Welcome to FERN’s Friday Feed (#FFF), where we share the stories from this week that made us stop and think.
Sockeye salmon or copper mine? Because you can’t have both.
FERN and Mother Jones
The on-again off-again Pebble mine venture in Alaska faces a day of reckoning, with the nation’s largest salmon run in the balance. “There has been a good deal of back and forth over the strike in the last decade, but it now seems we are reaching a critical moment, where the mine may finally move forward or be scrapped once and for all,” Paul Greenberg writes. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has been waffling between salmon fishing interests on the one hand and the mining industry on the other — both camps have enthusiastic Republicans. While the project itself inches forward in the government approval process, investors have also been fleeing, leaving the venture in limbo but very much alive.
The New Food Economy
An epidemic of farmer suicide, diagnosed from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on occupational suicide rates, has become a top agriculture policy priority this year. But there’s a major issue: the CDC erred in calculating farmers’ suicide risk. “[T]he media’s main takeaway from the [CDC] report—that farmers have the highest suicide rate in the country—is not supported by the study’s underlying data,” write Nathan Rosenberg and Bryce Wilson Stucki. “This mistake has already had real-world consequences: despite research showing that agricultural workers have exceptionally high rates of mental distress, legislators have almost completely focused on helping farmers.”
The North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation is examining the work of a watershed technician who appears to have submitted water samples from hog farms that vastly underrepresented the amount of toxins in liquid waste that was sprayed onto nearby fields. The Duplin County technician “submitted waste samples from 55 hog lagoons on 35 farms in two counties,” writes Christina Cooke. “The tests showed that the samples contained toxin levels substantially lower than those that showed up when the state retested the same lagoons less than a month later.” The results add fuel to community members’ allegations that hog farms are polluting their air and water.
While child labor is tightly regulated in most industries, “the Fair Labor Standards Act makes exceptions for many small farms, meaning they can hire children at any age,” writes Ariel Ramchandani. In the tobacco fields of North Carolina, kids as young as 10 are working 60 hours a week with dangerous machinery, exposed to pesticides, nicotine, and intense heat. It is a fact that is largely invisible to regulators, and willfully ignored by the industry that depends on their labor. A 2014 Human Right Watch study “found that nearly three-quarters of the 141 children they interviewed, all between the ages of 7 and 17, reported” experiencing “‘nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, headaches, dizziness, skin rashes, difficulty breathing, and irritation to their eyes and mouths.’”
High Country News
To keep weeds at bay on the nation’s golf courses, Scotts Miracle-Gro and Monsanto sought to develop a genetically modified turf, Roundup-resistant bentgrass. The only problem: the grass escaped from its Idaho test plots in fierce windstorms in 2013, and “landowners discovered it growing in great mats throughout the irrigation system that stretches like a spider web across Malheur County” in Oregon. Now farmers are busy keeping it at bay. Scotts, while helping with the cleanup, won an unusual agreement with the USDA that relieves the company of “future responsibility in return for the company’s promise not to market the grass.” As one farmer said: “They took it out of Scotts’ hands and dumped it into the laps of the irrigation district and the farmers.” The upshot – it’s up to local communities to control the grass, which is now crossbreeding and creating new Roundup-resistant weeds.