All posts by Mary Hoff

Five things we learned about food safetyFeed my Starving Children in action

Our Fall 2014 Frontiers in the Environment event series kicked off last week with a lively discussion about new ways to boost food safety. Here are five things we learned from the presentation by Matteo Convertino, IonE resident fellow and assistant professor, School of Public Health; and Craig Hedberg, Professor, School of Public Health:

  1. Roughly 1 in 5,000 meals results in a foodborne illness. What does this tell us? We may have come a long way in research, but there is still a lot that we don’t know. Foodborne diseases are the result of dynamic interactions between the environment, agents and hosts, and this complexity provides many challenges in studying food safety.
  2. Computer modeling is useful for predicting outbreak sources. Traditional work on foodborne diseases focuses on surveillance, with an attempt to identify a problem and act when possible. Computer modeling may help predict threats earlier and provide a more efficient way to approach threats to food safety.
  3. There may another reason to eat local. Computer modeling has shown that longer supply chains make food more vulnerable to diseases. That means local foods, which rely on shorter supply chains, may be less susceptible to foodborne illness. However, consumer preferences have made changing to a more localized supply chain difficult.
  4. Uncertainty is good. Contrary to popular belief, uncertainty in modeling and research can be beneficial because it allows a critical exploration of the system. Fluctuations in the environment and supply chains show natural system variability. Learning from this variability will allow for better prediction, detection and attribution over time.
  5. Enough is not enough. As global population grows, a looming global concern is finding enough food to feed everyone. While this is critically important, it is equally essential to ensure that the food people have access to is safe from disease.

Like to learn more? Watch a video of the presentation.

 

Shining new light on trees and CO2news_reich_main

How much do trees vary in the way they suck carbon dioxide from the air and use it to make roots, trunks, branches and leaves? The answer to that question is an important one because it has a huge impact on our ability to predict how destroying or creating forests influences climate change. And the correct answer is a surprising one, according to two related studies published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week by University of Minnesota forest ecologist Peter Reich and colleagues in Minnesota, Arizona, Australia, China, Poland and Germany.

Conventional models used to assess the impact of forests on greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere assume that the way trees use carbon to build roots, leaves and trunks is fairly constant across a range of conditions — that is, that trees everywhere devote the same fraction of new growth to each component and that components have the same durability everywhere. However, analyzing massive amounts of data gathered from around the globe, Reich and colleagues documented predictable differences in key properties of forests across north-south climate gradients. Continue reading

Supporting the White House Climate Data Initiativenews_white_house_climate_data

The Office of the President of the United States announced a significant expansion of the White House Climate Data Initiative yesterday in Washington, D.C. Through a partnership with the Kellogg Company, the Institute on the Environment’s Global Landscapes Initiative will support this effort by providing maps and data showing the potential impacts of climate change on global agriculture.

“Through his Climate Data Initiative, President Obama is calling for all hands on deck to unleash data and technology in ways that will make businesses and communities more resilient to climate change,” said John P. Holdren, President Obama’s Science Advisor, in a press release. “The commitments being announced today answer that call by empowering the U.S. and global agricultural sectors with the tools and information needed to keep food systems strong and secure in a changing climate.”

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Study: How existing cropland could feed billions moreRice being grown in rural China

Feeding a growing human population without increasing stresses on Earth’s strained land and water resources may seem like an impossible challenge. But according to a new report by researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, focusing efforts to improve food systems on a few specific regions, crops and actions could make it possible to both meet the basic needs of 3 billion more people and decrease agriculture’s environmental footprint.

The report, published today in Science, focuses on 17 key crops that produce 86 percent of the world’s crop calories and account for most irrigation and fertilizer consumption on a global scale. It proposes a set of key actions in three broad areas that that have the greatest potential for reducing the adverse environmental impacts of agriculture and boosting our ability to meet global food needs. For each, it identifies specific “leverage points” where nongovernmental organizations, foundations, governments, businesses and citizens can target food-security efforts for the greatest impact. The biggest opportunities cluster in six countries — China, India, U.S., Brazil, Indonesia and Pakistan — along with Europe.

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Ellen Anderson named executive director of energy labWind Turbines for Energy Transition Lab

Our energy system is in the midst of a major transition. Our power sources are shifting from coal to more natural gas and renewables. We need to upgrade our aging grid to accommodate those new sources. As our grid becomes “smarter,” we need it to be responsive and reliable. And new greenhouse gas emissions regulations and the need to make our grid resilient as the climate changes add further complexities.

This energy transition has the potential to spark innovation in business and the public sector, leading to new jobs and better outcomes for the community and our environment. Reaching that potential requires strong leadership. To provide that leadership, the University of Minnesota is launching the Energy Transition Lab with former state senator Ellen Anderson (J.D. ’86), senior advisor on energy and environment to Governor Dayton, as its inaugural executive director. Continue reading

Earthducation Expedition 6 heads to the land of EverestPokhara, Nepal

What does education look like in remote mountain villages where electricity is nonexistent or unreliable? How does a developing country seeking to grow its economy, boost tourism and expand its infrastructure do so sustainably?

Earthducation Expedition 6 aims to find out — and share what it learns with teachers and students around the world. This sixth in a series of seven-continent explorations investigates the intersections between education and sustainability in Nepal, the roof of the world. Led by Aaron Doering and Charles Miller of the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development with funding from the University’s Institute on the Environment, the expedition will set out April 27 for a journey to this diverse ecological powerhouse that boasts some of the most majestic geographical wonders on Earth. Continue reading

New pilot program takes aim at supply chain carbonLife Cycle

(1/21) Recognizing that the vast bulk of most companies’ carbon footprint rests in its supply chain, the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment’s NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise has teamed up with CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project) to help global suppliers reduce their carbon emissions. Six large customers – Bank of America, L’Oreal, PepsiCo, Philips, Vodafone and Walmart – and over 100 of their suppliers are participating in the pilot program. Read more

Flowering plants evolved to weather the coldorange flowers

(12/22) Plant researchers, including Institute on the Environment resident fellow Peter Reich, have assembled the largest evolutionary tree to show the order in which flowering plants evolved specific strategies, such as the seasonal shedding of leaves, to move from warm climates into areas with cold winters. How they managed this expansion has long vexed researchers searching for plants’ equivalent to the winter parka. Read more

Getting their point acrossAASHE Award Winners

(12/11) In March 2013, a group of University of Minnesota students – some with IonE connections – laid out for an assembly of a thousand state environmental leaders their vision and hopes for the future that belongs to them. Their future is longer than the future of the leaders, and promises to be subject to harsher climate and other environmental travails. Read more

Into the woodsPeter Reich, Principal Investigagor of the B4Warmed project, ans

“How do we know the forest? How does the forest know us? As climate change alters the landscape and its ecology, how do we bridge our past experiences of this place to our future hopes?”

I recently heard the Institute on the Environment’s managing director, Lewis Gilbert, talk about interdisciplinary work in terms of “boundary objects” — topics that can unite people, such as a banker and a butcher at a dinner party discovering they are both into baseball. At a recent IonE-sponsored workshop I co-facilitated, the beautiful and changing forest at the University of Minnesota’s Cloquet Forestry Center was the boundary object for scientists, artists and community members. “Forest Trails & Forest Tales: Exploring Place, Story, and Climate Change at the Cloquet Forestry Center,” was held June 21-23 and engaged many perspectives on the history and nature of the center, how it is being altered by climate change, and what it means to both adapt and respond to those changes. Continue reading

Earthducation brings environmental awarenessEarthducation in the arctic

When you’re traveling in remote areas of Burkina Faso, it can take multiple layers of translation from English to the tribal language just to ask a single question. So it goes if you’re on a quest to educate the masses about the remote climate hot spots of literally every continent on the world. That’s Institute on the Environment resident fellow Aaron Doering’s mission, and he’s made tremendous strides completing it through the IonE-sponsored Earthducation program. Continue reading

Collaboration with consistency: The Nutrient NetworkNutNet India

When scientists ask big questions, it’s always difficult to get the big answer. When scientists ask big ecological questions that require synthesizing data from a variety of geographical locations and different research protocols, it can seem downright impossible.

In the case of the Nutrient Network, a project that recently began receiving funding from the Institute on the Environment, that frustration with such scientific incongruence fueled a solution. Continue reading