Ag news roundup: the 2014 Farm Bill, antibiotics & obesity, and sustainable livestock production


President Obama signed the 2014 Farm Bill into law at my school, Michigan State University. He is joined by Sen. & MSU alum Debbie Stabenow (third from left) and Sen. Carl Levin (far left).  Photo by Kurt Stepnitz

…My senator, Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), admirably led the charge in developing the 2014 Farm Bill, which reflects Americans’ changing taste for more sustainably raised food.  It brings new crop insurance protections to tart cherry growers (and other fruit and veggie growers) who formerly did not qualify for the insurance.  (Aside: Dried tart cherries, a Michigan specialty, have played an important role in helping me stave off the winter blues!)  Subsidies for traditional commodities were cut by almost 1/3 while support for programs to help farmers transition from conventional to organic more than doubled.  Read more about the new Farm Bill and Sen. Stabenow’s role in developing it in this New York Times article by Jennifer Steinhauer.

…It’s not news that it is common practice in commercial livestock production to feed antibiotics to make the animals gain weight quickly or that these antibiotics get into our soils and streams.  But this article adds a surprising new layer to the story of industrial use of antibiotics: What if the over-use of antibiotics in ourselves has contributed to the obesity epidemic in the U.S.?  The author, Pagan Kennedy, discusses research on the human microbiome that shows some interesting results, but the field of human microbiome research is in its infancy.  To learn more about the human microbiome, check out this fun, 5 minute, animated video from NPR–which has done a whole series of reports recently on the human microbiome.

…Finally, a recent comment piece in the journal Nature by Mark Eisler and others offers eight suggestions for raising livestock more sustainably.  This is really  important because the rising number of people on Earth whose rising standard of living allows them to eat more meat presents risks to food security and the environment.  (I’m not trying to insinuate that people in developing countries should not enjoy the same standard of living as some of us in the U.S.–I’m just pointing to the sustainability issues involved in producing that much meat.)  Every year, we feed approximately one billion tons of agriculturally grown grains to livestock; grains which otherwise could feed about half the world’s current population for a year.  The Nature article points to how livestock can be used to complement rather than rival crop production with some interesting suggestions like feeding livestock less human food and raising regionally appropriate livestock.  Instead of reading the comment piece, you can listen to the podcast while cooking up your next meal featuring locally raised meat.  *This article is open, so even if you don’t have full access to Nature you should still be able to open the article through the link at the beginning of this article.

Water Hero: Margaret Palmer

The first interaction I ever had with Dr. Palmer was at a science conference where she was the keynote speaker.  During the Q&A, I raised my hand and introduced my question by saying, “Long time listener, first time caller…”  And I suspect the first part, “long time listener”, was an apt description of most of the audience because Palmer has been an influential scientist in stream ecology for many years.  I have been particularly interested in following her recent focus on mountain top removal / valley fill (MTR/VF) coal mining and its effects on headwater streams in southern WV and eastern KY.  Not only does she carry out research quantifying stream ecosystem function responses to MTR/VF, she also testifies as an expert witness in cases involving the coal companies’ environmental impacts.  Last week Science magazine published a news feature profiling Dr. Palmer’s efforts to step beyond the bounds of a traditional academic and toward being a scientist involved in societal issues.  You can learn more about this leading lady scientist by reading the full Science article here: Palmer, Margaret – The mountaintop witness SCIENCE 2014.  You can also see Dr. Palmer’s appearance on “The Colbert Report ” in 2010 here.

Dr. Palmer is a professor of entomology at the University of Maryland and the executive director of the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center in Annapolis, MD.

What’s a scientist to do?

As a follow-up to the previous post, I wanted to share an excellent NYTimes article published yesterday that also asks, “What’s a scientist to do?”  but this one is regarding climate change.  Thanks to the AGua reader who passed this along.  Here’s a quote:

If scientists choose not to engage in the public debate, we leave a vacuum that will be filled by those whose agenda is one of short-term self-interest. There is a great cost to society if scientists fail to participate in the larger conversation — if we do not do all we can to ensure that the policy debate is informed by an honest assessment of the risks…This is hardly a radical position. Our Department of Homeland Security has urged citizens to report anything dangerous they witness: “If you see something, say something.” We scientists are citizens, too, and, in climate change, we see a clear and present danger.

And here’s the link to the full article, written by Michael Mann, a professor of meteorology and geoscience at Penn State University.  On a related note, if you haven’t seen the documentary “Chasing Ice” yet, I highly recommend it.  It’s about a scientist-turned-photographer, James Balog, who has dedicated his career and life to documenting climate change in a way that will help people understand it.  His epic and often dangerous mission brings us stunning time-lapse images of melting Arctic glaciers, which really helped me wrap my mind around the daunting scale and speed of the melting ice.  I think it’s a safe bet to say if you’re reading this blog, you want to see this movie.  Here’s the trailer:

Stuck between a rock and a tar ball

Last month Kalamazoo River watchdogs presented startling stories that the river is loaded with tar balls, resulting from the oil spill back in 2010.  As testimonial, videos, and photos emerged online, several fact-checking reporters turned to professor of ecosystem ecology and biogeochemistry, Dr. Stephen K. Hamilton of the Kellogg Biological Station, Michigan State University (and, full disclosure, he’s my graduate advisor).  Faster than I can say “biogeochemistry”, some of Steve’s comments were picked up and mis-quoted on other web sites.  While Steve explained to me how these events unfolded, I was struck by the perplexing conundrum he was in, and what I could learn from it as a young scientist interested in controversial environmental issues.  So in this post I’m going to explore that conundrum, discuss the role of science and scientists in this type of situation, and explain a little about Michigan geology.

The play-by-play

First, watch this quick video to set the stage:

These citizens also sent samples to a lab for analysis, the results of which were interpreted as evidence that Enbridge (the oil company responsible for the spill) secretly used “Corexit”, a paint-thinner-like dispersant to make the floating oil sink to the bottom.  (You may remember the controversy over BP’s use of Corexit in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill).  The thinking for the Kalamazoo River was that this might explain why millions of dollars and several years later, clean up efforts continue to uncover oil submerged in sediments.  This was reported in the Vancouver Observer and The Tyee.

When reporters (including NPR) need a second opinion on anything related to the environmental impacts of the Kalamazoo oil spill, they turn to Steve Hamilton.  He served on the EPA’s science advisory team for the Enbridge cleanup; in fact he was the only independently-funded (non-government, non-Enbridge) scientist on the team.  Additionally, one of his graduate students did work looking at the health of the macro-invertebrate food web after the oil spill, and Steve led a crew studying the re-suspension of oil from disturbed sediments.  So reporters got in touch with Steve for the tar balls story, too.  He pointed out that what the stories call “tar balls” are naturally occurring calcium carbonate rocks (see below for explanation), and that the reported presence of a dispersant chemical was inferred from the presence of 2-Butoxyethanol.  This makes for a weak inference since this substance is commonly found in many household and industrial products, which all end up washed down the drain and eventually in our rivers (along with plenty of other substances like antibiotics, synthetic hormones, and caffeine).

Aye, there’s the rub

Even though the communication with the reporter was written out in an email, the initial version of the Tyee article mis-quoted Steve, saying he was “not surprised that an Alabama lab found compounds used in the oil dispersant Corexit on the carbonate rocks.”  When what he actually wrote was that he “would be incredibly surprised if evidence for dispersant use were found because I do not believe it was ever used on the river” (Steve Hamilton, personal communication).  What he was “not surprised” about was that the analysis indicated the presence of the diluted bitumen (tar sands oil) in these porous rocks, because the spilled oil coated everything it contacted including vegetation along the flooded banks–the river was unfortunately high at the time of the spill making cleanup even more difficult.

So, no tar balls and no Corexit (given the evidence).  When the mis-quoted version appeared online, Steve faced two sticky options:

Option 1 (rock): Clarify your position to set the record is straight.  But saying that there are no tar balls and that Enbridge did not use any secret chemicals (given the evidence) may be seen by some as defending the big oil company.

Option 2 (hard place): Don’t say anything, ruffle fewer feathers; but you would have to live with the face that you knew better and did not speak up.  While the record shows you were using poor judgment given the evidence.  This may come back to haunt you.

What’s a scientist to do?

Dr. Stephen K. Hamilton is a professor of ecosystem ecology and biogeochemistry at the MSU Kellogg Biological Station and a Michigan native. Photo:

As you may have already pieced together, Steve contacted the author of the Tyee story and clarified his statement–read the corrected version here.  The story was corrected within 12 hours of its initial posting, but several other websites picked up the original version and still carry it now.  Citizens’ observations and concerns are an important part of society’s conversation about environmental issues.  So scientists encourage people to keep an eye out and speak up when they notice something.  They are experts of their own lives, land, and nearby water bodies.  But in today’s age of blogs and YouTube, unsubstantiated evidence can “go viral” and be presented as fact in sloppy reporting (here is a particularly poor example of the tar ball story).  In this case, these people did send samples to a chemistry lab for analysis.  Unfortunately, not all chemistry labs were created equal, so just as we weigh a scientists’ statement by his or her apparent objectivity, the same is true for labs.

In the bigger picture, this story might make you wonder, “What is a scientists’ role in environmental controversies?”  Above I suggested that by taking Option 1, Steve might be seen as defending the big oil company.  Defending big oil companies is normally not something that an ecologist wakes up in the morning and hopes to do that day; but sometimes the truth ain’t pretty.  At the end of the day, it’s not appeal, but truth that is the golden rule for scientists.  In difficult situations that can mean putting aside both your personal views on big oil companies and your sympathies for environmentalism.

Michigan really is all it’s chalked up to be

Now let’s talk about how those (non-tar ball) rocks got to be in the Kalamazoo River–they can also be found in lots of other lakes and streams in the area.  Back in the day (that is, about 400 million years ago) before the Great Lakes, before Pangaea, when the equator crossed the Hudson Bay and bony fish were the new thing, what is now southern Ontario was marine sediment in the Panthalassic Ocean.  (Don’t worry, you won’t be quizzed on that.)  Over millions of years, these Ontario sediments built up vast quantities of calcium carbonate.  How?  Lots of marine organisms take calcium and bi-carbonate ions from sea water and form calcium carbonate, which they use to build hard structures like shells.  (We use calcium phosphate to make bones, our hard structures.)  For example:

Coccolithophore species: Emiliania huxleyi type A.  Photo:

Coccolithophore species: Emiliania huxleyi type A. Photo:

coral reefs, which would have thrived in these warm, equatorial waters,

–some mollusks (and most mollusk larvae) like the chambered nautilus and oysters,

coccolithophores–a group of super important marine phytoplankton (algae), and

tube-building marine annelid worms.

All of these calcium carbonate skeletons piled up, eventually forming limestone, and then during the last ice age (about 10,000 years ago) the glaciers moved these sediments around–delivering them to Michigan.  This is how Petoskey stones (fossil corals adored by Michigan beach combers) arrived.  So in Michigan, above our bedrock, we have a thick layer (~200 feet in places) of calcium carbonate mixed with glacial sediments (sand and gravel).  This limestone is the matrix for our groundwater and explains why groundwater is “hard”–a lot of calcium tends to build up on Michigander’s coffee pots.  This calcium carbonate gets carried into streams and rivers, where it falls out of solution, and can build up into layered, porous, chalky (literally) deposits.  Who knew those crusty rocks lying around the Kalamazoo River bed were so cool?  Oceans!  Corals!  Glaciers!  Oh my!

Below is a photo of a calcium carbonate rock found on the shore of Lake Michigan near Charlevoix.  It has been turned on it’s side and the black part was sitting in the black spot to its left.  The surprising black color is probably the indirect result of bacteria munching on organic material in the absence of oxygen, such as you might encounter underneath a rock.  As you and I breathe out CO2, some of these bacteria breathe out hydrogen sulfide.  When this gas meets reduced (ferrous) iron, iron sulfide (the black stuff) precipitates out of solution–sometimes this can be found inside water pipes.  I can’t do that, can you?  Microbes rule!

Photo by Steve Hamilton.

A naturally occurring calcium carbonate rock, with black iron sulfide precipitates resulting from microbial activity.  Photo by Steve Hamilton.

For more information on actual tar balls, check out this fact sheet from NOAA.

“…To know it and to be willing to take care of it we have to love it.”

One of the main reasons I enjoy reading Wendell Berry’s nonfiction, is that he is a Kentucky farmer who is observing, questioning, and talking about many of the conservation issues that I’m also observing, questioning, and talking about.  But he talks about the human dimension of these issues in soulful, sometimes soul-piercing language; as opposed to the technical aspects discussed in the stale, robotic language of scientific journal articles.  Don’t get me wrong, the journal articles are absolutely critical to science and are written the way they are for objectivity and clarity.  But for the health of my own ‘human dimension’, Berry satisfies a more artistic, spiritual connection to the issues I find myself seeking at the end of the day.

In this lovely interview, Berry eloquently shares his thoughts in gems like this one:

“The world and our life in it are conditional gifts. We have the world to live in it and the use of it to live from–on the condition that we will take good care of it. To take good care of it we have to know it and know how to take care of it. And to know it and to be willing to take care of it we have to love it.” –Wendell Berry

See the full interview on “Bill Moyers & Co.” at this link:

This interview is a treat, in part, because Berry does not appear in video often.  Enjoy.

Infinite Growth on a Finite Planet

The following is shared with permission from Josh Kearns’ blog “Busy, busy, busy”:

I continue to be troubled by what I hear in the media, at conferences, in university lecture halls, etc. with respect to what basically amounts to the promotion of “sustainable growth.”

You can’t have economic growth forever on a finite planet, resource substitution and other measures of technological development notwithstanding.

We in the developed world got used to continual growth as “normal” over several generations’ time since the advent of fossil fuels, primarily oil. In the past, always being able to expand our access to cheap, accessible high net-energy (high EROEI, Energy-Return-On-Energy-Invested) oil allowed us to grow our economy and vastly increase in societal and infrastructure complexity.

Subtract cheap high EROEI oil and growth stalls and reverses into contraction, and society rapidly decomplexifies. (Some use the term, “collapse.”)

By now we’ve run out of cheap, easily accessible, high quality oil, and have begun to exploit more dispersed, environmentally risky, geo-politically contentious, low quality, and therefore more expensive, low EROEI resources (e.g. fracked shale oil, tar sands, super deepwater offshore deposits).

The question is, what minimum EROEI is required to run a highly globalized and integrated, sub-/peri-/urbanized, industrialized, hyper-complex society, and where are we now with respect to that minimum?

In the first decades of oil drilling in PA and TX, the EROEI was 100:1 or more. Currently, conventional oil clocks in at around 25:1. Average for US oil today is about 10:1. Tar sands run from 3:1 to 5:1, biodiesel from soybeans at 1.7:1, and corn ethanol at a mere 1.3:1. (Solar, wind, and hydro fare better, but are good for electricity production, not transport, and still require a platform of cheap fossil fuels in order to be deployed at a meaningful scale.)

The fracking “boom” does not represent a real boom in new resources, or old resources opened up by technological breakthroughs in horizontal drilling. It is a combination of high ($100+/barrel) oil prices, and Wall Street financial bubble shenanigans. (The shale oil bubble – give it a year or so and this will be a household term – is the current in a series of US economy bubbles dating back at least to the S&L scandal of the 80′s, the Enron scandal and the tech bubble of the 90′s / early 2000′s, and the housing bubble and financial crash of the mid-2000s).

The trouble with high oil prices is that they reliably send the economy into a recession. (Because energy is the “master resource” that effects the production, and prices, of all other goods and services in the economy.) This destroys demand; but if oil prices drop, then it is no longer economical for energy companies to exploit expensive new “tight oil” plays. These upper and lower oil price bounds have characterized the bumpy plateau of oil production that we have been on since 2005, and go along way explaining our protracted economic non-recovery from the crash of 2008. Some analysts think that this indicates we’ve hit peak oil. Some analysts think this also signals the end of the era of economic growth – that we are not in a “recession” per se (because “recession” implies a defined trough ending with an uptrend back to “normal”), but are experiencing the first symptoms of economic stall and contraction.

We talk incessantly about sustainability when we should be talking about un-sustainability…

Read the rest of Josh’s post here: 

Polycultures for the Middle West and Middle East

Here is a must-see for AGua readers: A NYTimes Op-Ed by Thomas Friedman.  In this piece, Friedman explores “the parallel between how fossil fuels are being used to power monoculture farms in the Middle West and how fossil fuels are being used to power wars to create monoculture societies in the Middle East. And why both are really unhealthy for their commons.”  Friedman makes these connections with help from Wes Jackson, founder of the Land Institute and long time AGua hero.

The rubble of a mosque destroyed during fighting between the militants and the government troops is seen in Maarat al-Numan, on November 17, 2012.  Photo by PressTV

The rubble of a mosque destroyed during fighting between the militants and the government troops is seen in Maarat al-Numan, on November 17, 2012. Photo by PressTV


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 25 other followers