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.”
Postcard from California: How a local natural gas ban sparked a national culture war
Like some other once-fringe environmental ideas, this one began in Berkeley: In 2019, the staunchly progressive university town across the bay from San Francisco became the first US city to ban natural gas hookups in most new buildings, citing the fossil fuel’s contribution to the climate crisis.
“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.
EPA announces proposed drinking water standards for six toxic PFAS chemicals
By Shannon Kelleher
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Tuesday proposed national standards aimed at reducing levels of six harmful chemicals in drinking water. The move was applauded by health and environmental advocates who say the action is long overdue.
The agency said in a press release that if the rule is implemented it will “over time, prevent thousands of deaths and reduce tens of thousands of serious PFAS-attributable illnesses.”
The EPA action is part of a larger government move to respond to scientific evidence showing that certain types of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are associated with a range of health problems, including a heightened risk of developing cancer, birth defects, liver disease, thyroid disease, decreased immunity, hormone disruption and a range of other serious health problems. PFAS have become nearly ubiquitous in the environment, including in water sources.
The new standards target six types of PFAS. For PFOA and PFOS – types known to be particularly dangerous to human health – the agency said the new rule would require public water systems to ensure levels of PFOA and PFOS do not exceed a maximum contaminant level (MCL) of four parts per trillion (ppt). Additionally, the EPA would require public water providers to use a hazard index calculation to determine if combined levels of PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS, and GenX Chemicals pose a potential risk.
“Today we can celebrate a huge victory for public health in this country – US EPA is finally moving forward to protect drinking water across the United States by proposing federally-enforceable limits on some of the most toxic, persistent, and bioaccumulative chemicals ever found in our nation’s drinking water supply,” US attorney Rob Bilott said in a statement. Bilott has been calling for the EPA to address PFAS in US drinking water in 2001.
“It has taken far too long to get to this point, but the scientific facts and truth about the health threat posed by these man-made poisons have finally prevailed over the decades of corporate cover-ups and misinformation campaigns designed to mislead the public and delay action,” added Bilott.
If finalized, all public drinking water systems will be required to monitor for all six PFAS chemicals and to notify the public and reduce PFAS levels if they exceed the standards.
“It’s not surprising that [EPA under the Biden administration] is doing it,” said Phil Brown, co-director of the PFAS Project Lab at Northeastern University and co-principal investigator of a PFAS research and education project at the Silent Spring Institute, in response to the drinking water standards announcement. “Everyone wishes it had happened a long time ago,” he added.
The American Chemistry Council (ACC), which represents the interests of more than 190 chemical companies, called the EPA’s approach “misguided,” and said the new low limits would “likely result in billions of dollars in compliance costs.”
The ACC said it had “serious concerns with the underlying science” used to develop the proposed MCLs, and said the agency was violating its own guidance by combining substances affecting different health endpoints into a single index.
Scientists warn pesticide impacts may be worse than we thought
In California, regulators have rolled out a plan to eliminate “high-risk” pesticides from agricultural and urban use. In Mexico, officials have announced a ban on the widely used weedkiller glyphosate. And in Canada, regulators have implemented some new pesticide restrictions and are reviewing the potential for others.
The moves, which are also playing out in various forms around the United States, have drawn opposition from chemical and farm industry forces. But supporters say they don’t go far enough to adequately protect human and environmental health.
Three University of British Columbia researchers recently published a paper that summarizes what they say is a growing body of evidence showing that pesticides are having harmful ecological impacts beyond what is already well understood, and that these impacts are not being recognized by current testing and regulations. The authors of the paper looked at dozens of studies to draw their conclusions.
The New Lede had a conversation with lead author Risa Sargent about the team’s findings. Sargent is an associate professor of applied biology within the Faculty of Land and Food Systems at the University of British Columbia. She and colleagues reviewed studies from around the world, finding alarming results.
Communities wrestle with pricey PFAS clean-up efforts
By Sascha Brodsky
On a recent wintry day, Deborah Brown walked along the edge of Lake Washington in Newburgh, New York, and pointed to a sign warning people not to fish because the waters are known to be contaminated with toxic chemicals.
“You wouldn’t want to eat the fish you catch,” Brown, a member of the Newburgh Clean Water Project, told a visitor.
Newburgh is one of many communities around the United States – indeed, around the world – now grappling with the knowledge that their landscapes and lives have come under threat from a class of chemicals known as per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that are being found throughout the environment.
Scientists have linked PFAS exposure to various health problems, including cancer, congenital disabilities, and liver disease. PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because they do not break down easily and accumulate over time. Studies have estimated PFAS to be present in the blood of an estimated 97% of Americans and in hundreds of species of wildlife around the globe.
Last year, the Biden administration announced plans to “research, restrict, and remediate harmful PFAS,” and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has rolled out an array of strategies, including sharply lowering the allowable levels of certain types of PFAS in drinking water. The action is expected to trigger billions of dollars in spending on clean-up efforts across the country.
But for impacted communities, eradicating PFAS contamination – if that is even possible – can’t come fast enough.
Guest Column: Paraquat and the deliberate production of ignorance
(Editor’s note: This column cites revelations co-published by The New Lede and The Guardian.)
By E. Ray Dorsey, M.D., and Amit Ray, Ph.D
Almost nobody on Earth is safe from air pollution, study says
Nearly the entire global population is regularly exposed to unsafe levels of air pollution, according to a study published this week.
Researchers at Monash University in Australia analyzed air pollution data from across the globe between 2000 and 2019 to estimate global daily exposure to PM 2.5, a type of air pollution made up of inhalable particles 2.5 micrometers or smaller. The particles can enter the bloodstream through the lungs and contribute to an array of health problems, including premature death, asthma, and heart disease.
The team found that between 2000-2019, only 0.18% of the world’s land area and only 0.001% of the world’s population — about 78,000 people — had annual PM 2.5 exposure lower than the 2021 air pollution guidelines set by the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO’s guidelines recommend that a person’s annual exposure to PM2.5 should not exceed 5 micrograms per cubic meter.
“Almost no one is safe from air pollution,” said Yuming Guo, an author on the study and a professor of environmental health at Monash University. “All people might face serious air pollution.”
The new findings come as the United States and countries around the world are wrestling with how to regulate harmful air pollution, which was estimated to cause almost 7 million premature deaths in 2019, according to one study. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently proposed lowering its standards for annual exposure to PM2.5 from the current standard of 12 micrograms per cubic meter to between 9 and 10 micrograms per cubic meter, a measurement it said reflects “the latest health data and scientific evidence.”