Farm Bill Conservation Programs Are ‘Essential for Great Lakes Restoration’
As the U.S. Congress deliberates the final shape of the 2012 Farm Bill—which contains the largest source of conservation funding in the federal budget—the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition is urging federal public officials to support strong conservation provisions which are essential to restore the Great Lakes.
Farm Bill conservation programs protect water quality by providing financial support to farmers to take specific actions on their farms to protect the environment, such as protecting wildlife habitat or controlling pollution. These programs are instrumental in helping prevent manure and excessive fertilizer from flowing off of farm fields and into rivers, streams and the Great Lakes, which can cause toxic algae blooms, which close beaches, kill fish and harm local businesses.
The primary agriculture and food policy tool of the federal government, the Farm Bill awards more than $500 million per year to farmers in the Great Lakes states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
“Farm conservation programs are essential for Great Lakes restoration,” said Jeff Skelding, director of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition. “Farm conservation programs are producing results, but there is more work to do. We thank Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Ranking Member Pat Roberts (R-KS) and House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) and Ranking Member Colin Peterson (D-MN) for their leadership to work collaboratively to revise the Farm Bill. We are excited to work with the Great Lakes congressional delegation to pass a strong 2012 Farm Bill that is good for people, the Great Lakes and the economy.”
The U.S. Congress is looking to revise the federal Farm Bill for the first time since 2008. The U.S. Senate passed the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012 (S. 3240) June 21. The House Committee on Agriculture passed the Federal Agriculture and Risk Management (H.R. 6083) July 12. The current Farm Bill expires September 30.
U.S. House and Senate versions of the Farm Bill contain about $58 billion for rural conservation programs—a cut of roughly 10 percent from the 2008 Farm Bill. The bills also contain a new regional partnership program that targets conservation funding to as many as eight priority conservation regions, including the Great Lakes region. The new program could provide approximately $7.8 million per year in additional Farm Bill funds for conservation work.
2012 Farm Bill—House 2012 Farm Bill—Senate 2008 Farm Bill
Conservation funding (over 10 years) $58.01 $57.7 billion $65 billion
Conservation cuts (over 10 years) $6.06 billion $6.37 billion NA
Partnership Program (over 10 years) $1 billion $1 billion NA
“Congressional champions like Sen. Stabenow and other Senate and House leaders have helped to hold the line against further cuts to these successful programs,” said Gildo Tori, director of public policy for Ducks Unlimited. “Programs like the Wetlands Reserve Program provide a tremendous benefit by improving water quality and providing important wildlife habitat. Farm Bill programs benefit farmers, the Great Lakes and the economy.”
The Senate Farm Bill also contains strong conservation policies, including conservation compliance, which is a covenant between farmers and taxpayers: To receive federal financial assistance, farmers must embrace simple conservation practices, refraining from farming highly erodible soils or draining wetlands on their property. These steps are critical for reducing soil erosion, protecting wetlands, reducing downstream flooding risk and decreasing nutrients into rivers, lakes and streams.
“Conservation compliance is a common sense,” said Julie Sibbing, director of agriculture and forestry programs at the National Wildlife Federation. “It is unfair to ask taxpayers to help fund insurance for farmers while these same farmers are increasing the risk to downstream communities. This provision is a wise move for the environment and economy.”
The national discussion about the direction of the Farm Bill comes amidst an historic federal effort to restore the Great Lakes. For the last three years, the U.S. Congress and Obama administration have worked together in a bi-partisan manner to invest more than $1 billion to clean up the lakes through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which funds projects to clean up toxic pollution, prevent polluted run-off, restore habitat and wetlands and confront the introduction of aquatic invasive species like the Asian carp. Some of the money from the initiative flows through federal Farm Bill programs, which pays farmers to set aside fields as wetlands or conservation reserves, or to better manage their fertilizer or waste.
“Farm Bill conservation programs work and need to continue,” said Ron Wyss, a farmer in Ada, Ohio, who is receiving Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funds to prevent and manage run-off on his farm. “Farmers can play an important roll in protecting and restoring water quality if we have the right policies in place.”
Farm bill programs also create jobs and save taxpayers money: Less pollution and sediment from farms means lower costs for water treatment and dredging.
“Great Lakes restoration and farm conservation go hand-in-hand,” said Joe Logan, director of agriculture programs for the Ohio Environmental Council. “Farmers have a unique role to play in protecting our Lakes, our drinking water and our way of life.”
A 2011 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service found that conservation tillage and other conservation practices have resulted in a 50 percent decline in sediment entering rivers and streams that flow into the Great Lakes. It also found 36 percent and 37 percent declines, respectively, in phosphorus and nitrogen loading.
"Farm Bill conservation programs are producing results like preserving access to areas to hunt waterfowl and cleaner, healthier drinking water for families in communities all across the region," said Chad Lord, policy director for the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition. "Congress has an opportunity to pass a bill this year that supports progress and creates jobs that benefits millions of people across the region. They must act now before the problems get worse and more costly to solve."
The Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition consists of more than 120 environmental, conservation and outdoor recreation organizations, zoos, aquariums and museums representing millions of people, whose common goal is to restore and protect the Great Lakes. Learn more by clicking here.
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By Emily Grubert
Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
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What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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