In the mid-1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the U. S. Forest Service to plant millions of tall trees throughout the Midwest, from the Dakotas down to Texas, in an effort to curb the topsoil erosion that contributed to the Dust Bowl’s drought and destruction. But, as reported by Carson Vaughan for Food & Environment Reporting Network in 2017, those rows of trees, which at the time formed 18,000 miles of windbreaks on 33,000 farms, are now at risk as farmers remove them in favor of expanding their arable land.
According to Vaughan, economic pressure has caused many Plains farmers to uproot the trees, as the immediate payoff outweighs conservation concerns. Plus, farmers now use an array of tactics to prevent erosion, including no-till farming and cover cropping. But this ongoing shelterbelt conversion may remove critical protection that’s needed in the face of modern-day climate change risks, such as prolonged drought and aquifer depletion.
Beyond controlling erosion, shelterbelts can also buffer cold winter winds, retain moisture, produce fuel in the form of firewood, provide shade, and increase biodiversity. Farmers who want to go against the grain and plant or restore shelterbelts can contact their local extension offices or forest services to receive assistance with choosing species, design, density, and orientation.
Read more about the shelterbelt shift by searching for “Great Wall of Trees” on the Food & Environment Reporting Network website.
Clean Energy Targets
As polluting fossil fuels become more scarce and renewables become more cost competitive, a number of U.S. states, districts, and territories have taken a localized approach toward a sustainable energy future by decarbonizing their energy supplies ahead of federal mandates.
A handful of states have passed laws; others have set goals. According to online solar marketplace EnergySage, some states are reaching for “100 percent renewable energy,” or energy only from renewable sources, and others are pursuing “100 percent clean energy,” indicating their acceptance of nonrenewable but carbon-free sources of power, such as nuclear. The deadlines for these policies vary from state to state, with most states aiming for the 2040 to 2050 range.
Hawaii was the first state to make headway on state-specific renewable energy goals, passing a bill in 2015 that mandates 100 percent renewable energy by 2045. In 2018, New Jersey‘s governor issued an executive order for 100 percent clean energy by 2050. And in January 2019, Washington, D.C., did the same, committing to 100 percent renewable energy by 2032, the most ambitious target to date.
And that ambition is contagious. The Union of Concerned Scientists identifies the 2018 election season and rising bipartisan support of renewables as factors that pushed a slew of states and territories to follow suit in quick succession, with several of them passing laws or setting goals in 2019. For instance, Puerto Rico and Maine each passed a law committing to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050.
New York has passed a law pledging to use 100 percent clean energy by 2040; California, New Mexico, and Washington have done the same, with a target of 2045; and Nevada also aims to achieve 100 percent clean energy, with an end date of 2050.
Finally, the governors of Minnesota and Wisconsin have each set a goal of 100 percent renewable energy in their states by 2050.
In 2018, climate scientists with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report stating that humans have until 2030 to make the changes needed to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius — any higher, and the negative impacts on humans, animals, sea level rise, weather patterns, arctic sea ice, and coral reefs will be significantly greater. This report raised the profile and perceived urgency of climate policy, and it established that dramatically reducing carbon emissions is one critical action that nations will have to take. And states can lead the way — after the United States withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement in 2017, 25 states formed a bipartisan coalition, The United States Climate Alliance, to continue to participate in the global effort to reduce emissions. The political leaders of these states have committed to pursuing policies to reduce carbon pollution in line with the Paris Climate Agreement requirements. While most states with existing “100 percent” targets are aiming for dates later than 2030, they’re still at the forefront of demonstrating how changes can be made, and how other states can follow suit.
To read more about states’ and territories’ carbon-free targets, as well as those of U.S. cities and counties, search for “100 percent Commitments” on the Sierra Club’s website.
Soil to Sanctuary
In Baltimore, Maryland, the Black Church Food Security Network has built an alternative food system that supports black farmers and historically African American congregations. At Soil to Sanctuary Community Market at Pleasant Hope Baptist Church, producers gain the support of regular customers who come by after worship services, and those customers, in turn, receive increased food security. Plus, the church serves as a hub where food donations are processed and distributed around the city. The Network’s efforts are directed at food-insecure communities and fueled by the conviction that food and land sovereignty is essential to the empowerment of black communities.
In addition to operating the market, the Network’s mission also includes creating and expanding church gardens through its Operation Higher Ground program, and leading educational sessions on environmental stewardship and food justice. It provides financial and technical assistance to congregations that are interested in starting a farm or garden of their own, and it connects those congregations with volunteers and expert growers. So far, 10 churches have cultivated their own plots for food production. Reverend Heber Brown III, who founded the Network, says, “Church-owned gardens create a platform for people to learn more about the food system while they participate in being their own solution to the problem of food apartheid.”
Wild ducks searching for a place to lay their eggs will often settle down in fields of tall crops, such as wheat or alfalfa, which provide ample shelter and access to water. But these farmed plots aren’t as protected as they seem to the ducks — when farming equipment comes in to harvest, it wreaks havoc on hidden nests, breaking the eggs before they’ve hatched.
So, in 2014, California Waterfowl developed a program to rescue these nests from destruction. Farmers can enroll in the program to receive support in collecting eggs before they harvest, or to recruit volunteers to sweep a field for eggs as harvesting is underway. The rescued eggs are taken to hatcheries, where they’re incubated until the ducklings emerge. The ducklings are then fostered for 5 to 7 weeks, though handlers keep contact at a minimum so the birds can be released back into the wild. So far, the program has led to the rescue of 18,000 ducklings.
Waterfowl biologist Jason Coslovich says that enrolled farmers — many of whom used to do this salvage work themselves — love the program, and often enroll year after year. Plus, extra incentives for their involvement are forthcoming. “We have a new wheat incentive program in the works, where we’ll pay farmers a set value per acre to delay their wheat harvest for a few weeks,” Coslovich says. “This should allow a lot of birds to hatch and raise their ducklings on their own. This may be very effective, because wheat harvest typically coincides with the end of peak nesting season, and ducklings raised by their mom have a higher survival rate.”
Because ducklings benefit from being reared by their own mothers, the program also has a team of wetland biologists who focus on restoring breeding habitats for wild ducks by generating food-rich, grassy areas where they can lay their eggs and hatch them without agricultural interruptions.
Agritourism Safety Checklists
Opening a farm, homestead, or ranch to visitors can be a lucrative — but risky — opportunity for producers to educate and entertain while giving their business a boost. Known as “agritourism,” on-farm tourist attractions include corn mazes, garden tours, and U-Pick enterprises. To establish best practices and help reduce risks, Iowa State University (ISU) Extension and Outreach has published a series of six checklists that summarize biosecurity, emergency preparedness, food safety, pesticide safety, play area safety, and negligence mitigation practices for farmers.
According to ISU Extension and Outreach program coordinator Kendra Meyer, the checklists were based on input from producers, industry experts, and field specialists, and they’re meant to give farmers a self-directed way to identify their strengths and weaknesses, and to make improvements where needed.
Download the checklists in the ISU Extension and Outreach Store.
Rodale Institute Approved
Rodale Institute is now leveraging its established sway in the sustainability world with a label that signals a product’s support of regenerative agriculture.
To earn the Rodale Institute Approved label, a brand must meet a handful of benchmarks, including organic certification by an accredited certifier, as well as using agricultural practices that improve the health of animals, humans, and soil. According to the Institute, the label’s inclusion signifies a brand’s commitment to “pasture-based animal welfare, fairness for farmers and workers, and robust requirements for soil health and land management.”
The label is an endorsement rather than a certification, and it doesn’t require an annual inspection or audit. However, it establishes a partnership between the brand and the Institute, and all approved brands must work toward fulfilling the rigorous Regenerative Organic Certification standards. Approved brands gain recognition for their efforts, and a portion of each purchase’s proceeds goes toward supporting Rodale Institute.
Your Brain on Bacteria
The link between gut bacteria and overall bodily health is well-established; studies have shown that gut microbes can affect digestion, immunity, and more. In general, we know to support and protect our microbiomes by consuming probiotic foods and avoiding the overuse of antibiotics.
But these microbes could be even more influential than previously realized. Scientists are currently researching gut bacteria’s impact on the brain, and they’re finding evidence that gut microbes may affect neurological function and mental health. One study, published in Nature Microbiology in early 2019, found that two genuses of gut bacteria, Coprococcus and Dialister, were absent in subjects with depression, even after researchers corrected for age, sex, and antidepressant use. While the correlation between these microbes and their hosts’ mental health doesn’t shed light on why gut microbes might alter brain function — and while much more research on human subjects is needed — this study and others show a potential connection between gut bacteria and the brain.