Category Archives: News

IonE fellow to author assessment on biodiversity in AmericasPhoto courtesy of CBS

This article is reprinted with permission from the College of Biological Sciences and the author, Stephanie Xenos.

Jeannine Cavender-Bares, an IonE resident fellow and associate professor in the College of Biological Sciences, and Forest Isbell, associate director of the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve and an adjunct faculty member in CBS, were selected to participate as lead authors in the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services,  an independent intergovernmental body open to members of the United Nations. Authors contribute to periodic reports on biodiversity, ecosystems and ecosystem services, ranging from regional assessments for the Americas, Africa and Asia to thematic papers and broad global assessments.

Cavender-Bares is a coordinating lead author of a chapter of the Americas assessment on the status, trends and dynamics of biodiversity and ecosystems in the region. Isbell is a lead author of a chapter of the Americas assessment considering drivers of changes in biodiversity and ecosystem services. Continue reading

Soils serve food and much morePhoto courtesy of Asian Development Bank (Flick/Creative Commons)

Soils are the birthplace of food: They provide a substrate, nutrients and water to grow most of the food we eat. They also perform a whole host of other services, including purifying our water and stabilizing our climate. Today more than half of the world’s land surface is being managed for agriculture and forestry. These lands are increasingly under pressure to meet the needs of a growing population.  In many areas, the land and soil have become degraded to a point where they can no longer grow the food and fiber they once did.

The United Nations recognized the essential role that soils play for creating a sustainable future by naming 2015 the International Year of Soils. To inform this program, a team of scientists from a dozen countries — including James Gerber and Paul West, co-directors of IonE’s Global Landscapes Initiative — reviewed the current state of knowledge on how land management affects soil quality. The team’s work was published recently in two major papers in peer-reviewed journals.

“It’s critical to understand how managing the land improves or degrades it,” says West. “Building and maintaining healthy soils provides long-term benefits for both people and nature. Healthy soils lead to healthy lives.”

“A number of global initiatives, including Climate Smart Agriculture and a proposal for the climate negotiations by the French government to increase global soil carbon stocks, are all coalescing now to present the perfect opportunity to value and improve soils worldwide,” adds Pete Smith, lead author and a professor at the Institute of Biological and Environmental Sciences, Scottish Food Security Alliance-Corps & ClimateXChange, University of Aberdeen, Scotland.

The first report, published in June 2015 in the online journal SOIL, summarized the important linkages among soils, biodiversity, climate and other factors for providing direct benefits such as food and fiber, as well as soil’s underlying role in regulating water quality and climate. “Soils provide the foundation that sets the stage for most of life on Earth. It’s crucial to understand these benefits, their current status and trends, as well as how that can be managed. We need to stop treating soil like dirt,” says West.

The second report, published in August 2015 in Global Change Biology, summarized the impact of human activities such as land use change, land management, land degradation and land pollution on soil. Like the previous paper, it identifies gaps in knowledge and calls for additional research to fill them. In addition, it proposes activities and policies to protect soils from human harm in the future. In particular, the authors recommend that the United Nations capitalize on the occasion of the International Year of Soils to create a global initiative aimed at boosting soil health and ensuring the integrity of the world’s soils by making them a key component of future environmental protection and sustainable development efforts.

“This year, countries are making new commitments for the Sustainable Development Goals as well as reductions in greenhouse gas emissions at the United Nations Climate Negotiations in Paris,” says Smith. “Soils are integral to sustainably managing our planet now and well into the future. Managing for healthy soils creates a win-win for meeting these commitments and providing food for the future.”

Note: This research contributes to the Belmont Forum/FACCE-JPI funded DEVIL project (NE/M021327/1), a multinational effort to identify pathways for sustainably meeting food security needs on limited land.


Photo courtesy of Asian Development Bank (Flickr/Creative Commons)

A new resource on the global food systemBanner courtesty of Environment Reports

Is there enough food for the future?

That’s just one of many crucial questions explored in a dynamic new online resource on the global food system, one of the most pressing environmental issues facing the world today. Published by the Institute on the Environment, Environment Reports is a collaboration among an international group of scientists, writers and designers to create incisive narratives about environmental challenges, backed up by cutting-edge data.

The site is intended for use by public and private sector professionals as well as those in academia who influence or educate environmental decision makers. It will provide several primers and useful visuals covering key aspects of the global food system, including projected future demand and yield trends, environmental sustainability, diet, food waste, climate change and more.

The first topic, “Food Matters, has just gone live, with three features on the future of food. A new feature will be published each month. Current features include “Is There Enough Food for the Future?,” “Change Your Diet, Change Our Destiny?” and “Waste Not, Want Not?”

Is There Enough Food for the Future?

  • To feed those who are currently hungry — and the additional 2 billion-plus people who will join us on the planet by 2050 — crop production will need to increase between 60 and 100 percent by most reliable projections.
  • “Business as usual” could lead to a doubling of demand for agricultural production. If the world meets future crop demand as it has in the past, this would mean that annual CO2 equivalents would rise from one gigaton per year in 2005 to three gigatons in 2050. A two-gigaton (2 billion metric ton) rise in yearly CO2 equivalents would be greater than the annual emissions from every car, train and plane in the U.S.
  • Increasing crop production is part of the solution, but can’t be the only one. Just four crops — maize, rice, wheat and soybeans — provide two-thirds of the calories we harvest from fields. In many parts of the world, though, the yields for these crops are not rising.

Change Your Diet, Change Our Destiny?

  • Since World War II, as people — from the U.S. to China, Brazil to India — make more money, expectations for meals have risen. Our personal food choices not only affect personal health, they indirectly affect the health of the planet.
  • The U.S. could feed nearly three times more people than it currently does from the calories produced by major crops.
  • Meat, dairy and eggs greatly affect the world’s present and future food system due to their high need for land. The good news is that simply shifting from one kind of meat to another can dramatically reduce the impact of our diet on the environment.
  • Dietary changes don’t have to be extreme to considerably reduce the impact on the environment. The more feed crops needed to raise an animal, the more greenhouse gases are emitted from the fertilizer (nitrous oxide) and transportation (carbon dioxide) required to grow the feed. In addition, ruminants like cows and sheep emit methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, as they digest their food. Considering all of these emissions together, some meat, like beef, can have up to 250 times the emissions of a plant-based protein like legumes.  Emissions from producing eggs, dairy, poultry, and pork, however, are much lower.



Waste Not, Want Not?

  • Roughly one-quarter of the calories of the world’s food crops are wasted. That’s enough calories to feed 1.9 billion more people the diet the World Health Organization says is needed to be healthy and satisfied.
  • The impact of waste amplifies significantly when we consider the crops that livestock animals consume during their lifetimes. The total cropland used to grow food that is never eaten almost equals all cropland in Africa. Reducing consumer waste of just six commodities in the U.S., China and India alone could save enough calories to feed about 413 million people per year.
  • We could realistically reduce global food waste by half — and people are leading the way. For example, one French supermarket chain responded with an “inglorious fruits and vegetables” campaign, selling imperfect food at a discount and seeing store traffic rise. Supermarkets across Europe are following suit.


Charts and graphs courtesy of Environment Reports

Acara alumna wins bignews_ovawoman_main

Why aren’t menstrual cups mainstream?

That question led Elise Maxwell to develop a Web-based business to make menstrual cups — reusable devices that catch rather than absorb menstrual fluid — more readily available to women and provide a safe place to talk about women’s health. In August, Ova Woman won the student division of the MN Cup competition for entrepreneurs — reaping a $30,000 cash prize.

An MBA student in the Carlson School of Management, Maxwell developed her idea for Ova Woman during the weeklong Acara course on launching social ventures. Acara is a strategic initiative of the Institute on the Environment, offering courses, workshops and field experiences to help student entrepreneurs build successful start-up companies that address social or environmental problems. Continue reading

NiSE director to influence how U.S. buys greenPhoto by Photos by Clark (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Consumers aren’t the only ones overwhelmed by the growth and diversity of environmental labels attached to the products they buy, from breakfast cereal to furniture. U.S. government purchasing agents also struggle to identify which standards and ecolabels to consider when buying greener products.

Timothy Smith, director of IonE’s NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise and an IonE resident fellow, is about to make going green easier for the U.S. government — the single largest purchaser of goods and services in the world. Along with a select panel of experts, Smith will oversee and coordinate a series of pilot tests of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new draft guidelines advising government buyers on how to take product environmental performance standards and ecolabels into account when making purchases. Continue reading

Sustainability Education wows Welcome WeekSustActionEvent

On Friday, September 4, more than 2,500 first-year students and University community members ascended the steps of the Learning and Environmental Sciences building to delve into sustainability-related initiatives in the community and at the U. The Institute on the Environment was transformed into “the Pond,” “the River” and the “the Lake,” all centered on this year’s theme: water. Co-hosted by IonE’s Sustainability Education program and University Services, “Sustainability Action!” featured representatives from academic programs, student groups, external organizations and University operations, all eager to tell their stories. Continue reading

Biodiversity is the spice of lifePhoto by Tatters (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Variety is the spice of life, it has been said. In the plant world, variety, or biodiversity, is the stuff of life, literally influencing the health of natural environments. Due to land use change, nitrogen pollution, invasive species, and climate change, diversity is decreasing in many kinds of vegetation, driving down plant productivity and the ecosystem services plants provide, according to emerging research.

IonE resident fellow Peter Reich, a Distinguished McKnight University Professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, has been studying plant biodiversity and its role in ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration, productivity (production of plant biomass) and resilience to disease for 20 years.  He says that “plants — both terrestrial and aquatic — provide about $50 trillion in ecosystem services” and that, without them, none of us would be here. Continue reading

Grand challenge: reduce carbon and water footprints of industryPhoto by kirin_photo (iStock)

From cars and personal care products to the food on their dinner table, consumers are increasingly seeking out products that are less harmful to the environment. Many companies are, in turn, responding to these demands by altering the way they make products — from the ingredients going in to the pollution coming out.

But the full impact of a product reflects a complex system that often has hundreds of producers engaged in thousands of processes to put that product into the hands of the end user. Once there, how the product is used and dispatched at the end of its life can have big impacts as well. Even the most well-intentioned companies struggle to identify which changes at what point in the value chain will give them the most sustainability bang for their buck. Continue reading

Food for thought: The Sustainable Agriculture ProjectPhoto by Jeanette (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Amidst uncertainties over how the global food system will respond to climate change, and the potential conflicts and resource scarcities that may accompany it, communities are turning more and more to locally grown and distributed food. The Sustainable Agriculture Project at the University of Minnesota Duluth is one such effort to build a resilient regional food system.

Randel Hansen, IonE resident fellow and assistant professor in the University of Minnesota Duluth College of Liberal Arts, explores how the SAP farm provides both local food and opportunities for students to explore the connections among agriculture, water and energy on WTIP North Shore Community Radio.


IonE resident fellows are faculty with appointments throughout the University of Minnesota system who come together here to share ideas, inspiration and innovation across disciplinary boundaries and are among the shining stars of IonE’s signature approach to addressing global grand challenges.

Photo by Jeanette (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Drones study has media buzzingPhoto by Lee (Flickr/Creative Commons)

They’re becoming increasingly common, careening overhead at the beach or in the park. I’m not talking about mosquitoes, I’m talking about drones. And a new Institute on the Environment–supported study about drones and bears is creating a lot of buzz in the media.

The study, led by University of Minnesota College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences postdoctoral researcher Mark Ditmer with support from an IonE Mini Grant, found that bears’ heart rates increase significantly when drones are present, indicating a heightened level of stress.

It turns out that bears are not the only creatures to get excited about drones. The story has been shared by such heavy hitters as The Washington Post, National Public Radio, the British Broadcasting CorporationSlate and National Geographic, in addition to more science-oriented news sites such as ArsTechnica and LiveScience.

IonE’s Mini Grant program provides seed funding to help spur new interdisciplinary collaborations at the University of Minnesota.

Photo by Lee (Flickr/Creative Commons)

IonE fellow to lead global project on sustainable citiesPhoto by m01229 (Flickr/Creative Commons)

What is a healthy city? How does society weigh the conveniences of transportation, readily available water and electricity, and placement of that new shopping center against the environmental impacts of those assets?

With more than half the world’s population living in cities, building resilient and healthy communities has never been more important. Estimates indicate that by 2050, some 3 billion more people — two-thirds of the world’s population — will inhabit urban areas, increasing pressure on water, energy and land resources. Continue reading

Grand challenge: build resilient communitiesStock photo © KIVILCIM PINAR

More than half of all people live in cities, a number expected to rise to 60 percent by 2050, according to the United Nations. That means that how we build and manage our urban areas is “one of the most important development challenges of the 21st century,” wrote John Wilmoth, director of the United Nations Population Division, in a recent report.

It’s not surprising, then, that the University of Minnesota has recognized the need to focus on cities in its recently released 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

Featured Fellow: Roboticist Volkan IslerPhoto by Jennifer C. (Flickr/CreativeCommons)

Editor’s note: IonE’s nearly 70 resident fellows — faculty with appointments throughout the University of Minnesota system who come together here to share ideas, inspiration and innovation across disciplinary boundaries — are among the shining stars of IonE’s signature approach to addressing global grand challenges. Over the course of the next year, this series will introduce our diverse resident fellows in their own words. Here we interview IonE resident fellow Volkan Isler, associate professor in the College of Science and Engineering. Let the conversation begin!

What is your current favorite project?

Our lab [the Robotic Sensor Networks Lab] is building robotic systems and deploying them in environmental applications. We have developed a network of robotic boats to track invasive fish. We are now developing a team of unmanned aerial and ground vehicles that can do in-field measurements of crops such as apples. Hopefully soon, we will be able to perform other kinds of in-field inspection, such as disease detection.

So far, the success of robotics is mainly in factory settings that can be controlled. Taking them into the field, into an unstructured environment, allows for uncertainties to be introduced. This makes structured and uniform agricultural settings, such as apple orchards or cornfields, ideal for the transition to more natural environments. Continue reading

Boosting nutrients gives a leg up to invasive speciesPhoto by Anita (Flicker/Creative Commons)

U of M researchers conduct global grassland experiment to gain unprecedented insight into differences in the way exotic and native plant species operate.

This article is reprinted with permission from the College of Biological Sciences.

Species invasions come at a high cost. In the United States, the annual cost to the economy tops $100 billion a year and invasive plant infestations affect 100 million acres. While it’s tempting to focus attention on headline-grabbing cases of exceptionally fecund flora such as the kudzu vine, also known as “the vine that ate the South”, basic questions remain about how and whether exotic species are functionally distinct from native species and why they tend to take over when introduced into new environments. Continue reading

What does climate change mean for Minnesota’s trees?Photo by Justin Meissen (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Climate change is affecting weather patterns across the globe — and on our doorstep. As temperatures warm and moisture availability shifts as a result, what effect will these changes have on Minnesota’s trees?

IonE resident fellow Rebecca Montgomery, associate professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, talked with WTIP North Shore Community Radio about an ongoing study that is revealing what trees might disappear from Minnesota’s north woods and which are likely to take their place.

IonE resident fellows are faculty with appointments throughout the University of Minnesota system who come together here to share ideas, inspiration and innovation across disciplinary boundaries and are among the shining stars of IonE’s signature approach to addressing global grand challenges.

Photo by Justin Meissen (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Oil palm plantations & tropical peatland carbon lossPhoto © Marcel Silvius

New study uncovers limitations in past carbon calculations, suggests improved strategies

Draining tropical peatlands for oil palm plantations may result in nearly twice as much carbon loss as official estimates, according to a new study by researchers from the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment and the Union of Concerned Scientists in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

Peatlands — waterlogged, organic soils — have developed over thousands of years as carbon storage systems. In Southeast Asia, peat swamp forests cover about 250,000 square kilometers, a land area about the size of Michigan. In the past 15 years, peatland forests have been rapidly drained and cleared to make way for oil palm and pulpwood plantations. Draining exposes the upper peat layer to oxygen, raising decomposition rates and soil carbon losses. Most of that carbon is emitted to the atmosphere, speeding up climate change. Continue reading

U of M names Jessica Hellmann director of the IonEnews_ione_director_announcement

Renowned environmental researcher, scholar and communicator Jessica Hellmann has been named the new director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment. Hellmann, who is currently on the faculty of the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Notre Dame, will begin her tenure as director of the Institute on the Environment August 31, 2015. She also will join the University faculty as the Russell M. and Elizabeth M. Bennett Chair in Excellence in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior in the College of Biological Sciences. Continue reading

Featured Fellow: Food systems expert Randel HansonPhoto by jb (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Editor’s note: IonE’s nearly 70 resident fellows — faculty with appointments throughout the University of Minnesota system who come together here to share ideas, inspiration and innovation across disciplinary boundaries — are among the shining stars of IonE’s signature approach to addressing global grand challenges. Over the course of the next year, this series will introduce our diverse resident fellows in their own words. Here we interview IonE resident fellow Randel Hanson, assistant professor in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of MInnesota Duluth. Let the conversation begin!

What’s the most interesting thing you’re reading now? 

I have been deeply moved by Dipesh Chakrabarty’s work on thinking through the new reality that we humans collectively and differentially face with anthropogenic climate change: this emergent reality engages in new ways the conjoinment of the history of the Earth system, the history of life (including human evolution) on our planet, and the history of industrial “civilization” and capitalism. Each of these histories has its importance in terms of understanding where we’re at today and yet, as he explores, they are intertwining in ways that deeply challenge how our knowledge systems and our disciplinary systems organize how we approach the world. How do we sufficiently grasp the complexity and enormity of this moment in these histories? And how do we create understandings and actions requisite to our time? For me his work is the richest engagement that I’ve come across in exploring these questions. He doesn’t provide the answers, but he is moving the ball compellingly forward in terms of grasping the complexity of our times. Continue reading

Conservation and conversation in Costa RicaCCCR

Can communication improve conservation? That was the goal in early June, when more than 80 biologists, conservationists, students and journalists gathered from around the world for a two-day open house to share ideas and experiences, network, and strategize how to communicate the value of the research and conservation activities going on at the Área de Conservación Guanacaste (Guanacaste Conservation Area) in northwestern Costa Rica.

ACG spreads across 402,781 acres of rain forest, dry tropical forest and cloud forest, as well as a marine reserve in the northwestern corner of Costa Rica. Scientists and ACG staff are engaged in about 150 different research projects there, from studying ants, primates and sea turtles to observing tropical forest regeneration and how it affects water availability to local communities. Continue reading

Catch up with Frontiers in the Environment talksPhoto by Photo Phiend (Flickr Creative Commons)

Can art help kids connect with nature? What do sustainability and happiness have in common? How can Twitter help researchers understand resource use? These are some of the questions we tackled in the Spring 2015 Frontiers in the Environment speaker series. University, government and industry experts engaged with attendees in hourlong conversations — and debates — over these and many other timely topics.
Continue reading