USDA Whistleblower Launches Regenerative Ag Farm to Train Next Generation of Farmers
Jonathan Lundgren built an international reputation as a leading entomologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Now, after filing a whistleblower complaint against the USDA for blocking his research on negative impacts of insecticides, Lundgren is applying his science to regenerative agriculture at Blue Dasher Farm, a new research and demonstration farm in South Dakota.
Research Showed Neonicotinoids Harmed Butterflies
Lundgren worked as a senior research entomologist at the USDA for 11 years, conducting risk assessment research on pesticides and genetically modified organisms. Last fall the agency suspended Lundgren, claiming he made an error in a travel authorization for a speaking engagement. Lundgren said the agency suspended him over his research showing negative effects on monarch butterflies from neonicotinoid insecticides.
“We discovered things that weren't particularly convenient," he said. “I saw there was a clear link to pesticide use."
Lundgren filed a whistleblower complaint against the USDA, detailing attempts by USDA managers to block publication of new research, bar discussion of results with the media and disrupt his lab's operations.
Laura Dumais, staff counsel for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which filed the complaint, said: “Dr. Lundgren is suffering the proverbial professional death by a thousand cuts precisely because of the implications of his scientific work for agribusiness."
Lundgren said he had no research agenda. “If our data showed neonics had not caused problems with monarchs, I wouldn't have any problems publishing that," he says.
The USDA tried to dismiss Lundgren's complaint, but in December a judge rejected the request, allowing it to move forward.
The legal battle may take months or years to be resolved.
USDA Whistleblower Accuses Agency of Censorship of Pesticide Research https://t.co/iOL2gJHvKo @BugLundgren @nutiva https://t.co/tgMOH9zkF1— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1451410713.0
Blue Dasher Farm to Showcase Regenerative Agriculture Practices
In the meantime, Lundgren is launching Blue Dasher Farm, which, according to the farm's website, aims to be “the first of a network of research, education and demonstration farms to bring scientific support to biodiverse food production."
“There are certain topics for the food system that I can better address outside the USDA," Lundgren said. “That drives what I am doing with Blue Dasher Farm."
Inspiration for Blue Dasher Farm came from Lundgren's research work with farmers who he said are on “the leading edge of food production" and regenerating soils.
“They didn't need a lot of inputs, fertilizers, pesticides and GMOs," he said. “They were creating farming systems that are so much more resilient to pests and climate change. I came to realize that these farmers are leading the science."
Lundgren wants to showcase regenerative agriculture methods on Blue Dasher Farm. These include cover crops to reduce weeds and insect pressure, diversified crop rotations, soil fertility practices and conservation crops to increase pollinators, such as bees, among others.
Blue Dasher Farm aims to bridge the gap between farmers and researchers.
“We want to pair agroecologists with producers and train the next generation of farmers, ranches, beekeepers and scientists," he said. “We have so much we can learn from each other."
Blue Dasher Farm won't be organic, but will encompass organic methods. “A lot of what we are doing fits into the organic model," Lundgren said. “But I don't think farmers will need to be organic to be more profitable using regenerative practices."
Changing Agriculture From the Ground Up
Lundgren believes that changes in agriculture and food production will come from the grassroots and not from top-down approaches of government, universities and corporations.
“Transformational changes need to be done to food systems and these changes come from the bottom up," he said. “We need science to innovate agriculture and not maintain the current paradigm. We want to give scientific support to grassroots efforts in regenerative agriculture."
Lundgren's project has struck a chord at the grassroots level with a successful Indiegogo crowd-funding effort for Blue Dasher Farm. His goal of $75,000 was surpassed to more than $81,000. Lundgren has also received donations of equipment and even bees.
“The response we've had so far has been so positive," he said. “Consumers and independent scientists can support the kind of research they want, instead of research that is traditionally done by government and universities, which can be easily controlled by major corporations."
National Network of Research Demonstration Farms
The 53-acre farm in Deuel County, South Dakota will be a fully operational farm that Lundgren aims to make a model of regenerative agriculture.
“Farmers can come and see the practices being used on an operating farm," he said. “We want to show how a farm can be profitable on a small acreage."
Blue Dasher Farm will initially focus on three areas: helping to solve the challenges facing honey bees with pesticides and mites, improving diversity on cattle grazing lands and enhancing soil health and crop production.
The first project will be to grow seeds for cover crops and conservation mixes.
“There's a strong need for these seeds," Lundgren said.
Looking to the long term, Lundgren aims to help establish similar research, education and demonstration farms like Blue Dasher around the U.S.
“We need a national network of research demonstration farms that are adapted to local needs," he said. “That's the vision, that's the goal."
Lundgren and his wife Jenna, who has a degree in biology, recently completed the purchase of the farm and will launch Blue Dasher Farm this spring.
“We're excited to get started," he said. “Things are happening at a fast pace."
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One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
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