Uncovering Illegal Fishing Boats

Growing up in northern New England, we were spoiled with abundant fresh, local seafood. It wasn’t until I moved away that I realized how good I had it eating freshly caught fish. The United States imports 70-80% of its seafood, mostly from China, Thailand, Canada, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Ecuador.   

My new reality was pulling out my phone at the seafood counter in my grocery store to find out where the catch originated. But with confusing adjectives, like “line caught,” “wild,” “farmed,” “no antibiotic-free,” “pole caught,” and “sustainable,”… I ended up just sticking with salmon farmed in Norway, where I knew the standard was high.

Turns out, I had every reason to be overly cautious. A study released in the January 2024 issue of Nature reports that 75% of global fishing vessels are untraceable. Research jointly conducted by Global Fishing Watch, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Duke University, UC Santa Barbara, and SkyTruth, gave concrete insights into this murky world of “dark vessels”. These stealthy ships roam the seas, plundering marine resources without a trace.

Understanding Dark Vessel Fishing

Dark vessel fishing ships operate well beyond the reach of regulation and oversight, hence the name ‘dark’.  Their impropriety threatens the delicate balance of marine ecosystems across the globe, not to mention posing a significant concern to global food security, economic stability, and the livelihoods of millions of people who depend on the ocean for sustenance.

The fishing industry has experienced a slowdown in recent years. Prolonged COVID shutdowns and overfishing in previous decades, as well as an increase in on-land and shore-based aquaculture operations, have contributed to decreased demand. Despite this, seafood remains a $250 billion market, with an estimated loss due to illegal fishing as high as $23.5 billion.

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) activity continues to proliferate, prompted by an increasing demand for fish. As long as there are fish to capture, these stealthy ships will attempt to reap profits by exploiting fishing grounds beyond the reach of authorities.

IUU fishing vessels use a variety of tactics to evade detection, from turning off or manipulating their automatic identification system (AIS) transponders to operating in remote and poorly monitored ocean regions. The result is a cat-and-mouse game between authorities and illicit operators, with significant implications for marine biodiversity and the sustainability of global fisheries.

“A new industrial revolution has been emerging in our seas undetected—until now. On land, we have detailed maps of almost every road and building on the planet.

In contrast, growth in our ocean has been largely hidden from public view.”


          David Kroodsma, study author, Global Fishing Watch

Identifying Dark Vessels

The study, conducted by an international team of researchers, analyzed satellite data and harnessed the power of artificial intelligence to track the movements of dark vessel fishing boats to identify hotspots of illegal fishing activity and gain a deeper understanding of the factors driving these activities.

The study’s findings paint a troubling picture of the prevalence of dark vessel fishing across various regions of the world, even in marine protected areas like the Galapagos Marine Reserve. Their study also found more than 25 percent of transport and energy vessels are considered “dark.”

“Historically, vessel activity has been poorly documented, limiting our understanding of how the world’s largest public resource—the ocean—is being used.

By combining space technology with state-of-the-art machine learning, we mapped undisclosed industrial activity at sea on a scale never done before.”


          Fernando Paolo, study author, Global Fishing Watch

Collecting and analyzing the incomprehensible amount of data (2 thousand terabytes worth) needed to find this specific information was no small feat. Thankfully, these brilliant researchers mined disparate sets of public data to pinpoint exact locations of fishing vessels, both traceable and non-traceable.

They started with amassing satellite images of coastal waters worldwide from the European Space Agency from 2017 to 2021. They then created proprietary automated technology to identify which of those vessels were fishing boats. Next, the researchers compared images of the ships with public records disclosing their AIS location to determine which vessels did not broadcast their whereabouts.

Armed with this information, they create a “heat map” to show legal and illegal fishing activity across the globe:

Targeting Dark Vessel Locations

One of the key insights revealed by the research is the concentration of dark vessel fishing activity in some geographic regions.

Despite public AIS records indicating a somewhat distributed sprawl across most continents, these researchers prove that most illegal activity occurs in Asia.

The study identified several regions in Asia as the primary hotspots of IUU activity, notably Southeast and East Asia.

These regions are characterized by complex maritime disputes, porous borders, a vast array of fish species, and limited law enforcement presence to oversee farmed aquaculture practices, environmental protections, water toxicity, and many other factors.

“Publicly available data wrongly suggests that Asia and Europe have similar amounts of fishing within their borders, but our mapping reveals that Asia dominates — for every 10 fishing vessels we found on the water, seven were in Asia while only one was in Europe.

By revealing dark vessels, we have created the most comprehensive public picture of global industrial fishing available.”


Jennifer Raynor, study author, University of Wisconsin-Madison

This lethal combination creates fertile ground for dark vessel operators to carry out an unconscionable number of illicit activities, especially in specific hotbeds of IUU activity:

Korean Peninsula

In East Asia, the waters off the Korean Peninsula have become premier battlegrounds in the fight against IUU fishing, with crustaceans, shellfish, and finfish populating the waters.

Also of note, South Korea is the largest global consumer of seafood. Surprisingly, 65% of their seafood is imported, despite their seemingly abundant waters.

Bay of Bengal

Similarly, the Bay of Bengal off the coast of South Asia’s Bangladesh and Myanmar, has emerged as a hotspot of illegal fishing activity, where 100% of all fishing activity is not tracked.

And to make matters worse, some fishers off of these shores use poison to catch the area’s abundance of finfish and shrimp. This not only damages the health of those who consume the poisoned products, but it also endangers the largest mangrove forest ecosystem in the world.

Strengthening Global Cooperation & Enforcement Efforts

This study can serve as a loud and clear warning sign for all of us. Addressing the scourge of dark vessel fishing requires international cooperation, significant investment in monitoring and onsite enforcement, and promoting sustainable fishing practices are all essential components of a comprehensive strategy to combat IUU fishing.

Though daunting, this undertaking would help recover an estimated global economic loss due to illegal fishing as high as $23.5 billion annually. Not to mention the restoration of vulnerable coastal communities and local economies suffering from devastating poverty and food insecurity.

Furthermore, this methodology can be easily adapted to tackle other global issues, like climate change. Mapping all vessels can improve estimates of oceanic carbon emissions and track marine degradation.

“Previously, this type of satellite monitoring was only available to those who could pay for it. Now it is freely available to all nations.

This study marks the beginning of a new era in ocean management and transparency.”


          David Kroodsma, study author, Global Fishing Watch

Much can be learned from this team of researchers in terms of determination to source discreet data sets around the globe, innovative implementation of artificial intelligence, and cross-organization cooperation. If we follow suit, we can find new ways to shine a light on these activities and hold those responsible for their crimes.

What We Can Do Today

We can empower ourselves right away by realizing the trickle-down effect of our everyday purchase decisions. If we don’t buy fish products sourced from countries like Bangladesh, Myanmar, and other areas of the world with rampant dark vessels, fewer IUU ships will bother fishing in less lucrative territories.

As for discrete locations, if you prefer wild-caught, stick with fish caught in the northern shores of Europe. For farmed, consider fish from reputable countries like Norway, Scotland, Canada, and Chile.

Organizations focused on sustainable seafood can provide practical, research-based recommendations, too. Seafood Watch creates helpful guides to better navigate our grocery aisles and stick to more sustainable species and acceptable countries of origin (here’s the Watch’s guide for shrimp). You can also keep an eye out for the Marine Stewardship Council’s blue “MSC” label to stick with sustainable fish species.

Still can’t find the country of origin for the fish you want? Ask someone, whether it’s the associate behind the seafood counter, customer service at the grocery store, or the waiter who must ask the chef. If many of us ask this question wherever we purchase seafood, more industry players will be compelled to start readily providing these details.

How Is Ag Helping Battle Climate Change?

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When President Joe Biden announced his goal of making the United States carbon neutral by 2050, a lot of eyes immediately turned to the agricultural sector.

After all, farming and ranching accounts for about 38 percent of land usage worldwide – more than 12.4 billion acres – with the land in the United States alone using about 44% in some form of agriculture and food production. Farming and ranching have big carbon footprints, certainly.

But the good news is that crops produced every day on this land also draw carbon from the air and store it in the earth, helping offset greenhouse gas emissions and regenerating healthy soil. The cattle on the range help enrich the soil, which grow the grasses that sequester carbon. In fact, we need carbon for our plants and trees to grow, giving ag a promising opportunity to help battle climate change through practices that will reduce costs, improve yields and boost profits on the farm.

A Solution – Carbon Trading

Here is how it works. Those businesses that emit carbon will buy carbon credits from those who sequester carbon, avoid carbon, or capture emissions. In the case of agriculture, a farmer naturally pulls carbon out of the air just by growing crops or raising cattle on the range.

Let’s say a corn farmer with 1,000 acres wants to participate in this program. The conversion is approximately 0.5 tonnes of carbon per acre, but it depends on whether the farmer utilized no-till, reduced fertilizer, restores wetlands, plants, trees, etc. They would sell their carbon credits to a broker who would then sell it to a company, such as Microsoft, or an individual who emitted carbon and wants to offset it.

What’s the story behind carbon sequestration?

The overall effort is referred to as “carbon sequestration” – a systematic approach to expanding on-farm efforts to lock carbon in the soil through better farming practices. No-till and low-till farming, use of cover crops, smart crop rotation, expanded plantings of perennials, rotation of cropping, and animal grazing all contribute to keeping or pulling carbon into the ground and out of the atmosphere. The result: less of the carbon dioxide (CO2) that many scientists say too much promotes rising global temperatures.

Today, more and more farmers and ranchers are embracing the idea of carbon sequestration, both as a responsible environmental practice and a means of improving their own economic sustainability. The government, various academic institutions, and some important private enterprises are establishing practical methods of measuring the results of on-farm carbon sequestration efforts and building an effective marketplace to establish a value for their results.

The challenge here will be to ensure a verification process that works for each farm in each state with different types of farming practices and soil health.

But the benefits to farmers and society don’t end with reduced CO2. Science also shows that these practices are important to the entire “regenerative agriculture” movement, which seeks to promote an improved and sustainable approach to generating and maintaining the healthy, vital soil needed to feed this and future generations.

It all remains very much a work in progress, but the initial efforts have proven highly appealing to the farm community and all others with an interest in a better environmental future.

A recent study by the University of Missouri’s Division of Applied Science found very encouraging results of efforts to date. Rising food production levels over recent decades have indeed raised the overall greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, the study found. But expanded use of cover crops, no-till, and other carbon-capturing techniques have helped fuel a decline in the per-unit emissions for both crops and beef. In plain English, “we are producing more units of food at less greenhouse-gas emission per unit of food than before,” according to authors Ray Massey and Cammy Willett.

Analysis done at the 2015 Paris climate conference contended that even a small increase in the levels of carbon in soil would have a major environmental benefit.  Called the “4 per 1000” initiative, scientists argued that increasing soil carbon by just 0.4 percent annually would offset an entire year’s increase in CO2 emissions from fossil fuel emissions.

What’s the Value of Sequestered Carbon?

Carbon sequestration in agriculture is in many respects an extension of a well-established environmental principle encompassing energy, industrial and other sectors. As far back as 1990, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sought to reduce the emission of sulfur gas – and resulting “acid rain” — from coal-fired power plants.

Credits for reduced emissions helped spur the needed transition to more environmentally friendly practices – and helped usher in the idea of a marketplace for these “carbon credits.” The industry could use these credits to offset actual emissions, in effect buying time to make costly changes while still advancing the larger goal of lowering harmful emissions.

A “carbon credit” typically represents one metric ton of CO2. The prices paid for carbon credits vary widely, based upon the industry or sector involved and changing market factors. A carbon credit within agriculture currently is in the range of $30 per metric ton and remains fluid as more and more organizations enter the marketplace.

There is a question as to what the price has to be in order for the farmer to make a profit after incorporating some sequestering practices. It could be as high as $35 per ton. Studies on the subject provide varying estimates of just how much carbon can be sequestered per acre, depending upon the production techniques employed, soil types, water conditions, and numerous other factors. One study found no-till alone could sequester an average of 0.3 metric tons per acre per year – or roughly an extra $10 for every acre of cropland.

Sounds great. So what’s the problem?

Part of the challenge facing the carbon sequestration efforts rests in the sheer complexity of the task.

The first challenge is to collect enough data to deliver precise result metrics. The effectiveness of carbon sequestration in farming varies by several factors — soil types, soil health, climate conditions, water presence, to name a few. Fine-tuning the analytical process demands extensive data collection and careful analysis by agronomic experts. That work will be critical to developing a better understanding of the most effective practices in each production area or individual farming situation.

But an aggressive effort on that front is already underway across many leading universities and private institutions. Coupled with advances in data analysis services available to farmers, this work promises to help refine the assessment process and lower the costs of current expensive analysis.

Another big task is the development and refinement of carbon credit markets.  How will farmers and ranchers be rewarded for their success in locking away more and more of the carbon blamed for climate change?

As with any new economic phenomenon, the emergence of carbon markets has produced what may seem to be a complex and fragmented marketplace.

The government, private enterprise, and opportunistic market players all seem to be working to create markets attractive to producers, while Congress and the Biden Administration continue to wrangle over the development of comprehensive and cohesive policies and regulations for a major agricultural economic frontier. Amid all the discussion and debate, Economist J. David Aiken of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln calls the current environment “the wild, wild west.”

One major market has emerged for industries subject to stringent environmental regulations. The coal-fired energy plants that once dominated energy production helped pave the way for the development of the markets needed to buy carbon credits.

Today, energy, chemical production, waste management, forestry and lumbering, industrial manufacturing interests, and other non-agricultural enterprises actively seek to purchase carbon credits, most often through private agreements.

Efforts by the Obama Administration in the wake of the Kyoto climate accord to develop the Chicago Climate Exchange showed the difficulties that come with such an ambitious undertaking. The exchange sought to create a market for greenhouse gas credits but died amid congressional opposition to the Obama approach to GHG regulation.

Legislation to create a carbon bank through the U.S. Department of Agriculture remains before Congress, with bipartisan support from farm-state and other legislators with a genuine concern about climate change and the positive role to be played by the agricultural sector in dealing with it. Progress in advancing the bill, however, remains complicated by the larger political logjam regarding legislation deemed by political leaders as having higher national priority.

Many private and commercial entities have entered the market space, seeking to develop networks of producers willing to help build the needed data banks in exchange for financial payments based on acceptable measurement standards and techniques.

The challenge will be for companies to add up all their carbon emissions and figure out how much they need to offset with a carbon credit. This will be a time-consuming and arduous process. Economists like Aiken predict dramatic growth in these “voluntary carbon markets,” citing the work of Stephen Donofrio at Forest Trends, who projects growth of 1,500 percent by 2030 for them.  McKinsey predicts a $50 billion market by 2030.

What comes next?

The role of carbon sequestration within U.S. agriculture is increasing – but the road ahead will be long and winding.

A large part of the frustratingly slow pace can be traced directly to Washington, D.C., and more specifically, Capitol Hill. Clear direction in the form of agreed policies, standards, and regulatory guidelines would do much to advance the adoption of the environmentally friendly practices important to dealing with the climate change challenge.

But there’s good news, despite the frustration with Washington. The agricultural sector isn’t waiting for D.C. legislators and bureaucrats to find the answers needed for a climate solution.

Farmers and ranchers recognize the value of exactly the practices at the core of carbon sequestration – and the broader set of practices that contribute to soil health and comprehensive regenerative agriculture. Environmentally smart practices already are part of the production and land stewardship approach taken by farmers today. Creation of carbon markets will serve to speed and expand adoption of such practices. Not to mention offer another income source for farmers.

The farming and ranching community already is one of the most environmentally aware and committed sectors of our society.  Its members know that responsible environmental practices aren’t just the right thing to do but the smart thing to do as well. They know we all have a role to play in dealing with the climate change that threatens all of us. And they know that these practices can have a major positive effect on their own economic survival, beyond an additional income stream.

Soil sequestration practices cut costs. Over time, they enhance yields. And maybe most important in an era of rising costs and smaller margins, they mean a stronger bottom line — and their own operational sustainability.  

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.

Five Reasons Why I Started Using Conservation Practices On My Farm

This article was written by Keith Mears, who farms with his family near Delphi, Indiana, and is a Conservation Steward with America’s Conservation Ag Movement.

Implementing farmland conservation practices is no easy feat, but the results are well worth the efforts. Keith Mears gives us five solid reasons why the time is now…

The most important step to making a change on your farm is determining why you are going to do it. Without a firm understanding of why, it will be too easy to lose motivation and change your mind when challenges arise.

To encourage other farmers to get started, I want to explain five reasons why I started using conservation practices on my 110-acre corn and soybean farm.

  1. Being the best steward I can be. One of my favorite free-time activities is kayaking on the local streams and rivers. It is sad and concerning to me how muddy-brown our streams and rivers are. I want to take responsibility for the farmland I am called to be a steward of and make sure I do my part to keep my soil on my farm. The legacy I want to leave for my community and my children is one of cleaner water and richer soils, allowing them to produce healthy, reliable food and enjoy the environment for generations to come.
  2. Increasing soil organic matter and, in turn, increase water holding capacity. The art of farming can be boiled down to using soil and water to capture energy from the sun to produce food fuel and fiber. Considering the factors I can manage, I realize that the sun is going to come up every day and there is not a lot we can or need to do to manage that. My farm relies on rainfall for all of the water for the crops and while there is absolutely nothing I can do to change the rains, I have come to realize that I can improve the water-holding capacity of the soil by increasing organic matter and improve yields by holding more of the rains we do get on my farm for my crops to produce higher yields. A 1% increase in soil organic matter will increase the water-holding capacity in the top 6 inches of an acre by 27,000 gallons. This is roughly equivalent to the amount of water in a 1-inch rain.
  3. Improving overall farm efficiency. To win in a commodity business a farmer must produce high yields at the lowest cost possible. Reducing tillage and, therefore, reducing trips across the field reduces the costs of growing a crop and improves efficiency. Two to three tillage passes are eliminated, resulting in less time, labor and fuel required to produce crops. Eliminating these tillage passes saves between $35 and $40 per acre.
  4. Reducing the amount of equipment I need to purchase and maintain to operate my farm. I do not own a chisel plow, disk or field cultivator. I also do not need to own a high-horsepower tractor to pull these implements. Further savings are realized by not having to have a larger barn to store these extra pieces of equipment. I am able to farm using only one tractor on the entire operation. Not having to buy a high-horsepower tractor, a chisel plow, disk and field cultivator saves my farm tens of thousands of dollars of capital costs.
  5. The support I receive from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). When deciding whether to transition to a no-till cover crop system, I reached out to the NRCS for ideas and support. The conservationists at the NRCS shared ideas and practices that had the highest likelihood of success in our area. I applied for and received three years of per-acre payments for no-till and cover crops through the EQIP program. These payments covered the cost of my planter pass and all costs of using a cover crop, including seed and planting. These payments reduced the risk of trying something new and gave me the confidence to get started.

I encourage anyone reading this to consider how to improve stewardship on their own farm in addition to how their management decisions impact the community and the legacy they want to leave for future generations.

I also encourage you to reach out to your NRCS office and/or connect with other farmers in your area to discuss conservation practices.

Getting technical with conservation

We found Keith’s conservation practices fascinating, so our team followed up with him to get some specifics on how he applies these farming techniques. Here’s what he had to say:

In terms of emission reduction, have you seen a decline? If so, how are you measuring that on the farm?

I have been able to replace 3 tillage passes with one cover crop planting pass for a net gain of two fewer passes across the field.

A conventional tillage system would be (1) chisel plow, (2) disk, (3) field cultivate, (4) spray, (5) plant, (6) spray, and (7) harvest; versus a no-till cover crop system of (1) plant cover, (2) spray, (3) plant, (4) spray, and (5) harvest.

This can be measured in diesel fuel savings of about 29%, or about $9 per acre.

Do you use any solar or wind technologies for energy offsets on the farm? If so, what do these systems look like?

No.  My energy requirements are the same on still, cloudy days as they are on sunny, windy days.  However, solar and wind power are essential for the farm.  Each corn seed I plant in the spring turns into approximately 560 seeds in the fall and each soybean seed turns into approximately 300 seeds.

The energy for these returns comes almost exclusively from the sun through the miracle of photosynthesis.  Additionally, the wind is vital to bring in rains, my only source of water, and cool and aerate the plants.

What does your typical rotation look like? If you are rotating, which crops do you grow on a single set of land, what does that look like, and how do you decide?

All of my acres are in a corn cover-soybean cover rotation. Usually, I use cereal rye as the cover crop.

I decide based on crop budget spreadsheets which factor in the market prices of inputs and each grain and calculate expected profit based on historical yields.

I have grown corn after corn and soybean after soybeans to increase expected profits.

photo credit: Brooke Sauter

Have your conservation ag practices helped with pests, diseases, invasive weeds, etc.? And if so, that must also equate to cost savings. But has it? And to what degree?

Not yet. I expect an improvement in soil health to lead to an improvement in pests and diseases long term.  Short term, during a transition to no-till, disease and pest pressures have increased. I am learning how to manage cover crops to reduce invasive weeds and have seen signs of fewer weeds where covers are planted, but after subtracting the cost of cover crop seed; I have not realized any consistent cost savings yet.

What about yield? Has there been a “regrowth period” once some of these practices were put in place as the soil acclimated? 

A transition to no-till caused a 5-10% reduction in yield.  After factoring in the capital and operating expenses of saving tillage passes I did not experience a change in profit per acre.  After implementing no-till and covers for about 4 years the yields come back up and seem to become more consistent.  This drives a long-term increase in farm profitability.

Building a Sustainable U.S. Beef System

We are pleased to introduce Sasha Gennet, Ph.D. as a guest columnist for Dirt to Dinner.

Sasha heads up The Nature Conservancy’s Sustainable Grazing Lands strategy in North America, where she leads an interdisciplinary team of science, conservation, policy, and communications experts to achieve widespread adoption of conservation management practices on U.S. grazing lands, as well as protection and conservation of working lands. (Above image courtesy of TNC.)

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I wasn’t one of the lucky kids who got to grow up on a ranch. No one back then would have expected me to work on livestock production and grazing lands. We lived in the suburbs, and I come from a family that had mostly worked in factories, not farming. I was even a vegetarian in my teenage years, on the grounds that I didn’t want to eat an animal if I didn’t know and feel good about how it was raised (which is still true).

My love for the outdoors and need to be near nature led to my early career as a botanist and restoration ecologist. Through my early jobs and in my graduate school research in grasslands and on ranches, I learned two key things about land stewardship:

  • Livestock is one of the best tools available for managing land to benefit soil, water, and biodiversity. Essentially, good grazing management in the right places is good for native plants and wildlife; grazing animals can help manage fire risk, and strong rural economies rooted in ranching help slow urban and agricultural sprawl.
  • Ranchers are deeply committed to protecting the natural resources that make their livelihoods possible. This is true of ranchers in California, the Great Basin, the Dakotas, Florida – all across our country. For example, Meredith Ellis, a second-generation rancher in Texas, uses soil health and sustainable grazing practices to help sequester carbon, withstand extreme weather events, safeguard water quality, and provide consumers with beef they can feel good about buying. You can check out her story here.

Those early years spent studying grasslands and working on ranches instilled a deep appreciation in me for the people who dedicate their lives to producing food and the many—often overlooked—contributions they make to land management.

Now, through my work with The Nature Conservancy (TNC), I’m lucky enough to partner with local ranchers to promote the conservation value of grazing lands and advance sustainability goals across the complex beef supply chain.

By partnering with family-owned cattle operations to test new on-ranch practices and collaborating with food companies to source sustainable beef products, we’re working to mainstream livestock production practices that actively restore and regenerate nature—practices that are good for ranchers and the environment.

To get there, we must first understand the value of what’s at stake, acknowledge the challenges that stand in our way and define a clear path forward.

The Vast Footprint of Working Wildlands

More than 770,000 cattle operations span the United States, and 90% are family-operated. The ranches and grazing lands where beef cattle live most of their lives total about 775 million acres nationwide. That’s the size of Alaska, Texas, California, and Montana combined.

These incredibly diverse lands include native grasslands—the least well protected habitat type on earth— like the iconic prairies of the Great Plains as well as the rangelands of the Great Basin and desert Southwest, savannah of California, and pastures in the Southeast.

This part of the U.S. agriculture system contributes $76 billion to our economy. But these private, public, and tribal grazing lands provide more than economic benefit and food. These “working wildlands” also provide wildlife habitat, secure freshwater, and help mitigate climate change by drawing more carbon into the soil.

Farmers and soil health practices are a big part of the picture, too, since most beef cattle are finished on grain after spending a large part of their lives on grazing lands. In fact, as much as one-third of the 90 million acres of corn grown in the U.S. ends up as feed.

There’s too much common ground between ranchers, farmers, and conservationists to not work together toward mutual goals. The people and families who care for these valuable lands are the backbone of rural economies and essential to a world where nature and people thrive.

Challenges and a Path Forward

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) has worked for decades with farming and ranching communities to collaboratively advance conservation. We have supported numerous voluntary conservation easements, partnered with local organizations, supported federal funding for ranch stewardship and protection, and used our own lands to research and demonstrate how livestock can help regenerate nature.

While successful in many ways, those efforts have yet to ensure long-term conservation across these vast and varied lands and communities. In fact, many grasslands and rural communities that depend on these lands are experiencing greater challenges and risks than ever before: land values that outpace profitability from livestock grazing, more droughts and floods, and market shocks like we saw in 2020 due to COVID-19.

In recent years, TNC has expanded our work to engage more deeply with initiatives and companies in the beef supply chain, engaging and advancing robust sustainability programs.

Given its importance economically, and strong influence on natural resources, the beef industry—from farmers and ranchers to restaurants and retailers—is uniquely positioned to help safeguard and steward nature, while benefitting producers, rural communities, and consumers.   

So, what can the beef industry do to ensure a healthy environment, while ensuring ranchers and farmers sustain their livelihoods and deliver quality food products? A seemingly simple but essential first step is for leading companies to recognize that healthy, functioning ecosystems and thriving agriculture operations are the foundation of a secure and equitable food system. That then needs to lead to committing to improving the environmental and socio-economic sustainability of their supply chains, setting robust goals, and investing in implementation, including tackling climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

It also includes working diligently with civil society, producers, and other companies to define and identify a path to environmental and socio-economic sustainability, for example by actively participating in the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef.

Collaboration Is Key

Several companies are making significant commitments. Last year, Walmart U.S. and Sam’s Club U.S. announced new aspirations to source fresh beef products more sustainably by 2025, with a focus on grazing management and soil health across an additional 12 million acres. This announcement came after TNC worked with Walmart to identify opportunities and actions to improve sustainability in its beef supply chain to help improve soil health and decrease greenhouse gas emissions.

In collaboration with TNC and the University of Minnesota, McDonald’s analyzed their beef and chicken supply chains to identify climate mitigation opportunities. Based on this work, McDonald’s is now building programs with their suppliers to meet their company’s ambitious 31 percent greenhouse gas reduction goal.

Our work with McDonald’s and Walmart led to the development of a Roadmap for a Sustainable Beef System, which is helping more companies identify opportunities and take action to make improvements within their supply chain while tracking progress toward their environmental goals.

In essence, we’ve created a science-based approach that can help companies create solutions that are environmentally beneficial and economically favorable for producers while delivering a product that meets consumers’ expectations.

Sustainability needs to be the business-as-usual approach in the U.S. beef industry in order to ensure long-term food supply, economic security for ranchers and their communities, and a healthy environment for us all. Taking that a bit further, the food production process needs to actively restore and regenerate nature, and there’s no time to waste. Seeing two of the world’s largest purchasers of beef take proactive steps to achieve sustainability within their supply chains signals tremendous momentum in that direction.

But much more needs to be accomplished, quickly, and we can only get there by working together.

Trump vs. Biden: Comparing Ag Platforms

Everyone agrees it will be an important event for all Americans – a momentary pause, if not an end, to the endless argument about the future direction of the country. On November 3rd, we will select our President, our entire House of Representatives, and a third of our Senate.

When it comes to food and agriculture, what makes one presidential candidate different from the other? The significant farm issues are the economy, international trade relationships, China as a strong component but other countries as well; the Renewable Fuel Standard; rural broadband access; the regulatory environment, and COVID. What will be the key goals and objectives they set? What big ideas will drive their actions over the next four years? What is likely to change and what will stay the same?

Don’t expect any great epiphanies from reading party platforms. Such documents are great at grand philosophical statements, but light on the specifics that might risk offending some potential voter. But there are insights in there anyway, especially when combined with the public statements and media coverage that have emerged in this campaign.

Candidates’ Philosophies

We took a look at comparing the policies that would most affect food and agriculture from each of the candidates. We focused on trade, the economy, climate change, and immigration.


America is in trouble, due largely to the missteps of the current administration. America must return to many of the approaches of the previous Democratic administrations, including:

  • a stronger focus on building consensus, stepping up government support and engagement in things that build a fairer society

  • governmental programs to protect individual rights, reduce anti-competitive practices among agricultural businesses, reform our criminal justice system, and expand access to health care, broadband, and other social services

  • more aggressive governmental regulations to climate change, and in the process spur a broad effort to generate new jobs, protect our environment and revive the economy with innovative environmental products and technologies

  • revive a spirit of international cooperation to boost trade


America is on the right track, so let’s stick with what we have started:


  • take the tough steps needed to compete in a global marketplace, while shielding U.S. citizens, with subsidies, from the immediate adverse effects of such actions

  • keep current policies and programs and continue to reduce the governmental barriers that hold back enterprise and initiative

  • support worthwhile government programs but still rely on private enterprise and voluntary effort as the primary engines of progress in protecting the environment and managing financial risk

  • stand up for American interests first in the international arena, especially on matters of trade

Both platforms share some commonalities around the ideas of conservation. Their differing philosophies are on the role of the government as it pertains to conservation, trade, taxes, regulations, and immigration.

Plans for Trade


  • seek international consensus: multilateral and bilateral before negotiating trade agreements

  • restore more traditional negotiating style and posturing with trade partners

  • revitalize focus on boosting ag exports; concerned about Brazil and Argentina taking place of U.S.

  • expand focus on workers’ rights and interests in trade negotiations


  • take the tough steps needed to compete in a global marketplace, while shielding U.S. citizens, with subsidies, from the immediate adverse effects of such actions

  • maintain efforts to implement improved trade deals with China, Canada, Mexico, Japan, Britain, and E.U.

  • enforce tougher negotiating philosophy with focus on exports and long-term opportunities

  • continue direct aid to farmers while negotiating trade deals, currently at $32 billion

 Trump favors the aggressive use of higher tariffs as a tool for negotiating better trade deals. Biden prefers a more traditional approach of focusing on progressive tariff reductions.

Addressing Farm & Rural Economies


  • raise taxes: income, capital gains, corporate tax rate; end stepped-up basis

  • provide more financial support for rural economy via initiatives and infrastructure modernization, including direct farm support, rural health care, broadband

  • support local trade between farmers and schools and hospitals

  • preserve and protect smaller operators from unfair, anti-competitive forces with a higher focus on FTC antitrust regulations such as the Clayton Act, Dodd-Frank, etc., trickling down to farm economy

  • enhance labor rights and protections; support union workers

  • provide more financial support for younger, beginning farmers/ranchers, and smaller farms

  • support Farm Bill and SNAP


  • continue 2017’s tax plan that enables farmers to pass their farms to their next-generation farmers

  • preserve lower-tax environment

  • continue efforts to identify and remove regulatory and other barriers to support private initiative and innovation

  • support broadband throughout rural America

  • continue financial relief through direct payments to affected producers, as needed

  • maintain financial discipline in existing government programs

  • support Farm Bill and SNAP, but close loopholes that allow ‘able-bodied working-age adults’ collecting food stamps to move into a work environment to create a sense of fiscal independence

Trump offers a strategy to continue the ‘America First’ initiative, providing increased business opportunities by limiting regulatory barriers, while providing relief to those in need. Biden proposes tax increases to overhaul current systems in rural America, such as broadband access and healthcare. He also plans to strengthen antitrust enforcement.

Climate Change & Sustainability Affecting Ag


  • Green New Deal is ‘a crucial framework’ for climate challenges

  • make American ag first in the world to achieve net-zero carbon emissions

  • increase research funding focused on zero-carbon and productivity-increase goals

  • support renewable fuels and ethanol mandates

  • expand financial incentives for programs that reduce greenhouse gases – conservation reserves, reduced tillage, ‘blue sink’ programs, regenerative ag

  • expand USDA’s Conservation Stewardship Program

  • promote development of new, innovative products and technologies related to environmental protection, reduced carbon footprint


  • against Green New Deal due to added costs and reduced income for farmers and added regulations

  • maintain existing conservation programs, including Conservation Stewardship Program, based on voluntary participation

  • encourage regenerative ag, soil and farm technology, and clean water

  • continue to support Renewable Fuel Standard program, including ethanol

Both parties maintain conservation efforts as a priority and state that ’sound science’ is highly important in addressing food and ag issues, but neither is anxious to define exactly what ’sound science’ is, other than a broad philosophic concept.

While Biden looks to increase funding on its zero-carbon emission goal, Trump focuses its funding on renewable energy sources and fuel alternatives.



  • take immediate action to undo policies regarding wall construction on U.S. and Mexico border

  • reassert a commitment to asylum-seekers and refugees and investigate the root cause of irregular immigration

  • reexamine relationships in Central American nations as part of plan to deter violence causing influx of refugees

  • create doorway for seasonal farm labor and migrant workers

  • address path to citizenship for undocumented workers


  • continue funding for construction of a wall to differentiate nation’s border with Mexico

  • close legal loopholes that enable illegal immigration

  • end chain migration and eliminate visa lottery program

  • continue work on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and move to a more merit-based immigration plan

Biden would work to reverse the Trump administration’s U.S.-Mexico wall construction and instead focus on refugees and irregular migration from the southern border. Trump would maintain a strong process for legalizing immigrants, including the continuation of his work on DACA. In a continued effort to deter illegal immigration, construction would resume on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Summing it all up…

Biden & Harris’ platform proposes a larger and more aggressive role for the federal government in guiding the system through wide-ranging policies and programs that overlap with wider social, environmental, and other policy objectives.

Trump & Pence maintain a more traditional role for the government in creating an environment that rewards individual initiative and competitiveness in pursuing many of the same ultimate goals — economic growth, environmental protection and sustainability, adaptation to changing societal needs, and expectations of our modern food system.

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People and Nature: Thriving Together in the African Grasslands

The Plight of the Pastoralists

Imagine an African landscape where wildlife, cattle, people, and native grasslands thrive together in harmony. North of Mt. Kenya and stretching toward the southern border of Ethiopia is an area called the Northern Rangelands of Kenya. This expansive, beautiful landscape is occupied by 26 indigenous tribes, mostly pastoralist communities who rely on cattle grazing on the grasslands for their livelihoods.

It was also once one of the most abundant wildlife areas on the continent, teeming with scores of black rhinos; however, poaching reduced the rhino population in Kenya from over 20,000 individuals in the 1960s to just over 500 in the 1980s.

The Start of Northern Rangelands Trust

My first trip to the Northern Rangelands came in 2017 while the area was in the grips of a long drought. It was desperate times with armed conflicts taking place between rival tribes trying to secure enough land to graze. Population growth and cultural traditions of managing cattle as a walking bank account led to dramatic growth in livestock numbers and overgrazing of the grassland. I had never seen a grassland in such tough condition and, given the circumstances, I was not overly optimistic on the prospects for renewal.

At the time, plans were being laid by the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), with support from The Nature Conservancy (TNC), to create a new business model with market incentives for pastoralists who follow a planned grazing approach with the goal of improved grassland condition.

I questioned how the program would work given the simple fact that tribes who did improve their local grassland condition based on an adaptive management plan of grazing and rest, would simply attract other pastoralists from neighboring tribes to opportunistically graze off their good efforts when needed.

A Hopeful Return

Just recently, I returned to the same areas I visited in 2017. Following a period of above average rainfall, the grassland was in amazing condition, demonstrating the inherent resilience of the landscape. To the eye, it was a night and day difference. The team I had met with three years ago had made great progress, starting a new business model and partnership between the pastoralists and NRT called LivestockWORKS.

This program allows pastoralists to enter their livestock in a program designed to offer better market returns for the cattle. Pastoralists access the program by investing $10 per head, which is then matched by an investment of $20 per head by NRT. Their cattle are microchipped to maintain identity and then managed in a program involving adaptive planned grazing, access to veterinary services and better cattle genetics.

The fees invested also pay for NRT to provide grazing consultants to the community of pastoralists as well as funding the removal of invasive species, which overtake the grasslands in degraded areas. The fees also help manage plots to produce and harvest perennial grass seeds for reseeding of degraded areas.

These projects provide additional sources of employment for community members and it was encouraging to witness the dividends of their hard work when aided by the recent timely rains.

Another significant benefit of enrolling in the program is the opportunity to have access to grasslands on wildlife conservancies and private ranches closer to the market. The opportunity to add weight to their cattle immediately before harvest creates a more certain profit and is starting to reverse the long-held traditions of acquiring and managing more cattle as a sign of prosperity.

Now, some pastoralists are beginning to selectively cull their herds and add back individuals with the genetic potential to maximize the benefits of the new planned grazing program. As a result, the pastoralists can be confident to receive higher profits by participating in the LivestockWORKS program.

Benefiting Pastoralists and Beyond

It is often surprising for tourists visiting the wildlife conservancies to see cattle foraging areas thought to be reserved only for wildlife. When properly managed, the timely presence of cattle grazing actually improves the rangeland condition for wildlife, owing to the fact that cattle will forage different grassland species than a cape buffalo or rhino, benefitting all. NRT has invested in a sophisticated and effective security program, which has nearly eliminated the poaching issues in the area. With a healthy grassland and greater security wildlife numbers are increasing and tourism to the region is growing.

After several years of collaborative efforts between NRT, TNC, Soils for the Future and Native Energy to build a science baseline and develop effective monitoring, NRT is eligible to start earning carbon credits for the soil carbon sequestration activities their grassland restoration efforts are beginning to deliver.

The proceeds from this new revenue source will be reinvested in the improved management activities, with the hope of growing the number of tribes and community lands which can benefit from this new community-based conservation approach.

Taken altogether, it stands as a remarkable restoration example. While the program is still early in its implementation, it shows the potential of wise management anchored by a new business model where wildlife, tourism, tribal pastoralists, and cattle grazing together can make a more resilient landscape, improving both livelihoods and nature.

Valuing Conservation in the Economy

The Northern Rangelands Trust area may be one of the more extreme examples I have witnessed on the vital importance of restoring degraded lands, but it is not unique regarding the nature of the opportunity. Globally, the estimated value of ecosystem service losses due to land degradation is $6.9 to $10.6 trillion per year.

Equipped with the right knowledge and market incentives, we can create a new conservation-oriented economy based on the life-giving value of nature.

In the News: Glyphosate (again)


For most of us, weeds are a backyard annoyance. Whether they are in a flower or vegetable garden or sprouting up in the lawn, manual eviction is possible. For farmers around the world, however, weeds are a lot more than an annoyance. Weeds in a farm field mean that crop producers must spend valuable time and money getting rid of them before they steal the water and nutrients that crops rely on to grow.

Weeds make a difference in how big the crop is at harvest time, and how much money is left over after all the expenses of production, harvesting, storage, transportation, and marketing are paid.

For close to four decades, the safest and most effective herbicide has been Roundup, made by Monsanto. Its active ingredient is glyphosate – which in geek-speak is “an organophosphorus compound, specifically a phosphonate, which acts by inhibiting the plant enzyme 5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase.” In perhaps overly simplistic but understandable terms, it’s a salt that dries up and ultimately kills plants.

Why do farmers use glyphosate? Read our post: Is Glyphosate Safe?

Back in 2015, the use of glyphosate took on a strong international political flavor. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a World Health Organization (WHO) agency devoted to cancer research, concluded that glyphosate is a “probable carcinogen.” IARC’s methodology evaluated hazard and not risk (coffee is a hazard too if you drink too much of it), and has been widely disputed by many other scientific organizations, including the European Food Safety Authority and the Joint Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)/World Health Organization (WHO) Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR). In addition, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Toxicology Programdoes not list glyphosate as either “known to be a human carcinogen” or “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”

The difference of opinion on glyphosate has prompted intense battles and lobbying – in academic circles, in the media, in the courtroom and regulatory arena, and beyond.  Despite the fact that its use reduces the amount of herbicide needed, decreases use of more toxic herbicides, and enables farmers to till their fields less thereby improving soil health, environmental groups have made glyphosate almost an evil incarnate, to be either completely banned or at least extremely tightly controlled.  A new claim or new study seems to emerge regularly, alleging some new danger or additional “proof” of real and serious danger to the public health, the environment or some other vulnerable group. Notably, the EU debated further restrictions on the use of glyphosate or an outright ban on its sale or use but ultimately kicked the can down the road until at least 2022.

Closer to home, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an environmental advocacy group, recently released a report claiming to have found minute levels of glyphosate in 26 of 28 breakfast cereals and snack bars tested.  Such presence should worry consumers, EWG suggested, especially where the health of children is concerned.

Hold on a minute, said others across the scientific, public health and business communities. The levels detected in the study are far, far below the threshold set by even the most stringent regulatory standards. People would need to consume vast quantities of these products over their lifetime before reaching the Allowable Daily Intake.  This is nothing more than a clear effort to cry wolf, using children as a tool to advance an environmental or ideological agenda.

A child weighing 11 pounds would have to eat 29 servings of Quaker® Old Fashioned Oats and 101 servings of Cheerios™ every day over a lifetime.

An older child weighing about 44 pounds would have to eat 115 servings of Quaker® Old Fashioned Oats and 404 servings of Cheerios™ every day over a lifetime.

The FDA began testing for glyphosate levels in harvested crops for the first time in 2016 and released that data in October 2018. According to the agency’s report, no glyphosate was detected in milk and eggs. In corn and soybean samples that did test positive (many tested negative), the amounts were below minimum levels established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

As these EWG headlines renewed the controversy, a judge in California substantially reduced to $78 million the initial $289 million awarded last summer by a San Francisco jury to the groundskeeper who claimed his cancer resulted from exposure to Roundup. The ruling came despite hundreds of reviews and studies, most by government regulatory oversight agencies and independent scientists, that has found the popular weed killer to be safe as used.

The size of the initial award had attracted global media attention and raised eyebrows across the business community and around the world.  The recent reduction enabled Monsanto to claim some sort of victory – if only in the chance to repeat the defense of its product.

“There is an extensive body of research on glyphosate and glyphosate-based herbicides, including more than 800 rigorous registration studies required by the EPA and European and other regulators that confirm that these products are safe when used as directed.” (Monsanto)

The EPA, as part of a normal chemical review process, is currently engaged in its latest routine review of glyphosate and will publish its decision in 2019.  However, in December 2017, the EPA published the following:

“The draft human health risk assessment concludes that glyphosate is not likely to be carcinogenic to humans. The Agency’s assessment found no other meaningful risks to human health when the product is used according to the pesticide label. The Agency’s scientific findings are consistent with the conclusions of science reviews by a number of other countries as well as the 2017 National Institute of Health’s Agricultural Health Survey.”

The release of the EPA’s registration review report is certain to trigger the next animated round of debate.  Meanwhile, expect still more of the steady drip of claims and counterarguments from a broad spectrum of interest groups – public health, environmental, scientific and business, just to name a few.  The headlines aren’t going away any time soon.

Water, Water…Everywhere?

Irrigation equipment on farm field

Our water supply is stressed!

Water is essential to all living things. Humans, animals, and crops rely on a steady water supply in order to survive. But, with a growing population and a finite water supply on earth, we are finding ourselves in a bit of trouble! While about 80% of the Earth’s surface is covered with water, it is the fresh water supply that we are most concerned about. Freshwater assumes only 2.5% of all water on Earth – and 90% of this fresh water is located in Antarctica. To put that into perspective, if you were to take all the world’s water and fit it into a one-gallon jug – fresh water would only account for roughly one tablespoon.

Based on current projections, our population is expected to grow .89% per year through 2050. At this rate, that is approximately 66 million more mouths to feed each year! Thus, our farmers are expected to not only produce more food but to use less water throughout the growing process. So, as shifting rainfall patterns, frequent droughts, and population growth put added stress on our water supply, farmers are looking to technology for new ways to reduce, manage, and reuse fresh water.

Water on Earth is a closed system.

There is the same amount of water on our Earth today as there was two billion years ago, but it may be in a different form. Water on earth is recycled daily through evaporation, condensation (clouds), precipitation (rain, snow, or hail), filtration down through the earth, and surface run-off. Consider this: When you drink a glass of water you could be drinking the same H20 molecule that your Grandmother met when she got caught in the rain 50 years ago! That same H20 molecule may have also met the dinosaurs 200 million years ago or, more recently, George Washington in 1789!

Farming requires a lot of water

Growing crops and raising animals requires a lot of water. Worldwide farming activities account for approximately 70% of freshwater withdrawals. Farming in the mid-west, for example, requires millions of gallons of water to keep crops and livestock healthy and happy. These farms utilize rainwater as well as underground aquifers. After this water gets used on the farm, it can take a lifetime to make its way back into an aquifer. In addition to recharging groundwater, water can also run off into streams and/or rivers and end up in the ocean. It may also be evaporated! Water is rarely used in the same way more than once.

The areal and vertical location of the major aquifers is fundamental to the determination of groundwater availability for the Nation. An aquifer is a geologic formation, a group of formations, or a part of a formation that contains sufficient saturated permeable material to yield significant quantities of water to wells and springs. Source: USGS Aquifer Map

Farmers want to conserve water

Technology experts have been working for decades to create innovative technology to help farms save water. Most farmers are very motivated to use water efficiently, and many rely on water-saving techniques in their conservation efforts. (Additionally, as we discussed in our previous post, they must also address soil health to ensure optimal water and nutrient retention.)

There are various ways that technology can be used to conserve water – let’s explore some of the available approaches…

  1. The biotech approach begins with engineering seeds and crops that can grow with less water and have drought resistant properties.
  2. The computer-related approach includes aerial imaging, sensor networks, data analytics, and social networking. These systems are helping farmers optimize their water inputs, create smarter irrigation systems, and communicate with each other on water-saving techniques.
  3. Advancements in filtration and membrane technologies have made it more cost-effective for farmers to conserve water.
  4. Absorbent soil additives can increase the amount of water the soil can retain and release throughout the growing season.

Seeds of solution

If you are an environmentalist, then drought-resistant genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are the answer to your water concerns. Seed producers are using biotechnology to create seeds that can grow a water-efficient, drought-resistant crop. Breakthroughs in seed technology can help farmers around the world growing in different climates optimize water use.

Digital tools

One of the primary water-related issues farmers face is: where to put the water— as some parts of their field often need it more than others.

Drones help farmers perfect irrigation techniques.  Image source

Thanks to computer-related technologies (aerial imaging, sensor networks, data analytics, and social networking), farmers can now determine where the drier part of their field is located. The goal of agricultural aerial imaging, sensor networks, and digital tools (such as data analytics) is to perfect irrigation techniques.

When the sensors detect low soil moisture in a specific area or crop, the control network will turn on the computer-automated irrigation system and turn it off when an optimal amount of water is delivered to that zone.

A single field can differ in slope, land elevation, exposure to the sun, and/or contain various soil types (i.e., mineral and clay content, sandiness, etc.), all of which affect the amount of water needed to grow crops. The development of these computer-related technologies is to allow farmers to more precisely deliver water to meet crop needs on a real-time basis.

In a previous article, D2D described how the use of aerial imaging captured by drones, satellites, and aircraft has been “taking off” in the farming industry.

Large farms today can synthesis data from the fields, the animals, the machines and the barns to run more efficiently.

Normally, growers manually evaluate their soil moisture, crop health, and potential yields on foot or by tractor, but aircraft or drones can quickly fly over their field or satellites can produce a bird’s eye view of the field generating more accurate data often at an accelerated pace. The data produced by the satellite or aircraft imagery can be directly downloaded to a farmer’s smartphone or tablet allowing the farmer to adjust their field management accordingly.

There are many drone companies offering imaging services. Searching the internet for aerial crop imaging companies brings up dozens of entries. However, many of these companies provide only images without any analytics or “actionable intelligence” to make sense of what is shown. DroneDeploy and Agribotix are two startups that offer both imaging services and analytic software platforms where farmers can analyze images taken from their personal drones. Another imaging-as-a-Service company, CeresImaging, captures high-resolution images at specific wavelengths by flying close to the ground. Using various image processing techniques, they generate highly accurate data on every plant in the field then use biological and mathematical modeling to correlate this data to the plant’s physical properties.

Sensing the Earth

Similar to aerial imaging, wireless sensor networks create a smarter irrigation system that allows farmers to customize irrigation to a field’s unique needs. The sensors are placed around a field and continually report various soil measurements, including moisture levels, directly to a computer, tablet, or cell phone. The farmer can then take that information and act on it. More advanced sensor systems have control networks installed in a field’s irrigation system.

CropX, a company with offices in Tel Aviv and San Francisco uses publicly available data to generate algorithms for a particular piece of land. After formulating the algorithm, they use data from sensors strategically located within a field to generate detailed information about how much water is needed as well as where and when it is needed. Raptormaps is another company that combines sensor technology with analytics to provide farmers with information to optimize crop inputs and to make decisions based on field and crop conditions.

Additionally, pressure and acoustic sensors wirelessly connected to a cloud-based monitoring system can be attached to a field’s irrigation pipes and groundwater sources. Using sound waves, the sensors can detect and pinpoint leaks in irrigation pipes below the ground, as well as accurately measure a farmer’s groundwater storage. Ag data analytics use the massive amount of information from imaging and/or sensor networks to assess and predict field conditions.

Farmers utilize social media to communicate with one another

Computer use and access to the internet have not only given farmers tools to more precisely irrigate their crops but have also provided a forum to communicate with other farmers about farming issues such as water-conversation. Social networking and mass text messaging have been successfully used in other industries for communication but is now also starting to be used more widely in agriculture.

Studies show that farmers rely on their social network as a primary information source. Farmer-specific social networking platforms are attempting to leverage this natural tendency by encouraging farmers to share their questions and knowledge with others in the industry on issues including water use, irrigation tools, and weather information.

Water re-use and membrane filtration

This approach shifts from water management and conservation techniques to water reuse. Water purification and desalination (a process that removes salt and minerals from water) has been around for decades and is used in mostly arid countries around the world. Israel is a major proponent of water reuse — reusing about 80% of its municipal wastewater for irrigation. Israel not only reuses grey water from sinks and showers but also uses black water – better known as sewage. Following the Israelis lead in water reuse is Spain at 17%, followed by Australia at 10% and the U.S. at less than 1%.

In addition to water reuse, desalination provides another major water source for Israel. Breakthroughs in membrane technology have lowered the cost of desalination technology significantly.

The World Bank reported advances in membrane filtration have lowered the cost from $1 per cubic meter to 50 cents per cubic meter in less than five years, making seawater desalination considerably more affordable water source option.

Graphene membranes can be used for water filtration, gas separation and desalination projects.

There are a few startup companies working on membrane technology. Most startups or academics that develop promising technologies typically sell it to large companies such as LG ChemAquaTechKoch Membrane Systems, Inc.Evoqua Water TechnologiesMarlo, Incorporated, and The Dow Chemical Company are already heavily invested in the water utility markets.

The most popular membrane technology is reverse osmosis – a process that uses a semipermeable membrane to remove ions, molecules, and larger particles (salts) from drinking water. Historically, the reverse osmosis process used a lot of energy, but newer membrane technologies (e.g., nanomaterials and graphene-oxide membranes) and solar powered electrodialysis are able to filter seawater using significantly less energy (although some of these technologies have obstacles to overcome before becoming commercially available).

Soil sponges

One of the most unconventional, exciting and innovative approaches is to add a biodegradable sponge in the soil. These super absorbent polymers that farmers can put in their soil ahead of planting are slowly gaining popularity.

The size of a grain of sand, a polymer particle can soak up to 250 times its weight in water. Absorbing the excess water left behind from crop irrigation, the polymer then slowly releases the water back into the soil as it dries out. Developed at Stanford University, one such polymer is said to help farmers reduce water use by 20 percent and cut water bills by 15 percent. Environmentally, the polymer lasts about a year before it starts to break down without leaving any by-products behind.

Farming from the Thermosphere

man controlling drone flying above field

At D2D, we often discuss the importance of feeding a growing global population while keeping our environmental resources secure for future generations. The fact is, world population is growing at a fast pace— so, we need to find ways to better manage and preserve our existing resources. For example, we have investigated indoor agriculture and crop biotechnology as innovative ways that our farmland and natural resources have benefited from technological advancements.

What do drones and satellites do?

For generations, farmers have relied heavily on old fashioned senses, such as touch, smell, and taste to ascertain how their crops and soil are managing through the growing season. Today, they have the advantage of relying on advanced equipment and heavy-duty machinery to efficiently and productively sow seeds, apply fertilizers and pesticides, feed animals and harvest crops. Now, technology is taking crop management to the skies. Drones and satellites are new, exciting tools to help farmers reduce chemical inputs, manage water usage, ensure animal welfare, and increase crop yield.

Helping Farmers manage their crops

During a typical growing season, farmers face many different types of challenges, such as weeds, pests, and weather inconsistencies. Drones and satellites allow them to monitor and handle these impending crop threats as quickly as possible.

For instance, the average drone can cover over 160 acres of cropland in one hour and satellites can take detailed pictures every 24 hours to identify weed species, plant heights, population densities, and specific types of crop damage caused by pests.

Close examination of a crop

This data helps farmers quickly recognize problem areas, such as water and pest issues. Invariably, drones and satellites have a positive environmental impact as farmers are able to manage their chemical inputs, increase their yield, and minimize machine passes through the field, hence minimizing pollution.

For those not familiar with drone technology, a drone is considered an unmanned aerial device vehicle (UAV). They are commonly used by amateur and professional photographers as a flying camera to take cool pictures, document events, or make movies. They have also become very useful to survey weather systems or act as a surveillance device for the U.S. military.

The technology that makes drones so effective is imagery that measures wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation, which enable a farmer to see specific areas where crop inputs need to be applied. (image source)

Companies such as AgEagle and DroneDeploy offer services that take aerial infrared images to detect the health of crops. The images are processed and consolidated, and a specific “prescription” map is provided to the farmer.

However, some farmers find it more efficient (and cost saving) to operate the drones themselves. Drone image mapping can be used by corn farmers in Iowa, potato farmers in Idaho, fruit growers in Georgia, or cattle ranchers on the remote plains of Montana. In fact, some vineyards in California use specially-designed drones to look like hawks to scare pesky birds away from their grapes.

Robert Blair, a wheat farmer in Idaho, recently invested in drone technologies and praised the effectiveness of drones. “Instead of spraying 100 percent of the field I’m spraying exactly where it is needed instead of across the whole field. That’s huge to be able to identify those areas to treat before the treatment takes place.” (AOPA Pilot Magazine)

Some drones can even take the place of a crop duster airplane and spray the crops. However, this is mostly used for fruits and produce. Source

Helping farmers manage their animals

Animal farmers are using drones to monitor their cattle in the field and in the feedlot. Drones help provide answers to questions like: are any of my cattle sick? Have any wandered off? Are there predators harassing my animals? This new technology is starting to play an important role in how crops and animals are grown and managed. 

Drones keeping an eye on cattle

A cowboy can see, via a drone, whether any animals are sick by a hanging head, shaking body, or excess heat coming off the cattle. On large-scale dairy farms, drones can quickly ascertain who is limping, who has strayed away from the herd, and who might be suffering from mastitis (an udder infection).

For instance, cattle are social animals. Cows that spend time in the feedlot like to be with their fellow cow-brethren from the ranch. If they feel sick they don’t want to leave the herd to go to the infirmary. So, when the cowboys ride the pens checking on the animals, a cow can actually “fake it” and pretend to be healthy because he doesn’t want to be separated.

Drone view of a mixer box feeding cows.

While drones have many great benefits, not every farmer has a drone waiting to fly out of the barn.

While flying over 160 acres an hour is a lot of ground to cover, they eventually run out of battery power! The farmer also needs to operate the drone, and even if it is pre-programmed it needs to recharge. Additionally, in order to be precise, they have to fly exact coordinates. Thus, drones have not been implemented into all farming practices quite yet. AgFunder reported a 68% drop in investments in agricultural drone technology for 2016.

Up to the Thermosphere! Satellites


Of course, we all know how satellites provide GPS to get us to our destination. Satellites are rocketed into the thermosphere by companies such as Geoimage, who set up satellite constellations with 150 or so stations circling the earth. Recently, Planetary Resources raised $21 million with their Bayer CropScience partnership.  They will have a ‘constellation of 10 Arkyd 100 microsatellites in low Earth orbit’.  The images are refreshed daily and are incredibly clear and precise, pinpointing locations to a 5-meter radius. The data is compiled and downloaded to an intermediary, such as Descartes or IntelinAir, who make sense of this data along with weather forecasting and agronomy analysis to provide agriculture mapping for crop and soil analysis.

Satellite images provide a color map of soil and crop health.  This is not as easy as it sounds as there are many variables which occur from day to day, such as the atmosphere, cloud cover, shadows, angle of the sensor, the angle of the sunlight, etc. Additionally, pixel size, the number of satellites, and the quality of near-infrared wavelengths are all considerations to reliable data.

Yet, the data has to be consistent and trusted. To be a successful farmer, one has to know and understand any changes in the color or health of the soil, water, plants, and weeds. Are there more or fewer pests? Is the crop darker or lighter? Are there more weeds or less? Is the soil appropriately hydrated compared to yesterday?

Satellite imagery helps farmers maximize their harvest and minimize damage to their fields. Source

Using an iPhone or computer, satellite technology allows the farmer to literally track the fields by comparing the color and visuals on a day-by-day basis. Farmers can see any change immediately, program their combine or tractor, and go right to that specific location with the needed chemicals, fertilizer, or water.

Precision agriculture has a whole new meaning!

Let’s bring this technology to life:

  • On the very desolate high plains of Nebraska, you can see if your cattle are fed, watered, and healthy.
  • In California, you can see the exact areas of your field that need water by looking at the color of the soil.
  • In Colorado, you can see what part of your wheat field needs extra spray for the weeds.
  • A soybean farmer can tell by the color whether part of the crop is being eaten by pests

Using satellite technology, a farmer can get a good idea of their farm’s yield as well as the overall yield of the crop in the area. They can also tell which part of their fields had the best/worst yields. This knowledge helps to manage a farm’s income and expenses.

image credit: Asia K. Kalcevic

The weekly satellite imagery of growing crops enhances the field scouting and increases the accuracy of the field by identifying the best and troubled areas of the crop. With consistent monitoring, the farmer can define trends in the field and make better-informed decisions in specific areas of the field or the farm. I relate it to a weekly x-ray of our crop and soil health.
A 65,000-acre wheat farmer, Colorado