Media Madness and the Search for Truth

How far down the rabbit holes of news and media do you want to go? The depths seem endless, especially as we approach another election.

Thankfully, our dear friend and media savant, Garland West, sheds some much needed insight to light a path of rationality back into our overzealous media consumption habits.

Now, it’s up to us to put Garland’s wisdom into good use so we may become well-informed, rational and responsible citizens.

Will Consumers Pay to Go Green?

After years of serious debate about the reality or extent of actual climate change, governments around the world have responded to rising public support for “green” policies and programs.

For the United States, it’s a 2021 pledge by President Biden in the Paris Climate Accord to cut GHG emissions in half by 2030. Biden’s ambitions continue for the United States by stating that we will reach 100% carbon pollution-free electricity by 2035 and net-zero emissions economy by 2050, just 26 years from now.

International leaders also speak of commitments to massive greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions by mid-century, and businesses around the world have jumped on the prevalent environmental bandwagon with ambitious GHG reductions of their own. But things have changed since the glory days of the Paris Accord.

The subject of climate change has had sufficient time to percolate in the public mind. The issue has moved on from an initial era of awareness-building – years of helping define the issue in the public mind and marshaling political support for ambitious targets and extensive policies and programs.  We now appear to be entering the next stage of public discussion and debate, focusing on the practical realities of moving the issue from an abstraction to reality.

As more and more of the policies and programs initiated in the undoubted enthusiasm for a better environment begin to gain traction, people are beginning to ask questions – sometimes difficult questions.

The Evil of Fossil Fuels

The largest area of concern centers on the extent of our dependence on fossil fuels. We’ve successfully created the picture of a self-destructive reliance on an energy source that is deemed to be harmful to the environment and to people.  It’s so bad, critics argue, that we have no choice but to embrace draconian actions that effectively cut our use of fossil fuels – and cut it now rather than later.

Reduced use of petroleum products in the transportation industry and generation of electricity is a key objective, as is the development and use of other non-fossil fuel energy sources, including such renewable sources as solar, tidal, biofuels and wind. In short, transforming it fundamentally transforms our entire energy system.

According to 2022 government data, nearly 80% of U.S. energy consumption comes from fossil fuels, with the country consuming almost 20.3 million barrels of petroleum, about a fifth of the global total, every day.

The best-intentioned efforts, however, have proven to have some sobering realities.  The largest of those realities is the sheer scale of the challenge. We have built an enormous economy on the basis of fossil fuels. Our gross domestic product is now roughly $25.5 trillion. Retooling such an economic engine away from dependence on fossil fuels will take money – a lot of money – not to mention the time needed to make such a transition without sending the economy into a tailspin.

Proponents of aggressive change believe that the huge costs of transformation will indeed lead to short-term run-up in consumer costs, as the price for new technologies and equipment and support systems come into play.

However, over time, they argue that these price-run-ups will be offset by improved efficiencies and lower costs that come from moving to a low-carbon energy model.

Analysis by leading consulting organizations echo this argument. But those same consultants also acknowledge that the cost of transitioning to net-zero emissions of GHG by 2050 will cost an extra $3.5 trillion per year.  Cynics pointedly ask for an example of cost reductions actually being passed back to consumers, once the increases have been implemented.

Who Pays?

The question of “who pays” has become an increasingly troublesome matter to more than energy consumers.  The food and agriculture sector is not immune to the economic questions posed by the wide range of green policies and regulations imposed in the name of protecting people and the planet.

The most immediate issue raised by people across the food chain is the enormous role played by energy costs in producing commodities and food products. Farming and ranching have massive energy needs and agriculture contributes approximately 11% of global green house gas emissions.

Nitrogen fertilizers are derived primarily from natural gas and make up one of the most critical crop inputs and remain a key to productivity. Field equipment such as tractors, combines, and trucks demand fuel, as well as power for moving, storing, drying, and maintaining crops. Basic processing of commodities into the food ingredients used by food manufacturers also demands significant energy. Warehousing and distribution of food to retailers and restaurants is inherently transportation-dependent.

Moving to vehicles not dependent on fossil fuels is a noble objective.  But once again, the reality is that such a transformation in a system as large as the U.S. food system will be an expensive proposition. The more rapid the required conversion, the higher the risk of short-term adverse effects on the producer bottom-line.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that our national food system accounts for 12.5 percent of U.S. energy use (2012). Between 1998 and 2002, more than half of the increase in U.S. energy use came from the food system, USDA noted.

If you want the gee-whiz numbers this represents, consider an estimate from USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) that found the U.S. food system consumed about 12 quadrillion British Thermal Units (BTUs) in 2012. Each of those 12 quads works out to the energy in about 8 billion gallons of gasoline, or 293 billion kilowatt hours of electricity., or 36 million tons of coal. No matter how detailed or debatable the conversion arithmetic, that’s a lot of wind turbines and solar panels.

Food inflation has averaged roughly 3.2 percent each year for most of the past century. A host of factors during the Covid pandemic converged to drive food inflation to 6.3 percent in 2021 and a whopping 10.4 percent in 2022.  (Inflation rates in other parts of the world remain elevated as well. In the European Union, for example, food inflation peaked in mid-2023 at 19 percent before dropping to “only” 5.9 percent by year’s end.)

Cutting through all the numbers leaves one clear message: consumer food costs remain under considerable inflationary pressures for multiple reasons.  Energy costs – and the immediate transitional costs imposed by a growing roster of green requirements – will help maintain these pressures.

Post Covid, the inflation rate has dropped back to more traditional rates. But the rising concern with further disruptions to global energy markets – and the unrelenting cost pressures on producers and others across the food chain from green policies and other cost sectors – once again have people looking a bit nervously over their shoulders about future food costs.

Green Politics

The worry over continuing food inflation – and the possible role of green policies in fueling that pressure – have taken root across many of the countries at the heart of the Paris Climate Accord and their ambitious targets for moving to a more carbon-neutral global energy system.

The issue has prompted vocal protests and confrontational demonstrations from European and UK farmers – and generated rising concern among the elected officials who must reconcile those protests with existing and planned green commitments.

EU and UK farmers argue they are being squeezed on a number of economic fronts.  Shifting marketing flows in the wake of the Ukraine conflict have increased supplies, with resultant price pressure on commodities.  The Middle East is fraught with conflict and the future is uncertain in regard to oil prices. Cuts in diesel subsidies and other energy-related supports have added to costs and hurt producer bottom lines, German farmers contend. Restrictions on nitrogen-based fertilizers and sequestration of some farmlands have hurt productivity and profitability, others argue.

Complying with a growing roster of green requirements involves ever-more bureaucracy and takes more and more time and expense.  Protests have spread across France, Germany, Spain, Romania, Poland, Greece, Portugal, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom.

As one farmer summed up the litany of complaints to CNN, “We are no longer making a living from our profession.”


Eurostat findings tends to support the complaint: data shows a nearly 9 percent drop in the prices paid to EU farmers from 2022 to 2023.


Put that in perspective by imagining what you would do with that drop in your own household income – especially in an inflationary period.

The protests have reached sufficient size to prompt elected officials – many facing autumn elections – to rethink the extent and, perhaps more importantly, the timing of the ambitious green agenda. Some changes and restrictions have been rolled back or delayed. At this time, the discussion seems to focus on getting farmers more involved in the planning and development of green policies and programs and looking at time frames that provide greater opportunity for transition and adaptation.

European Commission President U chief Ursula von der Leyen has given up on an ambitious bill to reduce the use of chemical pesticides and softened the European Commission’s next raft of recommendations on cutting agricultural pollution. “We want to make sure that in this process, the farmers remain in the driving seat,” she said at the European Parliament. “Only if we achieve our climate and environmental goals together will farmers be able to continue to make a living.”

Evolutionary reality seems to be gaining traction over economically revolutionary good intentions.

Back in the U.S.

U.S. policy-makers still debating a massive long-term Farm Bill aren’t ignoring what is going on in the EU on the farm front. Many of the concerns and complaints heard across Europe and the UK sound all too similar to what U.S. producers may be thinking and saying.

Consumer attitudes also come into political play.  Current estimates place the U.S. inflation rate at 3.5 percent, down significantly from the 7 percent and 6.5 percent seen in 2021 and 2022 but up slightly from last year’s 3.4 percent.  Energy and food inflation, however, remain well above this level and represent two of the most powerful drivers of the cost increases facing consumers in the United States and elsewhere around the globe. Inflation hits hard. The other day in the grocery store, we overheard a child asking for a watermelon and his mother said no, at $7 it is too expensive. Sensitivity to those points of view grows especially strong as November looms.

How other countries handle the economic and political realities of ‘going green’ may offer some important advice on how to make that transition acceptable to everyone – none the least the American farmers and ranchers worried about their financial security, or the average food consumer tired of unrelenting increases in the costs of feeding their families.

Can We Eat to Improve the Climate?

Growing, harvesting, processing, and transporting our food takes about 17% of all the fossil fuel used in the United States. With the ambitious goal of reaching net zero emissions by 2050, consumers are searching for foods that require fewer fossil fuels. Is this realistic?

Quantifying Energy Used for Food

We recently read How the World Really Works, the most recent book by Vaclav Smil, a distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba. Smil has published 47 books and more than 500 papers on the research in energy environmental and population change, food production, history of technical innovation, risk assessment, and public policy. Bill Gates considers him one of his favorite authors.

In his latest book, Professor Smil explored the improvements the world has made since the early 1800s. He explains “In two centuries the human labor to produce a kilogram of American wheat was reduced from 10 minutes to less than two seconds.” He also talks about the importance of fossil fuels and the world could not provide enough food to feed all of us without them.

Smil also delves into food production and its associated energy use. In fact, he had the patience to calculate how much energy it takes to make a loaf of sourdough bread, raise a chicken, grow a tomato, and eat seafood. He averaged out an itemized estimate using production numbers around the globe.

This sounds like a painstakingly long and detailed effort, with considerations for crop and livestock cultivation; facilities management; processing, production and packaging; and all distribution required along the way. But the results were interesting and surprising!

Bread’s Energy Journey 

Sourdough bread is a staple around the world.

The energy it takes to plant, grow, and harvest wheat is crucial in its production. After the wheat is harvested, it is trucked or goes by rail to the mill to be made into flour.

The initial stages of sourdough preparation require the activation and maintenance of the starter culture, which demands consistent temperature control.

Additionally, mixing, kneading, baking and the use of ovens and other kitchen appliances all contribute to energy consumption.

The energy required throughout this journey for a 2.2 pound loaf of sourdough bread is just about 8 ounces of diesel fuel.

Crude for Chickens

Raising chickens involves a fascinating blend of traditional agricultural practices and modern energy considerations.

To maximize production, it is critical to maintain a suitable environment for the birds. They must be fed the right mixture of grains, minerals, and vitamins.

The utilization of electricity for consistent temperature control, ventilation, and lighting, especially in large-scale operations, underscores the intrinsic relationship between energy usage and the well-being of the birds.

Once the chicken is fully grown the birds are transported to the processing facility which turns them into breasts, thighs, and other cuts for the grocery store.

The entire energy for 2.2 pounds of processed chicken is about 11 ounces of diesel.

Holy Tomato!

Tomatoes can require many factors and sources of energy, depending on whether they are grown indoors or out.

Photosynthesis uses the sun’s energy to grow tomatoes outdoors for over eight months. Yet for the 35% of global tomatoes grown indoors, the energy inputs are significantly more because of the substantial energy required to provide heat, light, and nutrients, not to mention the energy needed to make the greenhouse itself.

But even tomatoes grown outdoors require crude oil to make the plastic clips, wedges, sheets, and gutter arrangements for successfully growing a tomato crop.

The energy utilized in production encompasses diverse inputs, from solar energy and traditional machinery to electricity and embodied energy, making its energy calculation highly complex.

The answer for this beloved fruit is not simple, but Smil calculated that, growing 2.2 pounds of tomatoes uses about 21.9 fluid ounces of diesel fuel, on average.

Fuel for Farmed Salmon 

On average, the energy consumption for seafood production is relatively high.

It takes approximately 23.6 ounces of diesel per 2.2 pound serving, just slightly more than the energy needed for tomatoes.

For example, salmon, a popular seafood choice, is predominantly farmed, which involves significant energy expenditure for fish feed production, transportation to farms, and ultimately to consumers.

Unless sourced locally from specific regions like Chile, Norway, Scotland, or Western Canada, considerable energy is expended in the entire process from farm to table.

Of course, one can imagine the amount of fuel used to catch, freeze, and transport wild-caught fish. Professor Smil suggests that opting for sardines, which are rich in omega-3s and have lower environmental impacts, can be a more sustainable choice.

Is Energy Estimation Possible?

We were shocked when we found out that raising 2.2 pounds of chicken required just a third of the energy needed to cultivate the same weight of tomatoes. This proves that our food system is much more complicated than it appears.

We wrote about climate conscious eating and pointed out that it is not just about the energy used, we have to also consider water.  To grow just one ounce of nuts takes anywhere from 3.2 gallons to a whopping 28.7 gallons for almonds.

Farming takes multiple kinds of energy. Human energy – plain old hard work and effort.  Solar energy – sunlight for photosynthesis.  Wind – for pollination.  And just as important, fossil fuel energy, including diesel and gasoline for farm machinery, plant equipment, and transportation.

Used appropriately, energy increases productivity and distribution across our food system, therefore increasing profitability for farmers. Without that energy, the whole system collapses.

End of story, turn out the lights, dinner is over.

“Our food is partly made not just of oil, but also of coal that was used to produce the coke required for smelting the iron needed for field, transportation, and food processing machinery; of natural gas that serves as both feedstock and fuel for the synthesis of nitrogenous fertilizers; and of the electricity generated by the combustion of fossil fuels that is indispensable for crop processing, taking care of animals, and food and feed storage and preparation.”

– Prof. Vaclav Smil

The complexities of our food system are vast. As we push our cart through the grocery aisle, how do we really know whether the food we eat is farmed sustainably and uses energy and water responsibly? Are you curious?

  1. Would you pay more to know exactly how much energy and water was used to make the food you are eating?
  2. Would you like to see it on a label?
  3. Would it affect your food choice?

Will reducing beef save our planet?

Are cows really a major cause of climate change? Wealthy nations are not pushing people to switch to a plant-based diet. Will that really work to reduce emissions? What would an all-plant diet for 8 billion people do for the environment? Not to mention that we need 30% of our diet in protein. We investigated this two years ago when Epicurious decided not to include meat recipes and we thought we would post it again given the recent COP28 initiatives.

Every day we choose what to eat. This never used to be a big deal. But today food has become synonymous with politics. I get it. My sister’s family and mine are a close-knit bunch who have mixed views on eating meat. Among our group of children, we have two vegans, two vegetarians, and four meat-eaters.

We love each other a lot and we don’t ask vegans to cook steaks, or the meat lovers to make only plant-based dishes. Instead, we work together to make sure there is enough food for everyone’s plate. Then, we spend our time caring about each other as people, not poking about what we are eating. It is a matter of respect and support for everyone’s choice.

What’s the beef with the UN FAO’s stance on red meat?

At the recent COP28 Climate Summit in Dubai, the United Nation’s Food & Agricultural Organization (FAO) stated that developed nations will need to reduce red meat and dairy production to avert a global health crisis.

I have casual conversations with friends and acquaintances who are diligently participating in ‘Meatless Mondays’ or even skipping red meat altogether because they think they are doing a good deed for the climate.

“According to a new roadmap from the world’s peak food security body, wealthy countries will need to cut back meat and dairy consumption to hit health and environmental targets.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN roadmap outlines a way to feed the world over the next 25 years without increasing the emissions and land clearing that drive climate change and biodiversity loss.”

So, is this true? If we significantly reduced beef and dairy output, would we also significantly reduce emissions? Here is a better question: what if everyone knew that meat can be part of a broader climate solution instead of a climate problem?

We want to give you a more nuanced, data-driven perspective so you can come to your own conclusion.

Cows solving climate change?

Raised in Minnesota, I can tell you there is no more beautiful sight than the grasslands. In the late ‘60s, my bedroom window overlooked a wetland prairie. Whether you think of them as prairies, pampas, steppes, or savannas, about one-third of our global land is open grasslands…tall grasses blowing in the wind, full of deer, elk, songbirds, wildflowers, and cattle.

In a recent post, The Nature Conservancy highlighted a metanalysis, “Reducing Climate Impacts of Beef Production”, showing that ranchers, particularly in the U.S. and Brazil, who own both grasslands and beef can cut emissions by 50%.

As a 1,000-acre rancher in South Carolina told one of us at D2D, “I am really a grass farmer.” When cattle roam freely, their hooves dig up the earth, seeds drop in from neighboring plants, manure adds fertilizer, and the grasslands thrive. The open land thrives because it is a carbon sink.

As Meredith Ellis, a cattle rancher from Texas told us, “our ranch is sequestering 2,500 tons of carbon (after enteric emissions) each year – equivalent to taking 551 cars off the road.

Grass-fed and feedlot finished?

Did you know that about 95% of all cattle start their lives on grass and then finish the last third of life in the feedlot? Many argue that once cattle are in the feedlot, they contribute to the atmospheric methane, but it is actually the opposite: grass-fed cattle emit approximately 20% more methane because it takes them about a year longer to reach market weight.

Because of the tremendous environmental benefits of grassland, we are not saying that all cows should be raised in a feedlot, but to point out that corn-fed cattle simply produce less methane.

Additionally, many animal nutrition companies are currently researching for the ‘holy grail’ in animal feed to further reduce the release of methane anywhere from 3% to 50%. The reason? More belching occurs when cattle eat the roughage in the grass versus a highly nutritious and tailored feedlot diet. It is when the roughage breaks down that methane is produced.

Moooving over for dairy to digest methane

Dairy farmers also find ways to contribute to a more sustainable environment, too. The dairy industry has benefited from anaerobic methane digesters for years. Dairy farms collect the cow manure and plow it into rubber-lined ponds right next to the barns.

Each of these coverings looks like a dome and helps capture methane. And then, to make a long story short, methane is used as electricity for the farm or sold back on the grid.

These farms have cheap electricity and are greenhouse gas (GHG)-negative because they use methane rather than fossil fuels. In fact, California has committed to a 40% reduction of dairy methane emissions by 2030 just by using digesters alone.

Just to give you an idea of the importance of animal feed, let’s take a look at India…

They have 56 million dairy cows, more than the E.U., Brazil, U.S., and Russia — combined. Of course, they don’t eat their cows; they just use them for dairy products.

Because their feed and milking systems are not as sophisticated, a cow only produces 2,600 pounds of milk a year versus the U.S.’s 21,000 pounds per cow, on average.

Therefore, India needs eight more cows to give the same amount of milk as one U.S. cow. And at 6 million head, China’s dairy cows have a similar production rate as India.

That is a lot more methane!

What if we don’t eat beef at all?

Lean meats and plants are critical for our health. (Have you had your 3-5 servings of fruits and vegetables today?) But the nutrients that meat provides are critical, too. What would happen if all we had to choose from were only plants and grains? To find out what an animal-free country would look like, Robin White and Mary Beth Hall of the Department of Animal and Poultry Science at Virginia Tech and U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center, studied the impact of a vegetarian country on U.S. emissions, economics, and nutrition.

In short, White and Hall found a reduction in emissions of 2.6%, or 28% of agricultural emissions. They explain that there would be 23% more food but deficiencies in U.S. nutritional requirements of minerals, vitamins, and fatty acids. For example, eating a lean 8-oz. piece of steak provides you with 45 grams of protein, versus eating a cup of black beans with only about 15 grams. You get more protein with fewer calories.

There would also be an economic impact. What do we tell the ranchers, farmers, feeders, processors, marketers, and more who have invested billions of dollars creating protein for human health, not to mention the trickle-down effects on local economies?

Cows are carbon neutral. Really!

Despite popular thinking, the reality is that cows are neutral carbon emitters! How? Over time, they do not emit more carbon than they eat. It is undisputed that plants pull carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the air and then combine it with water and sunlight to make carbohydrates and oxygen. The plants use carbohydrates as fuel for growth and emit oxygen into the air as a byproduct. Very handy for us as we need that to breathe.

When a cow eats a plant, it consumes carbohydrates – which contain carbon. It swallows the plant into their four-chambered stomach. The first chamber is massive and holds enough food to fill your bathtub – about 50 gallons. After the plant enters their stomach, they bring it back up to chew some more – “chewing their cud.” The food then goes back down to the stomach to be digested by the microbes, called methanogens.

This is when they belch a portion as methane which is then released into the atmosphere. This methane is the culprit, as it is 28 times more potent as a GHG than CO2.

The good news is that it only lasts for about eight to ten years before it converts into one part CO2 and two parts H2O via hydroxyl oxidation.

Here is where it gets interesting: according to Frank Mitloehner, Ph.D., Professor and Air Quality Specialist at the University of California, Davis:

“If you are not adding additional cattle or cows to the earth, then there will be no additional methane and no additional global warming.”

As long as more cows are not introduced on the planet, then no additional CO2 is added. For the past ten years, global cattle population has been steady at around 1 billion, yet the average annual presence of methane has steadily increased. Dr. Mitloehner continues, saying “We in agriculture have to do our part but must not be singled out as the 800-pound gorilla we are not.”

Sources for chart:, U.S. Department of Agriculture; USDA Foreign Agricultural Service; ID 263979.

Putting this in perspective

So where does agriculture stand in relationship to global GHG contribution? According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, it is about 12%.

There is no doubt that methane is a powerful GHG that we want to keep out of the atmosphere. But it does not all come from animals. According to NASA, the methane sources can be broken out as follows: 30% wetlands, including ponds, lakes, rivers; 30% related to oil, gas, and coal extraction; 20% by agriculture, including livestock, waste management, and rice cultivation; 20% wildfires, biomass burning, permafrost, termites, dams, and the ocean. Here are more detailed breakdowns:

Freedom to Choose

We are already so divided as a country on a variety of political and social issues. Why are we doing this with food and our climate? Yes, cattle emit methane. That is a fact. It is also true that humans have creatively adapted to a life of comfort and health for thousands of years. Let’s use methane reduction for cattle as a lesson in innovation to make our food and our planet better. Let the science speak for itself and not let emotions get carried away.

I quickly recall my family and I debating issues at the dinner table, but at the end of the day, we respect each other’s thinking. We are environmentalists. We are fierce advocates of sustainable food, innovation, and making the world a better place while also being pragmatic about protecting humans and animals. And we also realize how incredibly fortunate we are to choose what we eat each and every day.

How Do Wildfires Affect Ag?

Wildfires run wild

This summer, many of us have experienced the hazy orange skies and smelly air. It has affected people all throughout the United States and even over in Europe. It’s all too clear for anyone to see and smell: more frequent and more extreme wildfires – fires that consume thousands upon thousands of acres of forests, grasslands and even farming areas, all the while pumping colossal amounts of potentially noxious gases and particulates into the atmosphere.

We have seen it almost daily in video reports of more than 800 active wildfires across Canada and others across large swatches of the United States, notably the Southwest. Most recently, we’ve witnessed the horror of fires in Maui. High temperatures push the gas and ash from fires higher and higher into the atmosphere, allowing jet stream winds to sweep pollutants literally thousands of miles.

Reports of hazy, orange-tinted skies and complaints of sneezing, itchy eyes and difficulty breathing spread across the upper tier of the United States, all the way to the East Coast. As a result, New York City this summer earned the dubious distinction of having the worst air quality in the entire world.

How bad is it?

The numbers associated with today’s wildfires are mind-numbing.

  • Over 5,000 Canadian wildfires so far this year involve all 10 provinces and three territories, covering over 12 million hectares (30 million acres). 52 new fires were reported in a single day (July 31).
  • In the United States, the number of fires and acreage involved trail the Canadian figures but remain substantial, nonetheless. The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) reports major fires burning across nine U.S. states, involving 1.1 million acres. The fires in Maui have burned over 2,100 acres alone.
  • The U.S. Forest Service spends up to half its $3 billion budget fighting wildfires. NIFC estimates that the U.S. government spent over $35.5 billion fighting fires covering nearly 7.6 million acres in 2022. The sad part of all this destruction is that 85% of fires are started by humans either by unattended campfires, debris burns that got out of control, including those started by smoldering cigarettes, and arson.
  • The economic costs of wildfires are estimated to range from $71.1 billion to $347.8 billion annually, including direct losses of $63.5 billion to $285 billion.
  • Between 2000 to 2019, more than 400 Wildland Fire Fighters died fighting wildfires.
  • Wildfires are increasing well beyond North America. Major fires this year have occurred in Greece, Portugal, Corfu, France, Italy, Chile, Kazakhstan, China and beyond.  It’s not surprising to hear United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guiterres say we have passed into an “era of global boiling.”
  • The number of U.S. citizens exposed to unhealthy levels of wildfire pollutants for at least one day per year has increased 27-fold in the past decade, with an estimated 25 million Americans breathing potentially toxic air from fires.

Such dramatic statistics may obscure the central questions created for Dirt to Dinner by the proliferation of wildfires.

  • How much of a threat are these wildfires to our personal health and the environment, especially our soil?
  • What if any effect will these wildfires have on our food, in terms of its quality, availability or cost?

What’s the danger to human and animal health from all this?

The loss of forest, grasslands and agricultural land from wildfires is undoubtedly cause for concern.  But if you really want to worry, focus instead on the pollutants created by these enormous conflagrations.

Wildfire smoke is a devil’s brew of harmful ingredients – carbon monoxide, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, water vapor and various particulate matters. As fires burn, these substances rise in the air, driven upward by heat, finding prevailing winds aloft capable of carrying them thousands of miles.

The fine particles in wildfire smoke irritate the respiratory system, causing wheezing, coughing and difficulty in breathing.  The ability to fight off bacteria and viruses in the lungs may be compromised. Extended exposure can lead to serious respiratory and cardiological problems. Health risks increase, even in healthy people.

For the elderly or very young, pregnant women or the infirm, the consequences can be much worse – and even deadly. (A chart of the overall health effects can be found here.)

The chief culprits in this health threat are polluting particles known as PM2.5 – particles generally 2.5 microns in diameter, or smaller.  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates these PM2.5 particles may make up as much as 90 percent of the total mass of particles emitted from wildfires.  Their small size enables them to pass through the normal air filtrations systems of the human body and find their way to the lungs and cause damage to both the respiratory and cardiovascular systems.

The scientific community continues to explore the question of the relationship between exposure and lasting health damage.

But whether a short-term problem or a long-term health issue, PM2.5 particles are cause for genuine concern.

(At D2D, we wrote about how you can mitigate the harmful effects of wildfire smoke in your lungs with a nutrient-dense diet.)

What about farming and the environment?

Air pollutants are nothing new. Many of the same pollutants from wildfires are common to any industrialized society, from manufacturing to power generation and beyond.  The creation of the EPA on January 9, 1970, was a milestone in the regulatory oversight of noxious pollutants arising from human activity.

Wildfires, however, are not easily subject to regulatory constraints. The prospect of more frequent and more intense wildfires worries many environmentalists, with some openly asking if we are entering a new era of air pollution from wildfires that erases many of the hard-won air quality gains since the 1970s. And as air quality declines, human and animal health risks rise. Overall, ecologically minded climate observers say, wildfires add to pressures to enforce stringent air-quality guidelines and battle the climate change that fuels wildfires.

Life-long farmers at the front lines of the wildfire battles seem to acknowledge the environmental aspects of the wildfires and the likelihood we will see such events increase in frequency.  But for now, they tend to shrug off their lasting effects on agricultural productivity, or our overall food supply.  They also make it clear that we shouldn’t allow any sole focus on the role of climate change in the current situation to become a smokescreen for other important issues.

What our experts have to say…

Jay Walter of Greenridge Farming in Oregon worries the public clamor over wildfires might “fuel a bigger fire of misperception” about the effect of fire on our food system.  Wildfires are nothing new for producers, especially in the drier, less humid production areas like the Pacific Northwest, Montana and even Kansas, he observes.

“We’ve had bad fires in two of the past five years here in the Pacific Northwest,” he notes. “I haven’t seen any evidence that particulates have had any real effect on our crops… there’s no loss in quality.  Maybe yields drop a little, but not enough to worry me.”  (Certain special crops – such as the grapes used to create the superb area wines – may be vulnerable to the heat and its effects.)

On the other hand, smoky, hazy conditions also may diffuse or otherwise block sunlight from reaching plants, according to Dave Cameron, who operates C6 Agri Farms in Omaha, Nebraska.  “That limits the heat units that crops need to mature, with maybe minimal effect on yield. But I haven’t seen evidence that it limits them enough to cause any serious problems.”

Don Wysocki, extension soil scientist at Oregon State University and past regional director of the Soil and Water Conservation Society, largely agrees with Walter and Cameron:

“Fires tend to occur more in forested lands and grasslands used for grazing far more than crop areas,” Wysocki observes.

“They happen where the physical conditions are right – the temperature, moisture conditions, wind conditions, plus fuel load. If a fire becomes too intense, the high heat can affect the soil, but by and large such occurrences in row-crop situations are comparatively rare.”

“The big Yellowstone fire years ago burned the organic material out of the soil,” he notes, and created hydrophobicity. That means the soil became so compacted it actually repelled water and lacked the organic material needed to absorb water.  “It took years for the vegetation to regenerate and restore vitality to the soil,” he said. “But it just doesn’t happen in agriculture. The intensity and duration of the fire just isn’t there.”

Walter and Cameron also say the effects of wildfires on farm animals appear to be minimal and often depends upon the proximity to an actual fire.  Heat and the pollutants within smoke can have the same pernicious effects on farm animals as they have on humans, they acknowledge.  But by and large, unless the animals are in close and sustained proximity to a fire, the effects aren’t too severe and don’t last long. Farmers and ranchers take the health and well-being of their animals seriously and will do whatever they can to assure their protection from real harm.

Cameron adds the often-overlooked effect of wildfires on animal habitat.  Fires push out wildlife and can contribute to a change to the overall ecosystem.  Dealing with that can become yet another matter for smart farm management.

What about the effect on ag labor?

Farming and ranching are labor-intensive activities. Crops such as potatoes, onions and other fruits and vegetables are especially dependent upon human workers, not just machines and technology.

Imagine running eight potato-harvesting lines of 60 workers each at harvest, explains Walter. Now imagine working a 12- or 14-hour shift in high temperatures and smoky conditions, when it’s tough to catch your breath and you are losing fluids rapidly.  Even increasing the number and length of rest breaks doesn’t make it easy.  Now multiply that situation across all sorts of the fruit, vegetable and other crops grown the areas most vulnerable to the effects of wildfires.

The problem isn’t unique to the Pacific Northwest or other locales adjacent to major fires. When AirNow, a coalition of U.S. government agencies, daily reports air-quality indices and shows “unhealthy“ and “seriously unhealthy air” across widespread parts of  the United States, it may well be time to heed Walter’s advice and shift more attention to the human dimension of the wildfire problem. (See an AirNow report here.)

One of the largest effects of wildfires on agriculture may be the added complications they create in finding the volume of workers needed to make the system function. Labor already has become of the biggest challenges to our food system. Wildfires may add fuel to that kind of fire, too. And working forced to sit out until the smoke clears
could lead to a loss of harvest in a localized crop.

Are these wildfires at all preventable?

Cameron acknowledges the widespread concern that climate change may be fueling more wildfires. Based upon his decades of experience in farming and farm management, he adds another important element to the causal mix that makes the explanation for more wildfires a bit more complicated than just climate change.

“The people are the story,” says Walter, “not the crops.”

“I call it the domestication of people,” he says with a laugh. “People are out and about a lot more than before. They like to get out in the country and walk and hike and camp and other things. That’s fine. But it also creates a lot more opportunities for accidents.”  Fires need an ignition source, he points out, like a spark, or lightning, or even a smoldering cigarette or campfire.

Farmers and ranchers in areas susceptible to fires have developed their own management techniques to deal with what they see as just another element of risk that comes with farming. Producers plan and prepare, Wysocki points out. (To better understand how fires spread so quickly, watch this video.)

At harvest, when dry conditions are common, Wysocki notes, producers have water trucks standing by in case of fire. They also band together on “Red Flag” days – high risk days, with warnings of an increased risk of wildfire in the next 12-24 hours.  When the red flag is out, farming communities stand ready to respond to any sign of smoke with combines, tractors and water wagons to keep any outbreak as small and isolated as possible.

All three farming experts agree that wildfires are cause for concern – but not over-reaction, especially about our food.  Spot shortages of certain commodities and food products may occur as a result of proximity to an actual fire, they conclude. But any problems will be situational rather than systemic, as current evidence suggests that wildfires are unlikely to have a substantial impact on our food supply in terms of quality, cost, or long-term damage to natural resources. Any disruptions in the system would likely be temporary and limited to specific food products in areas adjacent to major wildfire zones.

Return of El Niño Sends Up Red Flags

It’s an old cliché that whenever two or more farmers get together, it takes no more than three minutes before the subject of the weather comes up. But with El Niño’s return, we probably can cut that three minutes at least in half.

What’s El Niño?

There are two weather systems off the coast of South America that dramatically affect the winter and summer weather in the United States: El Niño and La Niña. Both of these are a result of the Pacific Ocean surface temperatures causing tropical rainfall that then changes the weather patterns around the globe. Each event typically occurs approximately every three to five years. They both tend to develop in March through June, peak substantially sometime between December to April, and then weaken from May through July.

The ENSO blog, written by experts who forecast El Niño and La Niña, tell us we’re in the very early stages of another El Niño – the climatic phenomenon that results when waters in key parts of the Pacific Ocean start to warm up abnormally, changing normal atmospheric flows and potentially triggering all sorts of weather extremes.

El Niños are nothing new. We’ve seen them periodically for decades, including some notoriously severe El Niños in 1985, 1997 and 2015.  The effects of El Niño extend around the world, with often dramatic – sometimes catastrophic – changes in weather patterns. The worst was the 1982-1983 El Niño that dramatically affected Australia, North & South America, Africa, and Indonesia. For instance, Peru had 11 feet of rain when it normally has 6 inches.

But this time around, the experts are particularly concerned.

The venerable British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) cites weather scientists are “warning there is a good chance that it could be a particularly strong El Niño this year.”

Such strong language may reflect our pre-occupation with global warming and overall climate change. Both have emerged as perennial – maybe “perpetual” is a better word – cause for global concern.

According to NOAA, the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service and the National Air and Space Administration (NASA), the world remains locked in an undeniable pattern of warmer temperatures. The eight warmest years on record have occurred since 2014, with 2016 the warmest year ever and 2022 clocking in as either the fifth or sixth warmest. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the last El Niño began in 2015.)

What’s more, experts note that these record global temps occurred during an “La Niña” event dating back to 2020. For three years, the Pacific waters have been cooler than normal, leading some observers to question just how bad the temperature levels would have been absent the generally cooling effect of a La Niña on atmospheric patterns.

In simple terms, there’s ample cause to question just how bad the effect of our latest El Niño could be on our planet – and especially our agricultural system.

What exactly does an El Niño do?

In June, NOAA announced evidence that the next El Niño already has begun. As in a typical El Niño event, water temperatures in the eastern Pacific Ocean have been rising, and some experts also note that the area of warmer waters actually has begun expanding to the west.

The phenomenon usually first appears in the waters off Peru and Ecuador, occurring on average every two to five years and typically lasting nine to 12 months, and sometimes longer. This time around, the agency projects an 84 percent likelihood of a “moderate” El Niño and a 56 percent likelihood of a “strong” event. As the BBC report suggests, other experts offer more pessimistic assessments.

The warmer waters change the normal circular patterns governing movement of the upper atmosphere. Warmer waters “push” the overlying air northward faster than normal, altering the jet stream that guides weather systems around the globe. Normal east to west trade winds diminish and sometimes actually cease altogether, with resultant effect on normal cloud cover. Traditional weather patterns change.

The resulting problems come in many forms:

  • changed precipitation patterns, and greater risk of either drought or flood;
  • extreme temperatures; and
  • more dramatic weather events.

But the front lines of the fight against El Niño ’s pernicious effects lie with global agriculture. Farmers and ranchers face yet more uncertainty and enormous complications in managing their crops, flocks and herds.

Experts, however, caution that the complications created by global warming and climate change make such generalizations problematic. One NOAA official observed, “we’re in unprecedented territory.” As an example of the complexity or making predictions, note that hurricane experts acknowledge El Niño ’s dampening effect on the number and severity of hurricanes but nonetheless project a “near-average” hurricane season.

What’s at stake for agriculture?

True optimists hope producers in northern areas will be spared the worst from El Niño, while increased rainfall in other parts of the country might help deal with the lingering effects of drought in some key producing areas. But optimists have been hard to identify since weather agencies made their El Niño pronouncements in early June.

Weather extremes obviously can be devastating for both crop and animal producers. Heat and dry conditions stress crops and animals alike, increasing the need for water and often nutritional and veterinary support. Water supplies and shelter facilities must be managed and maintained more closely than ever. Monitoring of herds and flocks must be stepped up to identify and deal with threats to animal health and well-being generated by the extreme conditions.

Nor are the threats posed by temperature extremes limited to excessive heat and resulting dry conditions. The phenomenon fuels both higher high and lower low temperatures. Risk of damaging frosts and the need to shelter and protect animals from the cold and chill also increase.

More broadly, the added elements of unpredictability generated by El Niño mean farmers and ranchers have to place even more time, money and energy into planning for worst-cased weather scenarios.

Where are the biggest risk areas?

No one who has dealt with previous El Niño s will attempt to predict specifically how the emerging El Niño will play out in each and every agricultural region or situation. But experience and sound science can identify some of the areas most likely to be affected as El Niño continues over the coming months.

Among the areas to watch closely:

United States

El Niño is most likely to trigger drier, warmer weather in the northern United States and Canada, and more and heavier precipitation in the southern United States.

Some optimists argue El Niño could generate more rainfall for key areas of California – a trend that normally would be seen as a positive. But this year’s abundant snowpack and melt might further complicate the water-management challenge for the state. Some observers express similar hopes for the pockets of midwestern drought – but acknowledge the equal risk of seeing dry conditions become even drier.


Australia sits firmly in the historic El Niño bullseye. The 2015-16 event proved especially troublesome for a country that plays a central role in global trade of commodities and diverse food products. Australia’s efforts to step into global markets with abundant wheat and barley crops, for example, played a major role in helping mute the adverse effects of last year’s devastating loss of grain and oilseed supplies from the Black Sea corridor.

Australia exports 80 percent of its wheat, half of its barley and 90 percent of its wool. With more than 25 million head of cattle, the country trails only Brazil as the globe’s largest exporter of beef. By any measure, the country is a major supplier to a hungry world.  The 2015-16 El Niño helped drive the fourth-warmest temperatures on record.

With the world’s demand for wheat and other foods still increasing, Australia once again is a major factor in global food security.

Southeast Asia and the western Pacific

Disruptions to the normal monsoons could adversely affect many of the mainstay crops that dominate this region, providing food staples to literally billions of people.

Palm oil, for example, makes up more than half of all the vegetable oils consumed globally. About 60 percent of global palm oil comes from Indonesia; another 29 per cent is grown in nearby Malaysia and Thailand. Rising demand and tight supplies already have led to export restrictions among some major producers. Changes to traditional monsoon patterns and other weather-related complications can only add to the threat of further supply disruptions and drive further market gyrations.

Rice markets face similar concerns. Rice, a staple food for billions, is the second most important cereal crop in the world (behind only corn). Markets look to China, India, Bangladesh, India, Vietnam and Thailand for 75 percent of total production.


India’s role as a major player in global agriculture often is overlooked. India leads the world in acreage planted to wheat, rice and cotton, and ranks very near the top of global production charts for fruit, vegetables, sugarcane, sugar, rice and cotton. India farmers feed what is soon to become the world’s largest national population (1.5 billion by 2030) – and still export large quantities of the essential commodities sought by global customers.

China and Brazil

Both countries are critical elements of the global food system, both as exporters of commodities and food products. El Niño projections place China largely outside the areas expected to be most affected by weather events tied to El Niño.

Scientists also predict the worst of the potential “dry” conditions affecting Brazil will fall in the northern part of the country, which trails the southern areas as key agricultural producing regions. Brazilian produces soybeans, sugar cane, corn, cotton, beef and other commodities and food products – many of which should continue to compete aggressively in what could become an even tighter market supply picture.

But the same experts caution that specific abnormal weather events may occur  nonetheless across the globe as a result of El Niño, especially when coupled with overall global warming patterns. El Niño only adds to the weather and climate challenges facing today’s global food system.

What does all this mean for the food consumer?

The losses imposed by El Niño are far from inconsequential. Experts measure their economic costs in the trillion of dollars — on average around $3.4 trillion, and as much as $5.7 trillion from the severe 1997-98 El Niño. Those costs ripple through national economies – with consumers ultimately paying their share.

Digging In: Droughts Drive Smart Water Use

In our discussion, Curt will outline some of the things he and other smart, innovative farmers do to get ready for the worst. We’ll talk about the efforts being made to improve water management as a key element of farm management. We will hear about new technology and the enormous investments being made in tools for reducing water use, and relying on crops with greater drought resistance. We might also be surprised to hear why trade is an important part of the answer to drought.

Climate change is making drought and other weather extremes ever more likely. So take a few moments to join in with Nate and Dirt to Dinner’s Garland West to hear all the things people like Curt are doing to deal with this enormous challenge to our farming system – and our food security.

The Ins & Outs of Climate-Conscious Eating

For instance, I enjoy eating meat, and I also care about the environment. Are the two mutually exclusive? Can only those who follow a plant-based, vegan, or vegetarian diet truly be living an environmentally-friendly life?

The idea of a climate-conscious diet and vilifying animal protein got a boost from The Lancet, a scientific and health journal. Their EAT-Lancet diet vilified protein as both unhealthy for consumption and for the planet. However, well-known Registered Dietitian and author of Sacred Cow, Diana Rodgers rebuts some of the arguments against meat in Eat-Lancet. She states a few critical thoughts to those planning to remove meat from their diets:

  • Ridding the world of animals for nutrition would not simply free up arable land for crop harvest—agricultural and animal land is not interchangeable.
  • You need grazing animals for a healthy grassland ecosystem, as their movement stimulates growth, and diversifies the soil microbiome which helps it to serve as a water and CO2 sink. In fact, 85% of grazing cattle land is land that cannot be cropped.
  • 90% of what cattle eat for feed is forage and plant leftovers that humans cannot eat, serving as upcycled food.
  • 50% of meat byproducts, such as the carcass, is used for other products like insulin, leather, footballs, and medical applications.

Overlooked Complexities

A climate-conscious diet is nuanced and complex as you can see from just looking at red meat. Even those with the best intentions may not understand its intricacies.

Let’s imagine a man hypothetically named “John” for a moment. John lives in California and loves the outdoors. He is passionate about the environment and is greatly concerned about his own carbon footprint. Because of this, he has opted for a vegetarian diet, often shaming his meat-eating friends for their “destructive” protein choices.

A few of John’s favorite locally-grown foods include avocados, peaches, almonds, and plums. Well-intentioned John may not know that these vegetarian options have their fair share of impact on the environment and that meat production is actually a massive opportunity for greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction.

Let’s take avocados:

Delicious and nutrient-dense, avocados are a staggeringly popular fruit among vegetarian and vegan dieters. However, did you know that avocados are considered monoculture plants, meaning that they are typically grown on a single parcel of land each year?  

Monoculture crops are known to deplete soil because of a lack of biodiversity. Planting in the same place yearly strips nutrients from the earth, forcing farmers to use excess fertilizers to re-invigorate and restore soils for future plantings. While we know moderate fertilizer use can be sustainable, monoculture crops are generally worst for land degradation than polyculture crops.

Okay, well what about peaches?

Peaches are not the most environmentally destructive but John certainly did not realize just how large their water footprint is: it takes 109 gallons of water to make 1 pound of peaches. Peaches grown in areas with low-water reserves exacerbate water-shortage problems.

Almonds are a great treat!

They’re abundant in nutrients and energy-dense. But did you know it takes around 3.56 CO2e (Carbon dioxide equivalent) to produce 2.2 pounds of dry almonds? This is equal to a car driving about 8 and a half miles. Not to mention, it takes 1 to 3 gallons of water to just grow one almond, not including shelling and hulling.  

While the water footprint is high, almonds can have a very small carbon footprint if responsibly farmed. To offset almond’s overall impact, be sure to mix up your nut choices—cashews, peanuts and walnuts have significantly smaller water footprints.

Please don’t take this as advice to eliminate avocadoes, peaches, and almonds from your diet; our bodies need nutrient-dense produce and nuts like these every day!

These examples are to shed some light on the the understated complexities of the foods we eat. We simply do not have the technology to properly provide transparency at every step of the supply chain with every food product to determine its water use, land degradation deforestation, and soil health, and so on.

But we can use trends to direct us to a diet that considers these factors in addition to others, like nutrient density.

Well-Intentioned Dieters

Like John, many of us quickly determine foods to be “good” or “bad,” when the truth is we often don’t know the environmental impact of how a grower farms or a processor packages. We may trust a brand, a label, or a certification, but be cognizant that each food carries with it its own unique footprint.

The only way to stop any environmental impact would be to stop…eating.

But we would be remiss if we did not circle back on our meat discussion. John vilifies his carnivore counterparts for their “destructive” meat consumption. While we know beef a significant contributor GHGs solutions, cattle operations are actually a massive part of a large-scale solution for the reduction of GHGs.

Utilizing livestock for land management and cattle grazing to increase soil microbiome ultimately helps with carbon sequestration. Regenerative ranching can have vast positive effects on our land long term.

If meat is part of your regular and varied diet, be sure to include turkey or chicken as they often require less water, less feed, and less land.

And look into sustainable cattle operations and brands that are transparent with their growing methods and ones use third parties to certify their regenerative practices or partners—you can often find this information on a brand’s website.

For the reasons you just read, some vegans who seek fruits, nuts, and dairy as a primary source of protein and nutrients can actually have a higher carbon or water footprint than a flexitarian dieter who eats one serving of meat per day, and likely struggles to get in their full daily nutrient compliment without protein powder.

Let’s help John find some alternate climate-conscious food choices, shall we?

Climate-conscious foods

Here are a few foods that fall within this category. Of course, we are not suggesting we eat only the following foods. We recommend a varied diet both for your health as well as the health of the environment.

  • Grains like quinoa, farro, and oats are much less resource-intensive to produce. They require less water and land than other foods, and can generally withstand various weather conditions, helping to reduce food waste. They are easily transported and can be stored for long periods.
  • Beans, Pulses, and Lentils are debatably the most easily accessible, affordable, and sustainable foods. These require little water to produce and are natural nitrogen stores, meaning they store nitrogen in the soil for other plants to use—even after their life cycle. They also tend to be a fair source of protein.
  • Nuts & Seeds are great sources of protein. While some nuts have a high-water footprint, cashews, peanuts, and walnuts are less water-intensive and are also a great source of protein and healthy fats.
  • Mushrooms are incredibly versatile and have a very low environmental impact. Mushrooms are excellent at utilizing byproducts of other plants for nutrients to grow—upcycling crop byproducts to support their own growth by using them as natural fertilizers. Mushrooms use as little as 2 gallons per pound and contribute nominal CO2 emissions. Additionally, they are not land-intensive crops and can be grown close together in dark areas.
  • Seaweed is a very cool plant that is full of beneficial nutritional value. It does not require any fertilizers to grow, and it can retain and store high amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen which can help to improve soil run-off. Bonus: it grows faster than plants on land, thus helping decrease CO2.

Regenerative ag practices

We have written at length about regenerative agriculture and its expansive role in combatting climate change. Because it is protective of existing lands AND focuses on regeneration it is debatably the most important variable in climate-conscious eating.

Many growers and farmers are now dedicating their production strategies to focusing on regeneration and sustainability. FoodInsights reports that 19% of US farmers are farming regeneratively, with Rabobank reporting that 70% of US farmers have taken steps towards implementing sustainable agricultural practices.

Because regenerative agriculture works to pull carbon from the air into stores in the soil, it quite literally has the potential to help reverse climate change. Regenerative ag is also not reserved for just organic or conventional farming.

Its strategies can be applied across the board. Brands like General Mills, Danone, Kellogg, Cargill, and Nestle, among others, are investing in regenerative technologies to rebuild biodiversity and eliminate deforestation.

Only buy what you’re going to eat

Food waste is the most important consideration when thinking about climate-conscious eating. The USDA’s Economic Research Service estimates food waste is between 30 to 40% of the food supply nationally. They also state that 31% of food loss is at the retail and consumer level, equaling 133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of food.

Food waste occurs due to many reasons—spoilage, issues during drying, milling, or transporting, processing that exposes food to damage and equipment malfunction.

In some cases, it is actually due to consumers not properly understanding the differences between the “best by,” “use by,” “sell by,” and “best before” labels. Some well-meaning consumers will toss perfectly good foods in an effort to avoid food-borne illnesses when they are actually tossing out something that is perfectly edible.

43% of our total food waste in the U.S. comes from homes, so it is our responsibility to help combat this. Some common sources of food waste include coffee, milk, apples, greens, bread, potatoes, and cooked pasta.

So be sure to make deliberate shopping lists to avoid overbuying and cooking too much. Freeze foods or share with others if they can keep for future consumption, and know how to read your labels so you avoid throwing out perfectly good food!

Genetically-modified and engineered foods

While genetically-modified technologies have existed for some time now, the last five years have shown us the reality of what feeding a growing population will look like…and it is hitting consumers in the face.

A consumer report from Mintel detailed that the acceptance of GM technologies is rising, and consumers are now leaning into biotech as a major solution for both climate change combatant strategies and feeding the world.

Consumer acceptance of GM technologies is critical in developed countries for purchasing choices, but even more vital, and quite frankly, life-saving for underdeveloped countries that rely on higher yields and pest-control technologies to produce enough food to feed their populations.


Between higher crop yields, higher farm profits, and in some cases, lower pesticide use, GM technologies contribute to economic, environmental, and health benefits.

Studies have also shown that GM crops help reduce GHG emissions by supporting carbon sequestration in the soil. This is done by facilitating reduced tillage, lowering the need to put more land under plow, and, in turn, prevents excess CO2 emissions from land use.

Now when you see a GMO label on foods, remind yourself that you are choosing a food that is helping the world, not hurting it.

Supply Chain, Inflation & Climate Change

On the run? LISTEN to our post!

2021 is, in many respects, a continuation of 2020’s dominant story – the global Covid pandemic. But much of what occupied our attention this year on matters of food and agriculture involves the effects of the pandemic rather than the disease itself.

Jump ahead to:  Inflation    Climate Change    Trade    Supply   Tech    …and, um, these stories

The Supply Chain Mess – No Easy or Quick Answers

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, according to the old adage. 2021 helped reveal what happens when several links in the supply chain from dirt to dinner show a weakness.

Most immediately visible to consumers, perhaps, was the sporadic lack of select food products. A shortage of as many as 80,000 truck drivers helped leave store shelves thinly stocked or even empty from time to time.

Trucks handle more than 70% of our domestic freight, and “nearly every good consumed in the U.S. is put on a truck at some point,” according to the American Trucking Associations.

Our food supply is no exception.

Images of ocean vessels waiting to unload at ports showed how the transportation problems extended far beyond the local store to the entire global marketplace. Costs for ocean shipping, domestic barge cargoes, and trucking rates soared across the board, reflecting the imbalance in transportation supply and demand. Demand for food remained robust, despite the system disruptions.

The big problem wasn’t a shortage of products as much as the inability to maintain the smooth, reliable delivery system that makes our food system normally so efficient. In recognition of that reality, the Federal Trade Commission has demanded information from nine major food retailers as part of a planned investigation into the reasons behind the disruption.

A persistent shortage of workers in meat plants, dairies, and row-crop farms also played a role in disrupting the system, as the effects of Covid-19 pandemic restrictions and extensive government supports played out over the year.

Frustrated farmers, plant managers, and others across the food chain reported difficulty in finding the willing workers needed to harvest crops, maintain herds and flocks, service machinery and equipment, and all the other seemingly countless chores that go into growing, harvesting, storing, processing, manufacturing and distributing the $1.8 trillion dollars spent on food in the United States each year.

Just to put that number in context, note that the much-ballyhooed infrastructure bill passed by Congress this year costs about $1 trillion. So, when America’s food supply chain has problems, everyone sees the effect in the food choices available day to day – the prices paid for that food.

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Inflation – Up, Up and Away

No one needs to be told the cost of food has been going up. We see it every day, in the prices paid at the local grocery store and the bill as the local diner, and everywhere else, for that matter.

The latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) pegs the annual inflation rate for food running at 6.8%.

Soaring energy costs account for a significant portion of the increase. But the cost of disruption to the supply chain, higher commodity prices, and other factors also have been playing a role in a steady rise in food costs in the second half of the year, and economists across the public and private sector caution that inflationary pressures will continue across the economy well into 2022.

What’s so significant about 6.8%Consider this fact…

At 6.8% annual inflation, your food bill would double in less than 11 years. At the “normal” annual rate of food inflation over the past 20 years – roughly 2% – it would take 35 years to reach this level.

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Climate Change – For the Better

Concern with global warming accelerated during 2021, from the halls of international organizations and national governments all the way to the farm gate.

Efforts to assess the role played by agriculture in dealing with greenhouse gases, and other climate-related issues dominated the public-policy arena and the minds of farmers everywhere.

The 26th United Nations Climate Summit in Glasgow attracted as many as 30,000 supporters and political leaders from 197 countries, where delegates reaffirmed an international commitment to reducing gas emissions and limiting the projected increase in global temperature. The meeting produced lofty words, but many observers noted that much of the actual work being done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is being done at the local level.

Farmers, often working with various environmental groups and businesses, expanded their adoption of no-till, expanded grassland and crop rotation, and various other regenerative production techniques that help keep carbon in the soil rather than the atmosphere.

Government support for the development of carbon markets also helped drive farm-sector support for these “carbon smart” practices, as an investment in improved technology and environmentally-friendly equipment expanded sharply. The Department of Agriculture’s commitment of $633 million for “climate-smart” infrastructure investment in rural America only added to the momentum.

2021 may well be remembered as the year the ag sector’s role in climate change shifted in public perception from being a cause of global warming to emerging as a critical part of the solution to climate change.

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Trade – An Unquestioned Bright Spot

Despite the gyrations of the domestic market, U.S. agricultural exports are projected to reach record levels in 2021.

Department of Agriculture projections for FY2021 indicate total exports could reach a record $164 billion – up almost $28 billion (21%) from last year.

The United States also continues to rely on numerous food imports, turning to foreign suppliers for about 15% of our food, including about one-third of our fresh vegetables, half our fresh fruit, and more than 90% of our seafood. The fruit and vegetable market in 2021 is estimated at about $5.2 billion, and the seafood market at $3 billion.

Perhaps unlike 2020, the politically contentious issue of U.S.-China agricultural trade seemed to recede from the daily headlines. U.S. officials continue to press China to live up to the purchase commitments made in the 2019 trade agreement, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently expressed concern with the declining U.S. share of total Chinese imports.

But out of the media spotlight, China remains our largest customer, buying almost 18 percent of total U.S. agricultural exports, valued at $28.8 billion.

The trade data makes an important point for producers and consumers alike. Demand for U.S.-grown commodities and food products continues to grow. The world needs food, and the United States exports more food than any other country in the world.

Even when conditions complicate the task of bringing food from dirt to dinner, rising populations and robust economies continue to drive demand – and the U.S. food and agricultural sector consistently comes through in helping to meet it.

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Supply – Enough to Go Around

The supply news from 2021 is good. Despite production challenges created by drought, floods, pandemics, continuing urbanization, political unrest, and so many other factors, we continue to produce enough food to satisfy the caloric needs of a growing world.

Total global production of wheat is up slightly from last year (at 773 million metric tons). Feed grain production is projected to rise to a record 780 million metric tons. Palm oil crops are projected at about 75 million metric tons and soybeans as roughly 60 million.

With the U.S. corn and soybean harvest virtually complete, the Department of Agriculture reports “excellent” national results. Final figures won’t be available until the new year, but initial results indicate a very slight decline in soybean and corn yields from last year, due largely to drought conditions in select growing areas.

The take-away on supply: We continue to produce enough to satisfy a growing world demand for food.

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Technology – No Flashy Headlines, But Important Nonetheless

It rarely gathered headlines in the popular media. But it sure attracted investment dollars in 2021 – and investment drives improvement, according to economists.

2021 helped drive home an important truth: farming is a technology-dependent activity. Better technology can offset labor issues and enable the better productivity and operational efficiency critical to solid bottom lines.

Investment dollars continue to flow into a constantly expanding array of digital and material technological development. Consider just a small sampling:

  • Enterprise software
  • Drones
  • Water management tools
  • Remote sensing
  • Data collection, management & analysis
  • Robotics and automation for crop production, food processing, storage, and transportation
  • Genetics and CRISPR
  • Resource recovery & waste reduction
  • Food sampling and safety

Even before the onset of the Covid pandemic, the global agricultural artificial intelligence market alone was estimated at just over $600 million – with projected annual growth rates of 25 percent in 2019-2025.

It’s not often shouted from the rooftops, but technology may be the single most important factor in the dramatic productivity increases of the past decade.

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And now for something completely different…

From time to time, we also noticed items that didn’t quite grab headlines in the mainstream media or elsewhere. To celebrate the end of 2021 and welcome the new year, we share some of our favorite news items that few seemed to notice.

Joey Chestnut routinely grabs headlines when he wins the annual July 4th Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. This year was no different when the 37-year-old American scarfed down 76 hot dogs (and buns) in 10 minutes to win for the 14th time in his career. Less noted: Women’s champion Michelle Lasco managed to down 30 and ¾ hot dogs in the same time span. Yup, together that’s nearly 100 hot dogs in 10 minutes. It’s also close to 29,000 calories – or over 10 times the daily caloric intake of the typical person. Is this a great country, or what?

A Brazilian cow, unhappy with its prospects as a future delicious dinner, escaped and sought safety in a nearby water park, where it managed to take one last fling at fun by sliding down the park’s lengthy waterslide into the cool and refreshing pool below. Officials reportedly denied the fun-seekers request to “do it again, do it again…” but the happy animal was given a consolation prize of spending the remainder of what we all hope will be a long and happy life courtesy of a kind-hearted rancher 500 miles west of Rio de Janeiro. And BTW, the cow’s new name: Toboga, Portuguese for “waterslide.”

The fine folks in Austin, Minnesota, for years, have enthusiastically observed the glories of the pork delicacy SPAM, with parades, cookouts, and sundry celebratory events. Dirt to Dinner actually has attended this august event and can honestly report it to be one of the finest examples of true Americana anywhere. But we also must note that word has spread about another “Spam Jam” – this version found on Waikiki in Hawaii, where 7 million cans of Spam are consumed each year as a self-proclaimed “cultural tradition.” Cans of the pork delicacy are donated to local food banks if that helps explain the event’s real allure. Let’s ALL go…

And from our friends across the pond, we have this item from the village of Wonersh in Surrey, England. Police report a serial baked-bean bandit, who has a penchant for pouring the product everywhere, from doorsteps to mail slots to cars. Neighborhood watch groups apparently are on stand-by, but the bandit remains as elusive as the wind. There is no word on what snacks may be on hand or if toast also is involved. Sounds like a waste of good protein to us.

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Want to Save the Planet? ‘Break Boundaries’ at Home

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I watched Breaking Boundaries on a clear, crisp day in September. The temperature was in the high sixties, so the windows in the den were open where I could hear the birds playing in the trees. Before sitting down for the film, I grabbed a handful of trail mix that I had just meticulously picked out from Whole Foods and a Smartwater—the big one, as I am trying to work on my hydration – and I found a comfortable spot in my favorite chair.

Before the film, these small preparations for my movie-watching comfort did not hit me as meaningful or impactful in any way. As the documentary came to an end, my thoughts wandered back. The windows open where the birds played, the decision to grab nuts as my snack of choice, and choosing to use a plastic water bottle — these unconscious actions, both good and bad, had made me wondering: what if my efforts became conscious? Could I somehow modify my previously unbeknownst ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviors? And could these small actions make a difference?

Let’s take a closer look. Or as Attenborough might say, an “Earth’s Conscience” perspective.

Breaking Down my Impact

As I discovered from watching the film, all my seemingly inconsequential actions made an impact on our planet.

  • The Trees outside my window are a critical element in promoting biodiversity and carbon offsets.
  • My Trail Mix is made of nut-based plants that provide healthy protein and nutrients and directly affect land and water use.
  • My Water Bottle is made of plastic, making it part of a linear economy that creates trash that cannot be upcycled or eliminated from our waste stream.

While fear must not paralyze us, this film showed some opportunities for us to make our changes to help the environment.

“Thinking and acting with one unified purpose — to ensure that our planet forever remains healthy and resilient.”

– David Attenborough

Thoughts about the Film

No matter where you stand on climate change, critics and proponents alike state that the documentary details some alarming statistics and fast-approaching global eventualities should we remain on our current trajectory.

The film is well-intentioned. It covers core global issues we currently face across nine defined boundaries. It highlights the importance of individual action and response.

But given its lean runtime, I thought it lacked depth about both the complex topics it sought to cover, and, more importantly, the potential solutions to these urgent global issues. I commend the film for calling to action the need for a broader societal shift toward sustainability.

Still, I would have liked if they better explored the closing themes of the film: planting, healthy-eating initiatives, and waste elimination.

While this was a miss for the film, it is an opportunity for Dirt to Dinner to share its thoughts, provide depth to these potential solutions, and bring these solutions to “your den,” if you will.   

Three Conscious Decisions YOU can Make

The scientific evidence in the film shows that we face unacceptable risks to planetary health. However, it also states that we still have time to correct the situation! To cut greenhouse gases and protect our wetlands, soils, forests, and oceans, we can affect change at a household level through these three simple actions:

“We will live in a cleaner, healthier, and more peaceful world.”

1. Plant Trees

Planting trees is one of the most impactful and achievable solutions to reduce stress on our climate, Attenborough says.

It is vital to offset the carbon we will inevitably emit (at least to some level).

One tree doesn’t quite do it, but it will help. Over 40 years, one silver maple will sequester approximately 400 pounds of CO2, yet the average U.S. citizen emits 20 tons per year.

But carbon-capturing is not the only benefit of planting trees. It can also prevent soil erosion and help regenerate land, providing incredible benefits for global biodiversity.

I looked into how easy or hard this would be and found endless resources. Whether you want to plant one yourself in your backyard or community garden, or have a tree planted in your name, the resources both nationally and regionally are plenty!

I used one of our Dirt to Dinner partners, The Nature Conservancy, that has a program called A Billion Begins with One. It seemed fitting, given that I really wanted to know how my actions could make a more significant impact. I learned that my single donation does more than just put a seed in the ground; it provides habitats for future generations and helps turn the tide of deforestation.

Below are other notable organizations combatting deforestation: 




And to read more about the benefits of trees, carbon sequestration, deforestation, and soil health, check out these D2D articles:




2. Diet Choices

The film emphasizes the benefits of the ‘flexitarian diet’ for the environment.

Similar to the Mediterranean diet, the flexitarian diet focuses on veggies and fruits, nuts and seeds, and lesser-processed plant-based proteins with the flexibility to incorporate meat and animal products.

Research shows that eating a balanced diet rich in plant-based and animal proteins while avoiding processed foods and limiting sugars can be environmentally beneficial.

As we know, some low-impact, sustainably-produced meat can help sequester carbon, reduce soil erosion, and add nutrients to the soil, which aids in a diverse soil microbiome that is critical for carbon capture.

In my household, we receive Daily Harvest deliveries; this is one of many options for meal delivery plans. What drew us to this specific service was their Harvest Bowls that we use as sides to our protein. The primary ingredients are vegetable-based and provide dense nutrient profiles that help deliver a good portion of my recommended daily value of dietary fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals while calories remain low.

There are certainly other ways to make easy flexitarian diet choices. Simple decisions at the grocery store can be immensely impactful:

  • Buy frozen fruits and veggies. These products contribute to 47% less food waste, as they last longer than their fresh counterparts while still maintaining a similar nutrient profile.
  • Shop the perimeter of the store. Not only is this a way to eat healthier by avoiding processed foods typically found in the central isles, but there is typically less packaging, fewer additives, and less greenhouse gas impact.
  • Go heavy on your veggies! As we know, we need 5-7 servings of vegetables per day, but did you know this is also a way to save a buck? Veggies are typically the least expensive items in the grocery store. Focus less on organic vs. conventional and more on freshness so you get the most bang for your buck.
  • Buy LESS! Food waste is a huge problem. Come up with a meal plan before you hit the grocery store, and be sure to read the expiration dates. Here is a good resource on how to choose foods that last the longest!
  • Read your labels! Don’t fall for labels that might be misleading and lead you to believe they are more sustainable than others—make educated decisions! Here is a list of labels that can serve as a guide.
  • And don’t forget to bring your reusable bags to the store with you. Pack some in your trunk, so they are always on hand! But be sure to wash them as they can harbor unwanted bacteria.

Want some great ideas for flexitarian-type meals? Take a look at these delicious dishes:



3. Waste Reduction

The mass of global production runs on what is considered a linear economy, a system not designed to eliminate waste.

If we can turn linear systems into circular ones to recover raw materials, our use of resources can be what the film calls infinite.

These circular economies are critical to eliminating waste and can be achieved with the decisions we make at the grocery store.

Technologies such as blockchain provide supply chain transparency by informing us where our food comes from and the regenerative practices utilized to grow it.

Other technologies, such as an emerging field of smart-labeling, can show shoppers when our food expires, preventing edible foods from being thrown out! Companies like Mimica and  SmartLabel are in the business of reducing food waste by providing environmentally-conscious information to make smarter decisions when throwing out food.

An elementary step we can make at home is reusing water bottles. It seems obvious, but the cumulative statistics are staggering.

Eighty percent of plastic water bottles end up in landfills already overflowing with more than 2 million discarded bottles in the U.S. To make matters worse, it can take up to 1,000 years for EACH bottle to decompose.

Want to learn more about how you can eliminate waste at home? Check out these articles on fast-food restaurants, buying your seafood, sustainable packaging efficiencies, as well as some myth-busting information on feeding our growing nation.

What Else Can We Do?

Our final recommendation would be to share this article with a friend. The more we empower our community with information that demonstrates how the smallest change at home can make a difference, the more of an impact we can cumulatively make.

Drought: The “Hidden Global Crisis”

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How widespread is the drought problem?

Drought conditions have been reported around the world, often involving some of the major agricultural producing nations.

In the United States, drought remains a very serious issue across much of the Western States and large portions of the Northern Plains and Upper Midwest, including important production regions for wheat, feed grains, and oilseeds. California agricultural growing areas—including key centers for production of fruits, vegetables, and dairy — have been experiencing drought conditions described as “extreme” and “exceptional.” Conditions in the North and Southeast also are described as “moderate drought.”

Prolonged drought in these areas can have a significant effect on overall U.S. food supplies. California, for example, provides one-quarter of our total U.S. food supply. The Golden State is the nation’s largest dairy producer and grows as much as 80 percent of all the fruits and vegetables produced in the United States. North Dakota farmers provide more than half of all U.S, durum and spring wheat, key components of pasta and bread.

In contrast, conditions across much of the Midwest, South, and other portions of the country are generally in good shape for moisture.

Seriously dry conditions have steadily expanded across South America since at least 2018, moving from key areas in Brazil to include parts of Paraguay, Bolivia, and Argentina.

Regional and local droughts also have plagued major crop production areas in Australia, Ukraine, and parts of Africa and Asia in recent years.

The mixed bag of conditions has farmers and others across the agricultural sector keeping a close eye on weather patterns. Timely rains during the growing season can help make up for the early lack of moisture to some degree. At present, forecasts call for another good year of overall food production. But as with any “average” assessment, the forecasts mask the severity of potential damage to the most hard-hit areas.

What are the causes of drought?

The debate over climate change has produced some widely divergent points of view about the causes of drought and extreme weather conditions in general. Most experts tend to agree that the reasons most likely involve a combination of natural and man-made causes. But opinions vary on the relative importance of each set of factors.

What influences weather patterns?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) cites a variety of contributing factors:

  • Uneven heating and atmospheric pressure close to the earth’s surface cause global winds. These winds then push around large air masses, which meet and collide to create storms or clear skies.
  • In the atmosphere, jet streams send weather systems, heat, and moisture around the globe.
  • El Nino and La Nina are significant factors for temperature, rainfall, air pressure, atmospheric and ocean circulation that influence each other
  • Variations in the location and size of the ozone layer

Climate activists, in particular, are quick to note the importance of human behavior in creating water issues. Reducing fossil fuel use, employing more aggressive water conservation and water-use practices, curtailing agricultural practices that require intensive use of water, protecting water supplies from contamination and other practices are major goals. Whether such efforts deal with the causes of climate change and drought or merely its symptoms, continue to be debated.

What effects will drought have on our food system and our families?

Drought affects both crop and livestock production, obviously. Dealing with the problem poses different sets of problems and issues for both.

Livestock producers can reduce herds and flocks or bring in water supplies to deal with temporary needs. Bigger issues emerge for them when drought limits their ability to grow their own feed stocks.

Of equal concern, drought harms crop yields. That means we have less food from the land in production. Just watch the below clips of Western Growers interviewing farmers who had to abandon their crops due to drought conditions.

Joe Del Bosque, farmer, had to sacrifice his asparagus field due to drought conditions. As a result, 70 people lost their jobs. Click here to view an almond farmer and del Bosque’s melon farm. Source: Western Growers via YouTube.

The amount of reduction in food production can vary widely, depending on the severity of the dry conditions.

Academic studies show divergent projections of the effect of climate change on global food production. One study led by Cornell University estimated that global food productivity has been reduced by 21 percent by climate change. Other studies by USDA’s Economic Research Service project yield declines across corn, soybeans, sorghum, rice, oats, cotton, and silage as a result of climate change (and alterations to irrigation patterns that are driven by water concerns). The journal One Earth warns that forecast increases in global temperatures will alter rainfall patterns and shrink the globe’s food-productive areas by as much as a third.

Buried within what is likely a mish-mash of science, hyperbole, ideological bias, and sincere passion is a single obvious truth: the world faces changing climatological conditions that already are affecting our ability to produce the food the world needs. What we do in response will determine how significant the effect of drought and other possible manifestations of climate change will be on our long-term food security.

Are our prime growing areas changing?

Where drought occurs is a critical factor, too. When drought hits major production areas for cornerstone commodities – food grains, feed grains, or oilseeds, for example, the adverse effects are magnified across the entire global food system. Reduced supplies in the face of continuing strong demand result in higher prices, or even spot shortages. Smaller crops of fruits and vegetables can hit consumers harder and more quickly, especially if the normal distribution system that supplies products from distant sources has been disrupted.

Those sorts of traditional concerns regarding the effects of drought have been joined by rising concerns about climate change. Some scientists worry that an increase in the frequency, duration, and severity of drought conditions could signal a fundamental shift in climatic conditions and weather patterns.

If so, that would mean the areas of historically highest productivity – the prime growing areas of many crops – could be shifting, moving generally northwards in the Northern Hemisphere and southerly in the Southern Hemisphere. Imagine the heart of the American corn belt stretching from Ohio to the Dakotas moving north into Canada, or traditional southern crops like cotton and sorghum migrating north. Such new cropping patterns would mean a massive change in the structure and functioning of the current global food system.

What can be done?

The issue of drought – and the larger matter of climate change — won’t be resolved by any single action or practice but rather through a comprehensive long-term approach that touches on virtually every sector of our society. Remember, humans are resilient and innovative. We will adopt new solutions to address our changing climate.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t take immediate steps to deal with the issue of drought that has plagued humankind long before the term “climate change” was coined.

  • More attention to soil health. The use of cover crops reduced tillage, regenerative agriculture, and other practices that help make the soil “spongier” and better suited to the retention of moisture
  • Better conservation of water and water use techniques
  • Better use of technology to monitor and manage soil conditions
  • Continued development and use of drought-resistant seeds
  • Continued reliance on open trade is a critical tool in assuring a steady supply of the foods consumers want and need every day

What about us consumers?

Perhaps the most important role the consumer can play in dealing with drought and other climate-related problems is that of an active participant in our food system.

Consumers can recognize the up-and-down nature of food prices as a result of disruptions to normal food production patterns. Even with severe and pronounced drought in areas around the world, there is no shortage of food. Our food security is not at risk.

But we all have a role to play in assuring that we react positively to the possibility of longer-term changes to our food system, driven by climate issues. The days of profligate and extravagant use of water or other natural resources in our food system are gone – long gone. Farmers and others across the food chain are working hard to adapt to this new reality, and consumers can speed that process by demanding responsibly produced food products.

Look for food products that have been produced sustainably, using the techniques and tools available to us to make the best use of water and other natural resources. Speak up to food suppliers about it. Look for labels and other product information that makes the techniques and standards used in food production, manufacturing, and packaging more transparent. Your voice counts, so make it heard. Email us at!

Climate-Smart Farming Paves the Way Toward Carbon Negative

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The purpose of AgMission, a 2020 partnership with the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) and the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers in Action (USFRA), is to collect the best research data related to greenhouse gases (GHGs). FFAR funds pioneering scientific research in critical areas of our food and agricultural systems. To support AgMission, FFAR is currently funding over $50 million to support climate change research. USFRA supports sustainable food systems through its broad network of U.S. farmers and ranchers.

To make intelligent decisions about bettering soil health and reducing GHGs in the atmosphere, AgMission will create a massive research platform that provides farmers the intel to farm according to the most effective and applicable carbon sequestration practices. Farmers have long known how various conservation practices protect the natural resources they rely upon for a living and which ones contribute to their long-term financial success.

But making decisions about sustainability and profitability requires more than a collection of ideas; it all begins with good, solid facts.

And that’s what AgMission wants to create.

How is this supposed to work?

Each year, 33.1 billion metric tons of GHGs hit the atmosphere globally, with 5.1 billion coming from the United States. China emits the most – sending up to 10 billion metric tons. Of course, this is not all terrible, as we need carbon to survive.  Without it, our landscape would look more like Mars. Carbon is found everywhere on Earth and is even 18% of our body weight.

According to NOAA, when carbon dioxide (CO2) goes into the atmosphere, about 50% remains there, while 25% is absorbed by plants and trees and 25% by the oceans. If farmers and ranchers could absorb at least 10%, it would certainly help the soil while removing GHGs.

2 million U.S. farmers and ranchers are responsible for growing our food and keeping us fed and healthy. They are environmental stewards for 44% of U.S. land. Globally, it’s more like 38%.

They have proven to be remarkably efficient and productive in delivering an amazing array of foodstuffs the world depends upon.  But rather than bask in the gratitude of a hungry world, farmers and ranchers have faced what seems to be relentless criticism – if not an outright attack by some – for contributing approximately 10% of U.S. carbon emissions and 36% of methane.

As you can see from the chart, crop cultivation, a.k.a. tilling the soil, and deforestation is the most significant contributor to GHGs, with livestock methane emissions as a close second.

Is it possible to bring ag-related GHGs down to a negative 4%? 

AgMission thinks so. If all the farmers in the United States adopted soil-smart farming systems such as no-till, cover crops, rotational grazing, manure management, methane-reducing animal feed, and variable-rate fertilizer application, then the soil would be healthier and more carbon would be pulled from the atmosphere.

Recently, The Nature Conservancy, with participating organizations such as the University of Oregon, Ohio State University, Woods Hole Research Center, the University of Maryland, and the Smithsonian, led a study to determine natural climate solutions for the United States.

They estimated farmers could reduce GHG emissions equivalent to 21% of what the U.S. emits each year. This is 11% more than what is estimated that the agricultural sector emits in the first place!






“The majority (63%) of this potential comes from increased carbon sequestration in plant biomass, with 29% coming from increased carbon sequestration in soil and 7% coming from avoided emissions of CH4 and N2”





For this to succeed, collaboration among all climate-oriented agricultural scientific researchers, as well as support from the global farming and ranching community, is critical. That is why AgMission will spearhead this effort with over $50 million in funding the research. This database for all farmers and ranchers will help them determine which carbon-sequestering methods would best suit their farm, crop, weather, environment, and soil health.

Sequestering carbon benefits the atmosphere, but also the soil. Think of soil like the foundation of a house. Carbon, like the wood frame, provides physical stability for the soil that improves oxygen, water drainage, and retention while reducing the risk of erosion and nutrient leaching.

What do farmers think?

Is it realistic to put this pressure on the farmers? Will they participate in the carbon exuberance? Rather than be offended, farmers and ranchers have responded with their usual ‘can-do’ spirit by supporting efforts to improve their practices to protect the environment and promote sustainability.

AgMission will consider this initiative to be successful if the land farmed and ranched becomes resilient to future climate-related shocks and stresses, food productivity increases, and the food supply chain is secure. This is a huge opportunity – and responsibility for farmers and ranchers across the country.

I spoke with two inspiring farmers, Meredith Ellis, a cattle rancher from Texas, and Anne Meis from Nebraska who grows corn, soybeans, and cattle, as well as serving as Chairwoman of USFRA and board member of the Nebraska Soybean Board. What did they think of AgMission’ s big hairy audacious goal (BHAG)?

Do you think about carbon sequestration when you farm?

Meredith: I ranch for the soil. We are part of a pilot program where our carbon is measured by the Ecosystems Services Market Consortium, a subsidiary of the Soil Health Institute. Our ranch is sequestering 2,500 tons of carbon (after enteric emissions) each year – equivalent to taking 551 cars off the road.

Anne: Every day we think about soil health. Our livelihoods depend on better production and healthy soil. Our goal is to grow crops and to continually try to regenerate that healthy soil.

What do you think about monetizing carbon?

Meredith: I am a progressive farmer and believe in the five principles of soil health, water quality and water quantity downstream, carbon, and biodiversity. When you can commoditize these products, then it will turn the farmer’s eye to more than just beef, rather focusing on additional products such as carbon, water, and biodiversity.

Everyone I have talked to wants to be part of the solution. But I am fearful of policy markets that can miss their goals. For instance, the California cap and trade policies were not incentivizing the conservation of existing grasslands and forests. So it was easy to sell that land, develop it, and release the carbon back into the atmosphere. Another example is the Black Land Prairie in Texas – it used to be 12 million acres. Now it is only five thousand.

Anne: The idea of measuring carbon is highly fragmented. We need an organized system so all this work can really take hold. This is the goal of AgMission.

Do you think farmers would find AgMission’s database as a valuable tool for best soil health practices? 

MeredithData sharing is absolutely critical for collaboration across all disciplines. The more information I have, the more accurate and effective my decision-making process can be moving forward. I urge everyone not to underestimate the enormous amounts of data we ranchers collect that can help greatly in our national and global sustainability goals.

Current data and modeling show my cattle operation is a carbon sink. Now let’s take the next step and answer the question: Why? What is giving me the biggest bang for my carbon buck and how can I improve that number?

Anne: USFRA and FFAR are leading the efforts to gather the science to measure carbon capture. Farmers work in a wide variety of soil types and ecosystems. There are many practices that contribute to healthy soil, efficient water use, and conservation. Farmers have always relied on science to help them make best practices decisions for their unique farms and now others are seeing value in the contributions farmers can make to ecosystem services.

Let’s hope this system evolves as incentive-based and not regulatory. Farmers want to use the best tools for best soil health practices for the best outcomes.

Data-sharing is a critical component of AgMission’ s objectives. How do you and other farmers feel about sharing their data? 

Meredith: I feel like the research community has not put enough effort into understanding the nuances of our operation and the data we collect and why. If anything, I feel a great urgency to share my data with the scientific community, specifically my biodiversity observations as it relates to our dwindling historic grassland and forestland ecosystems which my cattle all home. As willing as I am to share my data freely, I feel the need to remind the scientific community of the decades of knowledge and decision-making skills in a number of areas necessary to become a land steward. Ranchers have to maintain a rich dialogue with scientists and policymakers throughout the decision-making process in how to move forward – or any effort made behind a desk without a producer’s input will likely fail.

Anne: We are constantly analyzing our data and measuring our soil. We know there is a hesitancy among producers that data will be taken from them and then used to restrict and regulate us. That should not be the case. For instance, telling farmers that certain spots on their farm need to be restricted on specific fertilizer or pesticide regulations. We don’t want someone behind a desk telling us how to farm.

What is the Biden Era Agricultural Agenda?

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The Changing Cast of Players

The new Congress and Administration will feature some new names in key roles for shaping our nation’s food and agriculture system. And while some familiar from the Obama Administration, experienced old hands in ag matters also will show up on the leadership roster, they will have an agenda that differs significantly from the past four years – and just as likely, a different approach to the role of government.

On Capitol Hill, long-time House Agriculture Committee Chair Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) is being replaced by Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.).

On the Senate side, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) is expected to return to her previously-held role during the Obama Administration as chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Another familiar name from the Obama Administration – Tom Vilsack — also has been tapped to return as Secretary of Agriculture. Some elements of the left-wing of the Democrat Party have been critical of his nomination due to his familiarity with traditional farm and food organizations, as well as his past comments on climate change and minority relations. But Vilsack brings extensive experience and knowledge of all aspects of the food system. He has enjoyed the support of a wide spectrum of the agricultural community throughout his extensive career in public service.

New Players, New Agenda

The new leadership group undoubtedly brings a lot of experience in food and agriculture to the table. But the challenges confronting the American food system are very different from just a few short years ago. The change in administration brought a new and updated set of priorities – and a very different view of the role of government in dealing with those challenges.

Expect to see Congress and the Biden Administration focus on:

  • Covid-19. Stemming the spread of the virus will be the most visible immediate priority not just for the agriculture committees but the entire government. Access to vaccines in rural areas will be high on the agenda, as will continuing economic support for those most damaged by the lockdown.
  • Climate change. Don’t look for omnibus “climate change” legislation from either ag committee as much as efforts to promote conservation and other regenerative environmental practices by farmers and ranchers through expansion of existing programs and additional incentives for responsible, environmentally beneficial farming practices, all carefully couched and presented as ‘climate change’ initiatives. Many immediate actions are likely to involve a flurry of executive orders rather than time-consuming and contentious legislation. The creation of a ‘carbon market’ for agriculture will be a popular item for debate.

While the focus on climate change comes as no surprise, the farm community anxiously awaits some sign of the approach to be taken. Farm leaders urge policymakers to think in terms of carrots rather than sticks. That is, they note that the farm community by and large is supportive of the broad effort to act responsibly on matters that affect the climate, and the environment.

Policies that incentivize and reward positive actions will work better than threats of punishment for failure to comply. That approach is best in unleashing the creative and entrepreneurial capabilities of the farm sector, far more than an imposition of rules and regulations devised solely or largely by bureaucrats.

  • Rural economic development and revitalization. After years of declining net farm income and massive direct government payments, both legislators and administration officials will be looking at bigger, more comprehensive packages to stimulate rural economic vitality. Look for initiatives to promote growth in ‘green’ jobs, expand health care services and improve broadband access.
  • Social equity. Congressional leaders, in particular, have been outspoken in the need to address perceived economic inequities, notably for smaller farm operators and minority farmers and ranchers. Prominent Democrats also have called for immediate attention to farm labor issues, to address matters of wages, work conditions, organizing rights, and other concerns.
  • Relations with China. No market remains more important to the economic interests of farmers and ranchers. Efforts to promote improved relations and fulfillment of ambitious purchase commitments by the Chinese will remain top priorities. But expect a more studied effort to assess overall U.S. China relations, of which agricultural interests are just one part of the bigger picture of future relations between the two countries. Also, look for greater movement toward a multilateral team approach – especially with the EU – from the Biden Administration…it will be a movement away from the bilateral approach of recent years to more emphasis on building coalitions capable of exerting influence on the Chinese.

  • Improved trade opportunities. The ‘America first’ approach of recent years is likely to evolve into a more traditional model of negotiation, built around ‘constructive engagement.’ Bilateral trade negotiations to open new market opportunities will no doubt continue. But also look for much more energy behind attempts to revive and rejoin broader trade initiatives and agreements, notably in the Pacific and among long-standing U.S. allies.
  • Don’t rock the boat. Basic farm programs and policies have worked well for years, providing Americans (and others around the world) with a steady supply of affordable, nutritious, safe, and expanding food choices. No one in government wants to change the basic direction of our farm and food policies or to risk radical changes that harm the hard-won framework of rules, protections, and incentives that makes such a system possible. But there is a strong new commitment to making the system work better for all those involved in the system, and to address the legitimate environmental issues and questions arising from the climate change debate.

Beyond the Agriculture Committees

The agriculture committees undeniably make up the center of gravity in crafting food and agricultural policy. But other parts of Congress also come into play.

  • Taxes. Any farmer will quickly point out that farming is a capital-intensive business. Finance and money management are critical skills – and a major area of interest, especially when candidates and elected officials in a new political era have made the issue of “revenue” a major target area for attention.

Continuing economic challenges from the pandemic, coupled with a generally more ambitious agenda of government initiatives, mean an almost certain review and revision of tax laws. It will likely involve examining a range of tax policies, including capital gains, gift taxes, inheritance taxes, accounting rules, and more.

For an economic sector largely based on family ownership and reliant on land values as a key element of their financial strength, these are highly important subjects. Expect the food and agriculture community to keep a close eye on the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee, and the new Biden Administration’s role in shaping any changes to tax laws.

  • Technology. Advances in technology are sweeping across the global agricultural system. Congress is trying to keep pace. The current focus on communication technology is expanding to cover other areas, with the gradual emergence of a variety of science and technology groups advocating a re-think of how Congress deals with the need to better understand and constructively guide the sector’s expanding role in all aspects of life, from the farm to the dinner table. Keep an eye on this wild-card in the emerging new era of government.
  • Health care. The pandemic helped focus attention on the need to improve health-care delivery across the country, in particular in the rural areas underserved by the existing system. The Biden Administration has made economic revitalization of rural America a priority, and expansion of health care services and facilities should be a substantial component of that effort. Look for additional collaboration between the Department of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, as well as a greater collaborative effort among all health-related departments and agencies.

  • Infrastructure. Like health care, the broad issue of improving the nation’s crumbling infrastructure also will have implications for the agricultural community and all of rural America. Maintenance of roads and bridges is a key component of the modern food chain, and most local authorities will agree that more needs to be done to maintain and improve what already exists. The big question will be not so much where such efforts should be focused, but how to pay for them.
  • Research. The Department of Agriculture and congressional committees traditionally made science and research a key element of their policy agenda. The new administration has made “science-based” decision-making a fundamental plank of their campaign. The agricultural community is waiting anxiously to see exactly what that means, in terms of the decisions to be made regarding the role of genetics in expanding food production, and the willingness of the government to continue sharing the financial burden of aggressive research on food and environmental matters.

Combating Desertification & Land Degradation


We all have special days in our lives that we remember and celebrate – birthdays, anniversaries, holidays – as well as those remarkable people who always remember these special days and surprise us with a telephone call or a thoughtful card. I’ll admit I don’t routinely fill this role, but today, I’m happy to remind everyone that June 17, 2020 is indeed a day to remember: it is the United Nation’s global observance of Desertification and Drought Day.

You might be thinking, “wait, what day is that?!” Well, on June 17 each year, people around the world concerned about the scourge of desertification, land degradation, and drought work to raise awareness and promote solutions to these important issues.

Think this day may not pertain to you? Think again. These intertwined issues of desertification and drought are related to broader issues such as the food we eat, farmer livelihoods, water quality, soil health, ethnic and gender diversity, wildlife biodiversity, refugees and social migration patterns, the rate of deforestation, and the impacts of a rapidly changing climate. This topic is the fulcrum to gain leverage for many of the positive changes you’d like to see in the world.

Put simply, as our consumption increases, the health of the land on which we produce food, cloth, and other goods decreases. Severe weather patterns, such as excessive rain or drought, can quickly degrade plant growth and cause soil erosion. Farm management practices, like grazing duration, excessive tillage, poor irrigation practices or leaving the land bare of plant growth, can instigate a decline in productivity.

Once soil deterioration starts, a downward spiral can ensue, causing a once productive landscape to look more like a desert. Deserts are harsh places to live – food production is difficult and people who find themselves in these places tend to move on. Hence our deserts become deserted.

At this time, over one-half of the global agricultural lands used for food production are considered moderately to severely degraded. Furthermore, they are being abandoned at an unsustainable rate and many are challenging or impossible to restore.

soil degradation

Depending on the type and extent of degradation, the land may never be suitable again for food production or it could take several decades to rebuild the topsoil. In China, for instance, roughly 20% of the productive farmland soils are now contaminated with heavy metal pollution. A large portion of this land may never again be fit for food production, but other areas may be rehabilitated to serve as livestock feed in the future. China, India, and other countries with severe land degradation issues are increasing imports of certain food items, which in turn, drives agricultural expansion in countries such as Brazil or Indonesia. Of course, some former ag lands reverting to nature could be a benefit to biodiversity, climate, and broader ecosystem health.

But restoration work takes time, concerted effort and considerable nuance.

It is imperative that we reverse the desertification trend to avoid creating more lands in need of restoration.

The high rate of abandonment is one of the main drivers for converting existing forests or open savannahs to agriculture. Taken together, this land-use change makes up the largest portion of greenhouse gas emissions associated with the global food system. Without meaningful change to this degrade-abandon-convert trend, experts predict we will burn through another 400 million hectares – an area twice the size of Mexico – at the expense of natural ecosystems – over the next 30 years.

Surface land use chart courtesy of Growing Better Global Report, Food and Land Use Coalition (2019).

For my organization – The Nature Conservancy – the trend is deeply alarming and unacceptable. We face not only an unprecedented loss of nature, but also food security and economic challenges if we can’t reverse this trend. Consider:

  • Today, the expansion of agriculture into natural habitats is the largest driver of biodiversity loss globally.
  • Plus, after 10,000 years of agriculture, virtually none of the new land coming into production today is the highest quality land for food production.
  • In addition to the priceless loss of biodiverse species, these inefficient land-use dynamics cost the global economy several trillion dollars annually.

Thankfully, there is a business and science case for change that is gaining traction. Actors throughout the global supply chain are taking steps to slow the conversion trend and deploy a suite of regenerative management practices to restore existing agricultural areas.

Planting diverse cover crops annually to improve soil health is perhaps the one regenerative management practice that if widely adopted, could do the most to restore degraded croplands.

In the U.S., for example, the past decade has seen small but steady increases in farmers utilizing cover crops to maintain and restore croplands. While every farm has a slightly different set of circumstances to consider, most farms will start making more money by routinely using cover crops by the third year of adoption, if not sooner.

Over the next decade, our task at TNC is to assist the farmers and ranchers who have successfully restored their lands utilizing these regenerative soil health management practices to transmit this knowledge through various means to millions of their peers around the world.

We can all play a small role in this process, too. Simply by eating a more diverse diet – trying something new – we will send market signals to food producers to incorporate more diversity into our agricultural landscapes. Several thought-leading chefs are taking “farm to fork” considerations even further by using new ingredients to support the health of our soils – from dirt to dinner, if you will.

We are encouraged by the growing attention to these issues, especially among practitioners. Farmers, ranchers and pastoralists around the world are recognizing they can move beyond simply sustaining their land resources. They can adopt management practices which restore and revitalize the health of ecosystems.

Today, as we observe Desertification and Drought Day while still in the grips of a global health crisis, we do so to call attention to this important issue.

But I hope that I’ll have the occasion to remind everyone in ten years that June 17, 2030, is a day for celebration – a celebration of a decade well spent embracing the solutions to this vitally important global challenge.

Want to learn a few facts about desertification? See our infographic below to learn more:

Back to Business: D2D News Recap

Glyphosate Wars Continue to Rage

The battle over the potential health risks of glyphosate – the key ingredient of the popular weed killer, Roundup – saw new developments that seemed helpful to both sides in the debate. The number of U.S. civil lawsuits against Roundup’s parent company (Monsanto, later acquired by Bayer AG) has grown to 18,400 – a number prompting courts in California to consolidate various actions into class-action suits and multi-court district litigation. Initial jury awards in the hundreds of millions of dollars have been lowered afterward by judges reviewing the cases. But Bayer reportedly has offered to pay as much as $8 billion to settle the outstanding claims. The company also welcomed the Environmental Protection Agency’s following announcement:

“It is irresponsible to require labels on products that are inaccurate when the EPA knows the product does not pose a cancer risk,” said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. “It is critical that federal regulatory agencies like EPA relay to consumers accurate, scientific-based information about risks that pesticides may pose to them.”

However, California officials said they will maintain their labeling requirement.

FAO Food Security Report Offers Grim News

The Food and Agriculture Organization at the United Nations released its annual assessment of global food security, highlighted by the grim news that the number of people facing food insecurity rose again for the third straight year. For more than a decade, the number had been declining amid a collective effort to deal with the problem by member nations. But the 2019 FAO report estimates the number of people without enough nutrition rose to 822 million – over 10% of the planet.

Poor economic conditions attracted much of the blame, but continuing episodes of natural disaster and disruption to local food production, political instability, outright conflict, and displaced populations also drew attention. In contrast, the report also noted the still-significant role played by obesity in contributing to global malnutrition.

Further Evidence of Weather Woes

The lingering effects of wet weather in key U.S. agricultural areas resulted in almost 20 million acres of cropland going unplanted this spring, according to reports from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). That’s the largest “prevented planting” area since the USDA began collecting such data back in 2007. Despite this, other USDA crop production estimates point to robust crops this year for most major commodities. Soybean farmers, beset by the ongoing trade dispute between the United States and China, are expected to cut production by a whopping 19% as they shift to planting more of other crops, notably corn. USDA continues to predict modest overall food price increases for the year.

FDA Cautions Against Certain Pet Foods

As Dirt to Dinner previously reported, growing concerns with the adverse health effects of certain pet foods have attracted the attention of the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA has now issued a consumer advisory on the issue, naming several specific dry dog food products and launching a recall of products found to have toxic levels of vitamin D. To see the complete list of products covered by the alert, please visit this site.

Like We Also Said….

Following our recent post on the emergence of aquatic dead zones in the U.S. Gulf and other locations, the Trump Administration has spoken out about plans to use $100 million already authorized by Congress to fight “red tide” – the toxic algae bloom blamed for damage to fishing, recreational activities, and aquatic wildlife, notably in many Florida waters. Local authorities and water-related interests welcomed the attention called to the issue, despite the political overtones of the discussion. Red tide has played havoc with commercial and recreational fishing in some areas and made swimming in contaminated areas a very risky proposition.

Brexit Prompts Another Salvo in Debate over Genetic Engineering

British and European officials continue to trade barbs as the Oct. 31 deadline approaches for the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union. New UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson added to the fun by distancing his government from last summer’s gene-editing ruling by the European Court of Justice imposing stringent regulatory requirements. Many believe this “CRISPR” approach to genetics holds the key to the rapid development of better plant varieties that will increase food production and enhance food security.

Johnson recently promised “…to liberate the UK’s extraordinary bio-science sector from anti-genetic modification rules and…develop the blight-resistant crops that will feed the world.”

UN Climate Report Urges Attention to Ag Production

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has jumped on the growing effort to curtail the role of modern eating habits and the global agricultural production system in contributing to what it warned could be “climate change-induced environmental catastrophe.”

In a report issued this summer, the panel of international scientists observed that “Earth’s climate is entering a qualitatively different stage.” Adding insult to injury, the IPCC claims that current ag practices misuse resources and actually make global warming worse, creating a “vicious cycle” that makes food more expensive, scarcer and less nutritious. So far leaders of major farm and food organizations have avoided substantive public comment on the report.

So what solutions does the report offer? One big idea: consuming less meat (especially red meats) and more plant-based foods. Other suggestions include more environmentally-friendly tillage techniques and more targeted use of fertilizers, coupled with serious efforts to reduce food waste. Such efforts would cut greenhouse gas emissions and make better use of precious natural resources, the experts concluded.

A Tax on Traditional Meats?

The broad subject of meat alternatives – both plant-based and cultured cell products – doesn’t seem to be losing any steam across the news media. Stories abound of efforts by fast-food chains and independent restaurants to add meat alternatives to their menus, including novel new offerings such as an “Impossible Burger” and a “Beyond Meatball Marinara.” Who would have thought these products would push us toward meat taxation?

A sign of the economic steam behind this emerging food product category might be in comments from government officials about the need to add taxes to the competitive mix. A study lead by Dr. Marco Springmann of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food estimated there will be 2.4 million deaths due to red and processed meat consumption by 2020.

Governments with socialized medicine might also be licking their chops to recoup the estimated $285 billion in health care costs. German politicians have suggested an increase in taxes on traditional meats, from today’s 7% to upwards of 19%, with Sweden, The Netherlands and Denmark considering similar taxation practices.

And to Wash It Down

The Natural Hemp Company has announced launch of a CBD-infused sparkling water for people with an active lifestyle, creatively positioned as “the Gatorade of CBD beverages.” The product is called Day One CBD Sparkling Water and claims to have no sugars, calories or carbohydrates. The company didn’t elaborate on what constitutes an appropriate “active lifestyle.”

What Are Dead Zones…and is Ag to Blame?

You may have heard of “dead zones”, a term used for areas in large bodies of water where marine life cannot be sustained because of rampant algae growth. To some ardent critics of animal agriculture, these dead zones can be traced to overdependence on animals as a cornerstone component of the modern global food system.

Agriculture and, in particular, production of beef and dairy cattle, as well as the corn and soybeans grown to feed the animals, are the primary targets under attack. Essentially, almost all U.S. crops feed into the Mississippi River Basin. But there is little, if any, attention called to the other sources of the troublesome run-off that causes massive algae growth.

So how do these dead zones occur? And is agriculture really to blame for these problem areas? And, most importantly, what is being done to bring life back to these dead zones?

How are Dead Zones created?

Dead zones occur from too much nitrogen and phosphorus in the water, most in the form of run-off from use and misuse of fertilizers, inadequate wastewater control, improperly managed animal wastes, and plain old natural phenomena, such as the heavy rains and flooding that plagued major parts of the United States earlier this year.

Hypoxia is the scientific term for having too little oxygen to support life. In a hypoxic zone, animal life simply suffocates and dies. Hypoxia occurs when excess nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus stimulate the growth of algae, which sinks and decomposes in water. The decomposition process consumes the oxygen needed by other marine life – impairing gestation, compromising egg production, or simply suffocating much of the life in the water.

Dead zones emerge from a complex web of sources:

Where do Dead Zones exist?

Currently, there are approximately 405 dead zones around the world and in different bodies of water, but mostly along coastlines. The Arabian Sea is currently the largest one with a continual lack of oxygen preventing marine life from growing.

The Baltic Sea dead zone is also massive, at more than 23,000 square miles and stretching from Poland to Finland. Smaller hypoxic areas have emerged in Lake Erie and oceanic conditions off the shores of California and Oregon are currently being monitored for a possible return of a Pacific dead zone.

NOAA scientists are forecasting this summer’s Gulf of Mexico hypoxic zone or ‘dead zone’ to be approximately 7,829 square miles or roughly the size of the land mass of Massachusetts.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s June 10, 2019 Media Release

The second largest dead zone is the northern Gulf of Mexico. Some industry experts estimate that the Gulf of Mexico supplies 72 percent of U.S. harvested shrimp, 66 percent of harvested oysters and 16 percent of commercial fish. So a dead zone here not only leads to a meaningful loss of shrimp, crabs, oysters, fish, and other marine life, but also disrupts a large commercial industry that provides products in high demand by food consumers. The same situation is also happening in the Chesapeake Bay, where 500 million pounds of seafood are harvested each year, primarily oysters, blue crabs, and striped bass.

Source: World Resources Institute

Waterways feeding the Dead Zones

The challenge in addressing the dead zone problem isn’t just the multiplicity of sources behind the problem.  It’s also the sheer physical size of the area involved.

Waterways such as the Gulf of Mexico, the Chesapeake Bay, and U.S. Great Lakes draw water from an enormous network of sources.  Potential pollutants can come not just from areas immediately adjacent to the dead zone, but also from potentially huge areas where run-off may occur.

For example, the Gulf of Mexico is fed by the Mississippi River basin – an area that encompasses 33 major river systems, more than 200 estuaries, and drains 41% of the contiguous United States. About four out of five acres used to produce corn and soybeans in this country are within it, as is more than half of all U.S. agricultural land, with an estimated annual production value of close to $100 billion.  Such a vast drainage area shows just how important extensive flooding – like that seen across huge swatches of the Midwest this spring — can be in the creation of a dead zone.


Farming solutions to curb Dead Zone formation

Broad communities of scientists, environmentalists, farmers, ranchers, and others are joining together to tackle the problem – with the encouraging results that merit a continued mutual effort to protect one of the natural resources critical to a sustainable global food system.

In the world of agriculture, there are aggressive educational efforts to commit to responsible crop and herd management. Many farmers are employing technology to help reduce run-off through chemical and nutrient over-application, such as:

  • Precision agriculture combined with “micro nutrient” technology that fosters the application of the precisely correct type and amount of nutrients, herbicides, and pesticides

  • Genetic engineered crops also help reduce the amount of agricultural chemicals

  • Sound conservation practices such as no-tilling, proper crop rotation, and use of cover crops

Ranchers and dairy farmers are also proactively managing animal waste to help reduce run-off and revitalize these dead zones.

In fact, nearly nine out of every 10 farmers and ranchers recently surveyed by the industry’s National Cattleman’s Beef Association say they manage manure and waste in a proper manner that safeguards air and water.

Innovative programs developed by producers have helped find environmentally responsible uses for surplus manure, such as:

  • Expanded use of sanitized and pelletized manure for use in organic farming

  • Distribution arrangements with gardening and landscaping enterprises interested in expanded use of non-chemical fertilizers

  • “Spread the wealth” by finding available surplus storage and composting opportunities for “black gold,” as ranchers often call manure

  • The Environmental Protection Agency is facing lawsuits from environmental groups to speed their updating of wastewater guidelines for animal processing facilities, and public pressure on these companies is growing

Working together for real results

Despite what ag critics may say, there are multiple sources contributing to the problem. Many of the golf courses, housing developments, and other urban development areas that were previously undeveloped are now inadvertently contributing to the rising risks of run-off, and ultimately the growth of the occurrence and size of dead zones.

On the municipal wastewater front, state and federal agencies report an expansion in the number of municipal water management authorities monitoring nitrogen and phosphorus levels in their facilities, and perhaps more important, in establishing limits for each element in discharge levels.

On an even-broader scale, several task forces have been created to find long-term solutions to the management of U.S. dead zones. For example, the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force includes representatives of agencies from almost all states along the Mississippi, from Louisiana to Minnesota, as well as federal agencies such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce and Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Tribal Water Council.

Their goal is to reduce the size of the Gulf dead zone to 5,000 square kilometers (roughly 1,900 square miles) by 2035, with an interim goal of a 20 percent reduction in nitrogen and phosphorus loading by 2025. We have already seen significant progress in achieving its goals.

The Peterson Farm Brothers: “Managed well, cattle keep the land swell.”

The Peterson Farm Brothers

The Peterson Farm Brothers create music videos that help explain modern farming. This featured video, called “Pasture Road”, is a parody on the original music: “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X. The parody lyrics were created by Greg Peterson.

Peterson Farm is a 5th generation family farm on about 2,000 acres located near Assaria, Kansas. Their Swedish ancestors homesteaded the land in the 1800s and the same land is farmed today. The Petersons primarily raise beef cattle (about 1,000 head at a time) and also have a small cow/calf herd. They grow corn, alfalfa, and forage sorghum as feed for the cattle and wheat, milo, soybeans, and sunflowers for cash crops.

CO2: The Greatest Fertilizer of All

wildflower meadow in front of farm

The more CO2 that is available to a plant, the more CO2 it ‘inhales!’ The more CO2 it inhales, the faster the rate of photosynthesis and the greater rate of growth. Additionally, more carbon dioxide provides plants a stronger immune system to protect against disease and drought.

CO2 helps plants increase yield.

“We realize that increases in CO2 concentrations and adaptive management can provide significant mitigation of the negative effects of climate change.” -Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Dr. Craig D. Idso, author of Climate Change: The Facts 2017 and Founder of CO2 Science has closely reviewed the COfertilization effect on agriculture. He has examined a database of over 5,500 studies that include 950 plants that demonstrate how COenrichment increases photosynthesis and yield. The COin greenhouses was amplified from 300 to 600, and in some cases to 900ppm. He found that the large-scale staple food and animal crops  (soybeans, wheat, and corn)also react well to more COin the atmosphere.

Large-scale agricultural crops respond well to CO2 enrichment. In the studies led by Craig Idso, the yield of corn increased by 27%, wheat by 37%, and soybeans by 50%.


However, it is one thing to enrich the air in a greenhouse, but how does this work with crops in practical field applications?

Dr. Rob Norton, formerly Director of the International Plant Nutrition Institute, now retired as a consultant, Norton Agronomic P/L from Australia and New Zealand, has completed several studies to understand the CO2 effect on wheat. He used FACE (Free Air Carbon Dioxide) which is the ability to determine the effect of elevated CO2 on a specific crop. For example, on the same field with the same water, sunlight and fertilizer, he had two sets of crops: one had enriched air of a higher CO2 level of 550 ppm, pumped through sprinkler-like devices every few seconds, and the other wheat crop relied just on the CO2 found in the air at the time of 385 ppm. He found that the wheat grain yield increased by 50%. His research also showed that the nutrients within a plant decreased as the yield increased. (Check out our post on how minerals get diluted as the plants grow bigger with CO2 fertilization.)

CO2 helps plants cope with drought stress.

Plants have leaf stomatal pores that allow them to “inhale” carbon dioxide and release water vapor – the process of transpiration. The more CO2 they have, the fewer pores they create, the less water vapor they release. The plants are essentially storing water and energy in their leaves. Just like humans, when plants are hydrated they grow stronger and stay healthier. This is particularly true for C4 plants such as sugarcane, sorghum, and corn.

Nature Magazine published a report by Daniel Taub, Chair of Biology at Southwestern University, which examined the Photosynthetic assimilation of CO2 to the metabolism of plants. He also completed FACE experiments and compared photosynthesis between CO2 of 385 ppm to an elevated CO2 of 475 ppm – 600 ppm. He found that in the higher CO2 environment plants required less water. This has an added benefit of less run-off which keeps the soil moist over a longer period of time.

Across a variety of FACE experiments, growth under elevated CO2 decreases stomatal conductance of water by an average of 22%…. Under elevated CO2 most plant species show higher rates of photosynthesis, increased growth, decreased water use and lowered tissue concentrations of nitrogen and protein.” (Daniel Taub, Southwestern University)

The more CO2 plants absorb, the greater the rate of photosynthesis.
Image: view from a Super Cub in the Pennsylvania countryside.

Is the Earth turning greener?

Australian scientist, Randall Donohue and a group of researchers from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Organization looked at the relationship between annual rainfall, rising CO2 and the greening of the earth. Through satellite measurements between 1982 – 2010, they calculated, that yes, indeed, there was a global foliage increase of 11%.

While we are frequently inundated with the consequences of excess CO2 and its relationship to climate change— what isn’t making headlines is how increased levels of CO2 can actually grow more food!

Can research utilize CO2 to increase yield even more?

As a Dirt-to-Dinner reader, by now you know that a higher crop yield on existing land is the holy grail of farming. As the world population grows and our need for sustainability increases, using innovation and technology to get the most of our existing farmland will continue to be critical. Rice is a good start as it provides at least 20% of the energy for over 50 percent of the world population.

Paul Quick, from the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, is working with scientists in eight different countries from 12 universities to supercharge the photosynthesis process in rice to increase its yield by 50%. According to the IRRI, each hectare of rice (2.5 acres) in Asia produces enough food for 27 people, as 2050 approaches, that same hectare will need to feed 43 people. They are working to convert rice, which is a C3 plant, to the efficient user of CO2 and water of a C4 plant. This would produce the desired 60% increase in yield.

Is CO2 Putting Your Nutrition at Risk?

tops of wheat plant against brilliant blue sky

“Deficiencies in iron and other nutrients could make millions of people more vulnerable to diseases including malaria and pneumonia, leading to many premature deaths.” New York Times

Climate scientists are predicting that CO2 will increase to at least 550 parts per million (ppm) well beyond the current 410 ppm today. This will have both a positive and negative effect on the major agricultural crops such as wheat, rice, and soybeans that we use to feed both people and animals.

Depending on the crop, plant yield per acre will increase by 40-60%. But scientists are also discovering that the nutrition will decrease by approximately 10% (depending on the mineral or micronutrient) as the yield increases.

“With a significant portion of consumers noting that rice is a good source of vitamins and minerals, the impact of climate change on its nutritional makeup could have severely negative impacts on the category as a whole.”  (Mintel Research)

How is the effect of CO2 on crops determined?

FACE (Free Air Carbon Dioxide) experiments are the methodology used to compare crops with today’s CO2 of approximately 400ppm with an increase to 550 or 600 ppm. One crop will have enriched air, otherwise known as eCO2, pumped through sprinkler-like devices every few seconds and the other crop will rely on the CO2 currently available in the air.

Free-air carbon dioxide enrichment (FACE) experiments use controlled atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide in the field — a more realistic representation of increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Photo: David F. Karnosky

Nature published a meta-analysis of wheat, soybeans, maize, sorghum, rice, and field peas from Australia, China, Japan, and the United States. There was an overall 50% increase in yield and an approximate 10% decrease in nutrients, specifically zinc, iron, and protein.

Rob Norton, Director, IPNI Australia and New Zealand, has done several FACE studies to understand the effect of changes in water, temperature, and with eCO2 on wheat. He and his team found that the wheat grain yield increased by 50%. They also confirmed that higher yields dilute the nitrogen. Nitrogen produces protein in the plant. So when nitrogen is diluted, protein is diluted. Normally, wheat is 15.5% protein and under the enriched CO2 environment the protein percentage dropped to 13.5%.

Faster growth does not necessarily mean more zinc, iron, or protein. When grain yield is increased a ‘dilution problem’ occurs. Think of dropping a cube of sugar into a glass of water. Then add more water, the sugar becomes diluted. This is similar to what happens when plants grow due to an increase in CO2. Interestingly enough, the chart below shows that this phenomenon occurred even during the Green Revolution when farmers adopted fertilizer and high-yielding plants.The opposite effect can also occur. If you evaporate the sugar water, you have a sugar concentrate. The same is true with a reduction in yield. While there would not be the quantity of grains, oilseeds, or rice, the nutritional quality would increase.

It is not just CO2 which affects the nutrient concentration, it can be the plant breed, or even the amount of fertilizer used, which can also increase the yield.

Some fruits and vegetables are also slightly at risk from CO2 increases.

A group of scientists from Germany, Australia, and China also looked at a meta-analysis consisting of 57 observations – primarily focusing on lettuce, tomatoes, and potatoes.  They discovered that enriched CO2 increased concentrations of fructose, glucose, antioxidant capacity, total phenols, total flavonoids, ascorbic acid, and calcium but decreased protein, nitrate, magnesium, iron, and zinc.

Will this decline in nutrients affect your diet?

If you are reading this, you probably have enough of a varied diet that you are able to get your nutrients through the 2000 or so daily calories you consume. In addition, while there could be a drop in crop nutrition, it is not significant enough to make you run to the vitamin store.  However, if rice is 1/4th of your diet, then this is an issue because this means a diversified diet is not available to you. As you can see below, one cup of rice or one slice of bread is not a significant source of protein, iron, or zinc.

Percentage of RDA 1 cup of Rice 1 slice of Bread
Protein 8% 7%
Zinc 5% 3%
Iron 11% 4%

How can we adapt food nutrients to an increase in CO2?

Now that it is becoming better understood how CO2 affects plants, researchers are studying how plant genetics can help them adapt. Plant biotechnology can enhance photosynthesis with a range of temperature, water, and CO2 so we can adapt to a higher carbon world. Biofortified crops will continue to be important for those who heavily depend on wheat and rice as a large portion of their diet.

“A fresh approach will be needed using the rapidly advancing capabilities in functional genomics, genetic transformation, and synthetic biology targeting traits that will provide cultivars able to exploit what was – in evolutionary terms – scarce atmospheric carbon.”  S. Seneweera, University of Southern Queensland, Australia and R.M. Norton, Director, IPNI Australia, and New Zealand.

Carbon Dioxide – The Dance of Life

infographic of carbon cycle

Not to get too groovy, but carbon originally rode the waves of stardust traveling through space after the Big Bang to eventually make its way to Earth. Carbon takes all forms and can be as soft as the graphite lead in a pencil and as hard as a diamond.

Carbon is also part of carbon dioxide (CO2), a chemical compound made of one carbon and two oxygen atoms. This compound, along with other gases, such as water vapor, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone, are greenhouse gases. They absorb the sun’s heat and either radiate it to space, back to Earth or to another greenhouse gas molecule. This can actually be a good thing if we want to continue to enjoy grilling outside in July, as the Earth’s average temperature would be about -0.4°F without the greenhouse effect, compared to today at roughly 57.2°F.

CO2  is .04% of the Earth’s atmosphere.

C02 is 3.62% of greenhouse gasses.  Out of 3.62 %, 3.4% is a result of human activity.

Where does Carbon and Carbon Dioxide come from?

We can live our lives and enjoy our favorite activities thanks to carbon, which is 18% of a human’s body mass. Carbon is a building block of muscles, carbohydrates, and fats. And we also eat carbon in the form of glucose (carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms). When the human body ‘burns’ glucose for energy, it produces carbon dioxide as a byproduct, which is eliminated through your breath. This process is called cellular respiration. Every day you breathe out about 2 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere.

CO2 also comes from the carbon in the Earth. Oceans, decomposing plant material and rock layers within the Earth’s surface all have carbon as their building blocks. As plants, animals, and reptiles die and decay, they become buried under layers and layers of mud, rock, sand and even ancient seas. The biggest carbon dioxide sources are deep-sea vents and volcanoes. Forest and grass fires are also natural CO2 emitters. As we mentioned, humans, along with all mammals, are CO2 providers.

Anthropogenic (man-made) CO2 comes from the burning of the Earth’s carbon. All that vegetation and those dead animals and reptiles, hundreds of feet below the surface for millions of years, are now oil, gas, and coal. Burned as fossil fuels, the carbon goes back into the air. It may not seem obvious, but every time you start your car, heat your home, or turn on your lights you connect with old dinosaur bones or vegetation buried from millions of years ago.

The Carbon Cycle – the Breath of Life

Plants emit the oxygen that all mammals breathe, and in turn, mammals exhale COfor the plants. Of course, plants don’t only provide us with oxygen— they also give us the nutritious food we eat!

This brings us to The Carbon Cycle. The Earth’s atmosphere consists of one big inhale and exhale of CO2.  Picture the Earth as one gargantuan convective movement of air and water. Vegetation, landmasses, and oceans inhale CO2. Mammals, oceans, and volcanoes exhale CO2.  This process creates a balance of carbon in the atmosphere.

Global carbon cycle. Numbers represent the flux of carbon dioxide in gigatons

But the Earth is not always balanced— through the Carbon Cycle, there is leftover carbon dioxide that is not inhaled by the Earth. Today, the atmosphere has 409 parts per million (ppm) of CO2. Over the past 400,000 years, it has fluctuated between 200 to 300 ppm. It was only recently (within the past 115 years) that it began to rise to today’s level. It is because of this increase that many scientists associate CO2 with the Earth’s changing climate.