As US pushes “climate-smart” agriculture, hopes and fears collide
By Keith Schneider
For decades, leading US farm leaders have likened efforts to rein in harmful climate change as attacks on agriculture itself, aligning with oil and gas industry groups to block policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
That stance has slowly been shifting in recent years, and now, fueled by $3.1 billion in federal grants, farm country is poised to shape a new era of “climate-smart” agricultural practices and take a significant role in addressing the dire consequences of a warming planet.
The actions can’t come fast enough. A panel of international scientists warned this month that the world faces a “rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future,” and that the actions implemented over the next few years will have consequences “now and for thousands of years.”
The Biden Administration’s focus on agriculture is just one part of a larger effort to address climate change, but it is a key element. By funding 141 experimental projects, the administration is hoping to push an industry currently responsible for generating 10% of U.S. greenhouse gases, to the front of the nation’s work to reduce carbon emissions.
The first grants from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), for 70 large projects, were awarded in September. A second round of funding, for 71 smaller projects, was awarded in December.
The scope of the climate-smart program is expansive. Grants range from $271,200 to teach climate-friendly practices to immigrant farmers in Iowa to $95 million to encourage grain farmers in 12 Midwest states to use cultivation methods that build soil fertility. In between are projects to expand organic and sustainable agriculture, sequester carbon on pastures where livestock graze, and develop carbon-reducing cultivation methods on farms operated by African Americans and Native Americans.
In all, more than 60,000 farms and 25 million acres of crop and rangeland are involved, with spending reaching all 50 states and Puerto Rico, according to the USDA..
Considerable sums are also earmarked for development of scientific methods to effectively measure whether these climate-smart practices actually meet a program goal of sequestering 60 million metric tons of carbon.
When making the rounds at annual farm conferences across the country over the winter, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack repeatedly declared that a “transformational” new era had opened for U.S. agriculture.
Grant recipients such as Marbleseed, a Wisconsin nonprofit that trains farmers in organic agriculture, say the government support is long overdue. Marbleseed is part of a partnership receiving a $4.5 million, five-year grant to train farmer in 14 Midwest and southern states on how to improve soil fertility.
“We’ve been a tiny voice shouting into the storm for a very long time,” said Tom Manley, Marbleseed program director. “They finally are starting to hear us.”
“Not a hypothetical”: US water systems at risk from cyber attacks
By Shannon Kelleher
It’s been a little over two years since an unknown attacker tried to poison the water supply in Oldsmar, Florida by hacking into the computer system for the town’s treatment facility and boosting levels of sodium hydroxide in the water to perilously high levels.
An observant plant operator took immediate action to block the efforts before any damage was done. But as one of several similar efforts to tamper with US water systems, the February 2021 incident in Florida provides a stark warning of how vulnerable US water systems can be.
Now, US officials say these so-called “cyber threats” to drinking water supplies are growing, and they are pushing public water systems to tighten security around this type of threat. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warned in a March 3 memorandum that many of the nation’s public water systems are at “high risk of being victimized by a cyber-attack” because they have failed to adopt basic protections.
“When we think about cybersecurity and cyber threats in the water sector, this is not a hypothetical,” EPA Assistant Administrator for Water Radhika Fox said at a press briefing earlier this month. “This is happening right now. We have seen these types of attacks from California to Florida, Kansas, Maine, and Nevada.”
The warnings follow a 2021 joint advisory issued by the EPA, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency (CISA), and the National Security Agency (NSA) that called on the water sector to implement protective measures. China-based hackers are a particular concern amid heightened geopolitical tensions.
US security experts have recently warned that China may attempt to create “chaos” in America through various means, including polluting US water systems via cyber attacks.
But the threats also come from within. In a 2019 incident, a former employee of a water facility in the small, rural community of Ellsworth County, Kansas used his cell phone to remotely log into the facility’s system and shut down processes the plant uses to clean and disinfect water. The EPA said the man’s actions “threatened the safety and health of an entire community.”
Monsanto accused of wrongly excluding non-US citizen from Roundup settlement
By Huanjia Zhang
(This story was originally published in Environmental Health News and is republished here with permission.)
Monsanto Co. and its corporate parent Bayer are facing a federal lawsuit for civil rights violations after they allegedly excluded a farmworker from a Roundup cancer settlement because of her immigration status.
According to the lawsuit, which was filed in the US District Court for the Western District of Virginia, plaintiff Elvira Reyes-Hernandez is a migrant farmworker who worked on Virginia tree farms between 2015 and 2018, during which she sprayed the herbicide Roundup regularly.
In 2015, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) listed glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” Over the years, a wide body of scientific evidence has also pointed to glyphosate exposure as causing an increased risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Reyes-Hernandez was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2019 and subsequently sued Monsanto, claiming that Roundup exposure had a role in causing her cancer.
“Monsanto is very likely making calculated risks based on the characteristics of the people who are using their products,” said Katy Youker, an attorney for Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and a co-counsel for the case.
By excluding non-US citizens from the settlement program, she said, Monsanto is effectively putting up a huge barrier for migrant farmworkers — most of whom do not have citizenship but are at the forefront of Roundup exposure — from seeking restitution.
This case could send an encouraging message to migrant and undocumented farmworkers who wish to bring legal action against the company. However, legal experts and farmworker advocates are still pessimistic about the prospect of them coming forward, especially when facing a myriad of hurdles and obstacles.
Common dry-cleaning chemical could be a cause of Parkinson’s disease, scientists say
A chemical commonly used to dry clean clothes could be key contributor to the sharp rise in the spread of Parkinson’s disease in the United States, according to a paper published on Tuesday.
Twelve scientists specializing in medical research said they found important “circumstantial” evidence linking the chemical trichloroethylene (TCE) to the doubling of global instances of Parkinson’s disease over the past 30 years. In their paper, published in the Journal of Parkinson’s Disease, the scientists called for much more research and regulation of TCE, warning that “widespread contamination and increasing industrial, commercial and military use,” pose a dire public health threat.
“TCE may be the most important cause of Parkinson’s disease in urban environments in the US,” said Ray Dorsey, a neurologist at the University of Rochester Medical Center and the lead author on the paper.
TCE is one of multiple environmental pollutants implicated in the rise of Parkinson’s disease. Research has also linked particulate air pollution and certain pesticides, including paraquat herbicide, to the disease. Head trauma and genetic factors also play a role, according to research findings.