slow to adopt cover cropping due to the extra seed cost, planting, and maintenance, all without obvious financial return.
And yet, recent studies show that crop rotation can, in fact, boost annual yield. One Iowa study indicates a “clear rotation effect resulting in higher yield levels after legumes at both sites that could not be achieved by application of up to 240 lb [nitrogen]/acre.” Another 2012 USDA study of the benefits of maintaining crop diversity shows that a more diverse system has the potential to use far less synthetic chemicals, and use them to “tune, rather than drive” the entire agricultural system. This is possible, researchers suggest, “while meeting or exceeding the performance of less diverse systems.” Although farmer uptake of cover cropping is slow, research is showing that the financial and environmental benefits might not be trivial.
To further demonstrate this point, results from one recent (2014) five-year study conducted by Iowa State University, for example, assists farmers in northwest Iowa in reducing nitrogen runoff and protecting the water source for a nearby community through cover crops, all while maintaining desired agricultural yield. In this case, researchers implemented a variety of cover cropping systems (corn/winter rye; hay/perennial grass; oat/red clover; soybean/winter wheat/corn). For more in-depth information on cover crop benefits and barriers to implementation, check out the Iowa Cover Crops Working Group, which conducts on-going research and programs related to cover crop innovation. For more information about selection and seeding methods of cover cropping, visit Purdue University’s extension resources such as their article “Cover Crops for Modern Cropping Systems.”
Another approach to sustainable agriculture is agroecology. Agroecology responds to conventional agriculture’s lack of “a deep understanding of the nature of agroecosystems” and provides methods on designing and managing agricultural systems that conserve the functioning of local and regional ecosystems. This approach aims to generate systems that are sufficiently productive but that are also socially just and economically feasible. Agroecosystems take both environmental and human realms into consideration and are understood to be “communities of plants and animals interacting with their physical and chemical environments that have been modified by people to produce food, fibre, fuel and other products for human consumption and processing.” Agroecology places an explicit emphasis on reducing external inputs and enhancing extant processes of nutrient cycling, predator/prey relationships, and symbiosis. This approach includes crop rotations and cover cropping in its suite of techniques and methods, along with polycultures, agroforestry systems, and animal integration into cropping systems. Collectively, these practices keep the soil covered for the majority of the year (achieving soil and water conservation), provide a steady supply of organic matter, enhance nutrient cycling, and encourage pest control through biological control agents (rather than chemicals).
A polyculture differs from crop rotation in its use of several crop species in the same place, growing simultaneously, thereby avoiding the hundred-acre farms planted solely in corn or soybeans. This attending crop diversity immediately offers the benefit of reducing vulnerability to pests and diseases. While the idea of incorporating greater diversity into the American farming system has certainly gained traction in recent years, the idea of polyculture is acknowledged as potentially useful, but economically very impractical since multiple crop species will demand a wider variety of watering regimes, nutrient profiles, and differing types of maintenance in general. In terms of resiliency, however, polycultures and their continued study, offer examples of systems able to withstand or respond more quickly to changes in climate or precipitation. Climate disruption poses significant challenges for conventional farming methods in the near future and developing knowledge on how to use resilient perennials and more sophisticated plant communities on farms may soon become an extremely valuable tool, and not only for US farmers.
Another practice that demonstrates the symbiosis that agroecology emphasizes is agroforestry, or the “deliberate growing of woody perennials on the same unit of land as agricultural crops and/or animals.” This premise is based on the idea that “there must be a significant interaction between the woody and nonwoody components of the system, either ecological and/or economical.” Basically, “woody” plants such as trees, shrubs, and palms, are planted within the same space and are incorporated into a single management program along with other “nonwoody” crops such as corn or alfalfa. Such a program provides an “interface” between resources provided by agriculture and forestry, and is a response to the unique combination of land uses commonly found in tropical, developing countries. However, as one might expect, this agricultural method encourages diversity on the land but also offers a host of other benefits too. Not only does “the intentional growing of trees and shrubs in combination with crops or forage” protect water resources, conserve energy, and create wildlife habitat, it also provides other useable products such as timber, fruit, nuts and feed. For more detail on practices such as alley cropping, tree gardens, aquaforestry, or protein banks see to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ Appendix on agroforestry systems and practices here.
Another elaboration on this theme of interconnectivity between a locally diverse agricultural regime is the integrated crop-livestock system. While a diversified system simply involves distinct crop and livestock systems, these rarely inform one another. Resources, in these common farming scenarios, are not recycled. An integrated system, on the other hand, can recycle by-products such as manure extremely efficiently, since farmers can use products generated by one component to support another facet of the system. In China, for example, integrating fish production with duck, geese, chickens, sheep, cattle or pigs has been shown to boost fish production by 2 to 3.9 times. Here, farmers use livestock manure as feed for fish and zooplankton, as well as fertilizer for grass and other plants. Farmers irrigate the vegetables from the fishponds, which produces, in turn, livestock feed. This particular example may only be feasible in specific climates, but it demonstrates the broader concept of an integrated livestock system. In Southeast Asia, an integrated system might involve livestock grazing under oil palm, a practice that utilizes previously unused ground vegetation, thereby increasing overall farm production while saving 40% of the cost of weed control. In these cases, livestock not only contribute nutrients for the land and a fuel source for the farmers through their manure, but represent a “savings account” for the farmer too. These cases may not reflect the reality of agriculture in the US, but the concept and potential for greater integration on and between previously divided farms is, perhaps, a viable one as policymakers and farmers explore new ways to make US agricultural more sustainable. For more detail on project design and integrated systems in general, see the report “Integrated Crop-Livestock Farming Systems” by the International Fund for Agricultural Development.
The applicability of such a concept in the US context is not entirely far-fetched. According to one 2007 Agronomy Journal study “Integrated Crop-Livestock Systems in the Southeastern USA,” there are many possibilities for building integrated crop-livestock systems into American agriculture. In particular, the southeastern US, due to its mild climate, has great potential for expansion of integrated agricultural systems. The essential elements of a successful integrated crop-livestock system are practices already covered, namely crop rotation, cover cropping, intercropping, and conservation tillage. If cover crops are grazed, however, this would provide an immediate economic benefit to farmers, especially when considering the financial barrier to practicing cover cropping. According to the same 2007 Agronomy Journal study, research in the Coastal Plain and Piedmont regions indicates that integrated crop-livestock systems can protect soil and water resources by reducing external inputs, while maintaining, if not increasing, economic return.
Such alternative practices to modern and “conventional” agriculture point to the ecological necessity of such integrated modes of thinking and the economic feasibility in such an approach. Craig Cox’s discussion highlighted the ways in which the US Farm Bill’s subsidies endorse environmentally destructive agricultural methods. A cursory look into more sustainable techniques broadens our view as to what is physically possible and suggests that we don’t have to accept the manner in which our food is grown according to the oft-heard argument that any alternative whatsoever is economically unrealistic.
For those interested in engaging further in this discussion, be sure to listen to our final webinar in the series. On April 22, Sarah Carlson, the research coordinator at the Practical Farmers of Iowa, will be speaking about helping farmers make science-driven choices that minimize their ecological impact in her talk: “Driving Sustainability: Empowering Growers with On-Farm Research” (12 pm EST). You can register for this event here: https://www4.gotomeeting.com/register/470665063.
For a recording of Craig Cox’s presentation please see this link: https://vimeo.com/91476388
To see the rest of our line up for the Frontiers in Food and Agriculture webinar, please see our events page here.