12 Innovations to Combat Drought, Improve Food Security and Stabilize Food Prices
Soaring temperatures and low precipitation could not occur at a worse time for many farmers in the U.S.
Intensifying drought conditions are affecting corn and soybean crops throughout the Midwest, raising grain prices as well as concerns about future food prices. The U.S. Drought Monitor reports that 88 percent of this year’s corn crop and 77 percent of the soybean crop are now affected by the most severe drought since 1988. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is providing drought assistance to 1,584 counties across 32 states and warns of increased food prices in 2013 as a result of corn and soybean yield losses.
Corn is currently selling at around $9 a bushel, a 50 percent increase from June, while soybeans are selling at a record high of $17 a bushel as a result of drought-related losses in crop yields. “The increased prices may benefit farmers in the short run,” said Danielle Nierenberg, director of the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet project, “but consumers will experience the aftermath of price increases in the form of more money spent on poultry, beef, pork and dairy products.”
Nearly half of all domestic corn production is used as livestock feed, a trend that is now encouraging larger livestock producers to import corn from Brazil while smaller farmers must reduce herd sizes by sending more animals to the market. Most immediately, poultry prices are expected to rise 3.5 to 4.5 percent due to the animals’ more rapid growth and therefore more sudden response to higher feed prices. The price of beef is projected to rise the highest—4 to 5 percent by November—but at a slower rate, reflecting the longer growth period and higher feed requirements of beef cattle.
Higher U.S. grain prices could have an even greater impact worldwide. The U.S. is the world’s largest corn producer as well as a major exporter of crop-derived agricultural products. Declining domestic production could translate into exacerbated food security problems abroad. Countries that import corn and soybean byproducts or animal feed, such as Japan and Mexico, will be affected the most.
Climate change is making it increasingly important to protect local agriculture in the U.S. and address the issues underlying its vulnerability to natural disasters, such as drought. “Fixing our broken food system is about more than just food prices,” said Nierenberg. “It’s about better management of natural resources, equitable distribution and the right to healthy and nutritious food.”
The Nourishing the Planet project highlights 12 agricultural innovations that can help make the U.S. and global agriculture more drought resilient, as well as sustainable.
1. Agroforestry: Planting trees in and around farms reduces soil erosion by providing a natural barrier against strong winds and rainfall. Tree roots also stabilize and nourish soils. The 1990 Farm Bill established the USDA National Agroforestry Center with the expressed aim of encouraging farmers to grow trees as windbreaks or as part of combined forage and livestock production, among other uses.
2. Soil management: Alternating crop species allows soil periods of rest, restores nutrients and also controls pests. Soil amendments, such as biochar, help soils retain moisture near the surface by providing a direct source of water and nutrients to plant roots, even in times of drought.
3. Increasing crop diversity: Mono-cropping often exposes crops to pests and diseases associated with overcrowding, and can increase market dependence on a few varieties: in the U.S., almost 90 percent of historic fruit and vegetable varieties have vanished in favor of mono-cultured staples such as Pink Lady apples and Yukon Gold potatoes. Encouraging diversity through agricultural subsidies and informed consumption choices can help reverse this trend and the threat it poses to domestic food security.
4. Improving food production from existing livestock: Improved animal husbandry practices can increase milk and meat quantities without the need to increase herd sizes or associated environmental degradation. In India, farmers are improving the quality of their feed by using grass, sorghum, stover and brans to produce more milk from fewer animals. This also reduces pressure on global corn supplies.
5. Diversifying livestock breeds: Most commercial farming operations rely on a narrow range of commercial breeds selected for their high productivity and low input needs. Selective breeding, however, has also made these breeds vulnerable to diseases and changing environments. Lesser-known livestock such as North American Bison are often hardier and produce richer milk.
6. “Meatless Mondays”: Choosing not to eat meat at least one day a week will reduce the environmental impacts associated with livestock as well as increase food availability in domestic and global markets. Current production methods require 7 kilograms of grain and 100,000 liters of water for every 1 kilogram of meat. Livestock production accounts for an estimated 18 percent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions and roughly 23 percent of agricultural water use worldwide.
7. Smarter irrigation systems: The Ogallala High Plains Aquifer, which supplies essential groundwater to many Midwestern states, is experiencing record rates of depletion due to extraction for irrigation purposes. Almost 50 percent of commercial and residential irrigation water, however, is wasted due to evaporation, wind, improper design and overwatering. Installing water sensors or micro-irrigation technology and planning water-efficient gardens or farms using specific crops and locations can significantly reduce water scarcity problems.
8. Integrated farming systems: Farming systems, such as permaculture, improve soil fertility and agricultural productivity by using natural resources as sustainably and efficiently as possible. Research and implementation of permaculture techniques, such as recycling wastewater or planting groups of plants that utilize the same resources in related ways, are expanding rapidly across the U.S.
9. Agroecological and organic farming: Organic and agroecological farming methods are designed to build soil quality and promote plant and animal health in harmony with local ecosystems. Research shows that they can increase sustainable yield goals by 50 percent or more with relatively few external inputs. In contrast, genetic engineering occasionally increases output by 10 percent, often with unanticipated impacts on crop physiology and resistance.
10. Supporting small-scale farmers: Existing agricultural subsidies in the U.S. cater disproportionately to large-scale agribusinesses, 80 percent of which produce corn for animal feed and ethanol. This means that small-scale producers are affected more acutely by natural disasters and fluctuating commodity prices, even though they are more likely to be involved in food production. Government extension and support services should be adjusted to alleviate this deficit.
11. Re-evaluating ethanol subsidies: Although ethanol’s share of U.S. gasoline is still relatively small (projected at 15–17 percent by 2030), in 2009 the Congressional Budget Office reported that increased demand for corn ethanol has, at times, contributed to 10–15 percent of the rise in food prices. Encouraging clean energy alternatives to crop-based biofuels will increase the amount of food available for consumption, both at home and abroad
12. Agricultural Research and Development (R&D): The share of agricultural R&D undertaken by the U.S. public sector fell from 54 percent in 1986 to 28 percent in 2009, and private research has filled the gap. Private companies, however, are often legally bound to maximize economic returns for investors, raising concerns over scientific independence and integrity. Increased government funding and support for agricultural research, development and training programs can help address issues such as hunger, malnutrition and poverty without being compromised by corporate objectives.
Although food prices will certainly continue to rise as the current drought runs its course, it is clear that the U.S. has the knowledge and the know-how to make its agricultural system more sustainable and food secure. It’s now a question of putting these innovations to work.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Jim Palardy
As 2021 dawns, people, ecosystems, and wildlife worldwide are facing a panoply of environmental issues. In an effort to help experts and policymakers determine where they might focus research, a panel of 25 scientists and practitioners — including me — from around the globe held discussions in the fall to identify emerging issues that deserve increased attention.
Ask a Scientist: What Should the Biden Administration and Congress Do to Address the Climate Crisis?
By Elliott Negin
What a difference an election makes. Thanks to the Biden-Harris victory in November, the next administration is poised to make a 180-degree turn to again address the climate crisis.
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By Suresh Dhaniyala and Byron Erath
A fast-spreading variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has been found in at least 10 states, and people are wondering: How do I protect myself now?
Airborne Particles Are Still the Biggest Problem<p>The <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-it-matters-that-the-coronavirus-is-changing-and-what-this-means-for-vaccine-effectiveness-152383" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">SARS-CoV-2 variants</a> are believed to spread primarily through the air rather than on surfaces.</p><p>When someone with the coronavirus in their respiratory tract coughs, talks, sings or even just breathes, infectious respiratory droplets can be expelled into the air. These droplets are tiny, predominantly in the range of <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0021850211001200?casa_token=KtyrsEfbeqcAAAAA:vv10sSxm33tzg0EQvNMIFtV7GCu5gE9QAzuyzHKr2_4Cl0OFkUJoGwzn4d0ZnEWS19NsOTuH" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">1-100 micrometers</a>. For comparison, a human hair is about 70 micrometers in diameter.</p><p>The larger droplets fall to the ground quickly, rarely traveling farther than 6 feet from the source. The bigger problem for disease transmission is the tiniest droplets – those less than 10 micrometers in diameter – which can remain suspended in the air as aerosols for <a href="https://academic.oup.com/cid/article/50/5/693/325466" target="_blank">hours at a time</a>.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="bb67b83dcafe589f350daf3df60fa29d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/UNCNM7AZPFg?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
What Can You Do to Stay Safe?<p>1) Pay attention to the type of face mask you use, and how it fits.</p><p>Most off-the-shelf face coverings are not 100% effective at preventing droplet emission. With the new variant spreading more easily and likely infectious at lower concentrations, it's important to select coverings with materials that are most effective at stopping droplet spread.</p><p>When available, N95 and surgical masks consistently perform the best. Otherwise, face coverings that use <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352431620301802?casa_token=-Dj6nGBAm24AAAAA:qq9BpbzCKaPDFcV73ohA2fCnhE_Zlkss6Bei3kUwq9QYndhHj0Vafbbd-ef_855lx6knDfUt" target="_blank">multiple layers of material</a> are preferable. Ideally, the material should be a tight weave. High thread count cotton sheets are an example. Proper fit is also crucial, as gaps around the nose and mouth can <a href="https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acsnano.0c03252" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">decrease the effectiveness by 50%</a>.</p><p>2) Follow social distancing guidelines.</p><p>While the current social distancing guidelines are not perfect – <a href="https://theconversation.com/what-a-smoky-bar-can-teach-us-about-the-6-foot-rule-during-the-covid-19-pandemic-145517" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">6 feet isn't always enough</a> – they do offer a useful starting point. Because aerosol concentrations levels and infectivity are highest in the space immediately surrounding anyone with the virus, increasing physical distancing can help reduce risk. Remember that people are infectious <a href="https://medical.mit.edu/faqs/COVID-19#faq-10" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">before they start showing symptoms</a>, and they many never show symptoms, so don't count on seeing signs of illness.</p><p>3) Think carefully about the environment when entering an enclosed area, both the ventilation and how people interact.</p><p>Limiting the size of gatherings helps reduce the potential for exposure. Controlling indoor environments in other ways can also be a highly effective strategy for reducing risk. This includes <a href="https://theconversation.com/what-a-smoky-bar-can-teach-us-about-the-6-foot-rule-during-the-covid-19-pandemic-145517" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">increasing ventilation rates</a> to bring in <a href="https://theconversation.com/keeping-indoor-air-clean-can-reduce-the-chance-of-spreading-coronavirus-149512" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">fresh air and filtering existing air</a> to dilute aerosol concentrations.</p><p>On a personal level, it is helpful to pay attention to the types of interactions that are taking place. For example, many individuals shouting can create a higher risk than one individual speaking. In all cases, it's important to minimize the amount of time spent indoors with others.</p><p>The CDC has warned that B.1.1.7 could <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/70/wr/mm7003e2.htm?s_cid=mm7003e2_w" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">become the dominant SARS-CoV-2 variant</a> in the U.S. by March. Other fast-spreading variants have also been found in <a href="https://virological.org/t/genomic-characterisation-of-an-emergent-sars-cov-2-lineage-in-manaus-preliminary-findings/586" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Brazil</a> and <a href="https://www.who.int/csr/don/31-december-2020-sars-cov2-variants/en/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">South Africa</a>. Increased vigilance and complying with health guidelines should continue to be of highest priority.</p>
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By Tara Lohan
A key part of the United States' clean energy transition has started to take shape, but you may need to squint to see it. About 2,000 wind turbines could be built far offshore, in federal waters off the Atlantic Coast, in the next 10 years. And more are expected.
Threats to Birds<p>One of the gravest threats facing birds is climate change, according to Audubon, which found that rising temperatures threaten <a href="https://www.audubon.org/2019climateissue" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">nearly two-thirds of North America's bird species</a>. That's why the impending development of offshore wind is a good thing, says Shilo Felton, a field manager in the organization's Clean Energy Initiative, but it also comes with dangers to birds that need to be better studied and mitigated.</p><p>The most obvious risk comes from birds colliding with spinning turbine blades. But offshore wind developments can also displace birds from foraging or roost sites, as well as migratory pathways.</p><p>Along the Atlantic Coast four imperiled species are of top concern to conservationists: the endangered piping plover, red knot, roseate tern and black-capped petrel, which is being considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act.</p><p>"Those four species are of utmost importance to make sure that we understand the impacts," says Felton. "But beyond that there are many species that are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act that could potentially see more impacts from offshore wind."</p><p>Northern gannets, for example, are at risk not just for collision but <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/308703197_Possible_impacts_of_offshore_wind_farms_on_seabirds_a_pilot_study_in_Northern_Gannets_in_the_southern_North_Sea" target="_blank">habitat displacement</a>.</p>
A northern gannet flying along Cape May, N.J. Ann Marie Morrison / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>"There's <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0006320716303196" target="_blank">some evidence</a> that they just won't use areas where turbines are, but that also excludes them from key foraging areas," says Felton. Researchers are still studying what this may mean for the birds. But a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0141113620305304" target="_blank">study</a> published in December 2020 conducted at Bass Rock, Scotland — home to the world's largest northern gannet colony — found that wind developments could reduce their growth rate, though not enough to cause a population decline.</p><p>Other birds, such as great cormorants and European shags, are <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0006320716303196" target="_blank">attracted to wind developments</a> and use the infrastructure to rest while opening up new foraging areas farther from shore.</p><p>"There's plenty of potential for a bird to use a wind farm and still to avoid the turbines themselves," says Felton.</p><p>Birds like pelicans, however, are less versatile in their movements and are at particular risk of collision because of their flight pattern, she says.</p><p>But how disruptive or dangerous offshore turbines will be along the East Coast isn't yet known.</p><p>Federal and state agencies, along with nongovernmental organizations, says Felton, have done good research to try to better understand those potential impacts. "But these are all theoretical, because we don't have a lot of offshore wind yet in the United States."</p>
Threats to Ocean Life<p>Birds aren't the only wildlife of concern. More development in ocean waters could affect a litany of marine species, some of which are already facing other pressures from overfishing, pollution, habitat destruction and climate change.</p><p>Scientists have found that marine mammals like whales and dolphins could be disturbed by the jarring sounds of construction, especially if pile driving is used to hammer the steel turbine platform into the seafloor.</p><p>The noises, though short-lived, could impede communication between animals, divert them from migration routes or cause them to seek less suitable areas for feeding or breeding. Research from Europe found that harbor porpoises, seals and dolphins may avoid development areas during construction. In most, but <a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/7/4/045101" target="_blank">not all cases</a>, the animals were believed to have returned to the area following construction.</p><p>The biggest concern for conservation groups in the United States is the critically endangered North American right whale. There are fewer than 400 remaining, and the species' habitat overlaps with a number of planned wind development areas along the East Coast.</p><p>"Offshore wind is in no way the cause of the challenges the whales face, but it's going to be another pressure point," says John Rogers, senior energy analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists.</p><p>Researchers aren't sure how right whales will respond to the noise from pile driving.</p><p>"But we are concerned, based on what we know about how whales react to other noise sources, that they may avoid [wind development] areas," says Kershaw.</p><p>And if that displacement causes them to miss out on important food resources, it could be dangerous for a species already on the brink.</p><p>There are a few other potential threats, too.</p><p>Ships associated with the development — more plentiful during construction — also pose a danger. In the past few years cargo ships, fishing boats and other vessels have caused half of all deaths of North Atlantic right whales.</p>
A juvenile right whale breaches against the backdrop of a ship near the St. Johns River entrance. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission / NOAA Research Permit #775-1600-10<p>And after construction, the noise from the spinning turbines will be present in the water at low decibels. "We don't quite know how the great whales will react to those sounds," says Jeremy Firestone, the director of the Center for Research in Wind at the University of Delaware.</p><p>Other marine mammals may also perceive the noise, but at low decibels it's unlikely to be an impediment, <a href="http://www.int-res.com/abstracts/meps/v309/p279-295/" target="_blank">research has found</a>.</p><p>And it's possible that wind development could help some ocean life. Turbine foundations can attract fish and invertebrates for whom hard substrates create habitat complexity — known as the "reef effect," according to researchers from the University of Rhode Island's <a href="https://dosits.org/animals/effects-of-sound/anthropogenic-sources/wind-turbine/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Discovery of Sound in the Sea</a> program. Exclusion of commercial fishing nearby may also help shelter fish and protect marine mammals from entanglements in fishing gear.</p>
Ensuring Safe Development<p>Despite the potential dangers, researchers have gathered a few best practices to help diminish and possibly eliminate some risks.</p><p>When it comes to ship strikes, the easiest thing is to slow boats down, mandating a speed of <a href="https://biologicaldiversity.org/w/news/press-releases/vessel-speed-limits-sought-protect-endangered-north-atlantic-right-whales-2020-08-06/" target="_blank">10 knots</a> in wind development areas, and using visual and acoustic monitoring for whales.</p><p>Adjusting operations to reduce boat trips between the shore and the wind development will also help. A new series of service operating vessels can allow maintenance staff to spent multiple days onsite, says Kershaw, cutting down on boat traffic.</p><p>For construction noise concerns, developers can avoid pile driving during times of the year when whales are present. And, depending on the marine environment, developers could use "quiet foundations" that don't require pile driving. These include gravity-based or suction caisson platforms.</p><p>Floating turbines are also used in deep water, where they're effectively anchored in place — although that poses its own potential danger. "We have concerns that marine debris could potentially become entangled around the mooring cables of the floating arrays and pose a secondarily entanglement risk to some species," says Felton, who thinks more research should be conducted before those become operational in U.S. waters — a process that's already underway in Maine, where a <a href="https://composites.umaine.edu/2020/08/05/diamond-offshore-wind-rwe-renewables-join-the-university-of-maine-to-lead-development-of-maine-floating-offshore-wind-demonstration-project/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">demonstration project is being built</a>.</p><p>If loud noises are unavoidable during construction, noise-reducing technologies such as bubble curtains can help dampen the sound. And scheduling adjacent projects to conduct similar work at the same time could limit the duration of disturbances.</p>
The foundation installation of the off shore wind farm Sandbank using a bubble curtain. Vattenfall / Ulrich Wirrwa / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>Once turbines become operational, reducing the amount of light on wind platforms or using flashing lights could help deter some seabirds, NRDC <a href="https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/harnessing-wind-advance-wind-power-offshore-ib.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers reported</a>. And scientists are exploring using ultrasonic noises and ultraviolet lighting to keep bats away. "Feathering," or shutting down the turbine blades during key migration times, could also help prevent fatalities.</p><p>"We need to make sure that offshore wind is the best steward it can be of the marine ecosystem, because we want and expect it to be a significant part of the clean energy picture in some parts of the country," says Rogers. "We also have to recognize that we're going to learn by doing, and that some of these things we're going to figure out best once we have more turbines in the water."</p><p>That's why environmental groups say it's important to establish baseline information on species before projects begin, and then require developers to conduct monitoring during construction and for years after projects are operational.</p><p>Employing an "adaptive management framework" will ensure that developers can adjust their management practices as they go when new information becomes available, and that those best practices are incorporated into the requirements for future projects.</p>
Putting Research Into Action<p>Advancing these conversations at the federal level during the Trump administration, though, has been slow going.</p><p>"We didn't really have any productive discussions with the administration in the last four years," says Kershaw.</p><p>And when it comes to birds, Felton says the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management's recently completed "draft cumulative environmental impact statement" covering offshore wind developments had a lot of good environmental research, but little focus on birds.</p><p>"Part of that comes from the current administration's interpretation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act," she says.</p><p>President Trump has been hostile to both wind energy <em>and</em> birds, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/05/climate/trump-migratory-bird-protections.html" target="_blank">and finished gutting the Migratory Bird Treaty Act</a> in his administration's the final days, removing penalties for companies whose operations kill migratory birds.</p><p>There's hope that the Biden administration will take a different approach. But where the federal government has been lacking lately, Kershaw says, they've seen states step up.</p><p>New York, for example, has established an <a href="https://www.nyetwg.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Environmental Technical Working Group</a> composed of stakeholders to advise on environmentally responsible development of offshore wind.</p><p>The group is led by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, but it isn't limited to the Empire State. It's regional in focus and includes representatives from wind developers with leases between Massachusetts and North Carolina; state agencies from Massachusetts to Virginia; federal agencies; and science-based environmental NGOs.</p><p>New York's latest solicitation for clean energy projects includes up to 2,500 megawatts of offshore wind and <a href="https://www.nyetwg.com/announcements" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">requires developers</a> to contribute at least $10,000 per megawatt for regional monitoring of fisheries and other wildlife.</p><p>Environmental groups have also worked directly with developers, including an agreement with Vineyard Wind — an 800-megawatt project off the Massachusetts coast that could be the first utility-scale wind development in federal waters — to help protect North Atlantic right whales.</p><p>The agreement includes no pile driving from Jan. 1 to April 30, ceasing activities at other times when whales are visually or acoustically identified in the area, speed restrictions on vessels, and the use of noise reduction technology, such as a bubble curtain during pile driving.</p><p>"The developers signed the agreement with us, and then they incorporated, most, if not all of those measures into the federal permitting documents," says Kershaw. "The developers really did a lot of bottom up work to make sure that they were being very protective of right whales."</p><p>Environmental groups are in talks with other developers on agreements too, but Felton wants to see best practices being mandated at the federal level.</p><p>"It's the sort of a role that should be being played by the federal government, and without that it makes the permitting and regulation process less stable and less transparent," she says." And that in turn slows down the build out of projects, which is also bad for birds because it doesn't help us address and mitigate for climate change."</p><p>Kershaw agrees there's a lot more work to be done, especially at the federal level, but thinks we're moving in the right direction.</p><p>"I think the work that's been done so far in the United States has really laid the groundwork for advancing this in the right way and in a way that's protective of species and the environment," she says. "At the same time, it's important that offshore wind does advance quickly. We really need it to help us combat the worst effects of climate change."</p><p><em><a href="https://therevelator.org/author/taralohan/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tara Lohan</a> is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis.</em></p><p><em style="">Reposted with permission from <a href="https://therevelator.org/offshore-wind-wildlife" target="_blank" style="">The Revelator</a>. </em></p>
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