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Daniel Charles

Hardly a week goes by, it seems, without a big food company making promises to deliver products from green, sustainable farms. Turning those promises into reality, though, can be complicated.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

World leaders gathered for a virtual climate summit earlier this week, they promised to stop releasing so much heat-trapping greenhouse gas into the air. And we can all do the same. NPR's Life Kit and science correspondent Dan Charles have some tips for how to reduce carbon emissions from our homes.

North Dakota has lots of coal. It also has strong and consistent winds. It might be the perfect spot to showcase the long-awaited "energy transition" from climate-warming fossil fuels to climate-saving renewables.

Farming has destroyed a lot of the rich soil of America's Midwestern prairie. A team of scientists just came up with a staggering new estimate for just how much has disappeared.

The most fertile topsoil is entirely gone from a third of all the land devoted to growing crops across the upper Midwest, the scientists say. Some of their colleagues, however, remain skeptical about the methods that produced this result.

Updated on March 10th at 12:30 p.m. ET

Facing the rising threat of wildfire and extreme drought, Flagstaff, Ariz., unveiled an ambitious effort two years ago to cut the heat-trapping emissions that drive climate change.

The world continues to lose millions of acres of its most valuable tropical forests each year. But defenders of those forests have just deployed a new tool in their struggle to stop it — or at least alert the world when it's happening.

It's an upgrade of a system called Global Forest Watch, created by the World Resources Institute. The website makes it possible to monitor what's happening to distant tropical forests almost in real time through satellite imagery.

Back in the spring, farmers who raise pigs were in a panic. Many major customers, such as food service companies that supply restaurants, weren't buying pork. Prices had fallen sharply. Some hog farmers had no place to ship their animals because so many workers in pork processing plants got sick from COVID-19.

"Our folks need a lifeline," said Nick Giordano, top lobbyist for the National Pork Producers Council, on a call with journalists in May. "Unless there is a large cash infusion from the federal government, we're going to lose a lot of producers."

Hundreds of native North American plants, often dismissed as weeds, deserve a lot more respect, according to a new study. These plants, distant cousins of foods like cranberries and pumpkins, actually represent a botanical treasure now facing increased threat from climate change, habitat loss and invasive species.

President-elect Joe Biden plans to nominate Obama Cabinet veteran and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack as secretary of agriculture, a source familiar with transition discussions confirmed to NPR.

Vilsack returns to an agency he helmed for eight years as Barack Obama's agriculture secretary.

Just over a decade ago, the American Farm Bureau Federation declared war on legislation to slow down global warming. The organization, a lobbying powerhouse, argued that a "cap-and-trade" proposal making its way through Congress would make fuel and fertilizer more expensive and put farmers out of business.

Some of the most popular products of biotechnology — corn and cotton plants that have been genetically modified to fend off insects — are no longer offering the same protection from those bugs. Scientists say that the problem results from farmers overusing the crops, and are pushing for new regulations.

These crops were the original genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. They weren't the first ones invented, but they were the first to be widely embraced by farmers, starting in the late 1990s.

When Donnel Baird was in his 20s, he had twin passions, and he didn't want to choose between them. "I vowed that I was going to try to combine my passion for Black civil rights with trying to do something about climate change," he says.

He's doing it now, with a company that he founded called BlocPower. He's attacking one of the seemingly intractable sources of America's greenhouse emissions: old residential buildings. And he's focusing on neighborhoods that don't have a lot of money to invest.

The Trump administration has been celebrating an initiative that buys food from farmers and distributes it through charitable organizations such as food banks. "I'm proud to announce that we will provide an additional $1 billion to fund the Farmers to Families Food Box program. It's worked out so well," President Trump told a cheering crowd on Aug. 24 in North Carolina.

More than 40 years ago, in Nigeria, a young scientist named Rattan Lal encountered an idea that changed his life — and led, eventually, to global recognition and a worldwide movement to protect the planet's soil.

Lal was fresh out of graduate school, recruited to join the newly established International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, and given an assignment that, in hindsight, seems ridiculous in its ambition. "I was 25 years old, in charge of a lab, given the mandate of improving quality and quantity of food production in the tropics!" Lal says.

There's a common warning about our planet's future: the risk of food shortages.

"We've got a growing world and a hungry world. We need to make sure we do our part in helping feed that hungry world," said Kip Tom, a farmer from Indiana who's currently the U.S. ambassador to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, as he closed a panel discussion in 2018.

Millions of newly impoverished people are turning to the charitable organizations known as food banks. Mile-long lines of cars, waiting for bags of free food, have become one of the most striking images of the current economic crisis. Donations are up, too, including from a new billion-dollar government effort called the Farmers to Families Food Box Program.

Tyson Foods, one of the biggest meat producers in the U.S., is suspending work at its pork processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa. Officials in Black Hawk County, where the plant is located, say at least 150 people with close connections to the plant have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to Iowa Public Radio.

Paul TenHaken, the 42-year-old mayor of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, said it wasn't easy getting the world's top pork producer to shut down one of its biggest plants.

"It was tense," TenHaken said. "You know, you shut down a plant like that, it has a pretty big impact on the food supply. So we weren't taking this lightly, making this request."

Several meat processing plants around the U.S. are sitting idle this week because workers have been infected with the coronavirus. Tyson Foods, one of the country's biggest meat processors, says it suspended operations at its pork plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa, after more than two dozen workers got sick with COVID-19. National Beef Packing stopped slaughtering cattle at another Iowa plant, and JBS USA shut down work at a beef plant in Pennsylvania.

Scientists are currently carrying out a trial to see whether a drug that's currently used to treat lupus and to prevent malaria might also help treat COVID-19.

Their interest is based on laboratory studies showing that the drug, hydroxychloroquine, blocked the coronavirus from entering cells. There's no solid evidence, as yet though, that the drug actually is an effective COVID-19 treatment.

In fact, medical experts have warned against buying it for that purpose, because that might exhaust supplies for people who actually need it.

Vice President Mike Pence said the White House may ask hospitals to use some of their federal aid to cover the medical costs of COVID-19 treatment for people who have lost their health insurance in recent weeks, along with their jobs.

Some medical experts have called on the administration to allow newly uninsured people to sign up for health insurance under Obamacare. But at a White House briefing on Thursday, President Trump rejected that idea, saying that "we're doing better than that" with what he called "a cash payment."

Thousands of farmworkers are now carrying a new document with them on the road, in case they get stopped. Barbara Resendiz got hers last Friday, together with her paycheck. The small card explains that the Department of Homeland Security considers her job to be part of the nation's critical infrastructure and that she needs to get to work, despite California's order to shelter in place.

As Americans scattered to the privacy of their homes this week to avoid spreading the coronavirus, the opposite scene was playing out in the Mexican city of Monterrey.

A thousand or more young men arrived in the city, as they do most weeks of the year, filling up the cheap hotels, standing in long lines at the U.S. Consulate to pick up special H-2A visas for temporary agricultural workers, then gathering in a big park to board buses bound for farms in the United States.

In northeastern Kansas, there's an open-air ecological laboratory called Konza Prairie. Scientists like Ellen Welti go there to study plants, insects, and big animals. "In the spring it has a lot of beautiful flowers, it has bison; everybody should go visit and check it out for themselves," says Welti, who is currently a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Oklahoma.

In this landscape, grasshoppers play a crucial role. They eat the grass; birds eat them.

The world's most remarkable date palm trees might not exist if Sarah Sallon hadn't gotten sick while working as a doctor in India in 1986. Antibiotics didn't help. What cured here, she thinks, were some traditional herbal remedies.

"It was just amazing. It was so incredible," she says. "And then I got very interested. There's nothing like a doctor cured of their problem to get them interested in something."

Every summer for the past three years, the phones have been ringing like crazy in the Office of the Indiana State Chemist. Farmers and homeowners were calling, complaining that their soybean fields or tomato plants looked sick, with curled-up leaves. They suspected pesticides from nearby farms — a kind of chemical hit-and-run.

It was up to investigators like Andy Roth to find the true culprit.

In 2019, the federal government delivered an extraordinary financial aid package to America's farmers. Farm subsidies jumped to their highest level in 14 years, most of them paid out without any action by Congress.

The money flowed to farmers like Robert Henry. When I visited in early July, many of his fields near New Madrid, Mo., had been flooded for months, preventing him from working in them. The soybeans that he did manage to grow had fallen in value; China wasn't buying them, in retaliation for the Trump administration's tariffs.

For Dan Younggren, who grows sugar beets in the northwest corner of Minnesota, 2019 was a year of plagues.

First came the water. "Ten inches, up to almost 20 inches of rain," Younggren says. The fields in his region were so wet that farmers couldn't work in them.

On a soggy field in eastern North Carolina, Jason Tew and his crew of loggers are cutting trees and sorting logs into piles based on their size and the type of wood. There's a lot of pine, but also hardwoods: poplar, sweet gum, elm and oak. Some piles will go for making plywood; some will become absorbent fiber in baby diapers.

The least valuable pile is full of small hardwood tree limbs. "It's basically trash," Tew says. "We would have normally hauled that back in the woods and just left it."

There's new evidence that a widely used family of pesticides called neonicotinoids, already controversial because they can be harmful to pollinators, could be risky for insects and fish that live in water, too.

The evidence comes from Lake Shinji, which lies near Japan's coast, next to the Sea of Japan.

Masumi Yamamuro, a scientist with the Geological Survey of Japan, says the lake is famous for its views of the setting sun. "It's amazingly beautiful," she says.

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