News Watch: Jan. 15

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Today’s Topics: Agriculture & Food; Energy; Legacy Amendment; Parks & Trails; Pipelines; Transportation; Waste; Water; Wildlife

Agriculture & Food
Associated Press: Minnesota to get $9M for agricultural water quality program 

Star Tribune: Cargill: Plastic found in Japan McNuggets didn’t come from us 
Star Tribune: New Prague organic dairy affected by CapX2020 

University of Minnesota CFANS: Forever Green: Alternative, off-season crops could benefit economy as well as ecology 

Energy
Associated Press: Ecolab to offset its energy usage in Minnesota via solar (In MPR) 
Climate Progress: Report: Forget stocks, invest in solar panels 
Midwest Energy News: Minnesota solar developer to partner with construction firm 
MPR: The future of Minnesota energy 
Star Tribune: Drilling declines in North Dakota on low oil prices 
Star Tribune: Ecolab to go all-solar in Minnesota

Parks & Trails
Associated Press: Grand Teton National Park logs record number of visitors in 2014 (In Star Tribune)

Pipelines
MinnPost: Franken renews push for American-made steel for Keystone 

Transportation
MinnPost: Counterpoint: We don’t need no stinking bike tax 
MinnPost: Two for the roads: compraing the parties’ transportation funding plans 
Star Tribune: DFL unveils $800 million fix for roads and bridges 

Waste
MinnPost: Duluth treatment plant’s draft permit draws environmental concerns Paula Maccabee WaterLegacy
Northland’s News Center: EPA pressuring MN state agencies to crack down on Minntac’s leaking contaminants 

Water
MinnPost: Blooming algae may be changing lakes for the worse – and possibly forever 
MPR: Iowa’s largest city sues over farm fertilizer runoff in rivers 

Wildlife
Associated Press: Bill would remove federal protections for Minn. wolves (In MPR
MinnPost: New studies solve some mysteries about the plague that’s killing our bats 
MPR: Good news for bats: Disease spread slowing down 
MPR: More restictive walleye regulations for Upper Red Lake 

 

 

Forever Green: Alternative, off-season crops could benefit economy as well as ecology

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By Julie Lund of the University of Minnesota’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resources Sciences (CFANS). Posted on CFANS website: http://www.cfans.umn.edu/about/solutions/forever-green  

Don Wyse has been working with colleagues for nearly two decades to find and develop new alternative crops.

Don Wyse has been working with colleagues for nearly two decades to find and develop new alternative crops.

Minnesota has 27 million acres of farmland dominated by corn and soybeans. Over the years, as high-yield varieties were introduced, these food and feed crops edged out prairie and pastures, and the state’s agricultural landscape lost much of its biodiversity.

“There’s nothing wrong with corn or soybeans,” says Professor Don Wyse of the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics. “Over the last 75 years, the department has invested heavily in developing the wheat, corn, soybeans and barley that people were asking for. Because of their success these crops became the dominant crops in Minnesota agriculture.”

But, as summer annuals, those crops are active for only a few months, leaving fields brown much of the year. Without crops covering the land it is vulnerable to erosion, fertilizer runoff and loss of nutrients. These factors can lead to water contamination and the loss of nitrogen and other valuable soil components.

“Everyone blames the farmers. ‘Why don’t they change?’ ” Wyse says. “But you can’t expect a farmer to turn away from corn and soybeans if there is no profitable alternative.”

Now Wyse and colleagues from across the college, the Agricultural Experiment Station and Extension are bringing together almost two decades of work in plant breeding, agronomy, conservation biology, food science and other fields to develop those alternatives—new crops that could make Minnesota’s cropland more productive, more efficient and more environmentally sustainable. 

Grouped under the umbrella the “Forever Green Initiative,” this research could have a dramatic impact on the state’s economy and ecology. To accelerate progress, the state legislature recently appropriated $1 million toward the effort, with additional funding coming from state and federal agencies and Minnesota’s Discovery, Research and InnoVation Economy (MnDRIVE), a partnership between the university and state.

A systems approach: Building the basis for the bioeconomy

The hallmark of the Forever Green Initiative, according to Professor Nick Jordan of the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics, is a system approach. 

“We are trying to bring together the development of new, high-value commodities with significant opportunities for conservation,” he says. But the new crops being developed are not just for the economic benefit of individual farmers. They also are intended to be the basis for whole new industries that will diversify rural economies and bring employment opportunities back to small towns.

This new approach involves advancing and achieving sustainable commercialization.

“Efforts to incentivize farmers to plant perennials and cover crops haven’t amounted to much in the past,” Jordan explains. “With Forever Green, there is a strong emphasis on addressing the economic barriers that have existed, as well as partnering with rural communities, policymakers and business to take a more holistic approach.”

Field pennycress: Extending the growing season

Research, conducted in part at the Southwest Research and Outreach Center in Lamberton and the Southern Research and Outreach Center in Waseca, has shown that rotating corn with soybeans increases yields for both crops, compared with growing either as a monoculture. Soybeans supply nitrogen to the soil, and corn thrives on that nutrient. 

While this is good, Wyse and his research team think that farmers can do it one better by domesticating field pennycress—once considered a common weed—and introducing it as a relay crop into the corn and soybean rotation. 

“Throughout Minnesota and the Midwest, there is nothing on the landscape between the time annual crops are harvested in the fall and the time that new plantings establish a canopy cover in June of the next year,” he explains. “That leaves a lot of bare fields for a lot of the year.”

Planting cover crops can reduce tillage and conserve soil by stemming erosion and nutrient loss, but many farmers find them too difficult to establish and hard to terminate when they don’t add to a farm’s profitability.

A relative of the mustard plant, field pennycress is a winter annual that can be planted in the fall. It survives over the winter and resumes growing in early spring, often before the snow has fully melted. Wyse has found that planting field pennycress amidst corn before it is harvested, then planting soybeans either in the pennycress in early May or following the pennycress harvest in mid-June, produces higher total yields than planting soybeans alone.

In addition to holding the soil and nutrients in place and filtering groundwater, field pennycress could be marketed as an oil seed crop. The most productive pennycress lines bred at the university are 40 percent oil by weight, with a composition that could be converted to biodiesel, aviation fuel or other industrial products. Wyse estimates that adding pennycress as a winter crop has the potential to add up to an extra $300 of profit per acre for soybean growers.

“If you want to change the landscape and add biodiversity, there has to be an economic benefit for the farmer,” says Wyse. In addition to profit, farmers also want the environmental benefits that pennycress provides—cleaner water, nutrient-rich soil and wildlife and pollinator habitat, among others. 

Wyse and his colleagues will continue their breeding program to try to increase seed size, oil quality and other desirable traits, while also working on developing a market for pennycress seed oil.

“The research we’ve done thus far proves the concept of field pennycress as a value-added cover crop,” Wyse says. “Now it is moving toward commercialization.”

On the wild side: Adding perenniality to annual sunflowers

Post-doctoral researcher Michael Kantar is working to develop a perennial sunflower plant that creates both economic and ecological benefits.

Post-doctoral researcher Michael Kantar is working to develop a perennial sunflower plant that creates both economic and ecological benefits.

Farmers grow annual sunflowers throughout the northwestern part of Minnesota, producing snack nuts and valuable seed oil that can be used in trans-fat-free cooking oil. But, like corn and soybeans, annual sunflowers produce only one crop per year, leaving the soil vulnerable to erosion and nutrient loss after harvest.

One Forever Green research team is trying to develop a perennial sunflower that would be equally productive and profitable as current commercial varieties and also provide important environmental benefits. 

The idea, says post-doctoral researcher Michael Kantar (’06–B.S.; ’08–M.S.; ’13–Ph.D., Applied Plant Science), is to have agricultural production more closely mimic natural ecosystems and the prairie that cropland replaced. A key characteristic of native Midwestern prairies is the number and variety of perennial plants, which have extensive root systems that reach deeper for water and nutrients than those of annuals and better withstand drought and climate variations. They also are active more days of the year and provide ground cover, soil protection and wildlife habitat when dormant.

“Obviously, there are clear direct benefits from production agriculture: food, fodder, energy,” Kantar says. “But there are a lot of valuable things that natural landscapes offer, what we call ecosystem services. These are such things as biodiversity, aesthetic beauty, soil retention and water quality.”

The challenge, says Kantar, is to develop plants that are profitable for farmers and also deliver these ecosystem services. 

And it is a challenge, according to plant geneticist Associate Professor Bob Stupar of the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics.

“The domestic sunflower has 17 chromosomes, while the wild perennial species that we are using has 51 chromosomes. That difference presents a real obstacle. [During breeding] there’s a genetic battle going on between the domestic and native traits. It’s been hard to optimize the process to get the perfect traits together,” he says.

Now, new DNA marker technologies are making it quicker, easier and cheaper for breeders to identify important genes and combine them in different configurations to produce better crops. Kantar and others are looking at the genetics that underlie winter survival in perennial sunflowers to add this trait to existing commercially successful annual varieties.

“These new molecular technologies have dramatically reduced costs,” explains Kantar, “while greatly improving our understanding of genomic material. We can target our experiments and test our hypotheses empirically right away. That wasn’t possible a few years ago.”

“In the past, domesticating a plant could take thousands of years,” agrees Stupar. “Now, the question is, can we take the knowledge about plant genetics that we’ve developed over the past 10 years and change the paradigm to make really rapid advancements?”

Kantar and Stupar think they can.

Intermediate wheatgrass: Student and industry interest fuel research

Research associate Xiaofei Zhang and agronomy professor Jim Anderson are part of the team working on a perennial wheatgrass variety that could give wheat growers additional options.

Research associate Xiaofei Zhang and agronomy professor Jim Anderson are part of the team working on a perennial wheatgrass variety that could give wheat growers additional options.

Many new plant breeds face a chicken-and-egg dilemma: what if you develop a fantastic plant that has no market and, therefore, no one will grow it? What if, on the other hand, there is market demand for a crop that does not yet exist?Researchers working on the development of perennial intermediate wheatgrass (IWG) are trying to tackle both questions at the same time.

Although his primary area of research is spring wheat, Professor Jim Anderson of the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics joined the research effort on IWG because he wanted to “see growers have other options.”

The Land Institute in Salina, Kan., has had an IWG breeding program since the 1990s. The university’s first IWG research plots were planted in 2010 on the St. Paul campus and at the Southern Research and Outreach Center in Waseca. Anderson and his colleagues are mapping the genes that produce greater seed size, bigger yields and a shortened stature so that the wheat stalk will stand up until harvest.

Seed growers seem fairly excited about IWG’s prospects, says Anderson. So do students. “There is more interest among graduate students in sustainable crops, like intermediate wheatgrass and pennycress, than there is in spring wheat,” Anderson says. 

Food companies share that interest, according to Associate Professor Baraem (Pam) Ismail of the Department of Food Science and Nutrition. “Food companies are interested in producing products made from sustainable resources because consumers are interested in those products.”

Ismail and her research team are conducting chemical analyses of IWG to examine nutrient composition, including fat, gluten proteins and starch, among other characteristics. In some ways the new wheat varieties produce flour that is similar to conventional flour, but there are some significant differences as well.

“Gluten protein is what gives dough its elasticity, and the protein quality is quite different in IWG,” she notes. The new plants also have smaller seeds, resulting in a higher bran-to-endosperm (the “insides” of the wheat kernel) ratio. More bran and germ compared to endosperm means more fiber and enzymes, which can affect texture and flavor.

Baraem is experimenting making food with different proportions of IWG and regular wheat flour and will provide feedback to Anderson and other breeders, with the goal of producing flour that could be used, not just in baked goods, but also in nutrition bars, breakfast cereals and other products.

“The more of this wheatgrass that is used, the more farmers will want to grow it,” she says.

News Watch: Jan. 12

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Today’s Topics: Agriculture & Food; Climate Change; Energy; Legacy Amendment; Legislature & Agency; Mining; Oil & Pipelines; Transportation; Water; Wildlife; 

Agriculture & Food
 
Climate Change
Brainerd Dispatch: Reader Opinion: Climate change 
 
Energy
 
 
Legislature & Agency
 
Mining
 
Oil & Pipelines
 
Transportation 
 
Water
MinnPost: Duluth treatment plant’s new permit to allow mercury, sulfate pollution featuring Paula Maccabbee of MEP member group WaterLegacy
 
Wildlife
 

News Watch: Jan. 8

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Today’s Topics: Agriculture & Food; Carbon Rule; Climate Change; Energy; Frac Sand Mining; Invasive Species; Keystone Pipeline; Legislature & Agency; Oil; Parks & Trails; Sandpiper Pipeline; Transportation; Wildlife;

Agriculture & Food
 
Carbon Rule
 
Climate Change
 
Energy

Frac Sand Mining
Inside Climate News: Against the Grain: Minnesota’s long slog toward dealing With frac sand featuring Bobby King of MEP member group Land Stewardship Project

Invasive Species
 
Keystone Pipeline
 
Legislature & Agency
AM950: The Daily Report January 6 featuring Minnesota Environmental Partnership Executive Director Steve Morse 
 
Oil
 
Parks & Trails
 
Sandpiper Pipeline
Duluth Business North: Ageless balance of jobs vs. environment surfaces at pipeline hearing MEP’s Andrew Slade quoted 
MPR: Pipeline hearing draws support, opposition featuring MEP member group MN350 
 
Transportation
 
Wildlife

News Watch: Jan. 5

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Today’s Topics: Agriculture & Food; Climate Change; Energy; Invasive Species; Legislature & Agency; Oil & Pipelines; Parks & Trails; Transportation; Water; Wildlife;

Agriculture & Food
 
Climate Change
Brainerd Dispatch: Letter: Global warming? 
 
Energy
 
Invasive Species
 
Legislature & Agency
 
Oil & Pipelines
 
Parks & Trails
 
Transportation
 
Water
 
Wildlife

MEP sign-on letter: Governor urge support for Clean Water Council recommendations

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This is a sign-on letter sent from the MEP member groups to Governor Mark Dayton.

 

December 23, 2014
Office of the Governor and Lt. Governor
116 Veterans Service Building
20 West 12th Street
St. Paul, MN 55155

Dear Governor Dayton,

We, the undersigned organizations, are writing to urge your support for the Clean Water Council’s FY16-17 Clean Water Fund recommendations. 

Over the past two years, the 28-member Clean Water Council has conducted extensive outreach to solicit feedback from state agencies, water resource scientists, and water quality stakeholders on the draft Clean Water Fund recommendations.

The final recommendations make important investments in water quality monitoring, drinking water protection, watershed restoration, and technical assistance tools, while dedicating 61 percent of the funds ($135 million) to on-the-ground pollution reduction projects. 

We urge you to follow the final Clean Water Council’s FY16-17 Clean Water Fund recommendations in your budget recommendations to the 2015 Minnesota Legislature.

Sincerely,

Steve Morse Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Sean Gosiewski Alliance for Sustainability

Deanna White Clean Water Fund

Duane Ninneman Clean Up the River (CURE)

Cora Ellenson-Myers Environment Minnesota

Paul Danicic Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness

Barry Drazkowski Izaak Walton League of America – Minnesota Division

Bobby King Land Stewardship Project

Susan Sheridan Tucker League of Women Voters of Minnesota

Sister Gladys Schmitz Mankato Area Environmentalists

Scott Strand Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy

Tom Bell Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union

Cc: Pat Flowers – Chair, Clean Water Council Cc: Gene Merriam – Vice Chair, Clean Water Council

Legacy Funds lead to tangible results on the North Shore’s Knife River

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Scott Kuiti (L) of Lake Superior Steelhead Association shows off the cages used to protect conifer plantings along the Knife River in a project funded by the Outdoor Heritage Fund

Scott Kuiti (L) of Lake Superior Steelhead Association shows off the cages used to protect conifer plantings along the Knife River in a project funded by the Outdoor Heritage Fund

What would happen if we had all the money we needed for clean lakes, clean rivers, and vital habitat? In Minnesota, that’s not just wishful thinking, it’s a real strategic goal. The Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment just finished its fifth year of funding conservation work across the state, and the results are tangible…including the results on a landmark North Shore river. (more…)

MEP sign-on letter: Public comment process and timing for next phases of the PolyMet NorthMet Environmental Impact Statement

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This is a sign-on letter sent from the MEP Mining Cluster to representatives of responsible government agencies regarding the the PolyMet FEIS.

PolyMet FEIS meeting request

December 22, 2014
Mr. Thomas Hingsberger (thomas.j.hingsberger@usace.army.mil)
US Army Corps of Engineers
Sibley Square at Mears Park
190 5th Street East, Suite 401
St. Paul, MN 55101

Commissioner Thomas Landwehr (commissioner.dnr@state.mn.us)
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources
500 Lafayette Road,
St. Paul, MN 55155

Mr. Michael Jimenez (mjimenez@fs.fed.us)
Minerals NEPA Project Manager
Superior National Forest
8901 Grand Avenue Place
Duluth, MN 55808

RE:  Meeting request regarding public comment process and timing for next phases of the PolyMet NorthMet Environmental Impact Statement

Dear Mr. Hingsberger, Commissioner Landwehr, Mr. Jimenez:

I am writing to request a meeting for the Minnesota Environmental Partnership Mining Cluster, a voluntary association of nonprofit organizations working on mining issues in the state. We would like to be able to meet before January 16, 2015 with the co-lead agencies responsible for the PolyMet NorthMet environmental review process.

We understand that the co-lead agencies have begun to address the concerns raised by public comments on the PolyMet Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement . Recent statements by Commissioner Landwehr have indicated that the next version of the Environmental Impact Statement is anticipated to be complete in the spring of 2015. We request an opportunity for these groups to meet with the co-lead agencies well in advance of this release date to discuss the concerns raised by the organizations within our coalition. These groups represent more than 100,000 citizens across Minnesota, many of whom have expressed specific concerns about potential environmental impacts of Minnesota’s first proposed sulfide mining project.

We would like to discuss development and implementation of a process for public review and comment that provides sufficient time and information for the public to understand the voluminous and complicated record, and to secure a meaningful opportunity to be heard and to hear others’ perspectives on the PolyMet Project and its implications for Minnesota’s environment and way of life.

The co-lead agencies have a responsibility to ensure that public participation is robust. We wish to express our gratitude to the lead agencies for meeting with our coalition on May 30, 2013, prior to the PolyMet NorthMet Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement, to plan for a process of public involvement in that draft. Our organizations are also grateful for the efforts made by the governmental agencies to involve the people of the region in the process of reviewing the most recent draft of the EIS released in November of 2013. As demonstrated by our cooperative efforts with your agencies in the SDEIS comment period, the public has a profound interest in the decisions being made. 

We ask that the agencies come to this meeting prepared to share the process and procedures they are using to respond to comments. We would like to know the method by which comments are being accumulated and stored. We want to ensure complete transparency and accessibility of data to the public and our member groups consistent with the Data Practices Act. Finally, we are interested in the co-lead agencies’ plans for public hearings surrounding the release of the preliminary FEIS or FEIS. We would like to provide feedback, based on our experience with the public comment period and hearings for the Supplemental Draft EIS, on achieving a successful public comment period.  

Please contact Aaron Klemz, Mining Cluster convener, to schedule this meeting or with questions or (aaron@friends-bwca.org; (612) 332-9630). Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely yours,

Steve Morse
Executive Director

On behalf of the MEP Mining Cluster:
Audubon Minnesota
Center for Biological Diversity
Environmental Law and Policy Center
Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness
Friends of the Cloquet Valley State Forest
Izaak Walton League-Minnesota
League of Women Voters Minnesota
Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy
North Star Chapter, Sierra Club
Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness
Protect Our Manoomin
Save Lake Superior Association
Save Our Sky Blue Waters
Voyageurs National Park Association
WaterLegacy
Wilderness Watch

News Watch: Dec. 30

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Today’s Topics: Agriculture & Food; Climate Change; Energy; Environmental Justice; Oil & Pipelines; Parks & Trails; Transportation; Waste & Recycling; Water; Wildlife

Agriculture & Food
Brainerd Dispatch: Letter: GMO question 
 
Climate Change
 
Energy
 
Environmental Justice
 
Oil & Pipelines
 
Parks & Trails
 
Transportation
Star Tribune: Letter: Southwest LRT 
 
Waste & Recycling
 
Water
 
Wildlife
 

Crop Insurance: Good Enough for Monsanto-Good Enough for Sustainable Ag

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From the fact-is-stranger-than-fiction department: In 2007, Monsanto talked the USDA’s Risk Management Agency into giving farmers a discount on crop insurance premiums if they planted the company’s triple-stacked GMO corn. Reportedly, some reviewers of the proposal raised concerns that the premium subsidy would unfairly benefit a single private company.

But in the end, the USDA overcame such “cynical” fears and approved the so-called Biotech Yield Endorsement—BYE for short. As a result, farmers who planted the GMO seed received a discount of around 13 percent to 20 percent on their insurance premiums. According to a report released by Datu Research earlier this month, in the end the discount ended up being applied to DuPont Pioneer, Syngenta and Dow stacked hybrids. The BYE was discontinued in 2011 because triple-stacked GMO hybrids were so widespread by then that there was no longer any basis for offering a special discount to adopters, according to interviews conducted by Datu. In other words, the GMO industry had fully saturated the seed market, thanks in part to the tax-funded crop insurance program.

So much for the myth that the GMO business has thrived as a result of a free market unfettered by government intervention.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the government would allow a publicly funded program like crop insurance to benefit private industry. After all, as the Land Stewardship Project’s “Crop Insurance—How a Safety Net Became a Farm Policy Disaster” white papers show, a huge beneficiary of this USDA program is private industry—in this case some of the largest insurance corporations in the nation. And despite its billing as a safety net for all farmers, no matter their size or enterprise mix, crop insurance has become mostly a gravy train for the largest commodity crop producers in the country. This has produced some decidedly negative results for the public at large when it comes to economic viability of rural communities, support of beginning farmers and stewardship of the land.

But the BYE example opens the door to perhaps making crop insurance a true risk management strategy—one based on sustainable, resilient production systems. Ironically, Monsanto’s rationalization for a premium discount was that GMO products like triple-stacked hybrids provide farmers a more consistent, and thus less risky, way to raise corn. Of course, it’s hard to argue these days that GMO products are less risky in light of their connection to super-pest outbreaks in farm country, and evidence they threaten our soil’s ability to function biologically.

True risk management policy needs to be based on resiliency, not a corporation’s desire to make money on its own patented technology. That’s an important point to keep in mind as the benefits of cover cropping and other soil-friendly techniques become increasingly clear. A nationwide survey of farmers released in November by the USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program and the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) provides the latest evidence. According to the survey, cover cropping farmers reported an average corn yield increase in 2013 of five bushels per acre; the soybean yield boost was two bushels. That’s a significant statistic, given that cover crops have long been slammed for actually reducing commodity crop yields.

Cover crops really shine when extreme weather sweeps into town. When SARE-CTIC conducted a similar survey last year, they found that during the 2012 drought corn planted after cover crops produced a yield boost of 11 bushels. Cover cropping’s ability to preserve moisture and build soil’s resiliency on a field-by-field basis is impossible to ignore any longer.

And it’s looking like cover cropping can help our planet manage risk on a big picture level as well. A few weeks ago the University of Illinois released numbers from a 12-year study showing cover cropped plots sequestered a significant amount of organic carbon. In fact, when compared to non-cover cropped plots, no-till fields protected with hairy vetch and rye sequestered 30 percent more carbon. Even when the plot was moldboard plowed, the carbon gains with cover crops were 18 percent. That’s good news in the battle to keep greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere, where they can cause the kind of climate change that produces crop-disrupting extreme weather events in the first place.

Cover cropping can also play a key role in sustaining our environment closer to home. Protecting the land with these crops during the otherwise “brown season” can dramatically reduce the kind of erosive runoff that ruins fields and transforms our rivers into ribbons of mud.

What does all of this have to do with crop insurance? As LSP’s white papers show, over the years, this program has morphed from a basic safety net into the biggest government farm program in the country. As a result, it has perhaps more influence than any other program on what crops are planted where—even what techniques and systems are used.

In the real world, a company that sells insurance should be interested in reducing its risk of making a high claim payment, called an indemnity. That’s why car insurance companies provide “safe driver discounts” and homeowners who install alarm systems can qualify for lower premiums. But crop insurance exists in a parallel universe where risky behavior is rewarded, no matter how much the negative results of that behavior come home to roost. The high premium subsidies provided these days—around 62 percent—encourages some farmers to till acres they normally wouldn’t touch—at least if good yields, rather than insurance payments, were the basis of their business plan. That’s why land that would normally be too steep, wet or otherwise marginal to produce a decent crop has been going under the plow at rates not seen since the 1920s and 1930s.

And all of this risk-taking is becoming increasingly expensive. From 2001 to 2010 crop insurance indemnities averaged just $4.1 billion a year. In 2011, a new record was set when $10.8 billion in payouts were made; a year later that record was shattered with $17.3 billion in indemnities going out the door.

In October, the U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO) blamed federal crop insurance and the National Flood Insurance Program for inflating the cost of recovering from disasters by increasing risky behavior. “…while federal law prohibits crop insurance from covering losses due to a farmers’ failure to follow good farming practices, such as various irrigation methods, some of these practices maintain short-term production but may inadvertently increase the vulnerability of agriculture to climate change through increased erosion and inefficient water use,” concluded the GAO.

An executive order has directed federal agencies to reform policies that may increase the vulnerability of “economic sectors” or “communities” to climate change. Federally subsidized crop insurance should be a poster child for such reform.

Unfortunately, because of the convoluted nature of a program that allows insurance companies to dump economic risk onto the public while raking in administration payments that are neither transparent or accountable, the industry has little incentive to reward farmers for “good farming practices.” Or, as the Natural Resource Defense Council’s Claire O’Connor puts it, “…there are very few market signals that private insurance companies can send to farmers to make risk-reducing choices.”

O’Connor provides a glimpse at just how much risk reduction could be achieved with cover cropping. For example, during 2012 farmers in states most severely impacted by the drought—Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas—received around $4 billion in indemnities because of the dry weather. Using the SARE-CTIC survey figures, O’Connor shows that there’s a good chance many of the farmers who used cover crops wouldn’t have even qualified for a weather disaster insurance payment because their use of continuous living cover provided a good enough yield boost. Now that’s good risk management. While visiting North Dakota, I’ve seen firsthand the drought-proofing benefits of cover cropping and other practices that build soil health.

“On our farm we’ve built enough soil resiliency that we don’t need crop insurance,” says North Dakota farmer Gabe Brown, who experienced many a crop failure before he started using a system that combined cover crop cocktails, no-till and mob grazing of cattle.

The program’s apparent inability to recognize and reward innovative farming systems is one more reason crop insurance is in need of a major overhaul, as LSP argues in its “Principles of Reform” paper. But short of that, there are also steps that can be taken to make crop insurance a true risk management program and a supporter of resiliency. Insurance companies may lack the incentive to reward farmers for utilizing innovative systems that involve cover cropping, conservation tillage and other techniques, but the Risk Management Agency is a different matter. As a public, tax-funded agency, it supposedly has every incentive in the world to promote practices that are in the public good—and soil-friendly farming systems definitely fit in that category.

We have a long ways to go before a technique like cover cropping has a major impact on the landscape. The latest U.S. Census of Agriculture estimates there were 10 million acres of cover crops in the country as of 2012, which is only about 2.5 percent of total crop acres. But as the benefits become clearer on the farm level, interest is catching on—the latest SARE-CTIC survey estimated cover cropping adoption increased by 30 percent a year from 2010 to 2013.

Both Datu Research and the Natural Resources Defense Council recently highlight conservation farming practices such as cover cropping and no-till as good risk management techniques that should be encouraged through crop insurance incentives. Just last week, economists from the International Food Policy Research Institute added their voices to the call for tying proven conservation farming practices to subsidized crop insurance. Sixty percent of the farmers who answered a SARE-CTIC survey question about crop insurance said that reducing premiums for growers of cover crops would increase soil-friendly plantings. With cover crop establishment costs —including the cost of seed and planting—averaging around the $40 per-acre mark, a little economic incentive could go a long ways toward establishing farming systems that have wide-ranging benefits.

The BYE example shows there is a process, and a precedent, for adding techniques and systems to the crop insurance “good farming practices” list. Hopefully, it also shows us the importance of utilizing public programs for the benefit of the public good, not a corporation’s bottom line.