Cookies help us run our site more efficiently.

By clicking “Accept”, you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance site navigation, analyze site usage, and assist in our marketing efforts. View our Privacy Policy for more information or to customize your cookie preferences.

The steel industry is important, but is it worth kids getting asthma?

News Feed
Monday, March 18, 2024

Germaine Gooden-Patterson has lived in Clairton, Pennsylvania, for more than 15 years, but it wasn’t until she began a job as a community health worker in 2019 that she understood how much air pollution was affecting her neighbors’ lives—and her own.Gooden-Patterson’s work for the Pittsburgh-based nonprofit Women for a Healthy Environment required her to visit homes in Clairton and the nearby towns of Duquesne and McKeesport, conducting surveys and interviews about air quality. As she spoke with families about air filters, lead and mold exposure, she realized that the large number of people she knew with asthma and other respiratory conditions may not be coincidental.Clairton is home to the Clairton Coke Works, which was named the most toxic air polluter in Allegheny County in a 2021 report by PennEnvironment, an advocacy group focused on climate change issues in Pennsylvania.The Coke Works is one of the world’s largest producers of coke, a coal derivative used to forge steel. Manufacturing coke leads to the emission of a raft of chemicals, including benzene, mercury, lead, toluene, styrene, sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide, a colorless, flammable gas with a pungent, rotten odor.Around the time she moved to Clairton and gave birth to her third child, she said, she started to experience heart palpitations. Before, she attributed this symptom to being an older mom. “But once I started to learn about the effects that air pollution has on the cardio system, I put two and two together,” said Gooden-Patterson, 60.Gooden-Patterson had commuted out of town for her previous job, but now she was spending much more of her time in Clairton, and she began to notice symptoms that she hadn’t before. During the COVID-19 pandemic, about a year into the job, she was diagnosed with environmental allergies. She said that smells from the Coke Works sometimes wake her up in the middle of the night, and the odors come with throat irritation, inflammation in her eyes and a burning in her nose.“I can feel it on bad days,” she said, even though she has installed air filters in her home. “And I know that it’s connected.”While lower pollution levels in communities across the nation have largely been attributed to the successful enforcement of the Clean Air Act, passed in 1970, researchers have found that some of the most persistently harmful air in America is present in communities that are predominantly made up of people of color or those with low incomes.In Clairton, which is about 15 miles south of Pittsburgh on the Monongahela River, 40 percent of the population is African American and 23 percent live below the poverty line. The Coke Works, PennEnvironment found, was “in violation of the Clean Air Act in every quarter of the three years ending in March 2023″ and has been fined more than $10 million since 2018. While Allegheny County’s overall air quality has improved since the days of killer smog and afternoon skies blackened with soot, in places like Clairton, progress still feels a long way off.After analyzing 40 years of data about changes in pollution in emissions, scientists at Columbia University found that “racial/ethnic and socioeconomic inequities in air pollution exposure persist across the US despite the nationwide downward trend in air pollution indicating inequities in air pollution emissions reductions.”The findings, published in a peer-reviewed study in the journal Nature Communications, examined emissions data from 1970 to 2010 involving six major sources of air pollution, including the manufacturing industry, energy producers, farming and agriculture, and transportation. Commercial, and residential sources of pollution were also considered.“We wanted to answer the question of whether decreases in emissions have been equitable across demographic groups,” said Yanelli Núñez, an environmental health scientist at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, who was the lead author of the study. “We found that the changes in emissions were influenced by a county’s socio-economic characteristics. We found racial, ethnic and economic disparities in the decreases of air pollution emissions.”One of the researchers’ major findings, Núñez said, concerned the role of income as a factor in lower emissions. For example, she said, counties where the median income level increased from the national average of $49,000 to $100,000 saw a 100 percentage point decrease in the emissions of sulfur dioxide, which are given off when fuels containing sulfur are burned. The median household income in Clairton between 2018 and 2021 was $41,301.“We found that the median household income plays a major role in the decrease of emissions for all pollution sectors, except agriculture,” said Núñez, who is also a scientist at PSE Healthy Energy, a nonprofit research institute. “The higher that income the larger the decrease in emissions.”The study also noted differences in emissions as the racial and demographic make-up of various communities changed. An increase in the percentage of American Indian, Asian or Hispanic population in American communities typically resulted in an increase in the emission of NOx, or nitrogen oxides, which are commonly produced by vehicles and power plants.“For instance,” the researchers wrote, “an increase in the Hispanic population percentage from the national average of 4.4% to 75% resulted in a 50 [percentage point] increase in the relative change of energy NOx emissions; and a decrease in county White percentage from the national average of 87% to 25% led to 12.5 [percentage point] increase in the relative emissions change.”Núñez said that she and her colleagues hope their research illustrates the importance of ensuring that policies like the Clean Air Act are implemented evenly across racial and socio-economic lines.She added: “The results show that policies, although they benefit everyone, don’t necessarily benefit everyone equitably.”One of Gooden-Patterson’s neighbors, Art Thomas, doesn’t need to be reminded of the importance of equity. Thomas, 79, has lived in Clairton for his entire life, and worked for U.S. Steel for decades.Thomas said that many Clairton residents have gotten used to the smells from the plant after years of breathing polluted air. “You see the commercial on TV where a woman walks into her son’s room and it stinks, and he can’t smell nothing,” he said. “I think a lot of people in Clairton are nose blind.”“When I can really smell it, I know it’s really bad,” he said. “There’s a movie called “The Deer Hunter” that was made in Duquesne and Clairton. And in that movie, they call Clairton, ‘the armpit of the universe.’ And that’s how I feel.”Six years ago, when a fire broke out at the Coke Works, shutting down the plant’s pollution controls for months and leading to spiking emissions of chemicals like sulfur dioxide, Thomas said he didn’t find out about it until three weeks later, when he happened to see a news report on television.“You realize you’re having trouble breathing, sleeping,” he said in a recent phone interview. “Here I am, living in the middle of what might as well be called a war zone, and I can’t find out that my life is in danger, my wife’s life is in danger from breathing this stuff, until three weeks after breathing it. It’s ridiculous.”U.S. Steel recently reached a $42 million settlement with Allegheny County, PennEnvironment and the Clean Air Council after a lawsuit was filed under the Clean Air Act following the 2018 fire. As part of the agreement, U.S. Steel must pay a $5 million penalty, which PennEnvironment called “by far the largest in a Clean Air Act citizen enforcement suit in Pennsylvania history” and one of the largest nationally as well. A 2021 study found that asthma symptoms were exacerbated for people living near the Coke Works in the weeks after the fire, and another study found that for Clairton residents, emergency and outpatient visits for asthma doubled after the fire.In a previous statement to Inside Climate News about the Coke Works, U.S. Steel said that the company has “a compliance rate over 99 percent and attainment with all National Ambient Air Quality Standards.”“More than 3,000 Mon Valley Works employees strive each day to ensure their role in the steelmaking process is done in the safest and most environmentally responsible manner,” a spokesperson said.Thomas, whose wife has been diagnosed with sarcoidosis—a disease marked by enlarged lymph nodes and lumps of inflammatory cells throughout the body, most often in the lungs—sees a relationship between his wife’s illness and the Coke Works as well as elevated rates of cancer and respiratory diseases that he’s observed in his hometown.“When I go to a class reunion, there will be more people there from out of town, out of state, than there are from Clairton,” he said. That’s in part because so many of his peers who stayed in town have died, he said. The estimated lifetime cancer risk for Clairton residents is 2.3 times the EPA’s acceptable limit, according to the investigative news site ProPublica, which attributes that excess risk primarily to industrial emissions from the Coke Works.“We’re in the top 1 percent for cancer in the United States. Our children have three times as much asthma as other people do in the United States. There’s a reason for it,” said Thomas, who is African American. “I think somebody needs to face up to the reason and get Clairton Coke Works and the rest of these industrial plants to live up to what they’re supposed to be doing.”Public health studies on Clairton and the effects of exposure to pollution from coke manufacturing bear out Thomas’ experiences.When the Shenango Coke Works, about 20 miles north of Clairton, closed in 2016, research showed an almost immediate decrease in emergency room visits and hospitalizations for cardiovascular problems. Comparing Clairton to the communities near the Shenango plant, the North Boroughs, from 2015 to 2016, shows that Clairton’s emergency room visits for respiratory and cardiovascular problems increased while the North Boroughs’ numbers declined by hundreds of visits.Advocates say the impact on children in Clairton is especially dire. “We know that children in particular are vulnerable and susceptible to the impacts of pollution in the air,” said Aimee VanCleave, director of advocacy for the American Lung Association in Pennsylvania. The ALA recently released a new report showing that the transition to electric vehicles and a renewable-powered electric grid would prevent 148,000 pediatric asthma attacks in Pennsylvania alone. “[Children] are at a greater risk anytime that air quality dips, just because they’re breathing in at a faster rate than adults are.”And children are also experiencing greater harms from climate change, said Laura Kate Bender, a national vice president at the lung association who focuses on healthy air.“Kids are not only more vulnerable to the impacts of air pollution from vehicles, but also to the impacts of climate change,” she said. “I think over the past year basically everyone we know has had a personal experience with the climate impact, whether it was wildfire smoke or an extreme storm or a heat wave. We know that’s especially harmful for kids.”A study led by Deborah Gentile, the medical director of Community Partners in Asthma Care, based in Southwestern Pennsylvania, found that nearly 24 percent of children living near the Coke Works had been diagnosed with asthma. Another 12 to 15 percent likely had asthma but hadn’t been officially diagnosed, Gentile said. Those rates are significantly higher than the rates of children’s asthma for Pennsylvania and for the U.S. as a whole.The study looked at stress levels and controlled for other factors like socioeconomic status and secondhand smoke. But that’s not what appeared to be behind the increased numbers. “What was driving it was their exposure to pollution, how close they live to the plant and whether they were in the wind direction of the plant,” Gentile said.There is evidence that air pollution not only exacerbates asthma in people who are already afflicted with the condition; it can also cause asthma to develop in the first place.“These particles are real small, and when you inhale, they go deep into your lungs,” Gentile said, causing inflammation and swelling and leading to permanent damage in some people. For children exposed to air pollution, this reaction, when it occurs, can have lifelong consequences. “In a child, their lungs are still developing. If they are exposed to something that causes inflammation, and they have scarring, that’s never going to be reversed,” Gentile said. “They are not going to achieve their full expected lung function.”For families dealing with pediatric asthma, like Germaine Gooden-Patterson’s clients in Clairton, the ramifications can be compounding, Gentile said.“The kids are missing school, the parents are missing work,” she said. “Parents run out of leave, and kids fall behind in school.” Asthma worsens at night, so children’s sleep also suffers. If their symptoms are not well-controlled, children with asthma often don’t participate in sports or get enough exercise, which puts them at risk for obesity and diabetes. When bad air days happen, children can’t play outside because exercising in an environment with poor air quality is especially dangerous for them, Gentile said.Gentile was encouraged by the EPA’s recent announcement that they would reduce the annual standard for PM 2.5 (tiny, inhalable airborne particles about one-thirtieth of the width of a human hair) from 12 micrograms per cubic meter down to 9 to 10. But she said it wasn’t enough, noting that the World Health Organization’s air quality guidelines set a recommended level of 5. From 2018 to 2021, Allegheny County met the EPA’s current standards for annual particle pollution with an average concentration of 11.2, but that level won’t meet the new standards. Clairton’s 2021 average for annual PM 2.5 pollution was 9.2, according to the Allegheny County Health Department.Research has shown that there is no safe level of PM 2.5.“That’s a great move in the right direction,” Gentile said of the new soot standard. “We’re still not there. We really have to be stricter with enforcing regulation. We have to do a better job at alerting residents.” The 2018 fire is one dramatic example of this failure; Gentile said Thomas’ complaint about the lack of communication after that event is widespread.Gooden-Patterson wants the plant to halt production on days when an inversion occurs, trapping pollution closer to the ground. Even when residents are warned about the air quality, they don’t always have the option to stay inside. “Some of us have to go outside. We have to work. Children have to go to school,” she said. Clairton Elementary School is less than a mile from the Coke Works.A recent Harvard University study found that children who were exposed to air pollution during the first three years of life had an increased risk of developing asthma. The researchers believe that being exposed to PM 2.5 or NO2 during their early years may play a role, according to the study that was published on Feb. 28 in the peer-reviewed journal JAMA Network Open.“For NO2 we found a 25 percent increase in asthma by age four and a 22 percent increase in asthma by age 11, and for PM 2.5, it was like 30 percent in asthma by age four and around 23 percent in asthma by age 11,” said Antonella Zanobetti, a principal research scientist at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “These are high percentages. These were really surprising.”Zanobetti said she and her fellow researchers found that Black children were at higher risk of developing asthma than white children. And they also examined neighborhood characteristics and found that children living in more densely populated areas with less resources were also at higher risk.This article originally appeared on Inside Climate News, a nonprofit, independent news organization that covers climate, energy and the environment. It is republished with permission. Sign up for their newsletter here.

Researchers found that the effectiveness of the Clean Air Act is often a function of race and socio-economic factors. In Clairton, Pennsylvania, residents say they see that firsthand.

Germaine Gooden-Patterson has lived in Clairton, Pennsylvania, for more than 15 years, but it wasn’t until she began a job as a community health worker in 2019 that she understood how much air pollution was affecting her neighbors’ lives—and her own.

Gooden-Patterson’s work for the Pittsburgh-based nonprofit Women for a Healthy Environment required her to visit homes in Clairton and the nearby towns of Duquesne and McKeesport, conducting surveys and interviews about air quality. As she spoke with families about air filters, lead and mold exposure, she realized that the large number of people she knew with asthma and other respiratory conditions may not be coincidental.

Clairton is home to the Clairton Coke Works, which was named the most toxic air polluter in Allegheny County in a 2021 report by PennEnvironment, an advocacy group focused on climate change issues in Pennsylvania.

The Coke Works is one of the world’s largest producers of coke, a coal derivative used to forge steel. Manufacturing coke leads to the emission of a raft of chemicals, including benzene, mercury, lead, toluene, styrene, sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide, a colorless, flammable gas with a pungent, rotten odor.

Around the time she moved to Clairton and gave birth to her third child, she said, she started to experience heart palpitations. Before, she attributed this symptom to being an older mom. “But once I started to learn about the effects that air pollution has on the cardio system, I put two and two together,” said Gooden-Patterson, 60.

Gooden-Patterson had commuted out of town for her previous job, but now she was spending much more of her time in Clairton, and she began to notice symptoms that she hadn’t before. During the COVID-19 pandemic, about a year into the job, she was diagnosed with environmental allergies. She said that smells from the Coke Works sometimes wake her up in the middle of the night, and the odors come with throat irritation, inflammation in her eyes and a burning in her nose.

“I can feel it on bad days,” she said, even though she has installed air filters in her home. “And I know that it’s connected.”

While lower pollution levels in communities across the nation have largely been attributed to the successful enforcement of the Clean Air Act, passed in 1970, researchers have found that some of the most persistently harmful air in America is present in communities that are predominantly made up of people of color or those with low incomes.

In Clairton, which is about 15 miles south of Pittsburgh on the Monongahela River, 40 percent of the population is African American and 23 percent live below the poverty line. The Coke Works, PennEnvironment found, was “in violation of the Clean Air Act in every quarter of the three years ending in March 2023″ and has been fined more than $10 million since 2018. While Allegheny County’s overall air quality has improved since the days of killer smog and afternoon skies blackened with soot, in places like Clairton, progress still feels a long way off.

After analyzing 40 years of data about changes in pollution in emissions, scientists at Columbia University found that “racial/ethnic and socioeconomic inequities in air pollution exposure persist across the US despite the nationwide downward trend in air pollution indicating inequities in air pollution emissions reductions.”

The findings, published in a peer-reviewed study in the journal Nature Communications, examined emissions data from 1970 to 2010 involving six major sources of air pollution, including the manufacturing industry, energy producers, farming and agriculture, and transportation. Commercial, and residential sources of pollution were also considered.

“We wanted to answer the question of whether decreases in emissions have been equitable across demographic groups,” said Yanelli Núñez, an environmental health scientist at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, who was the lead author of the study. “We found that the changes in emissions were influenced by a county’s socio-economic characteristics. We found racial, ethnic and economic disparities in the decreases of air pollution emissions.”

One of the researchers’ major findings, Núñez said, concerned the role of income as a factor in lower emissions. For example, she said, counties where the median income level increased from the national average of $49,000 to $100,000 saw a 100 percentage point decrease in the emissions of sulfur dioxide, which are given off when fuels containing sulfur are burned. The median household income in Clairton between 2018 and 2021 was $41,301.

“We found that the median household income plays a major role in the decrease of emissions for all pollution sectors, except agriculture,” said Núñez, who is also a scientist at PSE Healthy Energy, a nonprofit research institute. “The higher that income the larger the decrease in emissions.”

The study also noted differences in emissions as the racial and demographic make-up of various communities changed. An increase in the percentage of American Indian, Asian or Hispanic population in American communities typically resulted in an increase in the emission of NOx, or nitrogen oxides, which are commonly produced by vehicles and power plants.

“For instance,” the researchers wrote, “an increase in the Hispanic population percentage from the national average of 4.4% to 75% resulted in a 50 [percentage point] increase in the relative change of energy NOx emissions; and a decrease in county White percentage from the national average of 87% to 25% led to 12.5 [percentage point] increase in the relative emissions change.”

Núñez said that she and her colleagues hope their research illustrates the importance of ensuring that policies like the Clean Air Act are implemented evenly across racial and socio-economic lines.

She added: “The results show that policies, although they benefit everyone, don’t necessarily benefit everyone equitably.”

One of Gooden-Patterson’s neighbors, Art Thomas, doesn’t need to be reminded of the importance of equity. Thomas, 79, has lived in Clairton for his entire life, and worked for U.S. Steel for decades.

Thomas said that many Clairton residents have gotten used to the smells from the plant after years of breathing polluted air. “You see the commercial on TV where a woman walks into her son’s room and it stinks, and he can’t smell nothing,” he said. “I think a lot of people in Clairton are nose blind.”

“When I can really smell it, I know it’s really bad,” he said. “There’s a movie called “The Deer Hunter” that was made in Duquesne and Clairton. And in that movie, they call Clairton, ‘the armpit of the universe.’ And that’s how I feel.”

Six years ago, when a fire broke out at the Coke Works, shutting down the plant’s pollution controls for months and leading to spiking emissions of chemicals like sulfur dioxide, Thomas said he didn’t find out about it until three weeks later, when he happened to see a news report on television.

“You realize you’re having trouble breathing, sleeping,” he said in a recent phone interview. “Here I am, living in the middle of what might as well be called a war zone, and I can’t find out that my life is in danger, my wife’s life is in danger from breathing this stuff, until three weeks after breathing it. It’s ridiculous.”

U.S. Steel recently reached a $42 million settlement with Allegheny County, PennEnvironment and the Clean Air Council after a lawsuit was filed under the Clean Air Act following the 2018 fire. As part of the agreement, U.S. Steel must pay a $5 million penalty, which PennEnvironment called “by far the largest in a Clean Air Act citizen enforcement suit in Pennsylvania history” and one of the largest nationally as well. A 2021 study found that asthma symptoms were exacerbated for people living near the Coke Works in the weeks after the fire, and another study found that for Clairton residents, emergency and outpatient visits for asthma doubled after the fire.

In a previous statement to Inside Climate News about the Coke Works, U.S. Steel said that the company has “a compliance rate over 99 percent and attainment with all National Ambient Air Quality Standards.”

“More than 3,000 Mon Valley Works employees strive each day to ensure their role in the steelmaking process is done in the safest and most environmentally responsible manner,” a spokesperson said.

Thomas, whose wife has been diagnosed with sarcoidosis—a disease marked by enlarged lymph nodes and lumps of inflammatory cells throughout the body, most often in the lungs—sees a relationship between his wife’s illness and the Coke Works as well as elevated rates of cancer and respiratory diseases that he’s observed in his hometown.

“When I go to a class reunion, there will be more people there from out of town, out of state, than there are from Clairton,” he said. That’s in part because so many of his peers who stayed in town have died, he said. The estimated lifetime cancer risk for Clairton residents is 2.3 times the EPA’s acceptable limit, according to the investigative news site ProPublica, which attributes that excess risk primarily to industrial emissions from the Coke Works.

“We’re in the top 1 percent for cancer in the United States. Our children have three times as much asthma as other people do in the United States. There’s a reason for it,” said Thomas, who is African American. “I think somebody needs to face up to the reason and get Clairton Coke Works and the rest of these industrial plants to live up to what they’re supposed to be doing.”

Public health studies on Clairton and the effects of exposure to pollution from coke manufacturing bear out Thomas’ experiences.

When the Shenango Coke Works, about 20 miles north of Clairton, closed in 2016, research showed an almost immediate decrease in emergency room visits and hospitalizations for cardiovascular problems. Comparing Clairton to the communities near the Shenango plant, the North Boroughs, from 2015 to 2016, shows that Clairton’s emergency room visits for respiratory and cardiovascular problems increased while the North Boroughs’ numbers declined by hundreds of visits.

Advocates say the impact on children in Clairton is especially dire. “We know that children in particular are vulnerable and susceptible to the impacts of pollution in the air,” said Aimee VanCleave, director of advocacy for the American Lung Association in Pennsylvania. The ALA recently released a new report showing that the transition to electric vehicles and a renewable-powered electric grid would prevent 148,000 pediatric asthma attacks in Pennsylvania alone. “[Children] are at a greater risk anytime that air quality dips, just because they’re breathing in at a faster rate than adults are.”

And children are also experiencing greater harms from climate change, said Laura Kate Bender, a national vice president at the lung association who focuses on healthy air.

“Kids are not only more vulnerable to the impacts of air pollution from vehicles, but also to the impacts of climate change,” she said. “I think over the past year basically everyone we know has had a personal experience with the climate impact, whether it was wildfire smoke or an extreme storm or a heat wave. We know that’s especially harmful for kids.”

A study led by Deborah Gentile, the medical director of Community Partners in Asthma Care, based in Southwestern Pennsylvania, found that nearly 24 percent of children living near the Coke Works had been diagnosed with asthma. Another 12 to 15 percent likely had asthma but hadn’t been officially diagnosed, Gentile said. Those rates are significantly higher than the rates of children’s asthma for Pennsylvania and for the U.S. as a whole.

The study looked at stress levels and controlled for other factors like socioeconomic status and secondhand smoke. But that’s not what appeared to be behind the increased numbers. “What was driving it was their exposure to pollution, how close they live to the plant and whether they were in the wind direction of the plant,” Gentile said.

There is evidence that air pollution not only exacerbates asthma in people who are already afflicted with the condition; it can also cause asthma to develop in the first place.

“These particles are real small, and when you inhale, they go deep into your lungs,” Gentile said, causing inflammation and swelling and leading to permanent damage in some people. For children exposed to air pollution, this reaction, when it occurs, can have lifelong consequences. “In a child, their lungs are still developing. If they are exposed to something that causes inflammation, and they have scarring, that’s never going to be reversed,” Gentile said. “They are not going to achieve their full expected lung function.”

For families dealing with pediatric asthma, like Germaine Gooden-Patterson’s clients in Clairton, the ramifications can be compounding, Gentile said.

“The kids are missing school, the parents are missing work,” she said. “Parents run out of leave, and kids fall behind in school.” Asthma worsens at night, so children’s sleep also suffers. If their symptoms are not well-controlled, children with asthma often don’t participate in sports or get enough exercise, which puts them at risk for obesity and diabetes. When bad air days happen, children can’t play outside because exercising in an environment with poor air quality is especially dangerous for them, Gentile said.

Gentile was encouraged by the EPA’s recent announcement that they would reduce the annual standard for PM 2.5 (tiny, inhalable airborne particles about one-thirtieth of the width of a human hair) from 12 micrograms per cubic meter down to 9 to 10. But she said it wasn’t enough, noting that the World Health Organization’s air quality guidelines set a recommended level of 5. From 2018 to 2021, Allegheny County met the EPA’s current standards for annual particle pollution with an average concentration of 11.2, but that level won’t meet the new standards. Clairton’s 2021 average for annual PM 2.5 pollution was 9.2, according to the Allegheny County Health Department.

Research has shown that there is no safe level of PM 2.5.

“That’s a great move in the right direction,” Gentile said of the new soot standard. “We’re still not there. We really have to be stricter with enforcing regulation. We have to do a better job at alerting residents.” The 2018 fire is one dramatic example of this failure; Gentile said Thomas’ complaint about the lack of communication after that event is widespread.

Gooden-Patterson wants the plant to halt production on days when an inversion occurs, trapping pollution closer to the ground. Even when residents are warned about the air quality, they don’t always have the option to stay inside. “Some of us have to go outside. We have to work. Children have to go to school,” she said. Clairton Elementary School is less than a mile from the Coke Works.

A recent Harvard University study found that children who were exposed to air pollution during the first three years of life had an increased risk of developing asthma. The researchers believe that being exposed to PM 2.5 or NO2 during their early years may play a role, according to the study that was published on Feb. 28 in the peer-reviewed journal JAMA Network Open.

“For NO2 we found a 25 percent increase in asthma by age four and a 22 percent increase in asthma by age 11, and for PM 2.5, it was like 30 percent in asthma by age four and around 23 percent in asthma by age 11,” said Antonella Zanobetti, a principal research scientist at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “These are high percentages. These were really surprising.”

Zanobetti said she and her fellow researchers found that Black children were at higher risk of developing asthma than white children. And they also examined neighborhood characteristics and found that children living in more densely populated areas with less resources were also at higher risk.

This article originally appeared on Inside Climate News, a nonprofit, independent news organization that covers climate, energy and the environment. It is republished with permission. Sign up for their newsletter here.

Read the full story here.
Photos courtesy of

How Pig Welfare Became a States’ Rights Issue

This week, the House Agriculture Committee approved a version of the farm bill, the sprawling piece of recurring legislation governing federal agriculture, conservation, and nutrition policy. Written by House Republicans, the bill was approved largely along party lines, with four Democrats joining all GOP committee members in voting to advance the measure.This will likely not be the final form of the farm bill, which is approved roughly every five years in Congress. Most Democrats have bristled at the Republicans’ proposal, arguing that it is overly partisan; they are particularly concerned about how food stamp benefits would be calculated and rescissions to the Inflation Reduction Act, Democrats’ seminal climate policy bill, which passed in 2022.The GOP farm bill would divert unspent IRA conservation funds to other priorities, out of a belief that climate-related policy should be determined by the states, rather than the federal government mandating farming practices that reduce emissions.“Every state is different, because every state has different soil types, commodities, climate, weather patterns,” Representative Glenn “GT” Thompson, the Republican chair of the House Agriculture Committee, told me on Thursday. “We’ve always known that the most successful conservation investments are those that are locally led, incentive-based, and voluntary.”But another element of the Republican bill would overturn a California state law that requires some meat products sold in the state to be produced under certain welfare standards. The potential ramifications of this California law, known as Prop 12, extend beyond agriculture. Opponents say that it would inhibit other states’ ability to implement their own regulatory policy.“States would no longer be able to set consistent standards for meat and dairy products sold or consumed within their borders, potentially disadvantaging in-state producers, creating deregulatory pressure, and increasing food safety and quality risks,” said Kelley McGill, a legislative policy fellow at the Harvard Animal Law and Policy Clinic, in an email.In 2018, California voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 12, a ballot initiative that established housing standards for certain livestock. Prop 12 requires that farmers provide a minimum amount of space for laying hens, breeding pigs, and calves raised for veal, as well as specifically banning gestation crates, cages that are too small for pregnant pigs to even turn around in. This mandate applies to all covered products sold in California, and so affects producers outside of the state. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Prop 12, after out-of-state pork producers attempted to block it through litigation.“Companies that choose to sell products in various states must normally comply with the laws of those various states,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion. “While the Constitution addresses many weighty issues, the type of pork chops California merchants may sell is not on that list.”Shortly thereafter, Republican members of Congress introduced the Ending Agriculture Trade Suppression, or EATS, Act, legislation that would prohibit one state from regulating farming practices for food produced in another. Similar language was incorporated in the text of the House farm bill, which declares that “no state or subdivision thereof may enact or enforce, directly or indirectly, a condition or standard on the production of covered livestock other than for covered livestock physically raised in such state or subdivision.”Rather than infringing on a state’s ability to determine its own regulatory standards, Thompson argued that this provision was in keeping with the redirecting of conservation funds, as a victory for states’ rights. “We respect [that] a state can mandate, intrastate, their own agricultural practices, but they can’t dictate to other states,” Thompson said.Opposition to Prop 12 does not fall neatly along party lines. In February, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told the House Agriculture Committee that there would be “chaos” in the market if other states followed California’s lead. Vilsack later argued before the Senate Agriculture Committee that the California market is so large, out-of-state producers functionally have no choice to opt out of the state’s requirements.“When you’re dealing with 12 percent of the pork market in one state, there is not a choice between doing business with California and not in California,” Vilsack said. “At some point in time, somebody’s got to provide some degree of consistency and clarity. Otherwise, you are just inviting 50 different states to do 50 different iterations of this.But California’s law is not wholly unique. While Prop 12 has been the leading example of influential state policy, 14 other states have also passed laws banning certain types of confinement for livestock or instituting regulations for animal enclosures; like California, Massachusetts also approved similar policy by ballot measure. “The long-standing status quo under our federalist system,” McGill said, “is for states to be able to regulate products that enter their borders—so long as such regulations do not impermissibly discriminate—and states have long exercised that right across many aspects of agricultural production and points all along the food supply chain. Prop 12 will lead to no more chaos than will those existing state provisions.”Experts further warn that overturning Prop 12 might not mitigate the regulatory chaos. In a November open letter sent to congressional leaders, 30 law professors warned the EATS Act would “initiate years of lengthy court battles to resolve the act’s constitutionality and derive the act’s scope, as well as an endless flood of concurrent challenges to innumerable state and local laws.” Overturning Prop 12 via legislation “would create a staggeringly uncertain legal and regulatory landscape,” the letter said. “The result would surely be an unprecedented chilling of state and local legislation on matters historically regulated at the state and local level.”Producers are also divided on on Prop 12. The National Pork Producers Council vehemently opposes the policy, as do other large agricultural coalitions; but some individual producers are in favor of Prop 12, in part because they believe it’s better for smaller farms that have been pushed out by the large-scale pork production industry. Other producers have already invested significant funds in preparing their farms to meet Prop 12’s requirements.Thompson believes that heeding these standards results in higher costs, which then leads to poor and middle-income Americans being unable to purchase pork products. “When people can’t afford their bacon, they’re going to rise up, and there will be a future proposition that repeals it,” Thompson predicted about the future of Prop 12 in California.A September survey by Purdue University’s Center for Food Demand Analysis and Sustainability found that 32 percent of consumers would decrease their purchases of pork products due to a general price increase. However, when respondents were asked about price increases due to Prop 12, fewer consumers said they would decrease spending on pork if they knew the cost hikes were related to animal welfare. A 2022 poll by Data for Progress, a liberal think tank, further found that 80 percent of likely voters believe farm animal welfare is a moral concern.The farm bill provision that would overturn Prop 12 also has potential ramifications for health outcomes: In a 2022 amicus brief to the Supreme Court, several public health organizations and experts wrote that Prop 12’s requirements “protect the health and safety of Californians.” Intensive confinement of pigs results in weaker immune systems and increased growth of pathogens, and the close quarters of gestation cages “facilitates the transmission and mutation of pathogens into more virulent forms that can be transmitted to and sicken, or even kill, humans.”Although the provision in the farm bill is slightly narrower than the language of the EATS Act, McGill warned that its passage could make it more difficult for states to regulate “the sale of meat and dairy products produced from animals exposed to disease, with the use of certain harmful animal drugs, or through novel biotechnologies like cloning, as well as adjacent production standards involving labor, environmental, or cleanliness conditions.” Those who think Prop 12 shouldn’t be overturned thus worry about the ramifications not only for animals but for the humans consuming meat products.It’s unclear whether this provision will end up in the final version of the farm bill—it has significant opposition from hundreds of Democrats in Congress, as well as some Republicans, which could ultimately result in it being excised from the final bill. But Senator John Boozman, the Republican ranking member of the Agriculture Committee, noted that Congress has the authority to legislate on an issue after the Supreme Court has made a decision; if it’s removed from the final text of the farm bill, there’s still an opportunity for supporters to append it. “We’ll either have it in the base bill, or it will come up as an amendment,” Boozman said.

This week, the House Agriculture Committee approved a version of the farm bill, the sprawling piece of recurring legislation governing federal agriculture, conservation, and nutrition policy. Written by House Republicans, the bill was approved largely along party lines, with four Democrats joining all GOP committee members in voting to advance the measure.This will likely not be the final form of the farm bill, which is approved roughly every five years in Congress. Most Democrats have bristled at the Republicans’ proposal, arguing that it is overly partisan; they are particularly concerned about how food stamp benefits would be calculated and rescissions to the Inflation Reduction Act, Democrats’ seminal climate policy bill, which passed in 2022.The GOP farm bill would divert unspent IRA conservation funds to other priorities, out of a belief that climate-related policy should be determined by the states, rather than the federal government mandating farming practices that reduce emissions.“Every state is different, because every state has different soil types, commodities, climate, weather patterns,” Representative Glenn “GT” Thompson, the Republican chair of the House Agriculture Committee, told me on Thursday. “We’ve always known that the most successful conservation investments are those that are locally led, incentive-based, and voluntary.”But another element of the Republican bill would overturn a California state law that requires some meat products sold in the state to be produced under certain welfare standards. The potential ramifications of this California law, known as Prop 12, extend beyond agriculture. Opponents say that it would inhibit other states’ ability to implement their own regulatory policy.“States would no longer be able to set consistent standards for meat and dairy products sold or consumed within their borders, potentially disadvantaging in-state producers, creating deregulatory pressure, and increasing food safety and quality risks,” said Kelley McGill, a legislative policy fellow at the Harvard Animal Law and Policy Clinic, in an email.In 2018, California voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 12, a ballot initiative that established housing standards for certain livestock. Prop 12 requires that farmers provide a minimum amount of space for laying hens, breeding pigs, and calves raised for veal, as well as specifically banning gestation crates, cages that are too small for pregnant pigs to even turn around in. This mandate applies to all covered products sold in California, and so affects producers outside of the state. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Prop 12, after out-of-state pork producers attempted to block it through litigation.“Companies that choose to sell products in various states must normally comply with the laws of those various states,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion. “While the Constitution addresses many weighty issues, the type of pork chops California merchants may sell is not on that list.”Shortly thereafter, Republican members of Congress introduced the Ending Agriculture Trade Suppression, or EATS, Act, legislation that would prohibit one state from regulating farming practices for food produced in another. Similar language was incorporated in the text of the House farm bill, which declares that “no state or subdivision thereof may enact or enforce, directly or indirectly, a condition or standard on the production of covered livestock other than for covered livestock physically raised in such state or subdivision.”Rather than infringing on a state’s ability to determine its own regulatory standards, Thompson argued that this provision was in keeping with the redirecting of conservation funds, as a victory for states’ rights. “We respect [that] a state can mandate, intrastate, their own agricultural practices, but they can’t dictate to other states,” Thompson said.Opposition to Prop 12 does not fall neatly along party lines. In February, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told the House Agriculture Committee that there would be “chaos” in the market if other states followed California’s lead. Vilsack later argued before the Senate Agriculture Committee that the California market is so large, out-of-state producers functionally have no choice to opt out of the state’s requirements.“When you’re dealing with 12 percent of the pork market in one state, there is not a choice between doing business with California and not in California,” Vilsack said. “At some point in time, somebody’s got to provide some degree of consistency and clarity. Otherwise, you are just inviting 50 different states to do 50 different iterations of this.But California’s law is not wholly unique. While Prop 12 has been the leading example of influential state policy, 14 other states have also passed laws banning certain types of confinement for livestock or instituting regulations for animal enclosures; like California, Massachusetts also approved similar policy by ballot measure. “The long-standing status quo under our federalist system,” McGill said, “is for states to be able to regulate products that enter their borders—so long as such regulations do not impermissibly discriminate—and states have long exercised that right across many aspects of agricultural production and points all along the food supply chain. Prop 12 will lead to no more chaos than will those existing state provisions.”Experts further warn that overturning Prop 12 might not mitigate the regulatory chaos. In a November open letter sent to congressional leaders, 30 law professors warned the EATS Act would “initiate years of lengthy court battles to resolve the act’s constitutionality and derive the act’s scope, as well as an endless flood of concurrent challenges to innumerable state and local laws.” Overturning Prop 12 via legislation “would create a staggeringly uncertain legal and regulatory landscape,” the letter said. “The result would surely be an unprecedented chilling of state and local legislation on matters historically regulated at the state and local level.”Producers are also divided on on Prop 12. The National Pork Producers Council vehemently opposes the policy, as do other large agricultural coalitions; but some individual producers are in favor of Prop 12, in part because they believe it’s better for smaller farms that have been pushed out by the large-scale pork production industry. Other producers have already invested significant funds in preparing their farms to meet Prop 12’s requirements.Thompson believes that heeding these standards results in higher costs, which then leads to poor and middle-income Americans being unable to purchase pork products. “When people can’t afford their bacon, they’re going to rise up, and there will be a future proposition that repeals it,” Thompson predicted about the future of Prop 12 in California.A September survey by Purdue University’s Center for Food Demand Analysis and Sustainability found that 32 percent of consumers would decrease their purchases of pork products due to a general price increase. However, when respondents were asked about price increases due to Prop 12, fewer consumers said they would decrease spending on pork if they knew the cost hikes were related to animal welfare. A 2022 poll by Data for Progress, a liberal think tank, further found that 80 percent of likely voters believe farm animal welfare is a moral concern.The farm bill provision that would overturn Prop 12 also has potential ramifications for health outcomes: In a 2022 amicus brief to the Supreme Court, several public health organizations and experts wrote that Prop 12’s requirements “protect the health and safety of Californians.” Intensive confinement of pigs results in weaker immune systems and increased growth of pathogens, and the close quarters of gestation cages “facilitates the transmission and mutation of pathogens into more virulent forms that can be transmitted to and sicken, or even kill, humans.”Although the provision in the farm bill is slightly narrower than the language of the EATS Act, McGill warned that its passage could make it more difficult for states to regulate “the sale of meat and dairy products produced from animals exposed to disease, with the use of certain harmful animal drugs, or through novel biotechnologies like cloning, as well as adjacent production standards involving labor, environmental, or cleanliness conditions.” Those who think Prop 12 shouldn’t be overturned thus worry about the ramifications not only for animals but for the humans consuming meat products.It’s unclear whether this provision will end up in the final version of the farm bill—it has significant opposition from hundreds of Democrats in Congress, as well as some Republicans, which could ultimately result in it being excised from the final bill. But Senator John Boozman, the Republican ranking member of the Agriculture Committee, noted that Congress has the authority to legislate on an issue after the Supreme Court has made a decision; if it’s removed from the final text of the farm bill, there’s still an opportunity for supporters to append it. “We’ll either have it in the base bill, or it will come up as an amendment,” Boozman said.

Nature’s ghosts: how reviving medieval farming offers wildlife an unexpected haven

Agriculture is often seen as the enemy of biodiversity, but in an excerpt from her new book Sophie Yeo explains how techniques from the middle ages allow plants and animals to flourishThe Vile clings on to the edge of the Gower peninsula. Its fields are lined up like strips of carpet, together leading to the edge of the cliff that drops into the sea. Each one is tiny, around 1-2 acres. From the sky, they look like airport runways, although this comparison would have seemed nonsensical to those who tended them for most of their existence.That is because the Vile is special: a working example of how much of Britain would have been farmed during the middle ages. Farmers have most likely been trying to tame this promontory since before the Norman conquest. Continue reading...

The Vile clings on to the edge of the Gower peninsula. Its fields are lined up like strips of carpet, together leading to the edge of the cliff that drops into the sea. Each one is tiny, around 1-2 acres. From the sky, they look like airport runways, although this comparison would have seemed nonsensical to those who tended them for most of their existence.That is because the Vile is special: a working example of how much of Britain would have been farmed during the middle ages. Farmers have most likely been trying to tame this promontory since before the Norman conquest.The fields have retained their old names, speaking to a long history of struggle against the soil. Stoneyland. Sandyland. Bramble Bush. Mounds of soil known as “baulks” separate one strip from the next. During the summer months, linseed and sweet clover paint the landscape with stripes of bright yellow and cotton-blue, recreating a scene that had occurred here for many of the last thousand summers. On the edge of the promontory were the hay meadows, almost ready to burst with pollen and petals.The Vile is a rare example of the open-field system: a method of communal agriculture once practised across Europe. Under this system, each farmer attended his own strip of land, with the members of the village coming together more widely to cooperate and plan a healthy harvest. Remnants of such farms survive as shadows and undulations across the countryside today, showing the paths of ox-drawn ploughs as they moved up and down the fields, pushing the soil to the side as they went.Weasels darted across the paths and whitethroats sang from the thistlesFarming is often seen as inimical to biodiversity, but these thin strips of land tell a more complex story. In the nooks and crannies of medieval farms, like the Vile, a wide range of plants and animals would have found the conditions they needed to survive. Ground-nesting birds could find cover and camouflage in the fields left fallow – something that was done every few years to allow the soil to recover. Baulks offered safe passage to small mammals as they navigated the cultivated land. The naturalist Colin Tubbs, in a survey of Hampshire, found that only a third of the county’s birds were adapted to woodland, with the rest preferring open, marsh, coastal or riverine habitats. Farmers “inherited the flora and fauna of the more ancient habitats, and indeed, in modifying the landscapes from which they derived, they may have increased plant and animal diversity,” he wrote.A field of lavender on the Vile above Fall bay, Rhossili, planted in summer 2019 to encourage pollinating insects. Photograph: Holden Wildlife/AlamyThe road that leads to the cliffs is narrow, bounded by stone walls and hedgerows. It would not easily admit the kind of heavy machinery that has pounded the rest of the countryside into submission. Even so, the Vile did not emerge completely unscathed from Britain’s postwar drive for agricultural efficiency. Certain strips were amalgamated into larger fields, baulks flattened to make way for more crops and larger equipment. When the National Trust bought the land in 1970, it was well on the way to looking like a modern farm. For years after that, a dual system remained in place: some tenants worked to extract the maximum yield from the expanded fields while others kept their medieval strips. Around 2013, however, those tenancies started to come to an end, and an unusual experiment got under way. The Trust decided to restore the Vile to how it would have looked during medieval times.Volunteers rebuilt the baulks, removed the contaminated topsoil and reseeded the earth, creating the conditions for flora and fauna to flourish once again. Farming continued but with renewed purpose: the yield they were pursuing this time was not crops but nature. Wildlife returned quickly to the peninsula. Weasels darted across the paths and whitethroats sang from the thistles. Hen harriers returned to hunt in the fields left fallow and the predatory larvae of oil beetles lay in wait for bees upon the flowers. Common fumitory and mustard sprang up from the disturbed soils. In the meadows, knapweed, speedwell and eyebright bloom. “It doesn’t take much to reverse things from where we are,” said Mark Hipkin, a National Trust ranger.Today, agriculture has reached an industrial level and almost all of Britain’s hay meadows have vanished. Modern livestock are fattened on ryegrass that has been pickled into silage. Ryegrass grows thickly, smothering most other species, and matures quickly, allowing farmers to take a cut before any survivors have set seed. This has led to widespread botanical decline. With the average farmer no longer relying on hay to see their animals through the winter, the care of the meadows that remain has fallen to ecologically minded throwbacks, farmers collecting special subsidies or conservation charities such as the National Trust.The Vile is an interesting experiment, but no one – not even the National Trust – claims that the revival of medieval agriculture can feed the world. There are tens of millions more mouths to feed now than during the middle ages. That doesn’t mean that there are no lessons to be learned from these strange weather-beaten strips.By taking on the role of megafauna and preventing the domination of closed-canopy forest, early farmers carved out space for open-land species that would otherwise have been lost to the darkness. Though obviously not a perfect replica of the prehistoric ecosystems, small-scale farming recreates something of the disturbance and complexity that would have enabled so many species to thrive before the advent of agriculture. Human-created landscapes need not be the enemy of nature, not even when they are also producing food. By reintroducing some of that old diversity into the modern farmed landscape, some of the riotousness of those medieval fields may too be restored.Tourists visit the sunflower fields in Rhossili. Photograph: Robert Melen/AlamyHowever, as a model for the wider restoration of small-scale farming, the greatest drawback of the Vile is that it is essentially a nature conservation project. The land is not farmed to produce calories or turn a profit, but to support declining wildlife. Half the crop is left standing as food for the birds.This is in stark contrast to the function of such farms in centuries past, when productivity was a question of life or death. Nature was just the byproduct of the need to produce food. During the 1700s, for instance, there were meadows in Islington, Paddington and St Pancras. These existed to fulfil an agricultural purpose, not because the residents of the city had a particular fondness for wild flowers. A kind of culture emerged around such fields: agricultural handbooks from the time show that football games and bull-baiting events were organised to destroy moss, drive away moles and trample seeds into the soil.It is this kind of practical entanglement with the land that can produce some of the greatest returns for nature. Studies suggest that hay meadows managed for nature are ultimately poorer in species than those tended to produce winter fodder. This is because the decisions of a hundred individual farmers, tailored to the precise conditions of their land – soil, shelter, wind direction, altitude – create more diverse landscapes than a set of centralised rules.In some cases, payments designed to protect nature have even had the opposite effect. In the stretch of the Carpathians that crosses into the Czech Republic, for instance, the threatened Danube clouded yellow butterfly was wiped out from its stronghold after the introduction of a regimented, twice-a-year mowing regime – an initiative spurred on by the introduction of EU environmental subsidies.Conservationists may have saved the last of Britain’s meadows. But, as far as nature is concerned, the old ways are often still the best ways.

House Republicans' farm bill proposal 'robs Peter to pay Paul,' Agriculture secretary says

The House Agriculture committee is trying to fund its farm bill proposals with “counterfeit money,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters on Wednesday morning. Vilsack spoke after a range of groups from across the political spectrum criticized House Republicans’ proposed farm bill, which seeks to direct tens of billions to subsidies for farmers of peanuts, rice and...

The House Agriculture committee is trying to fund its farm bill proposals with “counterfeit money,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters on Wednesday morning. Vilsack spoke after a range of groups from across the political spectrum criticized House Republicans’ proposed farm bill, which seeks to direct tens of billions to subsidies for farmers of peanuts, rice and cotton. House Agriculture Committee Chair Glenn “G.T” Thompson (R-Pa.) told reporters that these increases — which he said were necessary to make up for rising costs of inputs like fuel and fertilizer — would be paid for by freezing increases to food aid, and by cuts to the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC), which allows administrations to make emergency loans. But Vilsack noted that the Congressional Budget Office has found that these cuts — which are deeply unpopular among Democrats — fall well short of what is needed to pay for Thompson’s proposed increases. Thompson’s camp disputes these findings, and The Hill has reached out for further clarification. The House, Vilsack said, “doesn’t have the resources, if they follow the rules, to be able to do everything that they're doing.” “You can’t rob Peter to pay Paul,” he added. The House bill, unveiled by Thompson last week, would increase the “reference prices” for cotton, peanuts and rice. Analysis from the Environmental Working Group suggests those changes would lead to farmers of those commodities getting paid out over the next five years no matter what. That plus proposed increases to crop insurance could cost between $50 and $100 billion — though the Congressional Budget Office doesn’t yet have firm numbers, and may not have them before the current farm bill expires. That price tag poses a serious challenge for the House, because Congress has said this farm bill must be “budget neutral,” meaning that additions in one area must be balanced by cuts in another. The trouble, Vilsack argued, was that the “creative math” in the House Agriculture Committee's bill doesn’t work. He compared the plan to a parent who “at Christmas time you go out and buy all the gifts on credit. And then the bill come due in January and then you'd have to really tighten the belt and you have to make serious sacrifices, which nobody likes.” In the upper chamber, Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Minn.) has run up against the same dilemma, but taken a different — though similarly fraught — approach: Her committee’s bill is up to $20 billion over the budget, and she plans to ask Congress for more money. “She basically went to the leadership and said I need additional money … to be able to raise reference prices to be able to satisfy some of the concerns that have been expressed by folks out in the countryside,” Vilsack said. “Why aren't we seeing that from the majority?” The situation, the secretary stressed, is urgent. The failure of last year’s farm bill amid the chaos in the House meant that the bill — usually passed every five years — was thrown into limbo. Last September, as the five-year bill expired, Congress passed a one-year supplemental that kept all programs running at their previous levels — but left the broader trajectory of American agriculture in doubt. As Democrats’ and Republicans’ mutually exclusive red lines on the issue loom over the process of negotiating a new farm bill, and the possibility of a second failure looms, long-term planning is becoming ever more difficult for farmers, bankers and conservationists. All those camps, Vilsack said, “want the same thing: they want to know what the rules of the road are going to be for the next five years.  “So the failure to get the farm bill done, makes it more difficult for farmers, for rural communities for businesses to be able to plan and to be able to implement in order to create economic opportunities.” In comments after Vilsack's call, Thompson fired back, calling it an "eleventh hour push" and defending both the cutbacks to the CCC and the savings they would yield. Thompson accused the secretary of using "every penny of the borrowing authority made available to him to circumvent Congress if left unchecked," and said his committee was "reasserting Congress’ authority over the Commodity Credit Corporation, which will bring reckless administrative spending under control and provides funding for key bipartisan priorities in the farm bill." “Funding the farm bill is always a puzzle, and finding the right pieces to produce a strong farm bill has been tricky but also a worthwhile," he said. “The sudden rancor on using the CCC as a pay-for is nothing more than the latest partisan attempt to divide our committee and slow down progress on passing a farm bill.”

LISTEN: Liliana Sierra Castillo on blue justice

Liliana Sierra Castillo joins the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast to discuss the concept of blue justice and how the expansion of aquaculture impacts small-scale fishery communities.Sierra Castillo, a current Agents of Change fellow and Ph.D. candidate at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara, also talks about how she became passionate about oceans, how we can rethink marine protected areas to center communities, and how meaningful it is for her to do research in her native Honduras.The Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast is a biweekly podcast featuring the stories and big ideas from past and present fellows, as well as others in the field. You can see all of the past episodes here.Listen below to our discussion with Sierra Castillo and subscribe to the podcast at iTunes or Spotify.Agents of Change in Environmental Justice · Liliana Sierra Castillo on blue justiceTranscriptBrian BienkowskiThank you so much for taking time to meet with me today. I'm really excited to have you on your work when I was doing a little research for this. It's different than other fellows we've had. And I'm really excited to talk about what you're doing. But as you may know, I'd like to start way at the beginning. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your childhood and where an interest in the environment came into your life?Liliana Sierra Castillo Yeah, of course. So I'm originally from Honduras. And it's funny because even when I was a child, my parents don't really live near the oceans. They live in the capital. But even when I was like, I remember specifically, I was like in second grade, and we did an essay. And it just fascinated me to know, when my professor was giving feedback that we know more about the moon, that about the ocean. And I think that just stuck in my head forever. And then at that moment, I decided I wanted to be a marine biologist, even though I didn't know what that meant. And then I guess I had the privilege that my parents were capable of taking us to like the beach around the country and exploring. I just, it's always fascinating, like how vast and amazing the ocean is. Because that's how it all started.Brian Bienkowski That's awesome. I grew up in the in Michigan, in the Great Lakes region, so not oceans, but really large lakes where you can't you know, you can't see the end of them. They're massive. And I just remember my whole life, no matter how many times I visited them, it always kind of blew me away or gave me this feeling of inspiration every time I see them. And it still does it to this day. And I don't know, do oceans. Do oceans do that for you? Do you still get kind of a sense of awe even though you've been working with them for so long?Liliana Sierra Castillo Yeah, definitely. I feel these day like every time I walk past an ocean, as you're saying, like, I am just in awe how big it is and how much it is that we don't know. And I guess now, in the past 10 years or so that I've I've started working more on the human dimensions parts of oceans. It's more of like, wow, we have so much of these, like space and water and things but like, so much people are being affected by your kind of like that more critical analysis. I think that is also like it's more of an inspiration in that way as well.Brian Bienkowski For sure. And maybe maybe there's some overlap in this question. Since we've been talking about your your love of oceans, but you started your university studies at the National Autonomous University of Honduras in marine biology. So what was it specifically about oceans? Was it you know, fisheries? Was it how humans interact with them? Was it about their vastness or you know, all of the above.Liliana Sierra Castillo So, it's funny because as many marine biology programs, my undergrad was very much like ecology focus. And then my last quarter I took a the only fishery class. But at that moment, I still thought in my mind that I wanted to be a dolphin trainer. That was like my life goal. And then I was very lucky to have we have in that program for you to graduate, you have to do a professional internship. And so I got the super cool experience of working with the World Wildlife Fund in a bay area called Cortés*, which on the northern coast. And for six months, I was just working with fishery communities. And I was like, Okay, this is what I want to do, like, you know, those things are cool, but it's not like, and I discovered, like, you know, I really love the intersections of like, I get to be in the ocean and be in that moment, I used to be covered a lot in fish blog. So I was like, clean to the fisherman. And I love talking with people and like learning what they were doing. And I also found that I love, like, figuring out how to like, give back the results, right? that I'm learning from analysis back to the communities and all that like connection of cycles and turn it into, like management tools. And so yeah, I guess like it was, the university gave me the basic tools, and then this experience of the internship that kind of changed everything.Brian Bienkowski Well, these coastal communities, it's not just a, it's not just this natural wonder, like we were talking about, but it's so intertwined with culture and economics. And, you know, we're gonna get into a lot of that today with a lot of the work that you're doing. So it goes much further beyond as well, that's really pretty. It's so you know, intertwined with these coastal communities. So, before we get to your research, I want to know, a moment or event that has helped shape your identity up to this point.Liliana Sierra Castillo Yeah, I still, so I think for me, it happened again, in this internship. So this was like 10 years ago. And again, I had since from that moment, before that moment training on like, sadly, a lot of like, environmental classes are very much like, you know, we need pristine nature, we need everything to be protected, and all that, right. So I came up with that mentality. And I remember the first day, on the field with these fishery communities, I was with this fisherman who sadly has passed. Now he passed away, which is very sad. But I still remember he told me, you know, like, so what's the point of like, you guys, tell us like, we cannot fish in this area, my organization. And that moment, my NGO was internship with, they were trying to build a protected area, marine protected area, and like, we moved the fisherman, and he was like, "What's the point of view protecting these resources if we don't even have anything to eat? Like, what are we going to eat?" And so that, for me, was like, it was a moment that I it's I know, it sounds dumb. But in that moment, I was like, I cannot believe, that for all my undergrad, I was so like, naive, right? Like, in this little bubble of like, privilege that I didn't understand anything until that moment. And I will say, Yeah, you are 100%. Right. And I think that change everything until right now, 10 years after what I've gotten all the way since.Brian Bienkowski I don't think that sounds dumb at all. In fact, where I live in the northern Great Lakes region, a lot of people are focused on forest wilderness, you know, wild areas. And there's also indigenous communities up here who use those spaces to hunt and gather. So the idea of just blocking them off to protect them is is not in line with what how they've used these areas. So I totally, I totally understand what you're talking about. And I grew up the same way, like, oh, yeah, protect it. You know, that's great, preserve it and protect it. That's the way to go. And I think, hopefully, we're starting to realize that that's not always the most just way to do things. So a lot of your research now centers around the growth of aquaculture globally and the impacts it has on small scale fishery communities. So first, can you kind of orient those of us who are not too familiar with this trend? And what does aquaculture entail? Where are we seeing the most expansion of it?Liliana Sierra Castillo Yeah, so I think for that question, because I know a lot of people, it's funny, because like, to this day, for example, a lot like my mom doesn't really know what I do. Right? So fisheries, and that's where I it's my big specialization, right? It's everything that's been caught wildly in any body of water, I do marine fisheries, but it can be lakes, as you're saying in Michigan, rivers, whatever. Aquaculture is basically I tried to think of it as like a farm or agriculture on water. So it's, there's some sort of human control component over it. It's literally you have a seed, or a baby or seed of an oyster, for example, and then you help it grow. Like you control it in an environment until it grows and then you harvest it. So it's a big difference from fisheries, right. The other comparison I tried to think about it is like hunters versus gatherers, right? Like hunting is the fishing and gatherer races like agriculture kind of wise. Um, so I'm gonna say in the past, so my expertise is fisheries, but going to aquaculture in the past, I'm going to say maybe since the 80s, there's been a big boom to kind of like grow aquaculture with this kind of idea that seafood is declining, the fisheries production, so As we all know, it's declaiming for a lot of lot of factors. So the idea that aquaculture is gonna, like provide, like all the seafood we need. And so it has had its ups and downs, I think around the 90s. It's when the shrimp aquaculture started around the world, especially in Latin America, coming from, again, like a lot of funding from like not, Latin America. And that was a very bad situation, because as you know, aquaculture for shrimp, they destroyed a lot of mangroves. So it was a whole thing, right? So then aquaculture kind of started to decline. And I think back, I think, would have saved maybe the, like, 15 years ago or so there's like this new kind of push to aquaculture through the blue economy, right? All these these cores narratives. And now it's kind of like thinking that aquaculture besides giving, like that seafood, the seafood supply, that fisheries might not be giving. Now, it's kind of like, okay, now, it's also can do ecosystem services. Now, it can help people, now it can provide all these other benefits, which in some instances it does. But what we're seeing in is where my study comes in is like when these when it's being implemented at a local scale in communities is specifically in underdeveloped countries. It's not getting all those benefits, that it's promising. And in reality, it's creating a lot of injustices. So that's where I come like, trying to understand why and how can we do it better to really have the benefits that you should have.Brian Bienkowski So what are some of the opportunities that this expanded aquaculture brings? And conversely, what are some of the problems?Liliana Sierra Castillo Yeah, so some of the opportunities, you know, like, I've seen some examples where it actually provides employment to people, right. And a lot of again, I work in small scale coastal communities, so very different from industrial fisheries or aquaculture areas. So a lot of these communities, they're very marginalized, they're very vulnerable to shocks and a lot of things happening around them. So I've seen some instances where like, if doing that, like correctly, aquaculture can provide them with employment, like they can work, they can provide them with food security, they can provide, if done correctly, like benefits of the ecosystem, we know that some of these species might contribute to ecosystemic benefits. But the thing is, like conversely, when he's not being done correctly, it can also impact for example, a lot of these implementation of aquaculture right now is kind of like, okay, you have to stop fishing. And now you're going to do aquaculture. And as you mentioned a while ago, for these people fishing has a lot of cultural traditional aspects, right? It's not like they go fishing because money, they go fishing, because it's who they are. And so that impacts a lot, right? Like, that's already like very bad, kind of like being like, "Okay, you're gonna stop doing these things that you have done for four generations ago until right now, you're gonna stop doing it, even though you want to just because I want you to stop doing it." Now. So the way sometimes is being done is kind of like, not just like stop fishing, and it's going to impact relations, as I said, but also like, think about it, if you have such a vulnerable system, you want them to have multiple economic activity activities, where livelihoods, if you remove fishing, and then use of aquaculture when there's a shock to the market or to the food system or whatever, then what are these people going to rely on? Right? Like, what are we doing here. And then the other, that third thing that I've seen a lot, is that aquaculture tends to be very tends to be more of like, it can be more like division of classes, like people can like accumulate more as an aquaculture, like, for example, if you and me both have aquaculture operations, and I have the capacity to buy more land, to lobby more, to get more products, more seed everything I have maybe got a I studied to understand what's happening, I understand all these things. I'm gonna grow more, right, versus you're gonna stay tiny, tiny. And then that creates a problem, right? Like what's happened with the tiny, tiny, they're gonna be eliminated for the system. And I think the the worst that's happening is that people keep thinking that aquaculture, as I said, in the beginning is gonna solve all the problems that seafood and fisheries are facing. And it's not, it's not a bullet solution, bullet-proof solution. And so it's not any nice like, once in these communities, they are doing aquaculture because whatever someone told them, the people that are supposed to be managing the fisheries kind of forget that that system exists. And so the fisheries are doing very bad. They're not doing at all good. And then aquaculture is kind of there, but it's not really doing anything and it's kind of like creates a whole mess.Brian Bienkowski Yeah, that makes sense. And you mentioned just fishing being a traditional activity for many of these communities. Can you just talk about get a probe that little further, how this transition has overlooked kind of local context, local cultures and history and expand on why that's a problem?Liliana Sierra Castillo Yeah, so um, I can give you an example, actually from one of the communities I work with. So I have done all my fieldwork, most of it in in Baja California, so in Mexico, and I started in Honduras last year. But Baja California, so that's an interesting example, because there's been pushed to do aquaculture of different species from back on from 2011. You know, for many reasons, it hasn't worked, some has worked, some doesn't. But in 2020, when I started working with them, with this one community, there, the there was a local NGO pushing to the oyster aquaculture, right, so sounds all good, right? Like, yeah, that's gonna be always the aquaculture, the community is gonna be happy, you know that. But when you go and talk with the community, like I did that for three years, you notice, and they told me that to me many times, you know, like, I'm not happy. I miss fishing, I wish I could have a boat to go fish all the time I won. I missed the traditions, I miss the freedom associated with fishing. And so as a consequence, like if you think about it, their will they're not, they're not happy, there will be nice, not good, right? Like if you think about what they miss from fishing, and also because they're doing something they don't want to like aquaculture. It's kind of like that this is the aquaculture project was not being successful, right? Like it didn't really work because like the people didn't believing in through time, because fishers as I said, they still wanted to be diving and fishing and all these things. There was an increase on quote unquote, illegal fishing in which I don't like that term. But that's what it's called, you know, when you don't follow the management rules, they continue fishing goes, does what they want it to do. And so in the any creative like, besides all that I'm telling you, it creates a very sad like social situation, right? Like when you have a community that's divided, lot of social tension, tension between the community and the NGO. We've seen is going to affect everything, right? Like it's going to affect what if a project comes again, or like funding for fish, it's like a whole whole sea social situation being created. Because of not considering something as simple as being to go ask them like, Hey, guys, if you want to do aquaculture, if they say yes, how much time do you want to invest? What species you want to do? You know, do you still want to go fishing? Why don't we do it all together? Like think simple solution says that.Brian Bienkowski So you mentioned working in California, Mexico, and now expanding your research to Honduras. Was that was it meaningful to you to expand your research into your your home?Liliana Sierra Castillo It was super meaningful. Actually, I was very excited. I've always, I always strive to do all like every research, I do kind of like the think about how to be applicable to Honduras. And actually was super cool. Last summer, I went back to the field areas where I started back 10 years ago. And it was so sweet, like people still remembered me. And I still remember them. And I was like, Yeah, that was super. It was like a very impactful moment. And it's it's very interesting. Because like Honduras. They've done aquaculture in the past, but this area is starting. There's like a super cool organization that's trying to like maybe do aquaculture, but they don't want to do it, like half just randomly they want to understand like, the social dimensions that are happening before transforming the system. So it's been very interesting to understand the system as it is a fishery system, what's going on? How can we maybe do aquaculture what is needed? And it's just cool to go talk with people and hear them.Brian Bienkowski Maybe I'm pretty ignorant when it comes to aquaculture, but I feel like I've seen headlines on I mean, are there pollution concerns? Is that something that you know anything about because I know sometimes when you have such a concentrated amount of fish and fish feeding, there can be pollution concerns? Is that? Is that an issue?Liliana Sierra Castillo Yeah, so definitely aquaculture besides everything I'm telling which I'm talking more the social things, it also has like some, like as you're saying, I guess this is more of like an ecological consequence, right? So I feel like the pollution it's more well I think it's more when it's like an industrial scale size right where you have maybe someone and you're putting like antibiotics or whatever and like the feed right like when you feed them that food leaves the area and stuff. But also like at a smaller scale. Like for example in Honduras, what happens a lot. You have the tilapia farms, and even though they're small, there's two big I guess, kind of pollution consequences. One is again, the feed that you give them right the feed makes the water around and like contaminated it gets you to revise. And second, a lot of these aquaculture operations use non-native species. Tilapia is non native. And so it scapes, because in aquaculture is always going to escape. Then you have the problem of like, okay, what is the, how is this non-native species going to, like impact the ecosystem. But in the, it's super interesting, because in Baja in Mexico and other parts of the world, they're pushing to use oyster aquaculture, because in theory, oyster has a lot of benefits, right? cleans the water, it a lot of ecosystemic services, I think it also sometimes is being used at like, what there's erosion and you use, like, oysters to, like, provide more structure to there. But there's also a lot of unknowns of oysters, right? Like, we don't know what impacts are being made by oysters in the ecosystem. For example, in Baja, the oysters that are being used are not in them are non native. So we don't even know how they're affecting the native organisms from the ecosystem. And all these other questions, but in oysters, you don't feed them. So at least you don't have to worry about that.Brian Bienkowski Before this call, I was at my local, not today. But recently I was at my grocery store and realize that I lived 20 minutes from Lake Superior, a massive fishery, the biggest freshwater lake on the planet. And almost all of the fish they sell there is farm raised from Chile and other places around the world, which is just indicative of our super broken food system. I think. So you mentioned you mentioned the places you're working in, in, you know, Mexico, Honduras, and California. And I'm wondering, what are some of the ways that you and others are working to kind of better incorporate small scale fisheries and their well being into these kinds of changes in systems?Liliana Sierra Castillo Yeah, I think that there's a lot of good people trying to, as you're saying, like to give to voices to small-scale fishing communities and put them as at the center of all these policies or, or I don't even know, like, yeah, I guess their policies. So I think parallel to the blue economy, and blue growth, maybe I'm gonna say even, like, newer, I'm gonna say maybe, I don't know, like four or five years ago, eight years ago, is to start a what's called the Blue justice, right? Which is kind of these critical, how can we critically analyze and think about how we can put small scale fisheries or humans or human rights in the center, especially of these, these two big development discourses, right. And so there's a lot of people coming from all different perspectives, because the blue, this is a thing, the blue economy, if you think about it, the blue economy was a term proposed by an economist, I think 10 Or maybe 12 years ago, where basically is trying to get economic benefits from the ocean, right? That can mean a lot of things that can mean fisheries, aquaculture, offshore energy, so many things, it's like massive the amount of things you can get from the ocean. So I know a lot of great people that are trying to think about ways okay, like, for example, how can we make protected areas or I don't like the word permanent protected areas, but how can we manage the ocean in a way that the humans are there, we cannot eliminate the humans, right? I know a lot of people like doing similar work to what I do. But in other words, like parts of the world, like putting people at the center of labor, they want to because you're not if they want, how can we make it work? I know a lot of people being working with offshore energy and understanding like, how is this gonna impact communities, right communities? How can we bring them back to the table to think what you're saying? Obviously, there's like a big, I think that's been a big one for a lot of time, like trying to understand industrial fishing versus small scale fishing, right? Like, how can we provide more protection for small scale fisheries? Like how can we help them? And so I think it's so it's a very broad question, but I think it just inspires me to know that a lot of people are doing a lot of super amazing important work. It's hard work, but I think it's gonna get its get going in places.Brian Bienkowski And if you do you have examples or projects that you've seen that you feel like successfully and very intentionally incorporated local communities and their perspectives into aquaculture decisions?Liliana Sierra Castillo I know there's some like smaller-scale aquaculture operations from indigenous communities in I think it's in Seattle, and in Alaska, where communities are basically saying you know, we want to do aquaculture and they're like, in charge of the they are deciding everything. I think that one that example is pretty cool to read about that And I'm not sure about in Latin America, honestly. There must be some examples. But I don't know them from the top of my head right now. Sure, sure.Brian Bienkowski And you mentioned, you know, you've talked about these marine protected areas. And off the top, we spoke about why those can be seemingly very good, but perhaps problematic in some spots. I was wondering if you could talk about your work in advocacy in this area?Liliana Sierra Castillo In marine protected areas?Brian Bienkowski Yeah, just what you're what you're thinking, what you're what you're seeing what you're trying to do, in making that process more community centered and culturally inclusive.Liliana Sierra Castillo Yeah, so I guess, um, as I mentioned, like, in 20, oh, my God, I don't even know, like, 10 years ago, when I was starting. And there was a big push for this big area, right, and getting these fishing communities out. I remember, I had a good conversation with my boss at that time, and we decided, you know, like, like, we cannot just eliminate these people, you know, like, that's going to be very counterproductive in the end, right? it's going to probably increase poaching and all these things. And also, it's not good. Like, it's super bad. So So we created it was kind of like, okay, let's think with them. Let's include them like that. See, like, inside of these marine area, how, what, what areas can we leave for them to fit, like, let's include them for everything. And so we developed this kind of cool kind of governance platform where we had like academia and government and NGOs and fishers are working together. And that was super cool. And I think that area is still going on back there. But recently, I'm in the marine protected area world –because I as I mentioned many times, I don't really like the word and the term– there's this cool project that I've been very honored to be part of is being carried by one of my friends, her name is Tasha Quintana. And she's trying to understand temporary closure. So temporary closure is a tool that has been used with people that manage their resources, which is basically as simple as like, you can be a person who's like exploiting a fishery, and you're gonna be like, Oh, I exploited this area, I'm gonna let us rest for a month or two, and then switch gears, right? So it's this is this is happening, and has been happening in all the world. So we're trying to understand, Okay, does it work? How does it work? How can we make it better maybe. And I'm trying to do like the equity and justice component of this, like trying to understand critically understand using critical environmental justice frameworks to see how this might be a more equitable solution versus the permanent and protected areas. So that's what we're trying to do with that space.Brian Bienkowski I'm curious with all this time spent in and around oceans and working in listening to fishing communities, do you fish?Liliana Sierra Castillo I fished more before then now I loved to go fishing. I was very bad at it. We really, really enjoyed like, you know, being with the hook and line and, or like the little nets or seeing when we're in the rivers and lakes. And I used to go out with fishermen and just see what they were like catching I used to go I think I went one year ago in Mexico with my fisher friends and was pretty fun. We went spear-diving. It's not allowed, but we still we did it was pretty fun. You know, it was night. And it was cool. Because like you couldn't see anything in the water on unless they had the flashlights. And when you like came out of the water. It was just like stars everywhere. So yeah, I do love fishing. I haven't done it California though, because I've heard it's like complicated to get a license and so on. But I do love fishing.Brian Bienkowski Cool. Very cool. And just one last question. Before we get to some of the final fun questions. What are you optimistic about when it comes to the work that you're doing and the research that you're conducting?Liliana Sierra Castillo You know, I'm optimistic and it's hard. I feel like this type of work, you have a lot of downs, some ups, um, it's as I mentioned, it's work that has to be done. But it's hard. Because it's kind of like if you think about it is kind of like trying to understand the cause root of things, really. Like, why are things the way they are? And sometimes that's uncomfortable to a lot of people, a lot of people are not going to be happy with the things that you say. But I'm hopeful. As I mentioned, I think that a lot of people are starting to think understand this is important. And I'm optimistic that more and more people we're going to start to know each other and kind of create these network of people that think alike and we need to continue to put communities in the center of all these decisions and continue to fight you know, it's kind of like a little revolution going on which I think it's very inspiring. But more than a revolution, I'm optimistic because I think that people also like, for example, all the people supporting the blue economy and all these, like bigger ideas are going to start understanding, you know, through all these other people of the blue justice team, they really need each other, like, how can you like, you know, it's kind of like, I'm optimistic that that can happen at some moment. But I think my most optimism is to that communities are slowly being put again, where they should be the center of everything. And that there's a lot of people that we're not alone, you know, like, it's a lot of times you feel alone. And there's a lot of people around the world trying to –which is crazy, right?– like, put them back in the center of all these things. But that's what it's happening. And I think it's pretty inspiring too.Brian Bienkowski There's so many parallels to other aspects of society. And when you think about one movement is like, how can we extract and make money? And the other movement is like, how can we make sure that the people who are most impacted by this have a say in this, and I think you can look at the energy sector you can look at, I mean, it's just so indicative of kind of where we find ourselves at this crossroads in trying to push for energy, justice, climate justice, environmental justice, kind of broadly. So I really appreciate you kind of introducing our readers to this idea of Blue justice, it's been really fascinating. And now I have three rapid fire fun questions where you could just answer with one word, or a phrase, my most treasured possession isLiliana Sierra Castillo my dog.Brian Bienkowski me too, by the way. One thing I'm looking forward to this month isLiliana Sierra Castillo in May, um I don't know, spending time with my friends.Brian Bienkowski That works. That's fun. And one unique tradition my family has isLiliana Sierra Castillo okay, so every time – this is a longer phrase, but it's just we're Latinos. Talk a lot. But every time it's your birthday, when we were back home, they used to wake you up, like at 4am. Even though you didn't want that and they would pretend that you were a baby and like give you like a like, it was like a lotion bottle. But it was supposed to be like a liquid our babies dreads call, like what they drink from them. The little bottles, milk bottles. Yeah, we were supposed to do that. And then after we will move out, I think they continue trying to do it, like calling us but now it's harder, right? Because like we're in so many different time zones. That he's kind of like has to vote okay, just told me when I can call you.Brian Bienkowski The call doesn't work quite as well, when you're, you know, paid to silence.Liliana Sierra Castillo Exactly. And my phone is always silent. So I think they tried it for a couple of years. And then I was like, I'm, I'm literally sleeping. Can't. But yeah, I do miss the pretending to be a baby thing.Brian Bienkowski That I've never, you know, that is new to me. I really, I really liked that. Well, Liliana, this has been so much fun. Again, thank you so much for your time. And it's just so exciting to have you in this program with your, you know, with your expertise and the research that you're doing. And one last question I've asked everybody is what is the last book that you read for fun? I'm readingLiliana Sierra Castillo it's I haven't finished reading it but I am in the middle of reading "Critical environmental justice and race." Which is funny because I haven't like in my side table like I read it every night while my boyfriend reads... I don't even know what you know, other things or friends are reading other things do. But for I guess before that I'm trying to think what was a good book? I don't remember right now I think that's been in a while kind of reading for me.Brian Bienkowski Well, you know what, for our audience, that probably is fun. So I think I think that one that you're reading right now works. Liliana, thank you so much for your time, and I look forward to following your career and working with you in this program.Liliana Sierra Castillo Thank you very much for everything, all the questions.

Liliana Sierra Castillo joins the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast to discuss the concept of blue justice and how the expansion of aquaculture impacts small-scale fishery communities.Sierra Castillo, a current Agents of Change fellow and Ph.D. candidate at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara, also talks about how she became passionate about oceans, how we can rethink marine protected areas to center communities, and how meaningful it is for her to do research in her native Honduras.The Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast is a biweekly podcast featuring the stories and big ideas from past and present fellows, as well as others in the field. You can see all of the past episodes here.Listen below to our discussion with Sierra Castillo and subscribe to the podcast at iTunes or Spotify.Agents of Change in Environmental Justice · Liliana Sierra Castillo on blue justiceTranscriptBrian BienkowskiThank you so much for taking time to meet with me today. I'm really excited to have you on your work when I was doing a little research for this. It's different than other fellows we've had. And I'm really excited to talk about what you're doing. But as you may know, I'd like to start way at the beginning. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your childhood and where an interest in the environment came into your life?Liliana Sierra Castillo Yeah, of course. So I'm originally from Honduras. And it's funny because even when I was a child, my parents don't really live near the oceans. They live in the capital. But even when I was like, I remember specifically, I was like in second grade, and we did an essay. And it just fascinated me to know, when my professor was giving feedback that we know more about the moon, that about the ocean. And I think that just stuck in my head forever. And then at that moment, I decided I wanted to be a marine biologist, even though I didn't know what that meant. And then I guess I had the privilege that my parents were capable of taking us to like the beach around the country and exploring. I just, it's always fascinating, like how vast and amazing the ocean is. Because that's how it all started.Brian Bienkowski That's awesome. I grew up in the in Michigan, in the Great Lakes region, so not oceans, but really large lakes where you can't you know, you can't see the end of them. They're massive. And I just remember my whole life, no matter how many times I visited them, it always kind of blew me away or gave me this feeling of inspiration every time I see them. And it still does it to this day. And I don't know, do oceans. Do oceans do that for you? Do you still get kind of a sense of awe even though you've been working with them for so long?Liliana Sierra Castillo Yeah, definitely. I feel these day like every time I walk past an ocean, as you're saying, like, I am just in awe how big it is and how much it is that we don't know. And I guess now, in the past 10 years or so that I've I've started working more on the human dimensions parts of oceans. It's more of like, wow, we have so much of these, like space and water and things but like, so much people are being affected by your kind of like that more critical analysis. I think that is also like it's more of an inspiration in that way as well.Brian Bienkowski For sure. And maybe maybe there's some overlap in this question. Since we've been talking about your your love of oceans, but you started your university studies at the National Autonomous University of Honduras in marine biology. So what was it specifically about oceans? Was it you know, fisheries? Was it how humans interact with them? Was it about their vastness or you know, all of the above.Liliana Sierra Castillo So, it's funny because as many marine biology programs, my undergrad was very much like ecology focus. And then my last quarter I took a the only fishery class. But at that moment, I still thought in my mind that I wanted to be a dolphin trainer. That was like my life goal. And then I was very lucky to have we have in that program for you to graduate, you have to do a professional internship. And so I got the super cool experience of working with the World Wildlife Fund in a bay area called Cortés*, which on the northern coast. And for six months, I was just working with fishery communities. And I was like, Okay, this is what I want to do, like, you know, those things are cool, but it's not like, and I discovered, like, you know, I really love the intersections of like, I get to be in the ocean and be in that moment, I used to be covered a lot in fish blog. So I was like, clean to the fisherman. And I love talking with people and like learning what they were doing. And I also found that I love, like, figuring out how to like, give back the results, right? that I'm learning from analysis back to the communities and all that like connection of cycles and turn it into, like management tools. And so yeah, I guess like it was, the university gave me the basic tools, and then this experience of the internship that kind of changed everything.Brian Bienkowski Well, these coastal communities, it's not just a, it's not just this natural wonder, like we were talking about, but it's so intertwined with culture and economics. And, you know, we're gonna get into a lot of that today with a lot of the work that you're doing. So it goes much further beyond as well, that's really pretty. It's so you know, intertwined with these coastal communities. So, before we get to your research, I want to know, a moment or event that has helped shape your identity up to this point.Liliana Sierra Castillo Yeah, I still, so I think for me, it happened again, in this internship. So this was like 10 years ago. And again, I had since from that moment, before that moment training on like, sadly, a lot of like, environmental classes are very much like, you know, we need pristine nature, we need everything to be protected, and all that, right. So I came up with that mentality. And I remember the first day, on the field with these fishery communities, I was with this fisherman who sadly has passed. Now he passed away, which is very sad. But I still remember he told me, you know, like, so what's the point of like, you guys, tell us like, we cannot fish in this area, my organization. And that moment, my NGO was internship with, they were trying to build a protected area, marine protected area, and like, we moved the fisherman, and he was like, "What's the point of view protecting these resources if we don't even have anything to eat? Like, what are we going to eat?" And so that, for me, was like, it was a moment that I it's I know, it sounds dumb. But in that moment, I was like, I cannot believe, that for all my undergrad, I was so like, naive, right? Like, in this little bubble of like, privilege that I didn't understand anything until that moment. And I will say, Yeah, you are 100%. Right. And I think that change everything until right now, 10 years after what I've gotten all the way since.Brian Bienkowski I don't think that sounds dumb at all. In fact, where I live in the northern Great Lakes region, a lot of people are focused on forest wilderness, you know, wild areas. And there's also indigenous communities up here who use those spaces to hunt and gather. So the idea of just blocking them off to protect them is is not in line with what how they've used these areas. So I totally, I totally understand what you're talking about. And I grew up the same way, like, oh, yeah, protect it. You know, that's great, preserve it and protect it. That's the way to go. And I think, hopefully, we're starting to realize that that's not always the most just way to do things. So a lot of your research now centers around the growth of aquaculture globally and the impacts it has on small scale fishery communities. So first, can you kind of orient those of us who are not too familiar with this trend? And what does aquaculture entail? Where are we seeing the most expansion of it?Liliana Sierra Castillo Yeah, so I think for that question, because I know a lot of people, it's funny, because like, to this day, for example, a lot like my mom doesn't really know what I do. Right? So fisheries, and that's where I it's my big specialization, right? It's everything that's been caught wildly in any body of water, I do marine fisheries, but it can be lakes, as you're saying in Michigan, rivers, whatever. Aquaculture is basically I tried to think of it as like a farm or agriculture on water. So it's, there's some sort of human control component over it. It's literally you have a seed, or a baby or seed of an oyster, for example, and then you help it grow. Like you control it in an environment until it grows and then you harvest it. So it's a big difference from fisheries, right. The other comparison I tried to think about it is like hunters versus gatherers, right? Like hunting is the fishing and gatherer races like agriculture kind of wise. Um, so I'm gonna say in the past, so my expertise is fisheries, but going to aquaculture in the past, I'm going to say maybe since the 80s, there's been a big boom to kind of like grow aquaculture with this kind of idea that seafood is declining, the fisheries production, so As we all know, it's declaiming for a lot of lot of factors. So the idea that aquaculture is gonna, like provide, like all the seafood we need. And so it has had its ups and downs, I think around the 90s. It's when the shrimp aquaculture started around the world, especially in Latin America, coming from, again, like a lot of funding from like not, Latin America. And that was a very bad situation, because as you know, aquaculture for shrimp, they destroyed a lot of mangroves. So it was a whole thing, right? So then aquaculture kind of started to decline. And I think back, I think, would have saved maybe the, like, 15 years ago or so there's like this new kind of push to aquaculture through the blue economy, right? All these these cores narratives. And now it's kind of like thinking that aquaculture besides giving, like that seafood, the seafood supply, that fisheries might not be giving. Now, it's kind of like, okay, now, it's also can do ecosystem services. Now, it can help people, now it can provide all these other benefits, which in some instances it does. But what we're seeing in is where my study comes in is like when these when it's being implemented at a local scale in communities is specifically in underdeveloped countries. It's not getting all those benefits, that it's promising. And in reality, it's creating a lot of injustices. So that's where I come like, trying to understand why and how can we do it better to really have the benefits that you should have.Brian Bienkowski So what are some of the opportunities that this expanded aquaculture brings? And conversely, what are some of the problems?Liliana Sierra Castillo Yeah, so some of the opportunities, you know, like, I've seen some examples where it actually provides employment to people, right. And a lot of again, I work in small scale coastal communities, so very different from industrial fisheries or aquaculture areas. So a lot of these communities, they're very marginalized, they're very vulnerable to shocks and a lot of things happening around them. So I've seen some instances where like, if doing that, like correctly, aquaculture can provide them with employment, like they can work, they can provide them with food security, they can provide, if done correctly, like benefits of the ecosystem, we know that some of these species might contribute to ecosystemic benefits. But the thing is, like conversely, when he's not being done correctly, it can also impact for example, a lot of these implementation of aquaculture right now is kind of like, okay, you have to stop fishing. And now you're going to do aquaculture. And as you mentioned a while ago, for these people fishing has a lot of cultural traditional aspects, right? It's not like they go fishing because money, they go fishing, because it's who they are. And so that impacts a lot, right? Like, that's already like very bad, kind of like being like, "Okay, you're gonna stop doing these things that you have done for four generations ago until right now, you're gonna stop doing it, even though you want to just because I want you to stop doing it." Now. So the way sometimes is being done is kind of like, not just like stop fishing, and it's going to impact relations, as I said, but also like, think about it, if you have such a vulnerable system, you want them to have multiple economic activity activities, where livelihoods, if you remove fishing, and then use of aquaculture when there's a shock to the market or to the food system or whatever, then what are these people going to rely on? Right? Like, what are we doing here. And then the other, that third thing that I've seen a lot, is that aquaculture tends to be very tends to be more of like, it can be more like division of classes, like people can like accumulate more as an aquaculture, like, for example, if you and me both have aquaculture operations, and I have the capacity to buy more land, to lobby more, to get more products, more seed everything I have maybe got a I studied to understand what's happening, I understand all these things. I'm gonna grow more, right, versus you're gonna stay tiny, tiny. And then that creates a problem, right? Like what's happened with the tiny, tiny, they're gonna be eliminated for the system. And I think the the worst that's happening is that people keep thinking that aquaculture, as I said, in the beginning is gonna solve all the problems that seafood and fisheries are facing. And it's not, it's not a bullet solution, bullet-proof solution. And so it's not any nice like, once in these communities, they are doing aquaculture because whatever someone told them, the people that are supposed to be managing the fisheries kind of forget that that system exists. And so the fisheries are doing very bad. They're not doing at all good. And then aquaculture is kind of there, but it's not really doing anything and it's kind of like creates a whole mess.Brian Bienkowski Yeah, that makes sense. And you mentioned just fishing being a traditional activity for many of these communities. Can you just talk about get a probe that little further, how this transition has overlooked kind of local context, local cultures and history and expand on why that's a problem?Liliana Sierra Castillo Yeah, so um, I can give you an example, actually from one of the communities I work with. So I have done all my fieldwork, most of it in in Baja California, so in Mexico, and I started in Honduras last year. But Baja California, so that's an interesting example, because there's been pushed to do aquaculture of different species from back on from 2011. You know, for many reasons, it hasn't worked, some has worked, some doesn't. But in 2020, when I started working with them, with this one community, there, the there was a local NGO pushing to the oyster aquaculture, right, so sounds all good, right? Like, yeah, that's gonna be always the aquaculture, the community is gonna be happy, you know that. But when you go and talk with the community, like I did that for three years, you notice, and they told me that to me many times, you know, like, I'm not happy. I miss fishing, I wish I could have a boat to go fish all the time I won. I missed the traditions, I miss the freedom associated with fishing. And so as a consequence, like if you think about it, their will they're not, they're not happy, there will be nice, not good, right? Like if you think about what they miss from fishing, and also because they're doing something they don't want to like aquaculture. It's kind of like that this is the aquaculture project was not being successful, right? Like it didn't really work because like the people didn't believing in through time, because fishers as I said, they still wanted to be diving and fishing and all these things. There was an increase on quote unquote, illegal fishing in which I don't like that term. But that's what it's called, you know, when you don't follow the management rules, they continue fishing goes, does what they want it to do. And so in the any creative like, besides all that I'm telling you, it creates a very sad like social situation, right? Like when you have a community that's divided, lot of social tension, tension between the community and the NGO. We've seen is going to affect everything, right? Like it's going to affect what if a project comes again, or like funding for fish, it's like a whole whole sea social situation being created. Because of not considering something as simple as being to go ask them like, Hey, guys, if you want to do aquaculture, if they say yes, how much time do you want to invest? What species you want to do? You know, do you still want to go fishing? Why don't we do it all together? Like think simple solution says that.Brian Bienkowski So you mentioned working in California, Mexico, and now expanding your research to Honduras. Was that was it meaningful to you to expand your research into your your home?Liliana Sierra Castillo It was super meaningful. Actually, I was very excited. I've always, I always strive to do all like every research, I do kind of like the think about how to be applicable to Honduras. And actually was super cool. Last summer, I went back to the field areas where I started back 10 years ago. And it was so sweet, like people still remembered me. And I still remember them. And I was like, Yeah, that was super. It was like a very impactful moment. And it's it's very interesting. Because like Honduras. They've done aquaculture in the past, but this area is starting. There's like a super cool organization that's trying to like maybe do aquaculture, but they don't want to do it, like half just randomly they want to understand like, the social dimensions that are happening before transforming the system. So it's been very interesting to understand the system as it is a fishery system, what's going on? How can we maybe do aquaculture what is needed? And it's just cool to go talk with people and hear them.Brian Bienkowski Maybe I'm pretty ignorant when it comes to aquaculture, but I feel like I've seen headlines on I mean, are there pollution concerns? Is that something that you know anything about because I know sometimes when you have such a concentrated amount of fish and fish feeding, there can be pollution concerns? Is that? Is that an issue?Liliana Sierra Castillo Yeah, so definitely aquaculture besides everything I'm telling which I'm talking more the social things, it also has like some, like as you're saying, I guess this is more of like an ecological consequence, right? So I feel like the pollution it's more well I think it's more when it's like an industrial scale size right where you have maybe someone and you're putting like antibiotics or whatever and like the feed right like when you feed them that food leaves the area and stuff. But also like at a smaller scale. Like for example in Honduras, what happens a lot. You have the tilapia farms, and even though they're small, there's two big I guess, kind of pollution consequences. One is again, the feed that you give them right the feed makes the water around and like contaminated it gets you to revise. And second, a lot of these aquaculture operations use non-native species. Tilapia is non native. And so it scapes, because in aquaculture is always going to escape. Then you have the problem of like, okay, what is the, how is this non-native species going to, like impact the ecosystem. But in the, it's super interesting, because in Baja in Mexico and other parts of the world, they're pushing to use oyster aquaculture, because in theory, oyster has a lot of benefits, right? cleans the water, it a lot of ecosystemic services, I think it also sometimes is being used at like, what there's erosion and you use, like, oysters to, like, provide more structure to there. But there's also a lot of unknowns of oysters, right? Like, we don't know what impacts are being made by oysters in the ecosystem. For example, in Baja, the oysters that are being used are not in them are non native. So we don't even know how they're affecting the native organisms from the ecosystem. And all these other questions, but in oysters, you don't feed them. So at least you don't have to worry about that.Brian Bienkowski Before this call, I was at my local, not today. But recently I was at my grocery store and realize that I lived 20 minutes from Lake Superior, a massive fishery, the biggest freshwater lake on the planet. And almost all of the fish they sell there is farm raised from Chile and other places around the world, which is just indicative of our super broken food system. I think. So you mentioned you mentioned the places you're working in, in, you know, Mexico, Honduras, and California. And I'm wondering, what are some of the ways that you and others are working to kind of better incorporate small scale fisheries and their well being into these kinds of changes in systems?Liliana Sierra Castillo Yeah, I think that there's a lot of good people trying to, as you're saying, like to give to voices to small-scale fishing communities and put them as at the center of all these policies or, or I don't even know, like, yeah, I guess their policies. So I think parallel to the blue economy, and blue growth, maybe I'm gonna say even, like, newer, I'm gonna say maybe, I don't know, like four or five years ago, eight years ago, is to start a what's called the Blue justice, right? Which is kind of these critical, how can we critically analyze and think about how we can put small scale fisheries or humans or human rights in the center, especially of these, these two big development discourses, right. And so there's a lot of people coming from all different perspectives, because the blue, this is a thing, the blue economy, if you think about it, the blue economy was a term proposed by an economist, I think 10 Or maybe 12 years ago, where basically is trying to get economic benefits from the ocean, right? That can mean a lot of things that can mean fisheries, aquaculture, offshore energy, so many things, it's like massive the amount of things you can get from the ocean. So I know a lot of great people that are trying to think about ways okay, like, for example, how can we make protected areas or I don't like the word permanent protected areas, but how can we manage the ocean in a way that the humans are there, we cannot eliminate the humans, right? I know a lot of people like doing similar work to what I do. But in other words, like parts of the world, like putting people at the center of labor, they want to because you're not if they want, how can we make it work? I know a lot of people being working with offshore energy and understanding like, how is this gonna impact communities, right communities? How can we bring them back to the table to think what you're saying? Obviously, there's like a big, I think that's been a big one for a lot of time, like trying to understand industrial fishing versus small scale fishing, right? Like, how can we provide more protection for small scale fisheries? Like how can we help them? And so I think it's so it's a very broad question, but I think it just inspires me to know that a lot of people are doing a lot of super amazing important work. It's hard work, but I think it's gonna get its get going in places.Brian Bienkowski And if you do you have examples or projects that you've seen that you feel like successfully and very intentionally incorporated local communities and their perspectives into aquaculture decisions?Liliana Sierra Castillo I know there's some like smaller-scale aquaculture operations from indigenous communities in I think it's in Seattle, and in Alaska, where communities are basically saying you know, we want to do aquaculture and they're like, in charge of the they are deciding everything. I think that one that example is pretty cool to read about that And I'm not sure about in Latin America, honestly. There must be some examples. But I don't know them from the top of my head right now. Sure, sure.Brian Bienkowski And you mentioned, you know, you've talked about these marine protected areas. And off the top, we spoke about why those can be seemingly very good, but perhaps problematic in some spots. I was wondering if you could talk about your work in advocacy in this area?Liliana Sierra Castillo In marine protected areas?Brian Bienkowski Yeah, just what you're what you're thinking, what you're what you're seeing what you're trying to do, in making that process more community centered and culturally inclusive.Liliana Sierra Castillo Yeah, so I guess, um, as I mentioned, like, in 20, oh, my God, I don't even know, like, 10 years ago, when I was starting. And there was a big push for this big area, right, and getting these fishing communities out. I remember, I had a good conversation with my boss at that time, and we decided, you know, like, like, we cannot just eliminate these people, you know, like, that's going to be very counterproductive in the end, right? it's going to probably increase poaching and all these things. And also, it's not good. Like, it's super bad. So So we created it was kind of like, okay, let's think with them. Let's include them like that. See, like, inside of these marine area, how, what, what areas can we leave for them to fit, like, let's include them for everything. And so we developed this kind of cool kind of governance platform where we had like academia and government and NGOs and fishers are working together. And that was super cool. And I think that area is still going on back there. But recently, I'm in the marine protected area world –because I as I mentioned many times, I don't really like the word and the term– there's this cool project that I've been very honored to be part of is being carried by one of my friends, her name is Tasha Quintana. And she's trying to understand temporary closure. So temporary closure is a tool that has been used with people that manage their resources, which is basically as simple as like, you can be a person who's like exploiting a fishery, and you're gonna be like, Oh, I exploited this area, I'm gonna let us rest for a month or two, and then switch gears, right? So it's this is this is happening, and has been happening in all the world. So we're trying to understand, Okay, does it work? How does it work? How can we make it better maybe. And I'm trying to do like the equity and justice component of this, like trying to understand critically understand using critical environmental justice frameworks to see how this might be a more equitable solution versus the permanent and protected areas. So that's what we're trying to do with that space.Brian Bienkowski I'm curious with all this time spent in and around oceans and working in listening to fishing communities, do you fish?Liliana Sierra Castillo I fished more before then now I loved to go fishing. I was very bad at it. We really, really enjoyed like, you know, being with the hook and line and, or like the little nets or seeing when we're in the rivers and lakes. And I used to go out with fishermen and just see what they were like catching I used to go I think I went one year ago in Mexico with my fisher friends and was pretty fun. We went spear-diving. It's not allowed, but we still we did it was pretty fun. You know, it was night. And it was cool. Because like you couldn't see anything in the water on unless they had the flashlights. And when you like came out of the water. It was just like stars everywhere. So yeah, I do love fishing. I haven't done it California though, because I've heard it's like complicated to get a license and so on. But I do love fishing.Brian Bienkowski Cool. Very cool. And just one last question. Before we get to some of the final fun questions. What are you optimistic about when it comes to the work that you're doing and the research that you're conducting?Liliana Sierra Castillo You know, I'm optimistic and it's hard. I feel like this type of work, you have a lot of downs, some ups, um, it's as I mentioned, it's work that has to be done. But it's hard. Because it's kind of like if you think about it is kind of like trying to understand the cause root of things, really. Like, why are things the way they are? And sometimes that's uncomfortable to a lot of people, a lot of people are not going to be happy with the things that you say. But I'm hopeful. As I mentioned, I think that a lot of people are starting to think understand this is important. And I'm optimistic that more and more people we're going to start to know each other and kind of create these network of people that think alike and we need to continue to put communities in the center of all these decisions and continue to fight you know, it's kind of like a little revolution going on which I think it's very inspiring. But more than a revolution, I'm optimistic because I think that people also like, for example, all the people supporting the blue economy and all these, like bigger ideas are going to start understanding, you know, through all these other people of the blue justice team, they really need each other, like, how can you like, you know, it's kind of like, I'm optimistic that that can happen at some moment. But I think my most optimism is to that communities are slowly being put again, where they should be the center of everything. And that there's a lot of people that we're not alone, you know, like, it's a lot of times you feel alone. And there's a lot of people around the world trying to –which is crazy, right?– like, put them back in the center of all these things. But that's what it's happening. And I think it's pretty inspiring too.Brian Bienkowski There's so many parallels to other aspects of society. And when you think about one movement is like, how can we extract and make money? And the other movement is like, how can we make sure that the people who are most impacted by this have a say in this, and I think you can look at the energy sector you can look at, I mean, it's just so indicative of kind of where we find ourselves at this crossroads in trying to push for energy, justice, climate justice, environmental justice, kind of broadly. So I really appreciate you kind of introducing our readers to this idea of Blue justice, it's been really fascinating. And now I have three rapid fire fun questions where you could just answer with one word, or a phrase, my most treasured possession isLiliana Sierra Castillo my dog.Brian Bienkowski me too, by the way. One thing I'm looking forward to this month isLiliana Sierra Castillo in May, um I don't know, spending time with my friends.Brian Bienkowski That works. That's fun. And one unique tradition my family has isLiliana Sierra Castillo okay, so every time – this is a longer phrase, but it's just we're Latinos. Talk a lot. But every time it's your birthday, when we were back home, they used to wake you up, like at 4am. Even though you didn't want that and they would pretend that you were a baby and like give you like a like, it was like a lotion bottle. But it was supposed to be like a liquid our babies dreads call, like what they drink from them. The little bottles, milk bottles. Yeah, we were supposed to do that. And then after we will move out, I think they continue trying to do it, like calling us but now it's harder, right? Because like we're in so many different time zones. That he's kind of like has to vote okay, just told me when I can call you.Brian Bienkowski The call doesn't work quite as well, when you're, you know, paid to silence.Liliana Sierra Castillo Exactly. And my phone is always silent. So I think they tried it for a couple of years. And then I was like, I'm, I'm literally sleeping. Can't. But yeah, I do miss the pretending to be a baby thing.Brian Bienkowski That I've never, you know, that is new to me. I really, I really liked that. Well, Liliana, this has been so much fun. Again, thank you so much for your time. And it's just so exciting to have you in this program with your, you know, with your expertise and the research that you're doing. And one last question I've asked everybody is what is the last book that you read for fun? I'm readingLiliana Sierra Castillo it's I haven't finished reading it but I am in the middle of reading "Critical environmental justice and race." Which is funny because I haven't like in my side table like I read it every night while my boyfriend reads... I don't even know what you know, other things or friends are reading other things do. But for I guess before that I'm trying to think what was a good book? I don't remember right now I think that's been in a while kind of reading for me.Brian Bienkowski Well, you know what, for our audience, that probably is fun. So I think I think that one that you're reading right now works. Liliana, thank you so much for your time, and I look forward to following your career and working with you in this program.Liliana Sierra Castillo Thank you very much for everything, all the questions.

Left and right unite in panning House Republicans' farm bill proposal

House Republicans' new farm bill proposal is drawing opposition from a coalition of left- and right-wing groups that agree on little else. The proposed version of the $1.5 trillion omnibus unveiled last week by House Agriculture Chair Glenn “G.T.” Thompson (R-Pa.) includes several priorities of big agribusiness — proposals that frustrated both right-aligned groups like the Heritage...

House Republicans' new farm bill proposal is drawing opposition from a coalition of left- and right-wing groups that agree on little else. The proposed version of the $1.5 trillion omnibus unveiled last week by House Agriculture Chair Glenn “G.T.” Thompson (R-Pa.) includes several priorities of big agribusiness — proposals that frustrated both right-aligned groups like the Heritage Foundation and left-leaning ones like the Environmental Working Group amid progressives' and populists' broader dislike of what they see as crony capitalism in the U.S. farmstand. The bill faces a tough road in the House, where Republicans hold only a narrow majority and both Democrats and some GOP lawmakers have pushed back against provisions included in the proposal. As it goes to markup this week, several key areas of shared left-right opposition will be front and center. The principal bone of contention is that Thompson's proposed legislation contains tens of billions of dollars in subsidies that would overwhelmingly go to a few thousand of America’s wealthiest cotton, rice and peanut farmers — money that would likely come from either climate funding or food aid. Heritage and Environmental Working Group (EWG) “may not agree on much, but we agree that farmers are sophisticated business leaders who should make their money in the market — not by becoming more dependent on federal support,” said Scott Faber, EWG’s vice president for government affairs. “We agree that we need a farm safety net,” Faber added. “But what Chairman Thompson has proposed is more akin to a trampoline.” The right and left have very different visions of the food system, which drive different ideas of why Thompson’s compromise is a problem.  For left-leaning groups and lawmakers — whose viewpoints hold a powerful sway in the Democratic-controlled Senate — cuts to food aid and climate funding are clear red lines, though such groups offered grudging support for House measures to increase resources for young or minority farmers or land grant universities. To the right, including the House Freedom Caucus, cuts in general would be attractive in an era of rising deficits — but Heritage characterized Thompson’s proposal as an attempt to smuggle in permanent subsidy increases to America’s wealthiest farmers through the back door. “There’s a reason you’re seeing so many groups from across the ideological spectrum in opposition — there’s not an economic justification for it,” David Ditch, a senior policy analyst at Heritage, told The Hill.  Increasing subsidies, Ditch added, would be understandable “if farmers were going bankrupt left and right.”  But while prices of farm supplies are going up, commodity prices have increased more. “It’s a distortion of markets,” he said of the proposed increases.  Rather than providing aid for farmers on the margins, he said, “this is like locking in historically high revenue levels for farming operations that are very financially stable, and who have access to credit markets for when times are tough — operated by households with dramatically above average income and wealth.” Of particular concern to both left- and right-wing opponents of the bill is the increase to what are called “reference prices,” a U.S. Department of Agriculture program that pays farmers when commodity prices drop below a certain level.  The higher that level is set, the higher the potential payment from the program, and the greater the likelihood that farmers will get it.  The increase to reference prices for the three chosen commodities — rice, peanuts and cotton — under the new House proposal mean that farmers of those crops would get automatic payments for each of the five years a new farm bill would be in effect, because levels would be set so high that farmers would get payments no matter what, according to an EWG report. EWG also found that between 2021 and 2023, thousands of farmers had “triple-dipped” by using distinct federal programs to cover the same drop in prices— amounting to a total cost to taxpayers of $55.2 billion. The bill would also increase subsidies for insurance for farmers of major commodities, like corn and wheat — programs that the Government Accountability Office found pay America’s wealthiest farmers about $2 for every dollar they put in. In a November report, the GAO suggested saving billions by cutting that proportion to more like $1.59 to $1 — a proposal Thompson called “not worth the paper it is printed on.” The office, he said, “completely ignores the benefits of Federal crop insurance, which is one of the most successful examples of a public-private partnership in existence.” The programs, he added, “bolster rural economies by ensuring that producers can pay back their lenders, retain their employees, and get back on their feet to farm again the following season.” Rather than cutting support, Thompson’s bill would raise coverage levels, increase the federal share of premiums and lower the amount of losses needed for farmers to claim a payment.  The issue of payment is another place where right and left both see problems — on one side, because of the increase in spending, and on the other, because of what would be cut to cover it. Because the farm bill’s total is capped, Thompson would need more than $90 billion in cuts to cover the proposed price tag and crop insurance increases, according to trade journal Dairy Herd Management. Thompson told the AgriPulse that cuts to the Commodity Credit Corporation — which makes loans according to administration priorities like trade or climate change — would net $53 billion; the Congressional Budget Office, however, says that number is more like $8 billion. Part of the projected shortfall would be made up by freezing the list of foods covered by nutritional aid (SNAP) programs — a change which Thompson has said would cut $30 billion from farm bill spending over the next decade. Some of the rest of the shortfall could be made up by cuts and creative reallocations to the approximately $19 billion in funding for agricultural programs to slow the onslaught of climate change, Ditch of the Heritage Foundation said. “If we go down the line, those reference prices are still going to be higher level, but won’t have IRA money to use as an offset,” he said.  That last bargain is unattractive for conservatives, because it would use a one-time package to pay for an increase in reference prices and crop insurance that is functionally permanent, Ditch said. He also noted that it would also violate a clear red line for Senate Agriculture Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Minn.). “I’m very skeptical that the Senate is interested in that particular tradeoff.” Progressive farm groups like the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) have argued that the existing structure of “safety net programs” like crop insurance and reference prices effectively protect unsustainable forms of agriculture from the need to adopt a more resilient, diversified approach — at taxpayer expense. Though NSAC acknowledges that Thompson’s bill would also add support and subsidies to help smaller and more diversified farms access insurance — a long-time demand of farm groups — the group argues that it would do little to actually bring such aid to fruition.  While the proposed legislation would require studies of challenges that small producers face, for instance, NSAC said that “those barriers and corresponding solutions are already well documented” in similar studies ordered in the last farm bill. Another point of shared opposition from left and right comes in a perhaps surprising area: animal welfare.  As of January, California has banned the sale of pigs, chickens or veal calves kept in “extreme confinement” — which generally means cages that offer too little space for animals to move. The law is a serious concern for Republicans from states with big pork industries, which would not be able to sell in California without major, expensive reform. Last June, Rep. Ashley Hinson (R-Iowa) sponsored H.R. 4417, which would ban states from setting their own standards on what out-of-state produce can be sold locally.  The California law, Hinson said, “allows liberal lawmakers and radical activists in California — who don’t know the first thing about farming or raising animals — to regulate how farmers do their job, devastating small family farms and undermining food security.” But this argument is divisive among Republicans — in particular the influential House Freedom Caucus — many of whom have expressed more concern over the prospect of Congress regulating state agricultural policy than they are of states setting their own standards.  In letters in October and March, about two dozen House Republicans urged Thompson to drop H.R. 4417, which they argued was “at odds with our foundational Republican principles of states’ rights, national sovereignty, and fair competition.” The group included notable names like Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), Marjorie Taylor Green (R-Ga.) and Nancy Mace (R-S.C.).  The California bill’s constitutionality, the letter writers noted, had been upheld by the Supreme Court — and the attack on it, they argued, largely came from big agribusiness abroad.  “The Act proposes to undo legitimate statewide elections on animal-housing standards, and the influence of the Chinese government is hard to miss given the profound level of control of pig production in the United States,” they wrote.  “The biggest U.S.-based pork company is wholly owned by the Chinese, controlling 26 percent of the U.S. pork market, and produces one in six breeding sows in the United States.” Earlier this month, Sid Miller (R), Texas’s highly conservative Agriculture Commissioner, cast his support behind California on the matter. “Our states must be able to maintain their constitutional authority to pass agriculture laws ... and DC should never ride roughshod over states’ rights to do so," he wrote in an op-ed in AgriPulse. A final area of common left-right opposition to the proposed farm bill is the checkoff program, which takes a mandatory fee from the sale of covered commodities — like milk or beef — and funnels it into public-private programs intended to promote the sale of that commodity. For the last year, conservative Republicans and right-leaning groups have joined progressive lawmakers and groups in seeking to end what they call rampant conflict of interest and anti-competitive activity in the program, as The Hill reported. Last February, Mace introduced the Opportunities for Fairness in Farming Act (OFF Act), which would ban the programs from working for specific interest groups or lobbyists in their sector — in practice, big agriculture trade groups — whose priorities might be at odds with the sector as a whole, or smaller players. The House’s latest proposed version of the farm bill leaves the OFF Act out. Democrats on the House Agriculture Committee, for their part, sharply criticized the legislation on Tuesday and forecast a coming battle over the farm bill that could extend beyond the current proposal. “House Republicans have spent over a year ignoring the red lines and core values of House Democrats," Britton T. Burdick, communications director for House Agriculture Democrats, said in a statement. "The Republicans have lost credibility, which will only make it harder to convince Democrats to support a farm bill down the road. Farmers know that the only way we get a farm bill this year is if Republicans and Democrats work together and respect each other’s priorities. House Republicans should drop their partisan approach and work with Democrats to pass a truly bipartisan farm bill.”

Suggested Viewing

Join us to forge
a sustainable future

Our team is always growing.
Become a partner, volunteer, sponsor, or intern today.
Let us know how you would like to get involved!

CONTACT US

sign up for our mailing list to stay informed on the latest films and environmental headlines.

Subscribers receive a free day pass for streaming Cinema Verde.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.