Tuesday, December 15, 2009

2010 Appropriations Bill

This year’s (FY 2010) omnibus appropriations bill grants the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) the largest budget on record, of $4.7 billion. Over $2 billion is slated for various programs that study and address climate change, from the National Atmospheric and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the Economic Development Administration. This represents a monumental increase over last year’s funding levels. The FY 2010 omnibus spending bill also finances the creation of the Greenhouse Gas Registry, provides funding to implement the Energy Independence and Security Act, and funds carbon inventory for the Forest Service. However, it also includes language prohibiting the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from requiring manure management systems to report their greenhouse gas emissions.

To read more or see summaries of the bill, visit Bloomberg or the 2010 Appropriations Bill.

Monday, December 14, 2009


Last week marked the beginning of the Copenhagen climate talks. The talks, which are the political successor to the Kyoto conference that occurred ten years ago, mark a huge shift in public opinion on and awareness of climate change. Whereas Kyoto was the province of environmental ministers and scientists, now heads of state and finance gurus are involved. On Friday, President Obama will formally attend, along with China’s Premier, Wen Jiabao.

Originally, proponents had hoped that Copenhagen would result in hard limits on greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), codified and enforced under international law. However, with US climate-change legislation languishing in the Senate, this is unlikely. Instead, participants now hope for soft promises and concessions that will lead to a formal treaty in the near future.

President Obama has been pushing hard for a treaty to take to Copenhagen since his inauguration. While he has had to settle for the House bill and slow progress in the Senate, the EPA bolstered his position last week. The Agency has released its final endangerment finding, originally proposed last spring. The finding is a response to a Supreme Court case which ruled that the EPA take responsibility for carbon dioxide emissions under the Clean Air Act. Like sulfur dioxide emissions, the EPA now has the authority to issue allotments for carbon dioxide-emitting industries and fine those that do not comply. Such activities would be exceedingly costly and time-consuming, so in a way the ruling and resulting finding provide incentives for Congress and industry lobbyists to come to an agreement with the White House over cap and trade. Generally, market oversight is a more favorable avenue than government regulation and enforcement for the business community and industry. Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see how the factors play out in the nuances of the Copenhagen talks. We will keep you up to date.

For an update on the climate debates, click here and here.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Other "Green Revolution"

The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and Oxfam America recently co-hosted “The Other Green Revolution: Farmer-Led Change in the Sahel, 1980-2010.” The Sahel, a semi-arid region just south of the Sahara desert in Africa and comprising parts of Senegal, Mauretania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, and Eritrea, experienced a terrible drought and ensuing desertification in the late ’60s and into the ’70s. Because the land became too dry to farm, millions of people left their villages.

A farmer in Burkina Faso named Yacouba Sawadogo became famous because he stayed behind and revived several techniques allowing reclamation of the land for farming. He spent three years in the bush experimenting. One of these techniques is “zaï”– pits dug in the fields to catch water; Yacouba also added manure and other organic materials to fertilize the fields and attract termites, aerating the soil. Another, “cordons pierroux”, are lines of stones laid across the fields to slow the movement of water and allow it to soak into the soil, collecting silt. The silt nurtures local plants, providing another barrier against water runoff and breaking up the soil. This system of farming actually changes the soil structure. Interestingly, these techniques were used by the Nabateans and other tribes who farmed parts of the Negev, Sinai, and Arabian deserts in the pre-Islamic period.

Yacouba noticed that trees naturally grew in the pits. He allowed them to mature and saw that they anchored the soil against wind and driving rain, improved soil quality by breaking it up, and fertilized the fields with leaf litter. He planted additional trees and became an innovator in agro-forestry, growing sorghum, millet, and other cereals. These techniques have been adopted all over the Sahel and other desert regions. Now, Yacouba travels around the area teaching farmers and organizing market days to exchange seeds.

Yacouba was joined by Sakina Mati, from neighboring Niger, the poorest country in the world. With other women in her village, she has formed an agro-forestry co-op that now encompasses six villages. These women learned how to raise trees from international organizations and use them to increase the productivity of their farms. Now, she says, there are so many trees that she’s had to learn how to prune them. Besides protecting their crops, the trees also provide forage for goats and extra income from firewood and timber.

Many organizations have become interested in the efforts of people like Yacouba and Sakina. Dr. Edwige Botoni, of the Comité permanent Inter-Etats de Lutte contre la Sécheresse dans la Sahel (CILSS), roughly, “the permanent Inter-State Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel,” spoke about some of the organizations involved with their work, including USAID, which has supported many of her projects. These organizations have found that battling climate change and food insecurity requires a flexible, regional approach. As a result of their work, food crises are now more localized and less frequent.

Some groups, including the USDA, believe that the increase in greening is due to an increase in rainfall. However, rainfall did not start to increase until the ‘90s, while satellite images show rising tree density earlier than that. The US Geological Survey (USGS) also compared the intensively managed areas in the Sahel to northern Nigeria, which receives about 50% more rainfall, and found that tree density was much higher on the managed lands. USAID was heavily involved in re-greening projects in Niger in the ’80s and early ’90s and seems to have been fairly successful. While USAID has been less active in the last fifteen years, this will likely change soon, as the State Department’s new food security initiative places much more responsibility on them.

Dr. Chris Reij, a human geographer and natural resource specialist from VU University Amsterdam, addressed another aspect of this “Green Revolution.” Working with Dr. Mahamane Larwanou, an agroforestry expert at the African Forest Forum, and Dr. Mathieu Ouedraogo, of the Africa Re-Greening Initiative, Dr. Reij has spent the last thirty years working for official policy changes that benefit farmers like Yacouba. They work with the media and other communications channels to teach these farming techniques locally and bring international attention to their work. The majority of families in Niger and Burkina Faso have at least one mobile, which farmers can use to communicate about market days, and internet access is becoming more common. Rural radio is quite prevalent and has been a very successful communications tool. Dr. Reij and his colleagues have met with great successes mobilizing the western media– they even featured in a lengthy National Geographic article on soils, along with Yacouba.

So what’s next? Economists have found huge increases in returns to families using these techniques, but more improvements can be made. Many countries in the Sahel have nothing resembling property rights, as we know them, but obtaining them would go a long way towards incentivizing responsible land management. Farmers who own their trees (and the land itself) are much more likely to practice long-term stewardship. Niger is moving in this direction, and the change in governance has seen huge results. Fertilizer and other benefits of Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution have also largely failed to reach these communities, and yet modern farming technology could produce huge yield increases.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Climate Change Events in DC

Last month, the Science Policy Office attended many climate change events, such as the CQ-Roll Call Climate Change Conference on various aspects of global warming, in the context of the Waxman-Markey Bill (cuts carbon emissions 17% by 2020) and the Kerry-Boxer Bill, now before the Senate (increases cuts to 20% and reduces allowances). Later in October, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held three days of hearings on K-B. Sen. Kerry testified that his bill would balance the rising costs of farming in the Midwest by providing farmers extra income from carbon offsets and renewables production. USDA Secretary Vilsack submitted comments supporting this statement, assuring farmers and ranchers that such legislation will benefit them if quick action is taken. However, Bob Stallman, president of the Farm Bureau, stated that income to farmers from offsets will fail to make up for cost increases in food, fuel, and feed, crippling American agriculture.

It is generally accepted that legislation will change many aspects of business in the US, including agriculture. While much of the attention paid to agriculture and climate change focuses on offsets, the panelists at the Conference posited that it may be far more lucrative for farmers to produce renewable energy on the side, rather than offsetting carbon by resting land. For example, biogas produced from animal waste, grasses grown for cellulosic ethanol (also sequestering carbon dioxide), or wind turbines placed in the margins between fields can all provide added sources of income and/or energy. The Farm Bureau wants the USDA to assess whether potential revenue from offsets makes up for the increased costs to the farmer associated with those offsets. However, such studies have already been done.

Farmers are legitimately concerned that W-M makes no provisions for fossil fuel alternatives. Natural gas is a good alternative to oil, but is also used to produce fertilizer, and so its increased use as a fuel raises the price of synthetic fertilizer. More widespread employment of soil nutrient analysis would allow farmers to strategically fertilize, in many cases reducing the cost of fertilizer in their operations and the risk that nutrients will reach nearby bodies of water. There are also alternatives that can reduce the amount of synthetic fertilizers needed, such as chicken litter, although this can also cause problems with nutrient pollution. Efficiency is a relatively easy first step in addressing most aspects of climate change.

Many industries, including agriculture, are wary of the EPA, which has just issued their final Endangerment Findings on GHGs under the Clean Air Act. The Farm Bureau prefers to take their chances with legislation, but they are concerned that K-B leaves the Clean Air Act too powerful. According to the EPA, though, agriculture and forestry now sequester 11% of current GHGs and have the potential to offset upwards of 20%; there is much that can be done to clean up the responsible operations (mostly AFOs and CAFOs). Agriculture produces 7-8% of GHGs yearly.

This week, 25x’25, a coalition of farm leaders, conservationists, and industry, released a report that should help put this debate to rest. The study was conducted by the University of Tennessee’s Bio-Based Energy Analysis Group, which is composed of a varied group of researchers– agricultural economists, engineers, agronomists, and environmental scientists. They found that a cap and trade system with a “meaningful but moderate” carbon price and opportunities for agricultural offsets would net positive returns for farmers, even considering rising prices of inputs. This scenario offers significant carbon benefits and does not incentivize the conversion of agricultural land to forest. They compared several models, including one with EPA regulation instead of cap and trade. Farmers fared very poorly in this scenario, experiencing net losses and losing sixty million acres of cropland to forest.

I also saw Senator Bernie Sanders speak in person twice, and he gave a very poignant speech. He is one of the rare politicians who can reconcile agriculture with the environment in his state, supporting both. So I’ll leave you with my favorite quote from the day, explaining why he thinks it’s necessary to take strong and swift action against climate change. “Let me remind people who might say that the vision I am outlining is too radical, I want you to think about December 8th, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor, when President Roosevelt declared war against Japan. Within a year and a half . . . the United States had transformed its economy . . . [into wartime production]. We did that in a year and a half in the early 1940’s. So please do not tell me that in the year 2009 with all of the advanced technology out there that this country cannot lead the world in transforming our energy system . . ..”

Monday, November 16, 2009


Dust comes from two sources—indoors and outdoors. Indoor dust is composed of residue from carpet fibers, skin cells, bug parts, and other decomposing household materials, while outdoor dust is made up of soil particles. ’Dustologists’ have found that dust is actually very complicated– both types can be mixed with a variety of organic and inorganic compounds, some of which may be harmful. For example, DDT, a chemical long banned in the U.S., is still found in dust samples today, as are toxic flame-retardants from industrially-manufactured furniture. However, most dust in our homes– upwards of two-thirds– is of the outdoor variety. Outdoor dust is either tracked in on shoes or blown in through doors and windows. Humans then assimilate dust through respiration and ingestion. So, how do you reduce your dust exposure? The answer is simple—vacuum, often, with a vacuum that has a HEPA filter. Oh, and tell your kids not to lick things.

To read more or listen to the story, visit NPR’s website: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=120252957.

- R. Poor, Science Policy Intern

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Soil on Mars

NASA held a teleconference today about their efforts to free the trapped Spirit rover on Mars. The rover was driving backwards when its wheels broke through a thin, crusty soil and became stuck in the slick sand layer underneath. Initial attempts to escape caused the rover to sink further into the sand pit. While trapped, Spirit has collected data from the site, known as Troy, and scientists have found the highest sulfur content measured on Mars in the sands. Scientists believe that the sands, which are distinctly layered and tinted, may have been produced in hot springs or a similarly steamy environment. Such an environment resembles the conditions that many scientists believe spawned life on Earth.

To read more, see “NASA to Being Attempts to Free Sand-Trapped Mars Rover”.

Obama Appoints Head of USAID

The White House announced today that they have nominated Dr. Rajiv Shah to head the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Shah has been the Under-Secretary for the Research, Education, and Economics (REE) mission area at USDA for the past ten months. Before his appointment as Under Secretary, Shah spent seven years as the Director of Agricultural Development for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and he campaigned with both President Obama and former Vice President Al Gore. Shah has a medical degree and an MS in health economics.

USAID is at the center of the State Department’s new policy favoring international development and diplomacy, but the agency has suffered severe funding cuts in the last twenty years. Apparently, the appointment of the position was delayed due to an intense vetting process.

The Science Policy Office has worked extensively with the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and REE under Shah. We look forward to continuing this relationship as we work with USAID. We appreciate his support and wish him the best in his new position.

For more information, see articles in the New York Times and the Washington Post.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Senator Blanche Lincoln and cap and trade legislation

Blanche Lincoln grew up on a farm in Helena, Arkansas where her family raised rice, wheat, soybeans and cotton. After graduating from Randolph-Macon College, she worked as a congressional staffer for the 1st district in Arkansas and then as a lobbyist for William Broadhurst. In 1992, Blanche ran against her former boss, Bill Alexander, and was elected to the House of Representatives as the Congresswoman for Arkansas’ 1st district.

In 1998, at age 38 Lincoln became the youngest woman Senator ever elected to the U.S. Senate. As Arkansas’ junior Senator, Lincoln has emphasized the importance of farming, the rural economy, and communities. She is supportive of farming subsidies; in 2007, she orchestrated the defeat of an amendment to the Farm Bill that would have capped federal farm supports at $250,000 annually, arguing that the amendment was unfair to the rice and cotton farmers in her state.

In September, Lincoln was named Chairwoman for the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee. Lincoln’s focus will be on reauthorizing the childhood nutrition act, implementing the 2008 Farm Bill, and regulating commodities. In contrast to other Democrats, she has been openly critical of the House climate change bill. Lincoln claims that the legislation will, as written, cause financial difficulties for many farmers and ranchers. She finds fault with the current legislation, saying that it does not fulfill its own objectives of reducing greenhouse gases, creating jobs, decreasing dependence on foreign oil, and strengthening the U.S. economy.

“I am opposed to the House passed cap-and-trade legislation for various reasons…In my opinion it picks winners and losers, and that’s not our job up here.” Lincoln stated in an interview.

What are your thoughts about Senator Lincoln’s views on cap and trade legislation? How will her leadership help or hinder the progress we make as a scientific community?

President Obama stated yesterday at the United Nations that “the time we have to reverse this tide is running out.” Check out what U.S. Senators are saying about the expected timing for climate change legislation in the clips from E&E News located in the Hill Heat article, “Senate Watch, Moving Slowly: Barrasso, Baucus, Boxer, Durbin, Kerry, McCain, Reid”.

If you could present a cap and trade idea before congress, what would it be? Would you argue for or against the House bill?

"Sen. Blanche Lincoln."Almanac of American Politics (2009): n. pag. Web. 24 Sep 2009.

"Blanche Lincoln." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 22 Sep 2009, 20:38 UTC. 22 Sep 2009

Ellyn Ferguson, . "Senate Agriculture Chairwoman: House Climate Bill Would Hurt Farmers." Congressional Quarterly 15 Sep. 2009: n. pag. Web. 24 Sep 2009.

Friday, September 18, 2009

ASA, CSSA, and SSSA Grand Challenges

American Society of Agronomy Grand Challenges
approximate completion date: mid Oct.

Work group Members
  • Mark Alley
  • Shabtai Bittman
  • Kenneth G. Cassman
  • Achim Dobermann
  • Tom Doerge
  • Dean Fairchild
  • Paul Fixen
  • Cynthia Grant
  • Quirine M. Ketterings
  • Raj Khosla
  • Rob Mitchell
  • John Spargo
Crop Science Society of America Grand Challenges*
approximate completion date: Sept. 25

Committee Members
  • Micheal Grusak
  • Stephen Baenziger
  • Ken Boote
  • Sarah Lingle
  • Thomas Carter
  • Shawn Kaeppler
  • Roger Boerma
  • Georgia Eizenga
  • Paul Carter
  • Major Goodman
  • Emerson Nafziger
  • Kimberly Kidwell
  • Mike Edgerton
  • Advisor: Ken Quesenberry
  • Advisor: Joe Lauer
*Martha Willcox, Ph.D. served as the Science Policy Office's scientific expert for the process.

Soil Science Society of America Grand Challenges
Grand Challenges Email

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Administrative Atmosphere Changing for Climate Legislation

President-elect Obama and his top energy advisors have indicated that global climate change is second only to the economic crisis on the official environment and energy agenda, legitimizing it as a national concern and priority for action. Expressing and rallying support for his focus on climate change, Obama said “I support implementation of an economy-wide cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions by the amount scientists say is necessary: 80% below 1990 levels by 2050” and, “when I am president… any nation that’s willing to join the cause of combating climate change will have an ally in the United States of America.”

While the President’s agenda will likely drive new climate change legislation, the process is not exactly simple. During the tenures of the 108th, 109th, and 110th Congresses, climate change legislation was drafted, introduced, amended, re-introduced, considered and tabled several times. The two most mature pieces of legislation from the last Congress (110th) provide a platform for discussion:
- The (Dingell-Boucher) Committee on Energy and Commerce Climate Change Legislation Discussion Draft (House) (not yet introduced)
- S.3036 Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act of 2008 (Senate) (passed in Committee with an amendment by Barbara Boxer (D-CA), the Chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works)

The bills are relatively similar, lengthy and complicated pieces of legislation. Both establish a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions within the market. Although agriculture does contribute to GHG emissions, some researchers claim that only a small portion (about 10%) of the total GHG offset potential from agriculture is related to emissions reduction, and about 90% can be achieved from soil carbon sequestration. In the drafted legislation, agriculture as an industry is not regulated according to GHG emissions. Instead, it is treated according to its potential to offset emissions from other “capped” industries (i.e. importers of fossil fuels) which elect to pay for the offsets from sequestration, rather than reduce their emissions below the cap.

Offset Optimism: Soil Carbon Sequestration

The beautiful thing about soil carbon sequestration (as opposed to some other technology-intensive sequestration options) is that much of the technology is relatively simple and inexpensive. It also typically includes additional benefits, such as enhancing soil quality for long-term agronomic productivity and helping to control erosion. Offset allowances via soil carbon sequestration are already available for purchase from private companies such as the Carbon Farmers of America, the Chicago Climate Exchange and the National Carbon Offset Coalition, among others, local, national and international.

Optimism Offset… Concern and Criticism for Offset Allowances

Despite enthusiasm for sequestration opportunities, the concept of offset allowances is criticized for discouraging real action to reduce GHG emissions. Additionally, there is general acknowledgment of the finite capacity of soils to store carbon. Nevertheless, all major climate change discussions have included offset allowances as an important element, including the Kyoto Protocol. President-elect Obama lent his support for domestic offsets by saying "I will also develop domestic incentives that reward forest owners, farmers and ranchers when they plant trees, restore grasslands or undertake farming practices that capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, creating new opportunities for rural America to help solve the climate crisis."

A lack of data verifying sequestration of carbon in soil based on management practices enhances the unease and criticism of offsets. For instance, scientists generally agree that the conversion of native grassland vegetation to agriculture has released soil carbon stores across the globe. Linear thinking suggests that the reverse conversion of cropland to grassland would thereby sequester carbon, and indeed some research verifies this. However, other research refutes the generalization, indicating that site characteristics may be more important than land use in determining the carbon sequestration potential of cropland versus grassland. However, in the language of the current climate change legislation drafts, “practices that increase agricultural soil carbon sequestration” and “conversion of cropland to rangeland or grassland” are considered side by side, as though both provide equally viable offsets for GHG emissions. Perhaps more precise language regarding the efficacy and viability of land-use conversion as an offset strategy will support the overall concept of offsets as a part of the strategy to achieve anthropogenic GHG reductions.

Climate and Carbon and Ag… Bridging Science and Policy

The support suggested by President-elect Obama’s statements and the climate change bills awaiting discussion in the upcoming session of Congress might mean the US will soon see rapid progress on climate change legislation, and that the agriculture sector will have a substantial role in making it work. Soil carbon sequestration has been and will continue to be an important theme moving forward with both a domestic energy plan and new climate change legislation. It is incumbent on agronomists and crop and soil scientists to clarify the real capacity of agricultural practices for soil carbon sequestration, to inform legislators and address the concerns about its viability as an offset for GHG emissions. By forming relationships with their congressional representatives, ASA-CSSA-SSSA members working in this area improve the likelihood that lawmakers receive up-to-date, relevant information when the issues are considered at the federal level. The Science Policy Office exists to help members establish and maintain such relationships. Contact us to learn more about your role as a scientist in the political process.