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  • A man spraying pesticides California’s Bold Plan to Transform Pest Management Systems is Long on Ambition and Light on Details

    By: Chuck Benbrook, HHRA ED By: Mark Lipson, HHRA Director of Policy and Regulatory Engagement We welcomed the invitation from California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation for members of the public to offer comments and guidance as the State begins to take concrete actions needed to achieve the goals set forth in the new report Sustainable Pest Management: A Roadmap for California. Reviewing the 94-page Roadmap report reminded us how many constituencies, forces, and factors are pushing and pulling farmers, pest managers, and government agencies in multiple directions that are rarely aligned. This Roadmap document describes a very different pest management future that will hopefully become the “de facto” way pests are managed on and off the farm by 2050. If successful by 2050, prevention-based biointensive Integrated Pest Management (bioIPM) will be the norm and there will be minimal if any use of high-risk “Priority Pesticides”. Some thirty-two years ago, DPR hired Chuck Benbrook to carry out a comprehensive evaluation of DPR’s programs and policies to assist in the integration of DPR into the newly-formed Cal-EPA. The resulting report, Challenge and Change: A Progressive Approach to Pesticide Regulation in California, came out in March of 1993. It provides dozens of recommendations intended to do many of the same things that the 2023 Roadmap report hopes to bring within reach. The fact that most pest management systems in California have become more, not less reliant on pesticides over the last 30 years suggests that DPR’s and CDFA’s efforts to achieve Roadmap goals are going to entail heavy lifting, mostly uphill. For this reason in HHRA’s comments, Mark and Chuck describe the nature and substantial scope of changes in laws and policy that will be required to track progress toward Roadmap goals and hopefully, someday, achieve them.

  • Europe is Growing Organic Production, Will the US Follow Suit?

    Advocates calling for change in US Ag Inc often struggle to point to successful models through which farming and food chains have evolved toward safer and more sustainable production systems. The surest way to largely eliminate the impacts of prenatal pesticide exposure on birth outcomes and children’s development – HHRA’s foundational goals – is converting US farmland to organic production. We are often asked how such change can come about. Convincing answers to this key and important question are few and far between in the US, but some key lessons are emerging from efforts in Europe to expand organic farming and food supply chains. The Cilento organic food bio-district in Italy was established in 2009 and is thought to be the first-ever in the world. Overcoming challenges faced by organic farmers in marketing their produce was a primary driver. Municipal actions expanded demand for organic food and ingredients via public food-purchasing programs. The lure of scenic rural landscapes and strong support from the agrotourism industry for organic food and farming created new market demand. Today, organic farming is thriving in the Cilento district, profit margins have expanded, and enhanced soil health is supporting higher yields at lower costs on many farms. An action by a city council led to the formation of the Södertälje organic food system in east-central Sweden, some 35 kilometers from Stockholm. The goal was to expand the supply of organic products for public food-procurement programs as a way to advance health and environmental quality. The municipality’s Diet Union developed new food products and recipes in the context of a “Diet for a clean Baltic” to promote health and reduce food waste. Restaurants and cafeterias began using smaller plates to cut down on waste, an intervention that has proven to be surprisingly effective. In south-eastern France the mad cow disease outbreak across Europe was the trigger of action leading to the Mouans-Sartoux organic food system. The initial focus was on supplying organic beef to school canteens, coupled with municipal government support for regional sustainable farm research and food education programs. A multi-faceted effort to provide organic food to children led to greater awareness of the diversity of benefits arising from organic farming. New efforts emerged to reach other vulnerable segments of the population with organic food (e.g. the elderly, pregnant women). These three region-based organic food systems in Europe are case studies in a just-published paper by Lilliana Stefanovic (2020), a scientist in the Department of Organic Food Quality and Food Culture at the University of Kessel in Germany. Imagine that. An academic department focused on organic food quality and culture. How long might it take for such a department to take hold at Iowa State University, in the heart of American farm country? The Stefanovic paper addresses how local organic food systems in Europe can contribute in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) set forth by the United Nations, and especially SDG 12, “responsible consumption and production.” Her analysis concludes that local and place-based organic food and farming districts can make important contributions in transforming food and farming systems to promote human and animal health, and soil health and environmental quality. Two drivers played key roles in all three case studies: relatively short distances to population centers, and significant support for organic supply chains from public food-procurement programs, and especially those feeding children. And just a few months ago, the Italian government pledged to invest 3 billion euros (about $3 billion US) to convert at least 25% of the country’s farmland to organic systems by 2027. The funds will come from Common Agricultural Policy payments supported in part by a tax on pesticide sales. There are about 16.6 million acres of arable land in Italy. Reaching the 25% organic goal would entail the transition of around 2 million more acres to organic, given that a little over 15% of Italian farmland is already managed organically. If $3 billion in transition payments were spread over 2 million acres, average payments would be around $1,500 per acre. A multi-pronged effort in Italy is planned to simultaneously grow the supply of organic foods and demand for them. Investments will be made in the infrastructure needed to support profitable regional organic food supply chains, while increasing the supply of value-added, premium foods for sale throughout Italy, Europe, and for a few commodities (especially olive oil), the world. Such bold pledges and audacious goals have come and gone in many countries with little concrete and sustained change to show for the resources invested. But perhaps the time is right in Italy for acceleration in the transition to organic farming in light of the many scientific studies showing that organic farming can both slow global warming and render farms more resilient in the face of drought and flooding. What about here in the USA? The USDA has recently pledged to invest $300 million in a new Organic Transition Initiative. This program will provide new funding via many USDA-program channels to encourage the transition of farms to organic production. While a major increase in USDA funding dedicated to expanding organic production, $300 million over several years is a small share of the approximate $20 billion in annual federal spending on farm commodity and crop insurance programs. It is also instructive to compare the $3 billion investment in Italy to reach their goal of 25% of farmland in organic by 2027 to the $300 million investment just announced by USDA. The Italian program, if it actually happens, would provide about $1,500 per acre transitioned to organic. The USDA’s investment of $300 million translates into about $4.30 per acre across the approximate 70 million newly transitioned acres necessary for 25% of the US cropland base to be managed organically. Current disparity in public support for and investment in the transition to organic farming in the US versus Europe arises from vastly different public awareness of the benefits likely to stem from the transition of more farmland to organic production. Many public and private institutions […]

Challenges Ahead in Implementing Policies to Promote Soil Health

Apr 17th, 2023

By: David R. Montgomery, Earth and Space Sciences, University of Washington Seattle

By: Chuck Benbrook, Executive Director, HHRA

An international team of scientists published a January 6, 2023 Policy Forum piece in Science entitled “Soil biodiversity needs policy without borders“. It makes a strong case for new laws and mechanisms to restore above and below ground  biodiversity in order to enhance soil health, but falls short in laying out the pragmatic changes in farming and ranching systems that will be required to do so and measure progress.

Rebuilding soil health will require diversifying cropping patterns, re-integrating crop and livestock farming, transitioning ruminants and pigs from heavy reliance on grain and oilseed concentrates to more forage-based rations, reducing tillage, altering plant nutrient cycles in ways that lessen the need for concentrated fertilizers, and lessening reliance on pesticides, especially those that degrade soil health.

These sort of systemic changes in farming systems have been recommended for decades while other factors, new technology, and policy have pushed farmers in different directions. Until recently soil health was not on conventional ag’s radar, which is why serious discussions and efforts centered on how to define soil health and measure where a given field stands along the soil-health continuum have only recently begun.

For many reasons measuring progress in enhancing soil health is becoming more important. It would make sense, for example, to stop or minimize practices that reliably undermine it, yet good luck finding agreement on the systems, practices and technology that belong on the list. Also, knowing how to establish soil health baselines and measure progress seems like essential pieces of the puzzle in light of the billions of dollars now flowing and pledged by public and private entities with the goal of sequestering more carbon in the soil and promoting “climate-smart farming.”

Soil health is highly variable across landscapes, including in individual fields. Common soil health metrics change from spring through winter. How soil samples are taken can impact lab test results. Last year’s crop and current year weather affect soil health metrics.

Taking into account all the dynamic factors impacting soil health is a big challenge. The sample collection and analytical work needed to accurately measure soil health will be costly and controversial, especially if payments are linked solely or primarily to measured “improvements” in soil health.

Fortunately there are simple year-to-year metrics that can be used to link and calibrate payments to efforts to enhance soil health. These include the percent of the growing season in a region during which green and growing plants cover fields, the percent of nitrogen derived from sources other than fertilizers brought onto a farm, how fast rainfall infiltrates soil, and the presence of soil-borne pests at economically damaging levels, especially pests resistant to common control measures.

Instead of tying public and private payment rates directly to problematic measures of soil carbon and/or soil health, payments should target farming system changes known to build soil health. These include the combination or minimizing chemical and physical disturbance and adopting cover crops and diverse crop rotations.

Periodic and in-depth surveys of longer-run changes in soil health and carbon sequestration on representative farms can validate program effectiveness and identify needed refinements. Supporting proven soil health practices in conjunction with systematic appraisal of long-term trends are the best way to promote above and below-ground biodiversity and incrementally restore soil health. And progress is restoring soil health is a necessary step in producing healthier plants and foods, and animals and people.

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