SPOTLIGHT 2019: Stories to watch in food and agriculture

We asked some FERN reporters and staffers to survey their beats and tell us what they're keeping an eye on in 2019 in the world of food, agriculture and environmental health. Here are seven issues to watch, and where the likely flashpoints will be.

The big decisions on ag will come from the courts
Last year, North Carolina residents won case after case against Smithfield food subsidiary Murphy-Brown for its mismanagement of hog waste. Two state ag-gag laws — which sharply restrict reporting and photographing of farms — were overturned through First Amendment lawsuits by coalitions of environmental, animal rights, and press groups. A plaintiff in California won a case against Monsanto, alleging the company’s Roundup weedkiller had caused his cancer. The trend will continue this year. More ag-gag challenges are underway. Rural communities are suing the Trump administration for rolling back the monitoring of emissions at large-scale animal operations. And a suit against Trump’s new plan to dismantle water regulations (WOTUS) could be coming. Consumers are suing Big Food companies to challenge the use of ‘natural’ labeling claims. As divided politics and industry lobbying continue to muddle the policymaking process, a lot of ag news will be made this year from the judge’s bench.
— Leah Douglas

The dicamba-driven farming disaster rolls on (but so does the effort to stop it)
Over the past two years, the drift-prone weedkiller dicamba has destroyed crops and livelihoods and upended communities across soybean country, pitting farmer against farmer. The EPA caused this crisis by relying on flawed industry science to approve the use of dicamba on Monsanto’s new GM seeds: dicamba-tolerant soybeans and cotton. The agency did this, it said, to give desperate farmers a tool to fight “superweeds,” but as use skyrocketed, the herbicide laid waste to millions of acres of conventional crops, gardens and native plants—including habitat for bees and other pollinators. Expect to see more of the same in 2019: more off-target damage, more economic losses and more community strife. Meanwhile, environmental and sustainable farming groups are mobilizing to restrict the use of dicamba at the state level. So while the damage will continue, we’re also likely to see more push back on dicamba and other chemicals that fuel the herbicide-resistance treadmill in the coming year.
—Liza Gross

Pressure will rise to regulate chemicals contaminating our drinking water
PFAS, short for per- and polyfluoralkyl substances, are a big group of man-made chemicals used in nonstick cookware, food packaging, stain- and water-repellent fabrics, firefighting foam, cosmetics, and industrial processes. These fluorinated chemicals are virtually indestructible, which means PFAS can build up in the environment, in our water supply, and in our bodies. They have been linked to health problems in human and lab animals and are expected to be a focus for regulatory conflicts in the year ahead. Federal and state officials are investigating reports of dangerously high levels of PFAS in the drinking water of more than 30 communities across the country, though one environmental group estimates that the problem is much more pervasive, with as many as 110 million Americans drinking PFAS-contaminated tap water. The Department of Defense identified at least 126 military bases with worrisome levels of PFAS contamination. Meanwhile, an important federal report on health concerns relating to PFAS chemicals, which had been delayed by the Trump administration, was finally released last June. Despite all this, the EPA has set no enforceable limit on PFAS in drinking water. Pressure, though, is mounting. A bipartisan group of senators introduced two bills aimed at removing PFAS from drinking and groundwater in late 2018. As 2019 unfolds, look for class action lawsuits, legislative battles on the federal and state levels, and a more insistent push from a divided Congress for the EPA to regulate these and other so-called “contaminants of emerging concern.”
Lindsey Konkel

Consumers are forcing livestock producers to address antibiotic overuse
In the public health sector, there was a lot of discouragement going into 2018 around the issue of the overuse of antibiotics in livestock production. While the Obama administration had created new federal controls for the first time in decades, the Trump administration was unlikely to push the issue further. But what’s becoming clear is that consumer demand is forcing companies to confront the antibiotic problem even in the absence of more regulation. At the end of 2018, major buyers such as Costco and McDonald’s announced shifts toward antibiotic-free meat, and a coalition that included Tyson and Walmart committed to “antibiotic stewardship” principles for their purchasing. In 2019, expect more market-based change as big buyers and small consumers push the livestock industry to act, even if regulators won’t.
— Maryn McKenna

Agriculture in the crosshairs on climate change
After years out of the spotlight in the climate change debate, food and agriculture last year got more focused attention as both a potent source of greenhouse gas emissions and a potential solution to taking carbon out of the air. Emissions from the sector are substantial, amounting to a quarter of all man-made greenhouse gasses, with the predominant share coming from the livestock industry, especially gas-producing ruminants like beef cattle and dairy cows. Last year, several reports called for reductions in meat consumption as a way to meet climate-change goals. Expect more external pressure on the livestock industry in 2019. At the same time, farmers have recently faced more extreme weather events — from droughts and hurricanes to wildfires. Industry is trying to respond through efforts such as “precision ag,” focused weather forecasts, and advances in crop breeding. As the year unfolds, the question is whether more sustainable methods of agriculture that sequester carbon and offer innovative solutions to farming in a new climate will outpace the spread of disastrous weather events. The answer may determine the future of many farms facing a financial squeeze from low crop prices, a trade war, unsteady demand and, yes, a changing climate.
— Sam Fromartz

USDA to get more scrutiny in Congress
After two years of a free hand in running USDA, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue is due to get more scrutiny by Congress, ranging from questions about how he implements the new farm law to whether the administration is doing all it can to help farmers deal with a now six-year-long income slump. Incoming House Ag chairman Collin Peterson has a list of topics for potential hearings, including the effectiveness of the Trump bailout, the nearly $10 billion in farmer payments to offset the losses caused by the president’s trade war with China. The ag committee will also scrutinize Perdue’s plan to relocate the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture outside the Washington region by the end of this year — a measure opposed by many Democrats, including the new House majority leader, Steny Homer, of Maryland. Also on the list are questions about rural broadband, the impact of crop insurance payments on land stewardship, and USDA proposals tightening work requirements for SNAP recipients.
— Chuck Abbott

Small fishermen vs. Big Oil
For the West Coast’s dungeness crab fishermen, 2015 was a year to forget. That fall, an algae-produced neurotoxin called domoic acid contaminated the plate-sized crustaceans, closing fisheries in California, Oregon, and Washington State. Scientists later linked the outbreak, which ultimately cost the region’s crabbers some $100 million, to warming ocean temperatures — suggesting the crab fishery might be one of the foremost casualties of climate change. Now the crabbers are fighting back. In November, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations filed suit against Chevron, Exxon Mobil, BP, and other fossil-fuel companies, arguing that the corporations knowingly contributed to climate change and should have to compensate crabbers for the damages they’ve suffered. Lawsuits against oil companies have not, to this point, been particularly effective, but the crabbers, one legal expert told the Los Angeles Times, might have a stronger case, since they’re “alleging specific economic harm to their livelihoods.” And if the crab case gains traction, it could open the floodgates. The Fourth National Climate Assessment projects that global warming will harm fisheries from Alaskan pollock to Maine lobster, and could cost the shellfish industry alone $230 million. Might 2019 be the year that fishermen hold fossil fuels to account?
— Ben Goldfarb

Top photo: Clearing forests for palm oil plantations, like this project in Sumatra, is part of the broader problem of ag-driven deforestation around the world. Photo by George Steinmetz. 

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