Nation’s highways could be a pollinator-friendly habitat

A bipartisan bill introduced to establish pollinator habitats on nation’s highways

Habitat for pollinators such as monarch butterflies and bees continue to decline, but a bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate could help to reverse the decline. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) along with Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Tom Carper (D-DE), and Mike Rounds (R-SD) submitted the Monarch and Pollinator Highway (MPH) Act of 2019 would establish a federal grant program available to state departments of transportation and Indian tribes to carry out pollinator-friendly practices on roadsides and highway rights-of-way.

According to a press release by Merkley, the bill would establish grants that could be used for:
• The planting and seeding of native, locally-appropriate grasses, wildflowers, and milkweed;
• Mowing strategies that promote early successional vegetation and limit disturbance during periods of highest use by target pollinator species;
• Implementation of an integrated vegetation management approach to address weed and pest issues;
• Removing nonnative grasses from planting and seeding mixes except for use as a nurse or cover crops; or
• Any other pollinator-friendly practices the Secretary of Transportation determines will be eligible.

“With so much of our natural landscape lost, the millions of acres of roadsides across the US have become increasingly important as pollinator habitat,” said Scott Black, Executive Director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. “The Xerces Society is excited to support the Monarch and Pollinator Highway (MPH) Act of 2019, which will provide much-needed funding for states to maximize habitat management and restoration for these vital animals.”

The Xerces Society conducted its annual survey from 97 sites, mostly along the California coast, where 77% of the monarch population overwintered and found that the population in 2018 reached “historic lows” over the previous year’s population. The Center for Biological Diversity showed in their 2018 survey for overwintering grounds in Mexico to be down as well from 2.91 hectares to 2.48. It stated that the population has been in decline from an estimated one billion in the mid-1990s to roughly 93 million. Milkweed is the primary plant that monarchs require for breeding and food, and acreage of the plant has decreased.


When we think of bees, we generally picture the European honeybee or Apis mellifera, which is responsible for the pollination of over $170 billion in crops. However, there are over 4,500 native bee species that are also responsible for the pollination of these crops, including 1,600 of them in California. In an article written for Medium entomologists stress that saving all species of bees versus the just the honeybee is equivalent to “conserving chickens because you’ve heard that North American birds are vanishing.” That is not to say there has been a decline in the numbers of European honeybees, they have also seen a dramatic decrease of 40% between 2018-2019 with one expert calling it “unsustainably high.

The bill does not specify how these grants will be funded, but anything we can do to help these populations is critical. I can distinctly remember as a child oleander and bottlebrush plants were growing in the median of Interstate 5 in the Central Valley of California and throughout the area. Sadly, they were taken out because of the drought and also the fear of them harboring invasive insects. Although oleander is considered a deceit pollinator and insect cheater by looking attractive, offering no nectar, and yet still accomplishing pollination.
Besides, wouldn’t you like something interesting and aesthetically pleasing to look at while you spend time in the driving or sitting in the passenger seat?

Agriculture can be part of the Solution to Climate Change

What if the government paid producers to be an effective tool in combat to fight climate change? What if private enterprise paid farmers to sequester carbon or for carbon-credits in a cap and trade exchange?

On October 30th, House Democrats’ climate panel explored what role agriculture can play in the climate crisis. Jennifer Moore-Kucera of American Farmland Trust urged Congress to seize the opportunity to engage ag through either legislation or “a transformational farm bill.” Experts at the committee were unanimous that agriculture can be a big part of the climate change solution through sequestering carbon in the soil. They also supported using the USDA conservation programs to focus on climate-friendly practices and called on more funding for research into this matter. Members of Congress want to know what policies they should adopt to “maximize carbon storage,” as well as “help farmers, ranchers, and natural resource managers adapt to the impacts of climate change.”

The USDA’s Economic Research Service published a study  titled Economics of Sequestering Carbon in the U.S. Agricultural Sector that studies this issue. It found that if farmers adopted conservation tillage or converting some land to either forest or grasslands, it could be economically feasible and could provide low-cost opportunities to sequester additional carbon in soils and biomass. The study took into account if farmers switched to conservation tillage and paid $125 per metric ton for permanently sequestered carbon, that as much as “72 to 160 million metric tons could be sequestered, enough to offset 4 to 8 percent of gross U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases in 2001.” The study also takes into consideration different scenarios for payment amounts, whether payments would be supplemented by current conservation programs, conversion to forestry or grasslands, and found different potentials in the amount of carbon sequestration.

Currently, there are six Democratic candidates in the race for the nomination that are advocating paying farmers to help fight climate change. All have similar means by paying farmers through either grants to convert to more sustainable practices or expanding conservation programs in the USDA. According to Politico, the candidates have not given a price tag on how much they would it would cost to fund their programs. However, Senator Elizabeth Warren has said she would provide $15 billion a year to USDA conservation programs. Former Vice President Joe Biden said the program should be part of potential carbon markets by allowing corporations, individuals, and foundations to contribute funding to offset their emissions.

There is one corporation currently that is paying farmers. A four-year-old startup called Indigo Ag wants to feed the world and pay farmers to be a part of the climate change solution. Via the Indigo Carbon marketplace, companies can pay farmers $15 to sequester one metric ton of carbon dioxide in the soil. The chief executive, David Wells, has lofty goals through regenerative agriculture, and the use of their products, half to 100 percent of the carbon dioxide could be sequestered. A more realistic goal was presented by Rattan Lal, a soil scientist who heads the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center at Ohio State University. He says the maximum soil sequestration that can be achieved, under ideal conditions, is nine billion tons. Indigo Ag makes non-GMO seed treatments that help farmers maximize their yield on row crops, including soybeans, rice, wheat, corn and cotton. The treatments consist of naturally occurring microbes, like plant-friendly bacteria and fungi. Farmers apply them to their seeds as a spray or powder coating before planting. In 2018, they had roughly 5,000 producers throughout the globe on 4 million acres. The company has also expanded into a sort of eBay, called Indigo Marketplace, and into assisting farmers using geospatial satellites. Incorporating this technology allows Indigo Ag and its customers to monitor the world’s food supply and figure out where to focus their efforts next.

Paying farmers and ranchers make sense from an environmental standpoint and an economic standpoint as well. As commodity prices have been at their lowest, paying producers would give offset their costs and encourage them to practice sustainability. As we lose 27 acres of prime agricultural land every minute to development, developers should bear the costs of degradation of these lands and helping to further contribute to climate change. Agriculture is a viable solution to carbon sequestration and climate change, and we should look further into this possibility.

FDA’s Pesticide Residue Monitoring Report -something consumers should know, but nobody’s talking about

On October 23, 2018, I ran across a tweet from Jon Entine at the Genetic Literacy Project that caught my interest. It was an article referencing a piece from Keith Nunes titled, “F.D.A pesticide data demonstrate industry commitment to food safety” published in The Food Business News. As Entine noted, the data should have helped to alleviate the public’s fear of chemicals in food, and yet no news organizations covered the story.

According to Nunes, The International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC) conducted a survey in 2018 that identified the top three food safety concerns for consumers. Foodborne illness was the top concern, followed by “carcinogens or cancer-causing chemicals in food,” “chemicals in food,” and “pesticides/pesticide residues,” all of which are similar. As Nunes notes, “the IFIC survey clearly shows some consumers have significant concerns about how raw materials are processed, and food and beverage products are formulated.”

However, there is a report that has received little attention, and as Nunes and Entine note could help calm some of the fears that consumers have. The FDA’s Pesticide Residue Monitoring program released in October published findings from 7,413 samples in its regulatory monitoring program: 6,946 human foods and 467 animal foods in 2016.

Of the 6,946 human foods, 4,276 were imported foods, and 2,670 were from 46 states and U.S. territories. The FDA found that over 99 % of domestic and 90 % of import human foods were compliant with federal standards. Further, no pesticide chemical residues were found in 52.9 % of the domestic and 50.7 % of the import samples that were analyzed. In its regulatory pesticide residue monitoring program, FDA selectively monitors a broad range of import and domestic commodities for residues of over 700 different pesticides and selected industrial compounds.

The study also tested 527 samples of domestic milk, shell eggs, honey, and game meat samples. Only one of the 527 samples were found to be violative. 98.0% of the milk, 83.8% of the egg, and 72.9% of the honey samples had no residues.

Another aspect of the testing is a program called the Total Diet Study (TDS), which is based on what consumers eat, and they buy, prepare and analyze about 280 kinds of foods and beverages from representative areas of the country, four times a year. FDA analyzed 1,062 total samples in the TDS program and found no foods contained violative pesticide levels. Of all the residues found in TDS foods, 87 % percent were at levels below 0.01 parts per million (ppm), and 2 % were above 0.1 ppm or 100 parts per billion (ppb). (Remember the Cheerios scare?)

For the first time, the FDA conducted a study to test for the presence of glyphosate and glufosinate. The FDA analyzed, “glyphosate and glufosinate residue levels in 274 grain corn, 267 soybean, 113 milk, and 106 egg samples. No samples contained violative levels of glyphosate or glufosinate, and no residues were found in the milk and egg samples.  Non-violative levels of glyphosate were found in 173 (63.1%) of the corn samples and 178 (67.0%) of the soybean samples and non-violative levels of glufosinate were found in 4 (1.4%) of the corn samples and 3 (1.1%) soybean samples.”

Lastly, the FDA also tested 467 animal food samples, 242 samples were domestic, and 225 samples were imports.  No residues were found in 104 (43.0 %) of the 242 domestic samples, and 0.8 % (2 samples) were violative.  Of the 225 import samples, 123 (54.7 %) contained no residues and 3.1 % (7 samples) were violative. Commodities used to feed livestock consumed by humans comprised a minimum of 81.8 % of the samples analyzed, i.e., Whole and Ground Grains/Seeds, Mixed Livestock Food Rations, Medicated Livestock Food Rations, Plant Byproducts, and Hay and Silage.  Of the 367 samples analyzed from these five animal food categories, four violations (1.1 %) were found.

According to Nunes and the IFIC survey, consumers were also asked who they trust when it comes to making recommendations on what food to eat and avoid, and the FDA was listed at 38%. The only group that ranked higher was health care professionals and nutritionists. These professionals, along with those who talk about food, agriculture and the issues affecting consumers need to spread the information and to dispel those who continue to or will fight these figures and spread evidence based on what they deem to fit their views.