Bees are in trouble. The major pollinator of our fruit, vegetable and nut crops, they are also responsible for such agricultural staples as alfalfa, canola and sunflower. What role can states and provinces play in helping save the population of their — and the continent’s and the world’s — pollinators?
The region’s legislators explored this question in July during a session of the Midwestern Legislative Conference Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee meeting, and learned how one state, Minnesota, already took significant steps in 2014.
For farmers and ranchers, the promise of “big data” to vastly improve operations is hard to ignore. Take, for example, the idea of “prescriptive production.” By merging a decade’s worth of fertilizer, climate and yield data with advanced soil maps and existing conditions, a producer can make more-informed management decisions — down to the fertilizer used and seeds planted on each acre of land. Evidence shows that this approach can increase yields by between 10 and 25 percent.
“Big data” is the term applied to the sorting and processing of enormous quantities of data. And the ability to crunch massive amounts of data may be as important to the future of food production as the development of the tractor was for 20th-century agriculture.
But it is also hard to ignore the myriad policy and privacy issues arising from increased use of “big data.”
For the first time, state legislatures are passing measures to require labeling of foods that contain products from genetically engineered crops — part of a recent upswing in food regulation that has producers challenging the rules as unconstitutional.
Vermont has become the first U.S. state mandating the labeling of genetically modified foods. (Laws passed in Connecticut and Maine only take effect if at least four other states adopt similar measures).
In the Midwest, GMO-labeling bills have been introduced in six states. Though none has become law, some of these measures have captured considerable attention, as shown by the large turnout for an informational hearing held earlier this year on Minnesota’s HF 850.
More than 29,000 farmers in the Midwest called it quits between 2007 and 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest census, a period in which the region also lost farmland while the average size of operations grew. The new statistics reflect longtime trends occurring not only in the Midwest, but nationally as well. But one state that bucked some of these trends is Nebraska, which recorded one of the largest U.S. gains in the number of farm operations — nearly 5 percent over the five-year period. Nebraska farmers are also the youngest in the nation, with an average age of 55.7 years old.
Amazon wants to use a drone to deliver your new jacket, and a beer company thinks unmanned aircraft systems are perfect for deliveries to remote Minnesota lakes. But at the same time, hunters and anglers in downstate Illinois are concerned that animal-rights activists will use drones with cameras to interfere with their sport.
Drones are still most known for their use by the U.S. military, but they are beginning to get more attention from state legislators and others who set domestic policy.
The recent activity in Illinois is a case in point.
In a case involving management of a watershed hundreds of miles east of his state’s border, and that will be decided by a U.S. appeals court in Philadelphia, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt has taken much more than a passing interest.
He is leading a coalition of states that have filed an amicus brief asking the federal court to reject the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to require states in the Chesapeake Bay region to develop processes to reduce nutrient runoff (nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment).
In mid-November the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed reducing the amount of biofuels in the nation’s fuel supply for the first time, potentially dealing a major setback to the ethanol industry.
The change would require almost 3 billion fewer gallons of biofuels — mainly ethanol — to be blended into gasoline in 2014 than under the current federal mandate. The proposal comes at a time when domestic oil production has exceeded oil imports for the first time in years, and when falling motor fuel demand has made ethanol an unexpectedly large part of the total fuel supply.
With the goals of protecting water quality and providing regulatory certainty to farmers, voluntary state programs that certify land-management practices at agricultural operations are cropping up across the country. Minnesota is one of the latest states to adopt such a program, and is backing it up with state dollars to help farmers adopt new conservation practices.
The Midwestern Legislative Conference and The Council of State Governments were represented at a recent meeting of the White House Rural Council in Washington, D.C. Formed in June by presidential executive order, the council is being led by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and is focusing on how the federal government can help foster economic growth in rural areas.