Category Archives: Agriculture

Grand challenge: sustainably feed the worldGLI strategic plan

The times are a-changin’. In his prophetic 1963 lyrics, Bob Dylan sings that if our time on Earth is worth saving, we’d “better start swimmin’ or . . . sink like a stone.” Whether the times bring food scarcity or abundance, water risk or availability, deforestation or revitalized ecosystems, is up to us. In other words, if we want a sustainable future, we need to start swimming — developing solutions that will allow us to adapt and thrive.

To lead the way, the University of Minnesota recently released a strategic plan detailing the first of a series of “grand challenges” it aims to address over the next 10 years: cultivating a sustainable, healthy, secure food system; advancing industry while conserving the environment and addressing climate change; and building vibrant communities that enhance human potential and collective well-being in a diverse and changing world. Continue reading

Grand challenge curriculum aims highCan We Feed the World Without Destroying It?

Can we feed the world without destroying it? Good question — one that students in the University of Minnesota’s Grand Challenge Curriculum (GCC) 3001 course will tackle this fall.

The University and the Institute on the Environment are committed to finding solutions to the global grand challenges facing us now and in the years ahead. One of the grandest of all is how to build a more resilient food system that can provide food security for a growing population while preserving the environment we rely on. Continue reading

Uncovering the impacts of oil palmBanner photo by CIFOR (Flickr Creative Commons)

This profile originally appeared in the Union of Concerned Scientists Science Network.

While studying oil palm plantation expansion in Indonesian Borneo as part of her Ph.D. work at Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Institute on the Environment postdoctoral scholar Kimberly Carlson witnessed how growing global demand, coupled with poor forest governance, resulted in rapid loss of tropical forests. Led by her adviser Lisa Curran and collaborating with the Indonesian non-governmental organization Living Landscapes Indonesia, Carlson has helped uncover the impacts of oil palm development on forest loss, carbon emissions and stream water quality. She finished her Ph.D. wishing not only to document the dynamics and effects of agricultural land use change, but also to design studies that directly inform tropical land use policy. Continue reading

A ray of sunshine for bioenergymain_sunshine

Even at historically low natural gas prices, bioenergy may not be out of the running — it just may need a little help from the sun. A new study from researchers at the University of Minnesota examining the financial viability of solar-heated biomass gasification technologies that produce a natural gas substitute product concludes that combining these renewable resources can make economic sense.

In traditional biomass gasification, 20 to 30 percent of the biomass feedstock is burned to produce heat for the process. But if the required thermal energy is supplied from a concentrated solar source, all of the biomass can be converted into useful synthesis gas. The study, published in Biomass and Bioenergy this week, developed a financial feasibility metric to determine the breakeven price of natural gas at which the produced syngas could be sold at a profit. The study suggests that solar-heated biomass gasification systems could break even at natural gas prices of $4.04–$10.90 per gigajoule, depending on configuration. Continue reading

Climate has a big say in crop yield variabilitynews_climatecropyield_main

What impact will future climate change have on food supply? That depends in part on the extent to which variations in crop yield are attributable to variations in climate. A new report from researchers at IonE’s Gobal Landscapes Initiative has found that climate variability historically accounts for one-third of yield variability for maize, rice, wheat and soybeans worldwide — the equivalent of 36 million metric tons of food each year. This provides valuable information planners and policy makers can use to target efforts to stabilize farmer income and food supply and so boost food security in a warming world. Continue reading

Study: Ag production contributes to CO2 spikesPhoto by James Clear (Flickr/Creative Commons)

MINNEAPOLIS / ST. PAUL (11/19/14) The application of a recently developed crop statistics database at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment in conjunction with a carbon accounting model developed at Boston University has shown that intensified agricultural production in the northern hemisphere is generating up to a quarter of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide seasonality, reports a paper published in the November 5 issue of the journal Nature.

Deepak Ray, research associate at IonE’s Global Landscapes Initiative, who led the development of the dataset and contributed to this study, said, “This is the perfect example of assembling a multidisciplinary, multi-institutional team of experts tackling an intractable problem of why the atmospheric carbon dioxide seasonality is intensifying.” Continue reading

A healthier diet could save you and the planetgirls, kids with carrots, salad, garden fresh

Eating less meat and fewer empty calories can help people live longer, healthier lives and also dramatically reduce environmental degradation, according to a new University of Minnesota study.

David Tilman, an Institute on the Environment resident fellow and professor in the College of Biological Sciences, and graduate student Michael Clark synthesized data on environmental costs of food production, diet trends, relationships between diet and health, and population growth. They found that adopting variations on three common diets — Mediterranean, pescatarian and vegetarian — on a global scale would not only boost health, but also reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by an amount equal to the current emissions of all cars, trucks, planes, trains and ships on Earth and prevent the destruction of an area of tropical forests and savannas equivalent to half of the United States. Read the full news release.

Banner photo by Michel Bish (Flickr/Creative Commons)

7 things we learned about the ag transformationFrontiers in the Environment Agriculture November 5

What’s happening to agriculture, and how can we make the most of it? That Big Question took center stage at this week’s Frontiers in the Environment presentation by  IonE resident fellow Nick Jordan, a professor in the College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences, and Carissa Schively Slotterback, an associate professor in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Here are seven important things we learned:

Agriculture is in a period of transition. Agriculture has traditionally relied heavily on only a few crops, but now it’s undergoing a shift to growing a greater variety of crops for more purposes, including bioproducts and biofuels. Sustainable intensification — expanding the potential of farmland production while reducing negative effects on the environment — may be a good way to take advantage of this opportunity. Continue reading

Big opportunity for cereal manufacturersPhoto by Daniel Go (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Manufacturers of breakfast cereal have a far greater opportunity to reduce their supply chain carbon footprint than do the farmers who produce the grain, according to a new study by IonE’s NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise.

Agriculture, a leading emitter of greenhouse gas, is often the main target of carbon reduction strategies, leaving food manufacturers off the hook. But not so fast, says the NiSE study. Examining cereal’s supply chain, NiSE researchers  found that manufacturing has more than six times more opportunity than ag to reduce the carbon footprint of corn cereal products and more than three times the ability for wheat cereal products. Read the full press release

Photo by Daniel Go (Flickr/Creative Commons)

 

Pandas and agricultural best practices at IonEPhoto: U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (Flickr/Creative Commons)

There’s a panda at the Institute on the Environment — a World Wildlife Fund “panda,” that is. Derric Pennington, a senior conservation scientist with WWF and part of Natural Capital Project–WWF, has taken up residency here and is collaborating with IonE on several research projects, including one with The Coca-Cola Company and the Luc Hoffman Institute to assess just how effective sustainability certification standards are at improving our environmental footprint.

Sustainability certification of a commodity is like a best-management-practices treaty among stakeholders in the commodity’s supply chain. Take the Bonsucro certification standard, for example. A worldwide sugar cooperative, Bonsucro requires “producers, buyers and others involved in sugar and ethanol businesses to obtain products derived from sugarcane that have been produced according to agreed, credible, transparent and measurable criteria . . .  that promote measurable improvements in the key economic, environmental and social impacts of sugarcane production,” according to its website.  Continue reading

Study: Pollinators play vital role in human nutritionnews_study_-pollinators_nutrients

Pollinators have a direct impact on human nutrition, especially in the developing world where malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies are prevalent, according to new research published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The Natural Capital Project study — a collaboration of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment and Stanford Woods Institute on the Environment — overlapped data of 115 common food crops with data on pollination dependence and micronutrient content and found that, in places like Southeast Asia and Latin America, almost 50 percent of plant-derived vitamin A requires pollination. Read more

Banner photo @iStockphoto.com/hkratky

Ecologist David Tilman awarded prestigious Balzan PrizePhoto of Ecologist David Tilman

University of Minnesota ecologist and IonE resident fellow David Tilman has received a 2014 Balzan Prize in recognition of his outstanding scholarly contributions in ecology. The international award comes with an $800,000 prize, half of which is to support young researchers working with Tilman.

According to a release by the International Balzan Prize Foundation, Tilman received the distinction for his “huge contributions to theoretical and experimental plant ecology, work that underpins much of our current understanding of how plant communities are structured and interact with their environment.”

The Balzan Prize recognizes achievements in the humanities and natural sciences, as well as in advancing peace among humanity. The foundation varies the fields it recognizes each year with an eye to uplifting innovative research across disciplinary boundaries. Tilman was one of four scholars from around the world to receive the prize this year. Past recipients of the award include Mother Teresa of Calcutta and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Continue reading

A global strategy for road buildingdeforestation from road building in the Amazon

Build it and people will follow — that’s the nature of roads. In many parts of the world, that fact is having an impact on ecosystems, with increased human access leading to habitat and wilderness loss, fragmentation, wildfires, overhunting and other environmental degradation. With a 60 percent increase in global road expansion predicted by 2050, careful planning of road building is crucial.

In a report published this week in the journal Nature, researchers have offered a “global road map” to steer road expansion into areas that would have maximum human economic and social benefits while protecting areas with high environmental values such as biodiversity, ecosystem services and carbon storage. Continue reading

Focusing ag expansion can save billions of tons of carbonAir view, birds eye view of the fields and hills

Meeting the growing demand for food and other agricultural products is one of the most daunting challenges we face today. At the same time, clearing forests and grasslands for farming releases carbon into the atmosphere, fueling climate change, a similarly alarming and expensive problem.

A study published today by University of Minnesota researchers in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that limiting agricultural expansion to several key global regions could meet the predicted need to double food production by 2050 while preserving nearly 6 billion metric tons more carbon than would be safeguarded with unguided expansion. Preserving this much carbon is worth approximately $1 trillion in terms of climate change mitigation. 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.”

Continue reading

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