Sunday, August 6, 2017

Grading the Summer of 2017 Dead Zone News Stories

Installing perforated drainage tubing into a wet area in north-central Iowa in the 1980's. USDA.

About a week ago, you probably saw a headline proclaiming that meat, particularly Tyson, is to blame for the large Gulf dead zone this year. The source of this proclamation was retired U.S. California House Member Henry Waxman’s Mighty Earth, a non-profit organization based in Washington D.C., a group I’d never heard of before. Supposedly reputable non-fake news sources such as “The Guardian” used the blame-meat-for-hypoxia-in-the-Gulf headline spawned by this report, and that grabbed Google’s top page rank under “dead zone” news for a period of time. While industrialized meat is partly to blame, it is not the main cause of the dead zone. Let's dig deeper and see where Mighty Earth went wrong.

Mighty Earth's article with the title, "New Investigation Identifies Companies Responsible for Massive Dead Zone in Gulf of Mexico - Tyson Foods, America’s Largest Meat Company, Leads Those Found to be driving massive Manure and Fertilizer Pollution" links to its in depth report titled "Mystery Meat II: The Industry Behind the Quiet Destruction of the American Heartland". This report states that "The domestic meat market consumes 70 percent of the soybeans grown in the U.S. and 40 percent of the corn, and is the biggest single market for both of these crops.” Does it take an unpaid blogger to notice this ludicrous statistical error? Since 50 percent of our soybeans are exported, more than 11 percent are used to produce biodiesel, and yet more to produce oil and other products, obviously their claim that 70 percent of our U.S. grown soybeans are consumed by our domestic meat market is off base by a very, very wide margin. Who are this nonprofit’s fact checkers or do they have any?

Correcting that wrong "70%" soybean statistic would negate the main argument of Mighty Earth's entire paper, that is, no longer could they conclude that meat production is the predominant cause of the nutrient run off that causes the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. And they would have picked ADM as the largest corporation behind the dead zone for its leading role as an ethanol producer, instead of Tyson, or a well known seed company, or farm equipment maker, or the biggest fertilizer corporations, perhaps. There is enough blame to go around.

The fourth sentence of Mighty Earth's report is “As demand for meat grows, America’s last native grassland prairies are being destroyed to make room for new industrial fields that exacerbate water pollution across the Heartland and take a heavy toll on the climate.” As I was one of the first to break the story of CRP losses in the Midwest as a result of government policy and the RFS (Renewable Fuels Standard) program, I know that this statement, too, is highly misleading. To be fair, they mention ethanol later in their report when discussing the loss of prairie lands, but only with the caveat that a third of the corn used for ethanol becomes livestock feed. But they fail again when it comes to the big picture, never mentioning that a third of this DDGS product is exported and already included in total feed statistics for U.S. livestock consumption.

Among other sites such as The Weather Channel, Boing Boing, and Triple Pundit, Modern Farmer promoted the meat-dead-zone report using “Tyson and Other Meat Companies Linked to Biggest-Ever Dead Zone in the Gulf” as its headline and included the statement "the US meat market buys 40 percent of American corn (another 40 percent goes to ethanol) and 70 percent of American soybeans". Good for them for mentioning ethanol, but they should know their soybean usage numbers better than this if they intend to be a quality publisher about farming.

Usually, I admire the DesMoines Register’s reporting, but this time they fell short when they covered this story because they failed to make any mention at all of the large role that biofuels play in producing our summer-of-2017 dead zone size. I suppose their hands were tied due to today’s difficult Iowa farmer P&L (profit and loss) numbers, when the RFS is about the only savior around for today's overproduction.

It's time to assign the grades. Let's give Mighty Earth a BIG "fail" for producing and widely promoting a report that contains false statistics and inaccurate percentages, statistics so far off that had they used the correct ones it would have changed the conclusion and title of their Dead Zone article. The Guardian gets a "fail" for its fluff promotional version of the report. Modern Farmer scores poorly for parroting the soybean usage for domestic feed statistic and using the headline that they did. The DesMoines Register gets a reprimand for too little said.

Next, I’d like to commend the quality sources who covered this year's Gulf dead zone story.

One of the best write-ups I saw was from ground zero, New Orleans. The Times-Picayune ( wrote the editorial "Gulf of Mexico dead zone is going in the wrong direction". They include an important discussion about the drainage designs of waterways, natural wetlands, and buffers, something so important and under-recognized in Mighty Earth's report. They know where the blame lies in recent year's fertilizer run-off in their concluding paragraphs:
The push to reduce nitrogen and phosphorous runoff was complicated by the increase in corn production for ethanol, which the federal government encouraged. The growth in ethanol resulted in 15 million new acres of farmland being planted with corn in 2007 alone.

The Environmental Protection Agency needs to take another look at this issue. Reducing the dead zone is essential to the health of the Gulf, but it's headed in the opposite direction. gets an A from me.

AlJazeera did a good job covering the dead zone story this week, too.

But I grant this final source an A+... Pulitzer winner Art Cullen, editor of The Storm Lake Times wrote the pithiest piece. I've never seen a writer sum up this complex situation in so few words, while putting so great a number of people and politically correct subjects in their rightful places, starting with Mighty Earth. His article, "The noise machine never quiets down" hits on all cylinders beginning with politics. I especially liked his mention of the pundit who was "on his way from Boston to LA". Don't miss it.