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Environmental Working Group

New Report: Iowa Losing Topsoil at Alarming Rate

by: IowaEnvironmentalCouncil

Wed Apr 13, 2011 at 09:29:32 AM CDT

(No worries, it's just priceless Iowa topsoil. - promoted by desmoinesdem)

A new report, which includes video images, shows that across wide swaths of Iowa our rich, dark agricultural soil is being swept away at alarming rates, which in some areas are 12 times higher than average soil loss estimates from national studies conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service.


More after the jump ...

There's More... :: (2 Comments, 1174 words in story)

Weekend open thread: summer safety edition

by: desmoinesdem

Sat Jul 17, 2010 at 11:59:31 AM CDT

This thread is for anything political or non-political on your mind this weekend. A few safety-related stories caught my attention.

There was a terrible tragedy in Pella as two teenage boys who couldn't swim drowned during a summer camp outing at the Pella Aquatic Center. Here's more on one of the boys. The drownings happened in the evening, and the underwater lights in the deep end of the pool hadn't been working. A lawsuit is pending on that. In addition, the camp organizers didn't bring waivers to the pool for the party. If they had, someone might have realized that the parents had noted on the waivers that their boys could not swim.

On a related note, "drowning doesn't look like drowning." Also, you should always wear flotation devices when boating or working near cold water, even if you think you are a good swimmer.

The New York Times' room for debate blog ran a good post earlier this month about "what we still don't know about sunscreens." It's confusing to navigate this territory as a parent, because while sunburns can cause real and long-term damage, sunscreens somewhat reduce the amount of vitamin D our bodies produce. I have mostly kept my kids out of the sun during the intense hours of the day and let them play outside for long stretches after 4 pm. Sunscreen isn't recommended for young babies, so it's better to keep them out of the sun or covered up if you absolutely need to be outside during the prime hours for sunburns. The Mayo Clinic posts these guidelines for sunscreen use.

The Environmental Working Group's online database on sunscreen safety and effectiveness is an excellent resource.

The floor is yours.

UPDATE: Democratic candidate Chris Hall (Iowa House district 2 in Sioux City) was out door-knocking today when the heat index was 104. Stay hydrated, hard-working Dems!

Discuss :: (5 Comments)

Events coming up this weekend and next week

by: desmoinesdem

Thu Jan 21, 2010 at 07:00:00 AM CST

Remember, the off-year Iowa caucuses are this Saturday, January 23, at 1 pm. Democrats can click here and enter your zip code to find your caucus location. Polk County Democratic Party executive director Tamyra Harrison explained the benefits of attending an off-year caucus here.

Some non-profit advocacy organizations have drafted resolutions for supporters to offer at their precinct caucuses. If adopted, these resolutions will be forwarded to the county platform committee. For example, 1000 Friends of Iowa is encouraging supporters to offer this resolution on responsible land use.

I noticed some job listings and other helpful information in the Iowa Environmental Council's electronic newsletter.

Value Chain Partnerships, an "Iowa-based network for food and agriculture working groups," has a new website: www.valuechains.org.

The Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC) is hiring "a Policy Advocate to work in our Des Moines office to promote clean energy, clean water and conservation projects in Iowa. [...] For more information, visit http://elpc.org/category/jobs#... or email Andrew Snow at asnow@elpc.org. Application Deadline is Jan. 30, 2010.

Plains Justice is hiring "a Resource Director who will report to the CEO and work co-operatively with the Board, attorneys and other staff and volunteers to raise, manage and evaluate effective use of financial resources. Demonstrated fundraising success required. [...] Contact info@plainsjustice.org for detailed job description. No phone calls please."

There's a position open for an "Iowa Great Lakes Watershed Coordinator," who "will work in Spirit Lake, Iowa, to manage and coordinate the implementation of the objectives of a water quality conservation project and activities, conservation planning and application of practices, information and education and other related activities essential to the district and NRCS." Application Deadline: January 26, 2010. For a complete job description, salary, hiring requirements, and how to apply, go to http://cleanwateralliance.net/...

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is hiring someone to support its Upper Mississippi River project. "Successful candidates will have relevant academic training in the natural, agricultural or social sciences and experience in environmental advocacy. The position is located in Ames, Iowa. A strong commitment to natural resource conservation, environmental protection, and public health is essential. To apply, submit a cover letter and resume to employment@ewg.org.  For more information and a job description visit http://www.ewg.org/jobs."

Calling high school seniors: Keep Iowa Beautiful is offering up to four $500 scholarships. "Students across Iowa enrolling in an Iowa college or university to major in community enhancement or environmental areas of study are eligible. Students can download the application on-line at http://www.keepiowabeautiful.c... Deadline for application: must be postmarked by February 1, 2010. Please contact the KIB office at 515-323-6507 with any questions."

Details about events coming up in the next ten days are after the jump.

There's More... :: (0 Comments, 1710 words in story)

Highlights and analysis of the Vilsack confirmation hearing

by: desmoinesdem

Thu Jan 15, 2009 at 10:23:10 AM CST

Tom Vilsack appears to be on track for unanimous confirmation by the Senate as Secretary of Agriculture in Barack Obama's cabinet. At his confirmation hearing yesterday, Republicans didn't ask hostile questions, and Vilsack didn't have to explain away any embarrassing behavior like Treasury Secretary-nominee Timothy Geithner's failure to fully meet his tax obligations over a period of years.

Despite the lack of drama, Vilsack made a number of noteworthy comments during the hearing. Here are some highlights.

Vilsack told senators on Wednesday that

The Obama administration wants to accelerate the development of new versions of biofuels made form crop residue and non-food crops such as switchgrass. The plants' fibrous material, or cellulose, can be converted into alcohols or even new versions of gasoline or diesel.

"Moving toward next-generation biofuels, cellulosic ethanol, is going to be really important in order to respond" to concerns about the impact on food prices of using grain for fuel, he said.

Vilsack addressed a range of other issues, pledging, for example, to promote fruit and vegetable consumption and promising to ensure that any new international trade agreement is a "net plus for all of agriculture."

It makes a lot of sense to produce ethanol from perennial plants that are less energy-intensive to grow and need fewer herbicides, pesticides and fertilizer than corn.

Vilsack's opening statement also

promised swift implementation of the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) which, alone among farm bill conservation programs, has languished under the Bush Administration since passage of the 2008 Farm Bill last May.

A little later during the hearing, Vilsack described the Conservation Stewardship Program as important for the environment and cited its potential to boost farm income and create jobs.

By the way, Vilsack's disclosure documents show that he collects payments from the US Department of Agriculture on some Iowa farmland he and his wife own:

The former Iowa governor and his wife, Christie, have been receiving payments since 2000 for an acreage in Davis County that is enrolled in the land-idling Conservation Reserve Program, according to USDA data compiled by the Environmental Working Group.

In a Jan. 8 letter to USDA ethics officials, Vilsack said he would seek a waiver to continue receiving CRP payments while he is secretary. Otherwise, experts said, he would have to break his contract and reimburse the USDA for all previous payments he has received, which would total nearly $60,000.

Craig Cox, Midwest vice president of the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization, welcomed having an agriculture secretary who receives conservation payments.

At a time "when simultaneously protecting our soil, water, wildlife habitat and climate is an urgent priority, it is encouraging that our new secretary of agriculture is personally participating in a conservation program that does just that," he said.

I'm with Cox; it's good for the secretary of agriculture to have first-hand knowledge of the conservation reserve program's value.

Earlier this week the Register published an article on the opening statement Vilsack prepared for his confirmation hearing:

Tom Vilsack is promising to use the U.S. Department of Agriculture to "aggressively address" global warming and energy independence.

In an opening statement prepared for his Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday, President-elect Barack Obama's nominee for agriculture secretary also said he would use the department to "create real and meaningful opportunities" for farmers and to guarantee that rural communities grow and prosper. [...]

Vilsack, a former mayor of Mount Pleasant, also said rural communities continue to lose population and "find it increasingly difficult to keep pace with the ever-changing national and global economy."

He pledged to try to resolve the long-standing civil rights claims against the department.

"If I'm confirmed, the message will be clear: discrimination in any form will not be tolerated," Vilsack said.

After reading that Register article, La Vida Locavore's Jill Richardson commented,

I want to see our subsidy structure change to reward farmers for sustainability instead of yield. I want the government to ease the financial risk on any farmer transitioning to organic because it appears to me that being an organic farmer isn't so bad on your bank account, but transitioning alone might break several farmers financially. I want to outlaw CAFOs altogether. But will Vilsack do this? Let me just say this: I am so confident he won't that I promise now to entirely shave my head if he DOES do each of these 3 things.

I think we can all agree that Jill is not going to look like Sinead O'Connor anytime soon. I totally agree with her first two suggestions. As for CAFOs, it's not realistic to expect them to be banned, but I believe they would be greatly reduced in number and size (over time) if government policy made them pay for the harm they cause.

On a more encouraging note, I read this at the U.S. Food Policy blog:

Some highlights included Vilsack's encouragement of locally grown fruits and vegetables and pronouncement that they should be grown not just in rural areas, but everywhere. He announced that he met with Health and Human Services nominee Tom Daschle last week in order to demonstrate the importance of working together for nutrition. "It's going to be important for us to promote fresh fruits and vegetables as part of our children's diets. . .that means supporting those who supply those products" and making it easier for consumers to buy locally grown products, Vilsack said.

Maybe Vilsack and Daschle will take some of Angie Tagtow's excellent advice on how their agencies can work together to improve human health. I would also encourage them to read this recent piece by Steph Larsen: "For healthy food and soil, we need affordable health care for farmers."

I am curious about what Vilsack means by "supporting those who supply" locally-grown fresh fruits and vegetables. One problem with our current agricultural policy is that commodity farmers lose all federal subsidies if they put more than two acres into growing fruits or vegetables. Apparently that was the price needed to get California's Congressional delegation to vote for various farm bills over the years. Even though almost no subsidies go directly to California farmers, this penalty limits the competition California growers might otherwise face from Midwestern farmers.

So, very little of the produce consumed by Iowans is grown in Iowa, and our grocery stores are full of produce trucked in from thousands of miles away. Most of the crops Iowa farmers grow are inedible for humans without processing.

A few years back the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University published a report on "Food, Fuel and Freeways." It showed how far food travels to Iowans and how much Iowans could reduce greenhouse-gas emissions if we increased the proportion of locally-grown food in our diets to even 10 percent of what we eat.

Getting back to the Vilsack hearing, members of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee made some notable comments yesterday. who questioned Vilsack made some notable comments on Wednesday. Iowa's own Tom Harkin, who chairs the committee, gave Vilsack a warm welcome:

"I just couldn't be more proud to see you sitting there. I don't think President-elect [Barack] Obama could have picked a better person for this position," Harkin said.

Harkin also discussed federal child nutrition programs:

Agriculture Chairman Tom Harkin , D-Iowa, said reauthorization of a law (PL 108-265) governing school lunches and other child nutrition programs "is really the only thing that we have to do this year." [...]

During the hearing, Harkin said he will propose that the Department of Agriculture use Institute of Medicine guidelines to set standards for junk food sold in schools. Current USDA school food standards exempt most snack foods, because they aren't a part of subsidized lunches.

During the last renewal of the child nutrition act, then-Gov. Vilsack wrote a letter to lawmakers and the Bush administration expressing concern about childhood obesity and the problem of vending machine snacks that compete with school meals.

At the time, Vilsack backed limits on the kinds of snacks and beverages students can buy outside the lunch line. Nutrition advocates want junk food kicked out of schools, but many schools use the cash from sales to cover the rising costs of meal services.

(Side note: the state of Iowa is now considering banning the sale of junk food in public schools.)

Meanwhile, Iowa's Republican Senator Chuck Grassley urged Vilsack to act quickly on several other fronts, including rule-making that would protect smaller volume livestock producers. Also, Grassley and Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota wrote an open letter to Vilsack asking him to close a loophole affecting commodity program payment limits. Ferd Hoefner, Policy Director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, explains that "This particular loophole is the single most important one allowing mega farming operations to collect payments in multiples of what otherwise appears to be the statutory dollar limit."

According to Hoefner,

Another former chairman, Pat Leahy (D-VT), weighed in with a comment that the Department is not keeping up with the rapid growth of organic and then with a question asking whether it wasn't time for the Department to get on with the business of actually actively promoting organic.  Vilsack said we need to "celebrate and support" organic and USDA should view it as one very legitimate option in a menu of options for improving farm incomes.  Then, in response to an extended monologue from Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS) deriding organic as marginal, Vilsack held his ground, but diffused the implied antagonism, saying the Department needs to support the full diversity of American agriculture.

The Ethicurean blog published an excerpt of Roberts' insult to "small family farmers":

That small family farmer is about 5'2" ... and he's a retired airline pilot and sits on his porch on a glider reading Gentleman's Quarterly - he used to read the Wall Street Journal but that got pretty drab - and his wife works as stock broker downtown. And he has 40 acres, and he has a pond and he has an orchard and he grows organic apples. Sometimes there is a little more protein in those apples than people bargain for, and he's very happy to have that.

How disappointing that an imbecile like this could easily get re-elected in Kansas. Roberts' caricature does not resemble any of the sustainable farmers I know. They work just as hard as Roberts' idealized "production agriculture farmer" but don't receive any federal subsidies, despite growing high-quality food and being good stewards of the land.

If you haven't already done so, please go to the Food Democracy Now site and sign their new petition recommending 12 good candidates for undersecretary positions at the USDA. These will be important appointments, since Vilsack won't single-handedly be setting the USDA's policy direction.

The Center for Rural Affairs has also launched a petition worth signing, which urges Vilsack to implement a number of programs that would benefit farmers and rural economies.

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