Category Archives: Agriculture

Visiting scholar brings fresh eyesSiew in the Taklamakan Desert in Xinjiang, northwest China

This summer, the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment is hosting visiting scholar Tuck Fatt Siew, a postdoctoral researcher at Goethe University Frankfurt in Germany, who is exploring ways to integrate ecosystem services valuation into watershed management in China.

Visiting scholars bring fresh perspectives, “positive disruption” to the day-to-day way of seeing and doing, says Lewis Gilbert, IonE’s managing director. Visiting scholars are not paid by the University or IonE but are given desk space and the use of office equipment. Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

IonE all-stars win MnDRIVE Global Food Ventures grantsGround Beef

Four Institute on the Environment–related research projects won grants from MnDRIVE Global Food Ventures, a state-funded grant program. Four IonE resident fellows, as well as IonE’s managing director, are named as co-investigators on projects that seek to develop holistic and integrated approaches to ensuring a sustainable, safe and resilient food system.

MnDRIVE – Minnesota’s Discovery, Research and Innovation Economy – is a partnership between the University of Minnesota and the state of Minnesota, administered through the University’s Office of the Vice President for Research. Funding is intended to foster discoveries in four of the state’s key and emerging industries: robotics, sensors and advanced manufacturing; global food ventures; advancing industry, conserving our environment; and discoveries and treatment for brain conditions. Continue reading

Study: Groundwater contamination in SE MinnesotaFarm field in Minnesota

Conversion of grasslands to agricultural fields across Southeastern Minnesota is increasing groundwater nitrate contamination in private drinking water wells according to a new study by researchers with the University of Minnesota and the Natural Capital Project.

Writing in the journal Environmental Research Letters, the researchers outline the economic costs associated with groundwater pollution along with threats to overall water quality and ecosystem services.

“Households can dig a new well, purchase bottled water, or install a home nitrate-removal system, but dealing with a contaminated well is expensive and these costs are typically born entirely by private households,” said Bonnie Keeler, lead author and lead scientist with the Natural Capital Project at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment. “We found evidence that recent trends in grassland loss to agriculture between 2007 and 2012 are likely to increase the future number of contaminated wells by 45%, leading to millions of dollars in lost income and remediation costs for private households.”

Continue reading

Campus garden sprouts at U of M CrookstonPhoto by Tashi Gurung

Between the seemingly interminable June rains, ground was broken and crops began to sprout in the Allen and Freda Pederson Garden near the U of M Crookston campus. 

Dan Svedarsky, director of the Crookston Center for Sustainability, says completion of the project is “due in no small measure to support of the garden suppers,” funded through an Institute on the Environment Mini Grant. Continue reading

Study: Oil palm plantations alter water qualityPhoto: Yadi Purwanto

New research from the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment and Stanford University shows that freshwater stream ecosystems are highly vulnerable to oil palm plantation expansion.

The three-year study compared streams draining watersheds dominated by four land uses — intact forest, manually logged forest, community agroforest and oil palm plantation — in West Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo, which is ground zero for palm oil production. Continue reading

Summertime viewing to enlighten and inspireearth_east_nasa

Keep your brain limber this summer by learning about cutting-edge solutions to the planet’s environmental grand challenges. During your down time, we invite you to watch video recordings of the Institute on the Environment’s Frontiers in the Environment series, a forum for experts from the University of Minnesota and other institutions to informally share their work on a wide-range of cutting-edge issues, wrapped up with a lively Q&A.

Browse the archives or choose from this list of nine, hand picked from nearly 40 talks. They are sure to enlighten and inspire! Continue reading

On the edge of the Amazon, efficiency mattersIntensified croplands that grow commodities like soybeans and maize are becoming more common in the Eastern Amazon; here, primary Amazon forest exists meters away from high-productivity agricultural fields.
Credit: Christine S. O’Connell

As land resources come under more and more pressure — to grow food, support cities and house valuable ecosystems — scientists, activists and others are on the hunt for better ways to manage the terrestrial biosphere. One strategy is to increase the efficiency of croplands and pasture lands, particularly in ecosystems such as the Amazon forest where converting more land to agricultural use is environmentally costly.

As the world’s largest contiguous tropical forest, Amazonia is an important store of carbon, provides habitat for biodiverse communities and plays a part in regulating the global water cycle.

Moreover, the Amazon is a prime candidate for exploring whether increasing efficiency can help make agricultural land use more sustainable. Recently, David Lapola of Universidade Estadual Paulista and colleagues pointed out in the journal Nature Climate Change that agriculture in Brazil, including Amazonia, is intensifying and becoming more dominated by commodity production, leading to systematic changes in land use. This intensification has been accompanied by lower rates of deforestation.

Continue reading

Biofuels and the fiction of the average farmCorn Ethanol

Several years ago, Gevo Inc., which operates a biorefinery in Luverne, Minn., approached the University of Minnesota with what seems like an obvious question: How sustainable is the corn it uses in its southwestern facility?

I say “obvious” because almost everyone (experts and nonexperts alike) thinks they already know the answer. It seems like we take it for granted that fuels and chemicals made from corn are a “bad idea” because of corn’s apparently large carbon footprint, which Argonne National Lab estimates to be 371 grams CO2 per kilogram of corn harvested on average in the U.S.

Continue reading

Frontiers: Global capital & disease hot spotsPigs

Our world is more connected than ever. It’s now easy to live in the United States, buy airfare to Europe, send money to Africa and eat food from Asia. And while this global connectivity comes with a slew of benefits, it also opens the door to the spread of disease and potential for worldwide epidemics.

Portrait: Robert WallaceRobert Wallace, visiting scholar with the Institute for Global Studies, discussed the need to rethink how we define “disease hot spots” from locations where outbreaks originate to global centers of capital that drive disease-causing practices in his Frontiers in the Environment lecture on April 16.

In his talk “Global Capital and Disease Hot Spots,” Wallace presented the concept of One Health, a new public health approach focusing on the transmission of diseases from animals to humans.

Continue reading

Common groundconeflowerbarn

This article is part of a series of profiles of IonE resident fellows highlighting the value of their collaborations across the U of M, Minnesota and the world.

Conventional wisdom has it that farmers and conservationists don’t see eye to eye. Conservationists want to see farmers plant diverse vegetation, in addition to crops like corn and soybeans, that produces ecosystem services; farmers’ main priority is earning a living. Right?

“Farmers care just as much about the environment as anyone, but there are financial realities,” says Nick Jordan, a resident fellow with the Institute on the Environment and an agroecology professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. Continue reading

IonE director leads off National Geographic food seriesNational Geographic Covers

Institute on the Environment director Jonathan Foley today served up the first article in an eight-month National Geographic series on feeding the world without destroying the planet.

“When we think about threats to the environment, we tend to picture cars and smokestacks, not dinner,” writes Foley in the opening paragraph. “But the truth is, our need for food poses one of the biggest dangers to the planet.” Continue reading

Suppers sow inspiration for campus gardenVegetable garden

A series called “Garden Suppers” launched in January on the Crookston campus of the University of Minnesota that aims to sow inspiration for a campus garden. The IonE-sponsored events, featuring guest speakers and brainstorming activities, seek to engage students, faculty and community members in the project.

Discussions have been underway at UMC for the last year to launch a campus garden that would provide produce to be served in campus food service. The garden might consist of smaller garden boxes or plots around campus and/or a larger plot. In addition, there has been interest in having garden plots around the Crookston community, perhaps in vacant lots where houses have been removed to make way for flood protection efforts. Continue reading

Turning wind into fertilizerwind_into_fertilizer

Minnesota farmers spend more than $400 million per year on nitrogen fertilizer. To keep more dollars in the Gopher State and reduce fossil fuel consumption in agriculture, the University of Minnesota’s West Central Research and Outreach Center is using wind energy to produce anhydrous ammonia that can be used as fertilizer. The project was funded through an IonE Initiative for Renewable Energy & the Environment grant. Continue reading

Frontiers: Redefining agricultural productivityAgricultural Productivity

Many of us do our best to make healthy food choices, but replacing that burger and fries with fruits and vegetables isn’t just good for your body, it’s good for the environment.

Portrait: Emily CassidyEmily Cassidy, an Institute on the Environment graduate research assistant, discussed the impact of global diet preferences on agricultural productivity and greenhouse gas emissions in last week’s Frontiers in the Environment presentation, “Redefining Agricultural Productivity: From Stuff Produced to People Fed.”

Continue reading

Frontiers: The importance of food literacyFrontiers: Chris Lambe

When it comes to our food system, it seems everyone has an opinion on how we can eat healthier, feed more people and reduce our environmental impacts. But how can you separate food fact from food fiction?

Portrait: Chris LambeThat was the topic of last week’s Frontiers in the Environment lecture presented by Chris Lambe, director of social responsibility for The Mosaic Company - a crop nutrient production company based in Plymouth, Minn.

In “The Importance of Food Literacy,” Lambe discussed why it is imperative that consumers, producers and policy-makers alike have a basic understanding of how the food system works and the challenges facing food production around the world.
Continue reading

Frontiers: Aggregating an agroecosystemAgroecosystem

Paul Porter is a professor at the University of Minnesota, but you won’t always find him in a classroom. He has done much of his teaching from his bicycle, on tours through Africa, South America and, most recently, Minnesota.

Portrait: Paul PorterPorter, professor of agronomy and plant genetics, discussed his experiences incorporating adventure learning into his educational work in his Oct. 16 Frontiers in the Environment talk “Aggregating an Agroecosystem: Novel Approaches to Teaching and Learning.”

Continue reading

Frontiers: Peak croplandPeak Cropland. Joe Fargione.

Feeding the world’s growing population is shaping up to be the challenge of the century, but where does conservation fit into the equation?

Joe Fargione, senior director for The Nature Conservancy - North America Region, attempted to answer just that in last Wednesday’s Frontiers in the Environment presentation, “Peak Cropland: Saving Room for Nature While Feeding Humanity this Century.”

Continue reading

Frontiers: will humanity’s appetite leave land for nature?Peak Cropland

Feeding the world’s growing population is shaping up to be the challenge of the century, but where does conservation fit into the equation?

Joe Fargione, senior director for The Nature Conservancy - North America Region, attempted to answer just that in last Wednesday’s Frontiers in the Environment presentation, “Peak Cropland: Saving Room for Nature While Feeding Humanity this Century.”
Continue reading