May 30, 2014

Climate change threatens U.S. food security; crop insurance poised to remain hot topic

Warm temperatures and extreme weather will thwart agriculture production and threaten U.S. food security, an executive-branch assessment on climate change released in early May found.

As a result, federal crop insurance programs may serve even greater roles when it comes to farmers’ risk management plans, industry officials say.

“If that does come into play, I think that just certifies even further that crop insurance will remain as a very, very valuable tool,” said Doug Yoder, senior director of affiliate and risk management for the Illinois Farm Bureau.

Put together by hundreds of the world’s leading experts, the National Climate Assessment outlined how climate change will affect the economic, environmental and general well-being of the United States.

In a section focused on agriculture, the assessment reported that climate change will cause many regions throughout the country to see declines in crop and livestock production. The United States currently produces about $330 billion in agricultural commodities each year, so even small declines in production could translate into billions of dollars in losses.

The National Climate Assessment, released earlier in May, outlined how climate change will affect the $330 billion a year agriculture industry.

Additionally, the assessment reported that climate change will boost optimal conditions for weeds, pests and other diseases, making it increasingly difficult to successfully farm.

“Climate disruptions to agricultural production have increased in the past 40 years and are projected to increase over the next 25 tears,” stated the 1,300-page assessment.

Yet, a Government Accountability Office report released in February last year found that federal crop insurance programs, which protect farmers when nature devastates their crops or when market prices diminish their returns, are not “well suited” to adjust to climate challenges.

“Agencies responsible for the nation’s two key federal insurance programs had done little to develop the kind of information needed to understand their long-term exposure to climate change,” the report stated.

In the 2012 drought year, federal crop insurance data show that U.S. farmers and ranchers received a total of more than $17.4 billion in insurance payouts, also known as indemnities.

That total was about $6 billion more than the previous year.

Farmers paid more than $11.1 billion in insurance premiums in 2012. However, the government subsidized more than half of that amount.

The Environmental Protection Agency predicted that climate change is particularly likely to increase the number of 2012-type droughts in the Midwest.

Considering the location of the nation’s Corn Belt, which stretches across the heart of the country from Iowa to Indiana, that could add up to even more crop insurance costs for the government.

Illinois farmers received more than $3.5 billion in crop insurance payouts in 2012.

They received less than $45 million in crop insurance payouts in 2000.

“With the 2012 drought, one of the largest magnitude droughts we’ve ever had, we saw significant claims in Illinois,” Yoder said.

Despite warnings from the Government Accountability Office, Congress used the Farm Bill signed into law in February to expand crop insurance programs by billions of dollars.

Projections from the Congressional Budget Office estimate the Farm Bill will increase funding for crop insurance by a total of about $5.7 billion from 2014 to 2023. It will expand the programs by $74 million dollars in 2015 and then expand them by hundreds of millions of dollars each year after that.

“Crop insurance easily came out as the number one thing [Illinois farmers] asked us to fight to keep,” said Yoder. “I think that they’ve made up their mind that crop insurance is the cornerstone going forward of their risk management portfolio.”

The Government Accountability Office handles the investigation of federal waste and abuse.

Besides crop insurance programs, the government administers the National Flood Insurance Program.

Shifts in climate change the geography of crop insurance

Besides the National Climate Assessment, data collected by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration show that global surface temperatures in 2012 were the ninth warmest on human record.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international research coalition tasked with evaluating climate change phenomena, also predicted that temperatures will rise by as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the next century.

That increase would make summers in northern states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois feel much more like summers in Texas.

“If you look at global monthly temperatures, the last time we experienced a month that was colder than the 20th century mean was 1985,” said Brad Rippey, a U.S. Department of Agriculture meteorologist. “This is 30 consecutive years that we’ve strung together that have been quite warm from a global standpoint – and at that point, it becomes pretty obvious if you have some background in statistics that this is just not an anomaly anymore.”

Downtown Ackerly is a town in the heart of West Texas cotton country. If climate change projection hold true, future summers in Illinois could soon feel more like current summers in Texas.

Consequently, climate predictions and crop insurance data suggest that climate change will change where crop insurance money is going.

As northern regions get hotter, farmers will plant crops that were once ill-suited to their area. That idea is already demonstrated by the influx of North Dakota farmers that have only recently started planting soybeans.

Soybeans in North Dakota were virtually nonexistent before the 1980s, Rippey said. But as the state’s climate turned warmer and wetter, there was a dramatic expansion of the Soybean Belt into the state.

“Now we see on average something around the order of three and a half to 4 million acres every year devoted to soybeans in North Dakota,” Rippey said.

North Dakota insured less than 1.8 million acres of soybeans in 2000.

That number more than doubled to 4.6 million acres of soybeans in 2012.

During that time, government subsidies to help North Dakota farmers pay insurance premiums on soybeans increased from about $7.4 million to more than $126 million.

Insurance payouts more than tripled.

“There’s a lot of criticism of crop insurance and how much it cost, and that’s fair with these federal budget deficits we’re looking at,” Yoder said. “But, when I look at the model of crop insurance, I really don’t understand why we’d want to mess with that particular model and put it in danger of not working.”

October 04, 2013

Drought Monitor Sill Active Amid Shutdown

Despite a partial shutdown of the federal government, the U.S. Drought Monitor Map is still online, and being updated.

That’s despite three of the four agencies responsible for it being closed. Those three are the USDA, NOAA, and the Department of Commerce. The fourth agency, the National Drought Mitigation Center is still open for business.

Brian Fuchs, with the center, said that four of the eleven people who author the drought monitor have been furloughed.

Which means more work for the remaining seven employees.

Fuchs said that will mean extending the usual two week shifts each takes in charge of creating the drought monitor map.

"After a couple weeks of that, you dedicate a lot of time and we all have other duties that we're responsible for, and you start getting worn out by just the continuous and constant stream of information that's flowing across your desk in putting together the weekly product," he said.

Fuchs said that the employees still working are with the mitigation center and subsets of the closed agencies that have been deemed essential, like the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center.

He said that much of the data they rely on is collected by federal agencies, but actually provided by state agencies, automated systems, and universities.

So, Fuchs said, they have been able to go right to the source and still get the data they need.

A coalition lobbying for a fracking moratorium protested Illinois' pending legislation during the 2013 General Assembly session.
(Amanda Vinicky/IPR)
October 03, 2013

DNR Opens Fracking Registration

Illinois is a ways off from allowing oil and gas drillers to begin "fracking" but companies that are interested can begin the paperwork.

Environmentalists lost their fight to ban high-volume hydraulic fracturing. Lawmakers instead decided to open Illinois to a practice that's been an economic boon in other states.

Still - legislators say the law they passed to regulate fracking has the strongest safeguards in the nation. That includes a multi-step process before a company can use the method to access oil and gas deep underground. The first phase is underway, Department of Natural Resources spokesman Chris McCloud sad companies can now register.

"The point of clarification is: we're not at the point where we are starting to accept permit applications, we are merely giving companies the ability to register with us, which would then indicate their intent to at some point apply for a permit," he said.

McCloud said it is the permit that will detail where a company wants to "frack," and how deep they expect to drill. He noted that the public and legislators will have a chance to comment before rules for permits are put in place.

September 26, 2013

Crews Work To Repair Lake Decatur Dam

The latest round of work on the Lake Decatur dam is underway and will include a barrier aimed at keeping invasive Asian carp at bay.

The $4 million project is set to be finished by fall 2014.

The (Decatur) Herald & Review reports the first phase of the project was completed in 2011.

The latest round of work includes fixing concrete and repairing erosion damage. Meanwhile, crews will also remove a failed tailwater dam, which was built more than a century ago.

Keith Alexander is director of water management in Decatur.

He says replacing the entire Lake Decatur dam would cost more than $60 million, so it's more cost-efficient for crews to do ``preventative maintenance'' work every five to 15 years.

Mississippi Power's Kemper County energy facility near DeKalb, Miss., seen under construction on Nov. 13, 2012. Carbon dioxide will be captured from this plant and used to stimulate production of oil from existing wells.
(Rogelio V. Solis/AP)
September 19, 2013

EPA Wants To Limit Greenhouse Gases From New Coal Power Plants

The Environmental Protection Agency's second stab at a proposal to set the first-ever limits on greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants would make it impossible for companies to build the kind of coal-fired plants that have been the country's biggest source of electricity for decades.

Under the proposal, released Friday, any new plant that runs on coal would only be permitted to emit about half as much carbon dioxide as an average coal plant puts into the air today.

EPA administrator Gina McCarthy tells NPR the steps the EPA is proposing in the rule to address climate change "can actually form the basis for a sound economy, while at the same time we can begin to tackle what is essentially the most significant public health challenge of our time."

The EPA proposal aims to help The White House meet its plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions by attacking the largest single source in the United States: Power plants pump out 40 percent of the nation's greenhouse gases.

The EPA's new proposal sets a limit for future power plants of 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour for large electricity generators that are powered by natural gas. And it sets a slightly higher limit of 1,100 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour for small natural gas generators and for coal-fired generators.

Although the EPA says its rule is legally sound, electric utility companies are already arguing that it goes further than the law allows.

The only technologies that exist to make coal plants clean enough to meet this proposed standard, industry executives say, are far too expensive and haven't been proven at a commercial scale. Making coal plants clean enough, they say, would add hundreds of millions of dollars to the already steep price tag of coal plants.

"Our customers have to agree to foot that bill," says Nick Akins, president and CEO of American Electric Power, one of the country's largest utilities.

Akins says his customers won't go for it.

A few years ago, American Electric Power built a temporary, small-scale project that successfully captured carbon and stored it deep underground at its massive Mountaineer coal-fired power plant in West Virginia. The company proposed building a larger version at the same site and passing the costs on to consumers. But state regulators rejected that project in the end because it would increase electricity costs.

If the EPA's proposal goes forward, Akins says, companies won't build coal plants; natural gas plants are cheaper. But that strategy would make companies and their customers vulnerable to future spikes in natural gas prices, he says.

The revised proposal comes after loud complaints from industry about the first version of the proposed rule, which was released 18 months ago. That initial version proposed one standard for all power plants, regardless of their size, or the type of fuel they use.

Greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity industry already have declined because economic considerations have led utility companies to start turning away from coal. These days, utilities are building natural gas plants and wind farms instead. New technologies for drilling into deep shale deposits have opened up abundant supplies of relatively low-cost natural gas. And subsidies and technological improvements have made wind farms competitive.

Electricity companies fought hard against the EPA's first proposal largely because they see it as as a bad precedent for upcoming regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from power plants that already exist.

President Obama has told the EPA to come up with a proposal by June of 2014 to clean up the older plants. (Even though companies are already developing fewer new coal-fired plants, they're likely to rely on many of the existing coal plants for decades to come).

Environmental groups, too, are closely reading Friday's proposal, hunting for clues to how stringent the administration is likely to be when it turns in 2014 to developing new rules for existing plants.

"The sooner we get these protections in place," says Vickie Patton, general counsel of the Environmental Defense Fund, "the clearer the signal [will be] that new power plants must do their fair share in addressing the heavy burden of carbon pollution on human health and the environment."

A firefighter uses a hose to douse the flames of the Rim Fire on Saturday near Groveland, California.
(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
September 05, 2013

California Rim Fire Was Started By Hunter's 'Illegal' Fire

The wildfire still burning north of Yosemite National Park — you know, the one that has charred 237,341 acres and was at one point one of the largest fires in recent California history — was started by a hunter's illegal fire.

The U.S. Forest Service said in a statement that its investigators had concluded that the Rim Fire "began when a hunter allowed an illegal fire to escape."

Authorities, said the Forest Service, have made no arrest and they are not releasing the name of the hunter.

The Service also put to rest a rumor that had swirled for days.

"There is no indication the hunter was involved with illegal marijuana cultivation on public lands and no marijuana cultivation sites were located near the origin of the fire," the Service said.

The Los Angeles Times reports:

"The rumor that marijuana growers may have been involved began when Twain Harte Fire and Rescue Chief Todd McNeal told a community meeting that the blaze was definitely human-caused.

"On Aug. 23, McNeal said the fire started in a section of the Stanislaus National Forest that is inaccessible by foot or vehicle and that it was 'highly suspected' that an illegal 'marijuana-grow type of thing' had somehow sparked the blaze."

At its peak, the Rim Fire threatened San Francisco's water supply and Yosemite's ancient sequoias. The fire could be seen from space and helicopter images were stunning.

soil drought
(Robert Ray/AP)
August 27, 2013

Report: Farmers Could Do More To Protect Soil From Drought

Farmers across the country received more than $17 billion in federal crop insurance payouts after last year’s drought. A report released Tuesday by an environmental group blames farmers for not doing enough to shield the soil against the heat.

According to The Natural Resources Defense Council, farmers could have greatly reduced losses if they had been working to improve soil health. The NRDC suggests that planting certain grasses and legumes and implementing a set of soil conservation practices could nearly drought-proof fields. That would save farmers a lot of headache and taxpayers a lot of money.

Many farmers, though, are not exactly sold on the report’s findings.

Doug Wilson is a farmer in Livingston County Illinois, which had the highest crop insurance payout in the nation. Wilson said it would have been hard for those practices to fend off last year’s extreme heat and dryness. He paraphrased former President Dwight Eisenhower when reacting to the report.

“It’s a lot easier to farm with a pencil from a thousand miles away than it is to actually have your hand on the plow,” Wilson said.

Meanwhile, Illinois officials are kicking off a three-year project aimed at encouraging farmers to plant environmentally friendly cover crops as part of an effort to boost sustainable farming around the state.

The Illinois Department of Agriculture says the demonstration involves planting certain crops such as grasses and legumes in fields after the regular growing season. Sometimes the seeds are even planted before a crop is harvested. The cover crops reduce soil erosion and nutrient runoff from farm fields, which in turn improve water and soil quality.

Officials say the project will begin this fall when 14 highly visible corn and soybean fields are seeded with cover crops. The fields were selected because they're along interstates or state highways.

Each plot will be accompanied by a sign with the project's website:

Litter in Chicago’s Washington Park neighborhood.
August 19, 2013

Statewide Fine For Littering, Tossing Cigarettes

Tossing trash anywhere besides a garbage will soon cost you no matter where you are in Illinois. A new law imposes a statewide fine for littering.

State Sen. Bill Haine (D-Alton) hates litter, saying "it's irresponsible, it pollutes beautiful environments, God's creation, it creates ugliness."

He hates it so much that he goes around his neighborhood in Alton, picking it up himself.

"We don't have a dog anymore, but I use a Pooper Scooper, which is a remarkably efficient way to pick up litter," he said.

Haine explained that is why he sponsored legislation that creates a minimum $50 fine for tossing trash out a car window.

Another new law adds to what Illinois considers "litter" -- in addition to trash and yard clippings, the definition will now include cigarettes.

July 15, 2013

Largest Illinois Ash Tree Treated Against Beetle

Jay Hayek says the green ash tree growing on property owned by a family in Clinton is the largest of its kind in Illinois.

The forestry specialist at the University of Illinois Extension says that makes it worth protecting against the emerald ash borer. Hayek maintains the official list of largest trees by species in the state.

The tree in Clinton was being treated Monday with a chemical designed to prevent ash borer infestation.

The 90-foot-tall tree is in Clinton about 40 miles west of Champaign.

The invasive beetle has already killed tens of millions of trees throughout the Midwest.

Warren Goetsch of the state Department of Agriculture says such treatments are too expensive to use on all ash trees but effective on those the owners really value.

Crop consultant Dan Steiner inspects a field of corn near Norfolk, Nebraska.
(Dan Charles/NPR)
July 09, 2013

As Biotech Seed Falters, Insecticide Use Surges In Corn Belt

Across the Midwestern corn belt, a familiar battle has resumed, hidden in the soil.

On one side are tiny, white larvae of the corn rootworm. On the other side are farmers and the insect-killing arsenal of modern agriculture.

We've reported on earlier phases of this battle: The discovery of rootworms resistant to one type of genetically engineered corn, and an appeal from scientists for the government to limit the use of this new corn to preserve the effectiveness of its protection against rootworm.

It appears that farmers have gotten part of the message: Biotechnology alone will not solve their rootworm problems. But instead of shifting away from those corn hybrids, or from corn altogether, many are doubling down on insect-fighting technology, deploying more chemical pesticides than before. Companies like Syngenta or AMVAC Chemical that sell soil insecticides for use in corn fields are reporting huge increases in sales: 50 or even 100 percent over the past two years.

This is a return to the old days, before biotech seeds came along, when farmers relied heavily on pesticides. For Dan Steiner, an independent crop consultant in northeastern Nebraska, it brings back bad memories. "We used to get sick [from the chemicals]," he says. "We'd dig [in the soil] to see how the corn's coming along, and we didn't use the gloves or anything, and we'd kind of puke in the middle of the day. Well, I think we were low-dosing poison on ourselves!"

For a while, biotechnology came to his rescue. Biotech companies such as Monsanto spent many millions of dollars creating and inserting genes that would make corn plants poisonous to the corn rootworm but harmless to other creatures.

The first corn hybrids containing such a gene went on sale in 2003. They were hugely popular, especially in places like northeastern Nebraska where the rootworm has been a major problem. Sales of soil insecticides fell. "Ever since, I'm like, hey, we feel good every spring!" says Steiner.

But all along, scientists wondered how long the good times would last. Some argued that these genes — a gift of nature — were being misused. (For a longer explanation, read my post from two years ago.)

Those inserted genes, derived from genes in a strain of the bacterial Bacillus thuringiensis, worked well for a while. In fact, the Bt genes remain a rock-solid defense against one pest, the European corn borer.

In parts of Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska, though, farmers are running into increasing problems with corn rootworms.

"You never really know for sure, until that big rain with strong wind, and you get the phone call the next morning: 'What's going on out there?'" says Steiner.

Entire hillsides of corn, with no support from their eaten-away roots, may be blown flat.

Monsanto has downplayed such reports, blaming extraordinary circumstances. But in half a dozen universities around the Midwest, scientists are now trying to figure out whether, in fact, the Bt genes have lost their power.

At the University of Nebraska, entomologist Lance Meinke is turning colonies of rootworms loose on potted corn plants that contain different versions of the anti-rootworm gene, to see how well they survive.

The larvae get to feed on the corn roots for about two weeks. The soil from each pot then is dumped into a kind of steel container. If the larvae are still alive, a bright light will drive them into little glass jars filled with alcohol. "They try to escape from the heat," says David Wangila, a graduate student who is managing this experiment.

If the rootworm-fighting genes in the corn are working well, no larvae should emerge.

But some have. Wangila points to one of the little glass jars. Inside, there are three nice plump corn rootworm larvae.

This is not good. Those insects, originally collected from a cornfield in Nebraska, were feeding on corn that contained the first rootworm-fighting gene that Monsanto introduced ten years ago. Technically, it's known as the Cry 3Bb gene.

Meinke and Wangila will compare the survival rate of these rootworms with others that have never been exposed to Bt. They're looking for signs that rootworms in the corn fields of Nebraska have evolved resistance to genetically engineered crops.

An identical experiment in Iowa, carried out more than a year ago, found corn rootworms resistant to the Cry 3Bb gene.

Nobody knows how widely those insects have spread, but farmers aren't waiting to find out. Some are switching to other versions of biotech corn, containing anti-rootworm genes that do still work. Others are going back to pesticides.

Steiner, the Nebraska crop consultant, usually argues for another strategy: Starve the rootworms, he tells his clients. Just switch that field to another crop. "One rotation can do a lot of good," he says. "Go to beans, wheat, oats. It's the No. 1 right thing to do."

Insect experts say it's also likely to work better in the long run.

Meinke, who's been studying the corn rootworm for decades, tells farmers that if they plant just corn, year after year, rootworms are likely to overwhelm any weapon someday.

The problem, Meinke says, is that farmers are thinking about the money they can make today. "I think economics are driving everything," he says. "Corn prices have been so high the last three years, everybody is trying to protect every kernel. People are just really going for it right now, to be as profitable as they can."

As a result, they may just keep growing corn, fighting rootworms with insecticides — and there's a possibility that those chemicals will eventually stop working, too.


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