Institute on the Environment Discovering solutions to Earth's most pressing environmental challenges Wed, 17 Sep 2014 19:11:55 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Study: Pollinators play vital role in human nutrition Wed, 17 Sep 2014 17:27:39 +0000 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

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Acara alum furnishes sustainable solutions to Uganda Tue, 16 Sep 2014 18:58:55 +0000 A 2014 Acara Challenge winner is using his award to pilot his start-up in Uganda. Brice Aarrestad, a student in the College of Design, won the Acara Challenge International Bronze Award for his venture, Help Desk, which aims to address three major issues Aarrestad saw in Uganda: inadequately furnished schools, high unemployment and deforestation. By exporting high-quality, artisan-made furniture to America, he hopes to provide job training and stable employment, support sustainably sourced materials, and provide resources to schools in need.

The Acara Challenge is a competition held each year by IonE’s Acara program to spur start-ups with creative, sustainable solutions that can have impact in the world.

Read more about Help Desk’s work in Uganda.

Banner photo: Help Desk’s Strap Bench prototype on the bank of the River Nile in Jinja, Uganda, by Brice Aarrestad.

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Ecologist David Tilman awarded prestigious Balzan Prize Thu, 11 Sep 2014 20:34:16 +0000 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.

“I am deeply honored to be chosen for the Balzan Prize, and delighted that this award will also support young scholars who share my interests in the unsolved mysteries of ecology and the environmental problems that the earth faces,” says Tilman. “The examples set by my senior colleagues almost four decades ago inspired any successes that I have been fortunate to have.” Tilman cites influential U of M ecologists Margaret Davis, Eville Gorham and Herb Wright as predecessors who helped shape him as a researcher, and notes the importance of his collaborations with current U of M faculty including Clarence Lehman, Peter Reich, Sarah Hobbie and Steve Polasky.

“Science is a team sport,” says Tilman. “I have been fortunate to work with more than 40 Ph.D. students and post-doctoral researchers, and almost 400 undergraduate research assistants over the past 34 years, all of whom have made important contributions.”

Tilman is Regents’ Professor and McKnight Presidential Chair in Ecology in the College of Biological Sciences at the University of Minnesota, where he also serves as Director of the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve. He is best known for his experimental and theoretical work on competition and on the mechanistic causes of multi-species coexistence, and for demonstrating via rigorous field experiments and theory that biodiversity is of central importance to the functioning of ecosystems. Tilman is a past winner of the Heineken Prize and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Boreas is a stew of leadership opportunity Wed, 10 Sep 2014 15:36:11 +0000 The Boreas Leadership Program is gearing up for its fall programming. Boreas is a co-curricular leadership development opportunity at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment. We invite all U of M graduate and professional students to participate in Boreas programming, which helps students catalyze environmental solutions.  The program is idealistic in its aim of helping emerging leaders at the U develop into the world-changers they want to be and world-changers society needs.

The program is also pragmatic in its approach; leadership skills workshops are a core part of the programming. A schedule of workshops is offered each semester in four areas: communications and media, public skills, integrative leadership, and systems thinking and tools.

Leadership Tools

Communications and media workshops focus on the core leadership capability of communication. This semester, students can take part in workshops on storytelling, presentations, op-ed writing, and managing online presence. Boreas alumna Julia Eagles, a graduate of the Humphrey School, called the Boreas presentations a “game-changer” for her. Communications workshops are all half-days, offered in October and November.

Public skills workshops are another set of half-day workshops that help students become more effective citizens and colleagues. This semester’s public skills workshops include negotiation basics, meetings that matter and nonprofit structures.

The integrative leadership workshop builds students understanding and capabilities to manage challenging problems. They learn strategies for working with people across boundaries to move forward in a common way. This workshop takes place over two Fridays in early November.

Another two-day workshop is systems thinking and tools. This workshop helps students better understand systems dynamics, exposing them to a systems dynamics modeling software tool. The idea in this workshop is for participants to develop a way to work rigorously across the many disciplines required to make progress on environmental solutions. Systems thinking is helpful beyond academic disciplines as well. Boreas alumnus John Bussey, who earned a master’s degree in natural resources science and management, used a systems model to map out the staffing at the YMCA residential camp where he works.

The student advisory team is another leadership opportunity at Boreas. The advisory team is a cohort of students from across the University of Minnesota interested in developing their leadership skills and developing deeper relationships with students from varied disciplines. Last year’s team had students from five different U of M colleges.


Boreas also recognizes that leadership is more than a set of skills. Relationships and work style matter for effective leadership. Boreas hosts weekly booyas as a place for students to network and go more in-depth on leadership challenges they are interested in.

A booya is an upper-midwest tradition of community stews – “booya” referring to both the event and the stew. Booyas run on Thursdays from 4:30-6 pm at IonE starting September 18 and all U of M graduate and professional students are welcome. Fellowship and networking are the focus of these weekly events.  We’ll be cooking up an actual stew at the Big Boreas Booya in October.

On Friday, Oct. 10 at the Big Boreas Booya, we will be prepare an actual booya stew outside the Learning and Environmental Sciences Building. Booya-cooking is an all-day affair. Participants can enjoy environmental leadership programming starting with morning coffee; the stew will be served starting at 4 pm.

Students interested in workshops should submit an application by September 22 and student advisory team applications are due September 26.

Kate Knuth is the director of the Boreas Leadership Program.

Read more about  what Julia and John learned at Boreas.

Banner image by Rob Nguyen (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Market science Wed, 03 Sep 2014 17:32:25 +0000 It’s a Saturday morning at the Midtown Farmers Market. Arranged across tables, in crates and under awnings are this season’s colorful bounty of tomatoes and green beans, sunflowers and . . . scientists? Wearing purple shirts imprinted with the slogan, “I’m a scientist … ask me what I do,” several University of Minnesota graduate students are at the market to engage kids and their parents in science experiments and activities aimed at bridging the divide between science and the public. To accomplish this task, the team is facilitating hands-on activities to get market goers talking about gardens and the natural processes that sustain them.

The students were concerned by a study that showed that Minnesota’s racial minorities and women are falling behind in math and science and chose the Midtown market at Lake Street East and 22nd Avenue South in Minneapolis for its diverse ethnic population. They wanted to bring science down from the proverbial ivory tower and make it available to the public. Five Market Science days were planned on alternating Saturdays, each with a different theme, with activities and experiments based on the theme. To fund supplies for the activities, they applied for and won a Mini Grant from the Institute on the Environment.

“We wanted to establish a consistent presence so people feel comfortable approaching us,” says Mohamed Yakub, a College of Biological Sciences Ph.D. candidate and project co-lead. “We wanted to have more intimate conversations.”

Other project co-leaders are Alyson Center, CBS Ph.D. student and a St. Olaf College faculty member; and Jessica Biever, a postdoctoral associate in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences.

Children with pipe cleaners made different pollinators that would then be used in a pollinating the flowers game.  Straws in cups helped explain how trees bring water from roots to leaves. Photo by Mo Yakub.
Children made different pollinators with pipe cleaners that would then be used in a pollinating the flowers game. Straws in cups helped explain how trees bring water from roots to leaves. Photo by Mo Yakub.

The students see the project as an avenue to recruit the next generation of scientists by making scientific research more relevant, explained Center. They hope their “science discovery stations” at the market will establish direct avenues for conversations between university researchers and the general public, she said.

“Sustainability in the backyard” was the theme of the first Market Science day in June, when IonE resident fellow and CBS professor Sarah Hobbie presented different soil samples from around the area and gave tips on which soil types were best suited for what types of plants.

“GMOs and DNA” was the topic on one Saturday in July. The team elicited comments about GMOs —  genetically modified organisms — via a white board on which people could leave anonymous comments; they learned that visitors,  at least on that day, generally have negative attitudes about GMOs and are not much interested in discussing or learning more about them.

On “pollinators and plants” day, people matched pictures of pollinators with the plants they pollinate and crafted bees and other insects from pipe cleaners to be used in a pollinating game. In another activity, kids sucked water through a varying number of straws to understand how a 30-foot tree can pull water from its root to its leaves.

The final Market Science day will be held this Saturday, Sept. 6. The theme will be “plants post-harvest.” How fruits ripen, storage life and the origins of the U of M’s beloved honey crisp apple will be among the topics of the day.

Banner from left to right: College of Biological Sciences graduate students Derek Nedveck, Mohamed  “Mo” Yakub, Beth Fallon and John Benning; Minnesota Zoo conservation biologist Erik Runquist; CBS postdoctoral student Ryan Briscoe-Runquist and son Jack. Photo courtesy of Mo Yakub.

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A global strategy for road building Thu, 28 Aug 2014 19:27:31 +0000 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.

“So much road expansion today is unplanned or chaotic, and we direly need a more proactive approach,” said William F. Laurance, James Cook University, Cairns, Australia, in the Nature news release about the study. “It’s vital because we’re facing the most explosive era of road expansion in human history.”

Across the globe, logging, mining, agriculture, transportation, energy and trade require roads. “While new roads can promote social and economic development, they also can open a Pandora’s box of environmental problems. This is especially the case in pristine or frontier regions, where new roads often dramatically increase land colonization, habitat destruction, and overexploitation of wildlife and natural resources,” the study noted.

Christine S. O’Connell, graduate research assistant with the Institute on the Environment’s Global Landscapes Initiative and a co-author of the study, said, “This study was a true team effort from a global team of researchers. I was delighted to participate and bring GLI’s agriculture and land use impacts data and expertise to the table.”

“We focused on agriculture because global food demand is expected to double by mid-century, and new or improved roads are vital for farmers,” said Nathan Mueller of Harvard University in the news release. Mueller completed his Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota working with GLI. “With better roads, farmers can have improved access to fertilizers, information, and markets for their crops — the whole economic equation changes, which can make farming more efficient and profitable.”

The researchers used data from GLI and other public sources to figure out where roads and road improvements would have the biggest costs and benefits. From that information, they developed a map showing where high environmental costs suggested road construction should be avoided, where roads could provide big agricultural benefit at a relatively small environmental cost, and ”conflict areas,” in which roads would bring both great agricultural benefit and substantial environmental harm.

Also contributing to the study were Gopalasamy Reuben Clemens, James Cook University and Universiti Malaya Terengganu, Malaysia; Sean Sloan, Miriam Goosem and Oscar Venter, James Cook University; David P. Edwards, University of Sheffield, U.K.; Ben Phalan and Andrew Balmford, University of Cambridge, U.K.; Rodney Van Der Ree, University of Melbourne; and Irene Burgues Arrea, Conservation Strategy Fund, Costa Rica.

“We hope our scheme will be adopted by governments and international funding agencies, to help balance development and nature conservation,” said Laurance in the news release. “It’s very exciting to see GLI data contributing to a study that we hope can contribute directly to conservation planning efforts.”

The maps are available online at for immediate use.

The University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment seeks lasting solutions to Earth’s biggest challenges through research, partnerships and leadership development. For more information, visit To learn more about the Global Landscapes Initiative, visit

Banner: Deforestation associated with forest roads in Roraima in the southern Brazilian Amazon (image from Google Earth).

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Helping sugarcane growers reduce water waste Wed, 27 Aug 2014 19:07:47 +0000 The Institute on the Environment’s mission is to discover solutions to Earth’s most pressing environmental challenges. Kate Brauman, lead scientist of the Global Water Initiative at IonE, is helping bring this mission to life. Her recent research looking at global irrigation patterns is now being used by Bonsucro, an organization working to use less water in the production of sugarcane around the world. IonE communications director Todd Reubold recently sat down with Brauman to hear the story.

How did you get started in this field?

Agriculture is heavily managed and most of the focus is on the food products that are grown. But at the end of the day crops are still just plants that need water. So when I was working with IonE’s Global Landscapes Initiative team and the data it produces around crop yield, I started asking, “How big a food bang are people getting for their water buck?” In other words, what is the “crop per drop?”

This was especially intriguing to me because I had often heard the statistic about how only one-quarter of the world’s cropland is irrigated, but irrigated agriculture produces about one-third of the world’s food.

Fortunately, it turned out that a researcher in Germany, Stefan Siebert, who has since become a friend and collaborator, had already put a lot of effort into calculating water consumption for different crops all over the world. And work from GLI had shown that crop yield varies a lot from place to place.

What we didn’t know was whether or not water consumption by those crops would vary in the same way. So I started comparing water consumption to crop yield all around the world. And it turns out that there is a lot of variation in crop per drop, even when we only compare places that have similar climates.

How did Bonsucro hear about your research?

After publishing the crop per drop paper in Environmental Research Letters, they encouraged me to make a video abstract. It was challenging but also really fun to figure out how to articulate the findings and impact of the paper in two minutes. Apparently it was worthwhile, too, because a few weeks later I got an email from Nicolas Viart, the head of sustainability at Bonsucro.

Bonsucro is made up of farmers, millers, buyers, intermediary companies — everyone in the sugar supply chain.

Sugarcane is a far-reaching commodity, grown industrially in over 100 countries for the last 200 years. In 2000, over 1,350 million tons of sugarcane were harvested from nearly 21 million hectares of farmland.

But the sugarcane sector has a dark past, with poor working conditions and negative environmental impacts often disregarded in favor of profits from sugar and, more recently, bioethanol.

Recently the sugarcane sector has been experiencing a sustainability revolution. From producers calling for increased recognition of improved practices to buyers requiring assurance about sugar production conditions, the sector started its own sustainability initiative by forming Bonsucro and developing a metric-based certification scheme.

To date, 38 mills in Brazil and Australia have been certified. This represents 3.66 percent of the global surface under sugarcane and more than 3.7 million tons of raw sugar. And Bonsucro’s goal is to be certifying 20 percent of global sugarcane production by 2020. That’s a lot of sugar!

In the summer of 2013, when my paper came out, Bonsucro was just starting to revise their production standards. Nicolas knew they needed to update the water standard, and when he stumbled across my video he was really excited about the possibility of using crop per drop as the science underlying the new production standard for water.

What happened next?

I was really excited about my work actually being used for something!

Water use in the sugarcane industry is an important sustainability hot spot. About 49 percent of sugarcane cropland, accounting for 54 percent of global production, is irrigated, so improving water productivity in the sector could have a really big impact.

Adapting the crop-per-drop research for use as an indicator turned out to be challenging in two very different ways. First, the standard had to be measurable. Measuring evapotranspiration is a pain — it requires a lot of expensive equipment and a bunch of computation and interpretation. Instead, we went back to the idea of variation in water consumption and in yield between climate zones such as arid versus humid and also within climate zones. We defined new climate zones and assumed every sugarcane farm would have the same evapotranspiration. Then, to figure out crop per drop the farmer only has to measure the “crop” part. They are already measuring production because that’s what they get paid for.

The second really important challenge came about because Bonsucro is a stakeholder organization and stakeholders want to adopt standards that they can attain. A farmer can’t realistically move their farm to a place with more water, but they could improve their management techniques and achieve higher yields. That’s why the standard compares crop per drop among farms in the same climate zones. The idea is to push producers to do the best job possible given their geographic constraints, not punish them because they live in a drier place.

The lead-up to publishing the revised standard and presenting it to their members was hectic. Nicolas was the one explaining how the climate zones were defined and talking about why using them means that comparing yield is really comparing crop per drop, and I had to get him just the right images and text.

He was traveling all over the place and talking with stakeholders, so I would often wake up to an email asking for a map showing a close-up of climate zones in India or the yield cutoff for a certain location in Brazil.

It was definitely not the kind of schedule regular academic research functions on — and it was exciting! All in a flurry, the standard was finally updated and the yield attainment maps were published, and then we just had to wait until the stakeholders voted.

And what happened?

They voted yes! The new production standards were approved. The standard says that producers need to have crop per drop as good as the best half of their peers. Globally, that means that as Bonsucro moves toward certifying 20 percent of the world’s sugarcane production by 2020, all that sugarcane will have to meet the new water standard.

We don’t know exactly which farms will get certified, or what their crop per drop would have been before and after certification, but if we figure at least half of the farms will have to improve to meet the standard, we’re talking about getting better use out of more than 500 billion gallons of water each year.

Wow! So, what’s next for the Global Water Initiative you’re leading?

I’m really excited about where the Global Water Initiative is headed. I see a lot of benefit in providing context for on-the-ground projects.

First, we can help answer the question: “Are you doing a good job using water productively?” Because how can you even know what a “good job” is without knowing what’s possible? When GWI provides the range of crop per drop around the world, a farmer or project has a better idea of what goals to set, just like Bonsucro did.  I’m continuing to work with Bonsucro to see if we can develop a second part of the standard for water, in order to reward growers who don’t irrigate or who use the best technology available. That way, when the next iteration of the production standard comes along, we’ll be ready to go.

Second, GWI is working now to expand into sectors other than agriculture, particularly manufacturing. There’s some information about how much water an average widget factory uses — but, just like with crop per drop, there’s going to be a range of widget per drop, and we want to identify where people could get more widget bang for their water buck.

We can also think about energy per drop and households per drop — there’s a lot of room to expand.

GWI is working to figure out how big an impact an increase in water productivity can make. That helps provide guidance about the types of interventions that might be worth investing in for different regions.

And third, GWI is doing a lot of work with the Natural Capital Project on their water ecosystem services work. We’re thinking a lot about watershed investments and quantifying trade-offs and synergies between getting water and other valuable ecosystem services from the landscape.

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Big questions: Frontiers’ fresh look Mon, 25 Aug 2014 19:34:12 +0000 This fall, the Institute on the Environment is refreshing our popular Frontiers in the Environment series. We’ll ask some Big Questions and host solutions-focused conversations about the next wave of research and discovery.

Each week, we’ll ask a pressing question such as, “Can we build a more resilient food distribution system?” Researchers and other experts from IonE and the greater University and Twin Cities’ communities will dive into the topic, sharing cutting-edge insights to move us closer to the answer.

Everyone from the University and beyond is invited to join us on Wednesdays at noon in St. Paul or via live stream. A Q&A will follow the presentations and refreshments will be served. Attendance is free!

The series kicks off on Sept. 24 with a discussion between researchers in the School of Public Health about the global food system and how computer models can predict and deal with foodborne disease outbreaks. On Oct. 1 you’ll get a peek at IonE’s recently launched Energy Transitions Lab, which is working to ease the transition to a clean energy future, from the lab’s executive and faculty directors.

On Oct. 8 a panel of urban planning experts will focus on cities of the future and how the Twin Cities might help catalyze much-needed global urban innovations. On Oct. 15 you’ll find the IonE’s Natural Capital Project lead hashing over whether society should place monetary values on the benefits we derive from nature, such as clean air and water — an appropriate introduction for the Oct. 22 forum about what Minnesota’s clean water future will look like, featuring water resource luminaries from the University and the state of Minnesota. We’ll round out the October talks on the 29th with a panel of political thought leaders discussing the role of the environment in the upcoming state elections.

November 5’s discussion between an agroecologist and a public affairs professor will center on the agricultural revolution taking hold in the U.S., which is expected to produce more goods and services while simultaneously improving the land that bears them. On Nov. 12 an expert from the U’s Extension service will tackle the conundrum over the health and well-being of children in this day and age when kids spend more time in front of a computer monitor than they do outside.

The series will come to a close for the semester on Nov. 29, with a panel debate of whether it’s enlightened or naïve for environmentalists and corporations to collaborate.

To view the schedule and plan your Wednesdays, go here.

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What I did on my summer vacation in Scandinavia Tue, 19 Aug 2014 20:13:25 +0000 Who would think a visit to a plant that harvests energy from burning trash and features a smokestack so tall “it seemed to curve in the air” would rank among the highlights of a summer study abroad trip to Europe? A dozen University of Minnesota students, that’s who.

In May and June, I led a group of University students from a variety of majors – art, political science, accounting and architecture, to name a few – on a three-week sustainability tour of Denmark. We spent a some precious days on a small agricultural island in the North Sea, a place of sleepy villages, fishing piers and miles of beachfront that draw Danish tourists. We marveled at the island of Samso, which draws visitors from as far away as South Africa, Japan and Australia who come to learn how an isolated community of 5,000 transitioned to using only renewable energy for electricity and heat.

But for my students, a hard-hat visit to the Copenhagen facility to view intake, sorting, crushing and incineration of resources we commonly call “trash” marked a turning point in their thinking about sustainability. Vesterforbraending was the only place all of the students chose to write about in their final reflection papers. While a few engineering students found the processes, operations and controls innately enthralling, everyone gained an understanding of the way education, culture and art connect with sustainability. One student wrote:

“The building welcomed us with friendly, Ikea catalogue–style colored blocks and a huge set of glass windows, and even some public art on the front walk because they’re Danish and that’s what they seem to do here.”

University of Minnesota students from a variety of majors begin their tour of the Vesterforbraending power plant in Denmark. Photo by Beth Mercer Taylor.
Students in the sustaintainability in Scandinavia study abroad course begin their tour of the Vesterforbraending power plant in Denmark. Photo by Beth Mercer Taylor.

Denmark gets noticed internationally for its modern design, bicycling culture, wind turbines and livability, and my students saw those elements as clear expressions of sustainability. They certainly appreciated our visits to Copenhagen’s iconic low-energy buildings, the bicyclists’ union, a wind-powered eco-village and the many historic pedestrian streets, squares and parks. Spending time navigating Copenhagen, a city that takes such a different approach to transportation, energy and city planning than most U.S. cities, definitely moved students to think about sustainability more broadly than on a household or campus level. Scandinavia provides examples of sustainability across scales of time, distance and impact, from a bicycle share available for an afternoon errand to an action plan for countrywide carbon neutrality by 2050.

At Vesterforbraending our tour guide, who is also the full-time education coordinator, began his presentation by touting the plant’s mission, which in essence is to put itself out of business by replacing incineration with a next-generation approach to recycling. My sustainability students then got a crash course in what the engineering students in the group would call “life-cycle analysis.” Using a typical student backpack displayed in the education space as an example, our guide showed us on a map the more than 50 communities around the world that contributed canvas, leather, thread, zippers, straps, labor and more to the backpack’s creation. He asked us to consider the challenge of separating these components for recycling after wear and tear ended its current life carrying books and other student accessories.

One student asked whether incinerator emissions are a serious health concern. Our guide explained that Denmark’s government imposes strict regulations, which the plant upholds and even comes in below.

If Denmark and other places that are committed to recycling are successful in plans to implement a “cradle-to-cradle” approach to the materials of our consumer culture, then the resources going now to a trash burner would instead be put to a higher purpose.

For more information on the sustainability in Scandinavia course and other sustainability education opportunities at the University of Minnesota, visit

Banner photo by Beth Mercer Taylor. The full-time educator and plant guide shows a graphic illustration of one step in the process of removing toxic particles from flu gases.

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Focusing ag expansion can save billions of tons of carbon Mon, 11 Aug 2014 22:26:43 +0000 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.“To meet the large projected increases in food demand, it is likely that a significant amount of natural land will be converted to agricultural production,” said lead author Justin Andrew Johnson, an economist with the Natural Capital Project at the University’s Institute on the Environment. “Converting natural lands, such as forests and grasslands, incurs large costs through losses of carbon storage and other ecosystem services.”

According to the study, the red areas would yield the most calories while preserving the most carbon; the green areas have the highest carbon storage potential and lowest yield potential. From “Global Agriculture and Carbon Tradeoffs,” Justin Andrew Johnson et al., PNAS 2014 (DOI number 10.1073/pnas.1412835111).
According to the study, the red areas would yield the most calories while preserving the most carbon; the green areas have the highest carbon storage potential and lowest yield potential. From “Global Agriculture and Carbon Tradeoffs,” Justin Andrew Johnson et al., PNAS 2014 (DOI number 10.1073/pnas.1412835111).

To find the regions in which crop expansion would have the highest calorie gains for a given increase in carbon footprint, the researchers analyzed high-resolution geospatial data from approximately 10 million locations around the world in search of prospective croplands that produce the most calories relative to the amount of carbon stored, called the crop advantage. They looked at 175 different crops and valued production of consumable calories rather than dry weights to reflect the real goal of food production. They valued the carbon storage potential of each area using the social cost of carbon, an estimate used in economics that monetizes the damages carbon contributes to the economy. The higher the crop advantage, the higher the calorie potential and the better the trade-off for lost carbon storage due to cultivation.

Areas with the highest crop advantage include the U.S. Corn Belt, parts of Western Europe, the Nile Valley, the Ganges River Plain and eastern China. Although these regions are already heavily farmed, the researchers found that expanding farmlands at the edges could produce more calories while limiting carbon loss relative to expansion in other parts of the world.

Parts of Eastern Europe, the Ukraine, Russia and several pockets in Southeast Asia also showed potential for agricultural expansion; tropical regions such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Southern India, parts of sub-Saharan Africa and Central America were found to have a low crop advantage. “There are high costs with developing agriculture in the tropics, and we need to consider them,” Johnson said.

“Careful consideration of both carbon storage and crop yield can maximize carbon storage while meeting agricultural production goals,” the researchers concluded in the paper. “Moving closer to desirable outcomes requires attention to institutional, political, social and economic factors, because billions of people must change what they are doing. These changes will require recognition by political leaders and the general public of the value of carbon storage (and other ecosystem services). Otherwise, there will be little push for carbon policies such as establishing a price for carbon storage and therefore little incentive for landowners to incorporate carbon or the value of other ecosystem services into their decision-making.”

This research was conducted at the University of Minnesota in partnership with the Natural Capital Project and the Global Landscapes Initiative with funding support from The Nature Conservancy. Other authors on the paper are C. Ford Runge, Benjamin Senauer and Stephen Polasky of the University’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences and Jonathan Foley, formerly of the College of Biological Sciences. Runge and Polasky are resident fellows and Jonathan Foley is former director of the Institute on the Environment.

Johnson and colleagues are expanding this research to include other ecosystem services such as biodiversity preservation, water quality protection and soil retention, along with the monetary costs and benefits to farmers of expansion and yield increases.

The University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment seeks lasting solutions to Earth’s biggest challenges through research, partnerships and leadership development. For more information, visit

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Sustainability studies: Something for everyone Thu, 07 Aug 2014 18:20:37 +0000 Sustainability. It has become such a common word, we take it for granted that everyone knows what it is and how to practice it. But what is it, really?

Sustainability is the concept that humans use natural resources to meet current physical, social and economic needs while maintaining adequate resources for future generations.

In our homes, schools, communities and businesses we incorporate sustainability into our day-to-day lives. Some things are so ingrained we hardly think about them anymore: flipping off the lights when we leave the room; tossing bottles into the recycling bin; taking shorter showers. University of Minnesota Twin Cities undergrads from any major who want to do even more can make sustainability part of their academic program — and eventually, their career — through the sustainability studies minor.

Why study sustainability?

There is a growing demand in the job market for people who understand the interplay of economic, social and environmental factors that lead to sustainable results. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists 82 Fortune 500 companies as partners, most of which have positions directly related to managing the company’s sustainability practices. Municipalities across the state and across the country are supporting the growth of green jobs; Minneapolis’ goal is to grow green jobs by 30 percent.

What is the sustainability studies minor?

The sustainability studies minor immerses undergraduate students in the study of real-world problems from a variety of academic perspectives across natural, social and applied sciences, humanities, and the arts. Opportunities are available for internships and practical experiences that can lead to fulfilling jobs upon graduation.

Faculty from five different colleges at the University came together to create an interdisciplinary curriculum for the sustainability studies minor that introduces students to broad sustainability concepts, diverse perspectives and systems thinking. The minor requires students to take two core courses and three elective courses from three of four broad categories: 1) biophysical sciences, 2) the social sciences and humanities, 3) design and technology and 4) economic and policy.

“A sustainability minor opens the door for students from any major, any career trajectory and any background to see how the environment, natural systems and sustainability are woven into their own particular sets of interests and, at the same time, to understand sustainability across disciplines in different communities and even at a global scale,” says sustainability education coordinator Beth Mercer-Taylor.  “From each other and from their faculty, who are themselves drawn from many departments, students come to see the breadth and possibility of sustainability in action. Students at the U of M use the minor to gain expertise in specific sustainability practices that work — in areas from technology to policy to the arts — while they come to glimpse the whole creative universe of action in sustainability at the U, in Minnesota and around the world.”

Grace Bjornson, an assistant residence director in the U’s housing department and alumna of the sustainability studies program, says the minor offers valuable lessons about connections. “I learned that everything is part of a system and interacts with many other components of the system on varying levels,” she says. “The minor took my critical thinking to a new level.  I have been able to bring these skills to all of my professional positions, as I am able to visualize seemingly unrelated interactions and relationships in a variety of settings.”

The minor requires two sustainability education core courses and three electives for a total of 15–18 credits. The core courses are “Sustainable People, Sustainable Planet,” and “Sustainable Communities.” Electives can be taken in a variety of disciplines, including economics, environmental science and policy management, social sciences, biological sciences, and design and technology. Students are also encouraged to expand their education by petitioning for other experiences, such as internships and directed study, to count toward the elective requirement.

“You are given the tools to think critically and outside of the box. You learn how to work well with others, regardless of the skills they bring to the table,” says Bjornson. “Completing this minor was one of the most valuable experiences I had during my college career.”

Learn more about the U’s Sustainability Studies Minor here.

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Repair stations boost biking with Mini Grant help Mon, 04 Aug 2014 16:33:25 +0000 Located halfway between the St. Paul and East Bank campuses of the University of Minnesota, Como neighborhood is home to hundreds of students. And where there are students, there are bikes.

To accommodate all the two-wheeled traffic, the Southeast Como Neighborhood Improvement Association, in partnership with the U’s urban studies program and with support from an IonE Mini Grant, installed two bike tune-up stations in the neighborhood this spring.

“The Mini Grant funded two bike repair stations, and all the tools and events,” said Ricardo McCurley, SECIA’s executive director. “We also had five bike repair clinics with bike technicians talking about bike maintenance, and people got their bikes cleaned, greased up and adjusted. The last two were specifically to show off the stations and see how they work.”

It took a team of 20–25 U of M student interns and service learners, mostly from environmental studies, agriculture and horticulture, to get the job done. “These students seem to gravitate to SECIA,” says McCurley, who has enlisted University students for several past projects.

“SECIA has a strong relationship with the urban studies program. Each term we have students completing meaningful internships within their organization,” says Paula Pentel, coordinator of the U’s urban studies program. “Creating the bike repair stations was SECIA’s idea and I was their University contact. [The project] would not have been possible without IonE funding.”

The project enlisted the help of artist Marlaine Cox, a metalworker who lives in the neighborhood, to design and construct the attractive yet functional stations. One station has been permanently installed at the corner of 26th and Como avenues. Project organizers are awaiting permission from the Minneapolis Parks Department to install the second station in Van Cleve Park; the station currently is available for use inside the park rec center.

Anyone can use the repair stations, which are equiped with tools that can be used to do simple bike tune-ups, such as brake adjustments or tire inflation. “Our goals is to promote biking as a healthy lifestyle choice with environmental benefits,” says McCurley.

Marlaine Cox
Artist Marlaine Cox designed and constructed the stations. A bike can be suspended from the pegs at the top and tools hang from the rings on the center post.
Ricardo McCurley, Annalee Mason, Cody Olson, Junsoo Lee, Marta Borgeson and Ryann Kelly.  Annalee led this group of service learners who's project was to plan our two bike events.  .
Ricardo McCurley and students Annalee Mason, Cody Olson, Junsoo Lee, Marta Borgeson and Ryann Kelly. Annalee led this group of service learners whose project was to plan the bike events.
Ricardo McCurley (left) and Cody Olson, bike intern, install a repair station at 26th and Como.
Cody Olson greases up a bike.
Cody Olson greases up a bike.
Banner photo: Como residents line up to receive a free tune-up. Photos courtesy of SECIA. 
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Supporting the White House Climate Data Initiative Wed, 30 Jul 2014 17:17:19 +0000 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.”

The Kellogg Company is working to bring climate smart agricultural practices to regions of the world with a focus on rice — a commodity uniquely impacting and impacted by climate change. Data and maps provided by the Global Landscapes Initiative will foster geographically relevant implementation of global sourcing for the company.

According to Paul West, co-director of the Global Landscapes Initiative, “More food needs to be produced to meet growing demand while we also work with partners to create sustainable supply chains from field to plate. Meeting this challenge within a changing climate is a daunting proposition but one that the Institute on the Environment is well-positioned to tackle.”

Looking ahead, Kellogg, the Global Landscapes Initiative, and other partners will use climate data, research, and assessments to guide education and actions that help create efficient, adaptable, and sustainable supply chains, as well as identify information gaps and needs to improve the resilience of the agricultural sector to climate change.

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Visiting scholar brings fresh eyes Wed, 23 Jul 2014 17:38:01 +0000 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.

“I’ve worked a lot on water-related ecosystem services and thinking about design and monitoring of payment for watershed services projects, but my work has really been focused in the tropics,” explains Kate Brauman, lead scientist of IonE’s Global Water Assessment and Siew’s sponsor. “Because Tuck Fatt’s project is focused in an arid region, we’ve been able to get into the details of what parts of these projects are general and what are specific. Things like identifying important hydrologic fluxes, and also issues like how water users might be similar or different and have similar or different demands. It’s also been a lot of fun to compare and contrast the theoretical models and ideas we have about ecosystem services,” she says.

We asked Tuck Fatt about about his experience at IonE and the role of visiting scholars in academia, and here’s what he had to say:

How did you become a visiting scholar at the University of Minnesota?

It happened by chance. I got to know Kate when I emailed her for a copy of her paper, Ecosystem Services and River Basin Management. After we’d exchanged a few emails I asked if there was an opportunity to become a visiting scholar with the Institute. And I received a positive answer.

How is your research related to Kate’s work?

I’m involved in a German-Chinese consortium project, sustainable management of river oases along the Tarim River in Xinjiang, northwest China. In this project, I’m working on the integration of ecosystem services into land and water management in the Tarim River Basin using a transdisciplinary research approach. One of my core tasks is to integrate scientific and stakeholder knowledge on land and water management as well as ecosystem services in the area. Therefore, I work very closely with German and Chinese scientists from multiple disciplines and Chinese stakeholders from multiple sectors.

Another main task, which is also my major work focus while I am at IonE, is analyzing ecosystem services trade-offs in the Tarim River Basin using Bayesian network modeling. I apply this model to assess impacts of water and land use, such as irrigation of cotton fields, on ecosystem services and to optimize a bundle of ecosystem services. For Bayesian network modeling, which is a participatory method for transdisciplinary research, we are integrating data and information from various sources including literature, expert knowledge and results from the consortium project.

As you can see, Kate and I are working at different scales and in different focus regions using different approaches. What connects us are the issues related to water and ecosystem services.

What do you hope to learn while you’re here? Who are you interacting with?

I wanted to come here to learn about the approaches and methods used for ecosystem services assessment from different perspectives and continents. By interacting with ecosystem service experts here, I wanted also to improve my Bayesian network model. I know that there are many experts in the office where I am sitting. So far, I’ve talked to a couple of people from the Natural Capital Project and of course Kate, who is a close collaborator. There was also a great opportunity to talk to a Chinese visiting scholar while she was here. At the beginning, I presented my work at two different group meetings which paved the way for further interactions.

I see this visiting scholarship as an exchange program which is not only about improving my research work. Of course I intend to look for further project collaboration as well as to have a joint publication with Kate or others as concrete output of my visit. But I am also very much interested in gaining new perspectives and broadening my horizon with respect to understanding how people work and how life is like here as compared to Germany or Europe. I like to discover the world. And I want to improve my English.

How do you like it here at IonE?

I like the working environment here. I share a room with a Ph.D. student in Frankfurt. Here it’s open, I have a lot of space but can work privately on my computer.

What do you think of the Twin Cities? What have you seen?

I like it very much, it’s very green. I am told I am very much lucky to be here in the summer.

I’ve explored downtown and walked along the river by Nicollet Island. I take the light rail, it’s very convenient to get downtown and to St. Paul. And I went to the Mall of America, which was amazing. There is no big mall like this in Germany. I’ve also been to Minnehaha Park and enjoyed the green surroundings. Lately, I rented a green bike and cycled along the river. And I visited the Mill City Museum and Minneapolis Institute of Arts. I like them very much. I found a Malaysian restaurant and had a dish my mother only makes at Chinese New Year, with cabbage and mushrooms and glass noodles. Buddha something. Also something called poppiah, like spring rolls. It was very authentic. I also joined happy hours and the fireworks on the Fourth of July. That was fun.

Do you have any other plans for the summer?

I have some big trips planned to D.C., Chicago and San Francisco.

Would you recommend the visiting scholar experience to others?

Definitely. IonE is a great place to be at. The working environment with all the facilities is amazing. That’s the place where innovative thinking is promoted and emerging. And people here are very friendly and helpful. Being here, I feel very much integrated to the group. The visiting scholar experience will surely help advance one’s personal and career development.

Banner image: Siew in the Taklamakan Desert in northwest China (photo courtesy of Tuck Fatt Siew).

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Study: How existing cropland could feed billions more Thu, 17 Jul 2014 17:58:52 +0000 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.

“This paper represents an important next step beyond previous studies that have broadly outlined strategies for sustainably feeding people,” said lead author Paul West, co-director of the Institute on the Environment’s Global Landscapes Initiative. “By pointing out specifically what we can do and where, it gives funders and policy makers the information they need to target their activities for the greatest good.”

The major areas of opportunity and key leverage points for improving the efficiency and sustainability of global food production are:

1. Produce more food on existing land. Previous research has detected the presence of a dramatic agricultural “yield gap” — difference between potential and actual crop yield — in many parts of the world. This study found that closing even 50 percent of the gap in regions with the widest gaps could provide enough calories to feed 850 million people. Nearly half of the potential gains are in Africa, with most of the rest represented by Asia and Eastern Europe.

2. Grow crops more efficiently. The study identified where major opportunities exist to reduce climate impacts and improve the efficiency with which we use nutrients and water to grow crops.

Agriculture is responsible for 20 to 35 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, largely in the form of carbon dioxide from tropical deforestation, methane from livestock and rice growing, and nitrous oxide from crop fertilization. The study found that the biggest opportunities for reducing greenhouse gas production are in Brazil and Indonesia for deforestation; China and India for rice production; and China, India and the United States for crop fertilization.

With respect to nutrient use, the study found that worldwide, 60 percent of nitrogen and nearly 50 percent of phosphorus applications exceed what crops need to grow. China, India and the U.S. — and three crops, rice, wheat and corn — are the biggest sources of excess nutrient use worldwide, so offer the greatest opportunity for improvement.

With respect to water, rice and wheat are the crops that create the most demand for irrigation worldwide, and India, Pakistan, China and the U.S. account for the bulk of irrigation water use in water-limited areas. Boosting crop water use efficiency, the researchers found, could reduce water demand 8 to 15 percent without compromising food production.

3. Use crops more efficiently. The third major category of opportunities characterized for boosting food production and environmental protection relate to making more crop calories available for human consumption by shifting crops from livestock to humans and reducing food waste.

The crop calories we currently feed to animals are sufficient to meet the calorie needs of 4 billion people. The study noted that the U.S., China and Western Europe account for the bulk of this “diet gap,” with corn the main crop being diverted to animal feed. Although cultural preferences and politics limit the ability to change this picture, the authors note that shifting crops from animal feed to human food could serve as a “safety net” when weather or pests create shortages.

In addition, some 30 to 50 percent of food is wasted worldwide. Particularly significant is the impact of animal products: The loss of 1 kilogram of boneless beef has the same effect as wasting 24 kilograms of wheat due to inefficiencies in converting grain to meat. The authors illustrate how food waste in the U.S., China and India affect available calories, noting that reducing waste in these three countries alone could yield food for more than 400 million people.

“Sustainably feeding people today and in the future is one of humanity’s grand challenges. Agriculture is the main source of water use, greenhouse gas emissions, and habitat loss, yet we need to grow more food,” West said. “Fortunately, the opportunities to have a global impact and move in the right direction are clustered. By focusing on areas, crops and practices with the most to be gained, companies, governments, NGOs and others can ensure that their efforts are being targeted in a way that best accomplishes the common and critically important goal of feeding the world while protecting the environment. Of course, while calories are a key measure of improving food security, nutrition, access and cultural preferences must also be addressed. But the need to boost food security is high. So let’s do it.”

The University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment seeks lasting solutions to Earth’s biggest challenges through research, partnerships and leadership development. For more information, visit

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Fellows capture MnDRIVE Transdisciplinary Awards Wed, 16 Jul 2014 17:35:22 +0000 Four Institute on the Environment-related research projects have been awarded a total of $2 million from MnDRIVE’s Transdisciplinary Awards, a state-funded grant initiative. Nine IonE resident fellows from six colleges are named as principal investigators or co-investigators on projects to advance renewable energy use in rural food processing systems; produce a database of bacteria that break down chemicals in the environment; develop tools for early disease detection in fish and swine; and create new agricultural products from emerging agricultural technologies.

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. The Transdisciplinary Research Program funds projects that bring together faculty and resources from multiple disciplines across the university, including researchers from the sciences, arts, humanities, business, education and policy.

The IonE-affiliated recipients of the MnDRIVE Transdisciplinary Research Program awards are:

Elizabeth Wilson, associate professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, is the principal investigator on a project that will explore how advanced sensors and control systems can be used to better integrate renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power with electricity demand to improve the sustainability and reliability of the electric power system. Timothy Smith, director of IonE’s NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Development and associate professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences and Peter Seiler, assistant professor in the College of Science and Engineering, are co-investigators.

College of Biological Sciences professor Lawrence Wackett is the principal investigator on a project that will use computer modeling to identify optimum enzymes and bacteria for breaking down hazardous chemicals in the environment, as well as develop a method for detecting and degrading acrylamide, a chemical found in water from frac sand mining and in certain foods.

Meggan Craft, assistant professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine, and Jian-Ping Wang, Distinguished McKnight University Professor in CSE, are co-investigators on a team that aims to develop technology and mathematical models to detect and understand disease transmission in fish and swine that poses a risk to the food supply in Minnesota and globally.

Nicholas Jordan, CFANS professor, is the principal investigator on a project that seeks to reap economic, environmental and social benefits from emerging technologies that produce new products (foods, industrial products and biofuels) from new agricultural crops. Co-investigators include Timothy Smith; Volkan Isler, associate professor, CSE; and Carissa Schively-Slotterback, associate professor, Humphrey School.

To read more about the projects, visit the MnDRIVE website.

Banner photo: Adrian S. Jones (Flickr Creative Commons)

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IonE all-stars win MnDRIVE Global Food Ventures grants Wed, 16 Jul 2014 15:03:45 +0000 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.

“Continued progress in the field of agriculture is vital not only to Minnesota, with its more than 200 food companies throughout the state, but to the world as a whole,” said Brian Buhr, dean of the U’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS), in a press release.  “These groundbreaking proposals evaluated by the Global Food Ventures team will help address the critical challenges facing the U.S. and the world. ”

IonE-affiliated recipients of Global Food Ventures grants are:

Nicholas Jordan, CFANS professor and Lewis Gilbert, IonE’s managing director and chief operating officer, are on a team that aims to develop a master’s degree program in food systems, including defining core competencies, creating new ways to deliver curriculum, and enhancing or creating courses.

Matteo Convertino, School of Public Health assistant professor, will collaborate on a project to develop a new model for measuring and addressing salmonella contamination in ground meat and poultry to effectively and efficiently manage outbreaks.

Meggan Craft, assistant professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine, is part of a team that will tackle emerging and current threats to Minnesota livestock production by developing a surveillance system for early disease detection and designing disease control strategies to minimize disease impact.

Tim Smith, director of IonE’s NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Development and associate professor in CFANS, will co-investigate the urban organic waste cycle – where waste is generated, its flow through city-farm systems and how to re-engineer the flow to improve sustainability.

Read more about Global Food Ventures on the MnDRIVE website.

Banner photo: Danielle Scott (Flickr Creative Commons)

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Science on a Sphere Tue, 15 Jul 2014 18:22:15 +0000 What would you get if you crossed a map of the world with the Discovery Channel? You’d get something close to Science on a Sphere, a mash-up of science data and video artistry.

SOS is a cool piece of technology that can illustrate — with compelling imagery and narrative — earth science to audiences at museums, zoos, universities and research institutions around the world.

SOS is a globe with a 68-inch diameter (about the width of a car) onto which a video is projected. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration created it to help explain complex environmental processes, such as ocean currents and weather patterns, happening across the planet.

With support from the Institute on the Environment, the Science Museum of Minnesota is creating an SOS film series focused on global change. Led by Patrick Hamilton, IonE resident fellow and director of the museum’s Global Change Initiatives, the project already has produced four short films – currently on the playlist at SMM — about how humans dominate and change the planet. Three are about how humans are changing Earth’s land surface, ocean, and atmosphere and star two IonE researchers. Kate Brauman, lead scientist at IonE’s Global Water Assessment, contributed to the film on water and Tracy Twine, co-leader of Islands in the Sun, a collaboration of IonE and the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences that monitors the Twin Cities heat island, is featured in the film about the Earth’s atmosphere. The fourth film explores the human capacity to innovate solutions to big environmental challenges.

Brauman routinely uses maps to explain her research on the implications of agriculture on water resources, but says maps have their limitations.

“We’re great at making maps, they’re good for telling stories. But one thing we wrestle with is they are flat and static.” With SOS, she says, audiences can not only see all points on the globe where corn is grown, for example, but also the variations of corn yields based on water use. “And you can see the corn growing,” she says.

“It’s a great way to get our research out to the public,” explains Twine . She says SOS can be tailored to the topic or audience.

“Producers have created the movie in a way that chapters can be selected to be shown by any institution with the Science on a Sphere,” she says. “In this way the particular institution could just show one part of the movie relevant to an exhibit. This should allow more information to be disseminated broadly to fit the goals of any institution.”

Science on a Sphere is on display as part of the Future Earth exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota and in more than 100  institutions around the world.

Banner photo: Will von Dauster (courtesy of NOAA)

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Study: Groundwater contamination in SE Minnesota Thu, 10 Jul 2014 16:18:31 +0000 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.”

The analysis focuses on eleven counties in Southeastern Minnesota — a region classified as highly vulnerable to groundwater contamination and having one of the highest rates of recent grassland conversion to agriculture in the state, but the results can also be extrapolated to regions across the Midwest U.S. undergoing rapid land conversion.

The researchers used publicly available well data and nitrate chemistry readings to predict how changes in land use will affect the likelihood of well contamination.  The team also discovered a significant relationship between high-nitrate wells and nearby agricultural lands.  Using this relationship, along with other soil and geologic information and well characteristics, they created a model that could be used to evaluate how recent trends in grassland loss to agriculture may affect the future number of contaminated wells in the region.

Steve Polasky, Fesler Lampert Professor of Ecological/ Environmental Economics and an Institute on the Environment Resident Fellow co-authored this recent paper.

The Natural Capital Project is a partnership combining research innovation at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment and Stanford University with the global reach of conservation science and policy at The Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund.

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Campus garden sprouts at U of M Crookston Tue, 08 Jul 2014 14:29:33 +0000 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.

The project also received a $25,000 grant from 98-year-old Allen Pederson to honor his wife, Freda. The couple were active gardeners, often sharing their bounty with the community.

A variety of produce, including cucumbers, onions, cabbage and peppers, has been planted in hopes of being ready to harvest in time for returning students in September. All produce from the garden will supply the Crookston campus food service.

The garden, which occupies three-quarters of an acre of city land adjacent to the campus, was a true campus-community collaboration, with expertise, interest and equipment harnessed from students, the university extension service and community members. “Even the chancellor of student affairs was out planting,” says Svedarsky.

Dan Svedarsky distributes fertilizer on the three-quater-acre plot
Dan Svedarsky plants corn in one of the garden plots.


Tomatoes have begun to sprout.


U of M Crookston Vice-Chancellor of Academic Affairs Barbara Keinath, garden benefactor Allen Pederson and Chancellor Fred Wood at the dedication ceremony.

The project has also been featured in a local news story — check it out!

Photos: Tashi Gurung

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Incredible India Tue, 01 Jul 2014 16:04:46 +0000 “Incredible India” is the Government of India’s international marketing tagline, and it is spot on. But when Acara travels to India, the question is not which Himalayan peak to summit. It is, “How can business be used to impact the grand societal and environmental challenges of the 21st Century?”

In May 2014, Acara sought to gain further insights into this question through our most recent study abroad program. We spent three eye-opening weeks in Bangalore, India with 14 University of Minnesota students from engineering, business, public health and design. We were there to discover challenges at the nexus of community development, infrastructure, and environment, as well as the entrepreneurial venture solutions that India’s change makers are passionately pursuing.

During many long days in India, we interacted with executives from various social ventures diving deep into Bangalore’s unsightly locales: jam-packed roads, reeking garbage dumps, bustling scrap markets, flowing wastewater treatment facilities, and numerous “slum” communities that house many of the city’s low-income workers. We also spent time learning about rural development issues in villages. Through field visits, we discovered not only about India’s intriguing culture, delicious food, and vibrant history, but also about issues ranging from water access (or lack thereof) in slums to solid waste challenges to women’s livelihoods in rural villages. This is the real incredible India!

We visited the waste contractor and his employees that are part of Bangalore's house-to-house garbage collection network .
We visited a waste contractor and his employees, part of Bangalore’s house-to-house garbage collection network .


Our group spent a day on the “trash trail” with Saahas, a solid waste management venture, following garbage from neighborhood collection, to sorting facility, to landfill, to scrap market and to the informal plastic waste recycling sector. Once waste reaches the landfill, rag pickers (who pay the authorities to live and work on the landfill) extract the remaining recyclables and sell them to scrap dealers.
Our group spent a day on the “trash trail” with Saahas, a solid waste management venture, following garbage from neighborhood collection to sorting facility to landfill to scrap market – and on to the informal plastic waste recycling sector. Once waste reaches the landfill, rag pickers (who pay the authorities to live and work on the landfill) extract the remaining recyclables and sell them to scrap dealers.


A young man in Bangalore's informal recycling area  oversees the plastic extrusion process before the pellets are sold to local manufacturers.
A young man in Bangalore’s informal recycling sector oversees the plastic extrusion process before the pellets are sold to local manufacturers.


Garbage piles, loose electrical wires, broken sidewalks --  these are the streets of India, one of many tragedies of the commons. To learn about the issues and take action, we spent a day with Ugly Indian, an anonymous group of “spot-fixing” Indian citizens. Watch as this public wall gets a make-over (video).
Garbage piles, loose electrical wires, broken sidewalks — these are the many tragedies of the commons. To learn about the issues and take action, we spent a day with Ugly Indian, an anonymous group of “spot-fixing” Indian citizens. Watch this public wall get a make-over.


With SELCO, we explored their approach to providing solar lighting and energy access to low-income communities using distributed, pay-per-use battery rental ventures.
With SELCO, we explored their approach to providing solar lighting and energy access to low-income communities using distributed, pay-per-use battery rental ventures.


When rural immigrants make their way to urban centers, they use what they can find to build their homes, and to begin to build a better life for their families, resulting in commonly unauthorized informal settlements known as slums. Our teams spent a day with Biome learning about water access issues in both high-end gated communities as well as low-income informal settlements.
When rural immigrants make their way to urban centers, they use what they can find to build their homes and to begin to build a better life for their families, resulting in commonly unauthorized informal settlements known as slums. Our teams spent a day with Biome learning about water access issues in both high-end gated communities as well as low-income informal settlements.


Life in Bangalore is especially onerous for low-income families living illegally on unauthorized land in tent slums constructed from locally available materials.
Life in Bangalore is especially onerous for low-income families living illegally on unauthorized land in tent slums constructed from locally available materials.


Local farmers in northern Tamil Nadu rely on “Government gobra,” chemical fertilizers and pesticides, to grow their crops. We spent a day on the Navadarshanam (meaning “New Vision”) organic farm learning about traditional farming practices, organic methods and rural development challenges.
Local farmers in northern Tamil Nadu rely on “Government gobra,” chemical fertilizers and pesticides, to grow their crops. We spent a day on the Navadarshanam (New Vision) organic farm learning about traditional farming practices, organic methods and rural development challenges.


The auto rickshaw, a three-wheel that runs on liquified petroleum gas, vehicle, is ubiquitous in urban India, a form of transportation you come to know well while sitting in traffic for hours.
The auto rickshaw, a three-wheel vehicle that runs on liquified petroleum gas, is ubiquitous in urban India, a form of transportation you come to know well while sitting in traffic for hours.


Sikshana Foundation
We spent an afternoon with elementary and middle school students at Sikshana Foundation learning about their families, answering questions about the U.S., enjoying their talent show (and performing!) and planting trees to commemorate the occasion.


In northern Karnataka, we spent a day learning about livelihoods issues and how TIDE is working to help rural women’s groups develop income-generating opportunities through their Women’s Technology Park.
In northern Karnataka, we spent a day learning about livelihoods issues and how TIDE is working to help rural women’s groups develop income-generating opportunities through their Women’s Technology Park.


After a long day, nothing beats a sweet chai. For three weeks we enjoyed India’s delicacies, including various street foods and chaats (snacks), though sometimes paid the price.

Brian Bell is assistant program director of Acara at the Institute on the Environment, as well as network coordinator of IMNPACT Angels and member of the Minneapolis Hub of Global Shapers. When not facilitating Acara teams, Brian enjoys traveling to developing regions, cycling around the Twin Cities and cooking international eatables.

Banner photo: The challenges of rural India drive thousands upon thousands of villagers to seek opportunities in urban India, leading to overpopulated and overstressed urban environments. All photos courtesy of Brian Bell.










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Study: Oil palm plantations alter water quality Mon, 30 Jun 2014 19:04:44 +0000 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.

Kimberly Carlson, an IonE postdoctoral scholar and lead author on the study, says the research yielded some unexpected findings. “First, oil palm plantation land use seems to have a greater effect on streams than community agroforest or low-impact logging.” Researchers were also surprised to discover that a stream in a mature, closed-canopy oil palm plantation was almost as hot as, and yielded even more sediment than, a stream draining a watershed recently cleared for oil palm.

The study, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences, found that streams draining oil palm plantations can be up to 7 degrees Fahrenheit warmer and have up to 550 times higher sediment concentrations than streams draining intact forests. In Indonesia, where people depend on rivers for food and water, alteration of stream temperature and sediment levels — which may affect the health of freshwater fisheries as well as coastal ecosystems including coral reefs — could have big implications for human livelihoods.

“Local communities are deeply concerned about their freshwater sources. Yet the long-term impact of oil palm plantations on freshwater streams has been completely overlooked until now,” said study co-author and team leader Lisa Curran in a Stanford University press release.

Palm oil land being cleared and drained for oil palm plantation in West Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo
Land being cleared and drained for oil palm plantation in West Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo. Photo: Kimberly Carlson

“These plantations are huge, with an average plantation approximately 39 square miles, slightly larger than the island of Manhattan,” said Carlson. Previous work by the same group predicts that 35 percent of Kalimantan’s lowlands will be cleared for oil palm by 2020 if expansion trends continue.

IonE Global Water Assessment lead scientist Kate Brauman also contributed to the study. Carlson, Curran, Brauman and colleagues suggest that practical ways to mitigate the impacts of plantations on freshwater ecosystems may include limiting the number of roads that intersect with streams and maintaining or restoring natural vegetation cover along the edges of streams.

Banner photo: Yadi Purwanto. Individual oil palm fruit.

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Summertime viewing to enlighten and inspire Wed, 25 Jun 2014 16:42:43 +0000 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!

The videos are ready to go for viewing on a laptop or desktop computer; if you want to enjoy them lakeside from your tablet or phone, just download Adobe® Connect™ Mobile for iOS or Adobe Connect for Android.

From spring 2014, check out “Science Communication” to learn about MinuteEarth, a YouTube-based animation series that’s getting people around the world excited about earth and climate science; “What IS the Green Economy, and How Do We Get One?,” a discussion about government, corporate and consumer approaches that can move us closer to a green economy; and “Yellowstone: More Valuable Then Gold,” the account of the successful campaign to keep gold mining out of Yellowstone National Park.

From fall 2013, see “The Palm Oil Problem,” a look at the environmental consequences of — and potential solutions to — the ubiquitous ingredient used in countless household products; “Redefining Agricultural Productivity,” a conversation about how small changes in diet could feed more people and reduce the impact of agriculture; and “Tracking the Wild Ones” on field research that seeks to understand how a changing climate is affecting wild animal populations.

From spring 2013, watch “Is Frac[k] a Four-letter Word?” a discussion about the pros and cons of hydraulic fracturing and emerging technologies that may mitigate its environmental impact; “Are All Tomatoes Created Equal?,” exploring whether exposure to agricultural and food processing chemicals are contributing to obesity and chronic illness; and “University-Community Collaboration to Advance Sustainability,” a peek into the U’s Resilient Communities Project and its partnership with the City of Minnetonka.

Live Frontiers talks will resume in the fall – watch this website for more information and plan to attend a live presentation, stream online or check out the archived videos on your own schedule. Everyone is welcome!

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On the edge of the Amazon, efficiency matters Wed, 18 Jun 2014 21:10:24 +0000 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.

There are open questions, however, about how these intense cropping systems will affect the environment. Here in the U.S. and in Minnesota, we associate high-yield farms with water pollution, runoff and declining soil fertility. Will the same environmental impacts manifest when we put an intensified cropland farm into the Amazon?

Sandro Rocha, of the Instituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amazonia, records data while measuring greenhouse gas emissions from a forest site in the Eastern Amazon. Credit: Christine S. O’Connell
Sandro Rocha, of the Instituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amazonia, records data while measuring greenhouse gas emissions from a forest site in the Eastern Amazon.
Photo: Christine S. O’Connell

In my position with the Institute on the Environment’s Global Landscapes Initiative, I’m working with colleagues around the world to try and answer this and other questions via a field study in Mato Grosso, Brazil. Since 2012, we have been measuring how the nitrogen cycle has been altered as a result of cropland intensification; whether emissions of nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas emitted from soils, have gone up or down as nitrogen fertilizer use becomes common; how soil nitrogen availability has changed; and if more nitrogen is running off into streams or moving through the soil column into groundwater. These effects — nitrous oxide emissions and nitrogen runoff into the freshwater system — may accompany improved cropland efficiency in the region. If it does, it could change how we assess sustainability on tropical croplands.

Our pursuit of data that can help us investigate sustainability on Amazonian cropland has brought us to a large industrialized farm in Mato Grosso. Working with local research partner Instituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amazonia and colleagues at Centro de Energia Nuclear na Agricultura – Universidade de São Paulo, Woods Hole Research Center, the Marine Biological Laboratory and the University of Vermont, we have taken greenhouse gas, soil and water measurements for the last year in primary Amazon forest on the farm’s property and on intensified croplands that are planted twice a year — once with soybeans, a nitrogen-fixing crop, and once with corn, which receives nitrogen fertilizer. As on many large, intensified farms, both crops are also treated with pesticides, herbicides, phosphorus, potassium, micronutrients and lime to manage the acidic soils common in tropical forests.

Field research is my favorite way to engage with science.  Having boots on the ground gets me thinking more creatively and puts small but potentially crucial details into my line of sight. Rainstorms can be so patchy that they affect one field but not another one directly next to it. How much light is available in these forests, and what might that mean for how plants below the canopy use nutrients? Does it matter to the nitrogen cycle that wild tapirs might leave the forest to forage in these soybean fields? These are observations or questions that wouldn’t have occurred to me had I not been tromping around this landscape collecting data in croplands and their adjacent primary forests.

A Brazilian tapir (Tapirus terrestris) browsing in a soybean field in Mato Grosso, Brazil Credit: Christine S. O’Connell
A Brazilian tapir (Tapirus terrestris) browsing in a soybean field in Mato Grosso, Brazil
Photo: Christine S. O’Connell

When it comes to the environmental impacts of intensified — and efficient — Amazonian croplands, the verdict is still out. But exploring those impacts is exciting because it allows us to learn more about the nitrogen cycle in the context of an actively changing socio-environmental context. The agricultural frontier of the eastern Amazon is a dynamic system that on first glance is following the trajectory of the intensification of American farms — but in fact is forging its own path to land use efficiency. The ecological and farming conditions are different and we hypothesize that the environmental impacts will also be different. Just how different remains to be seen.

Banner photo: Christine S. O’Connell. Intensified croplands that grow commodities such as soybeans and maize are becoming more common in the eastern Amazon; here, primary Amazon forest exists meters away from high-productivity agricultural fields.

Christine O’Connell is a doctoral student in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior and a research fellow with the Global Landscapes Initiative. She uses ecosystem ecology to ask questions about tropical ecosystems on a changing planet when not riding her bike or scrambling around outside.

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Estar en el Prairie Tue, 17 Jun 2014 19:14:01 +0000 Imagine yourself living in a foreign country where the native language is different from your own. Perhaps you have relocated with your family, or maybe your family is thousands of miles away and most people are strangers to you. What would you say about yourself to the people in this new country or to your family far away?

Dozens of Latino immigrants to western Minnesota are being asked this very question — and invited to display that message to the world.

Estar en el Prairie,” the current installation in IonE’s Commons Meeting & Art Space, is a montage of immigrants photographed in their work,  home or school environment, holding a written message about themselves and their lives.

“I’m happy to experience a new world and meet people with their own universes,” and “Far from home with new horizons” are two of the messages. One newcomer chose to write that he prefers working in Minnesota to California.

The project was led by students at the University of Minnesota Morris. Come see the images and the stories they have to tell now through the end of summer.

Commons Meeting & Art Space
R350 Learning & Environmental Sciences Building
1954 Buford Avenue
St. Paul, MN 55108

Directions >>

Photo: Nic McPhee

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Acara teams make Minnesota Cup semifinals Thu, 12 Jun 2014 14:21:32 +0000 Four teams with roots in the Institute on the Environment’s Acara program have advanced to the semifinals in the 10th annual Minnesota Cup, the state’s largest venture competition.

Acara is a social entrepreneurship program that helps University of Minnesota students develop impact ventures that address societal and environmental challenges through courses, workshops and field experiences.

The four Acara-based social ventures were chosen from a pool of 1,300 and will be competing against 66 other teams for up to $30,000 in seed money for their start-ups. The ventures are:

  • MyRain – supplies drip irrigation systems to small-plot farmers in India
  • Pragati Palms – markets sustainably sourced Indian artisan crafts
  • Mighty Axe – grows Minnesota hops for local brewers
  • BDW Technologies –  is instituting a process for genetically engineering probiotic bacteria to counteract infection in farm animals.

In addition, IonE managing director and chief operating officer Lewis Gilbert has been advising another finalist, Kate Thompson of Ground Truth Collaborative.

Learn more about the Minnesota Cup and the semifinalists here.

Photo: Matthew Wildenauer

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Tropic of Twin Cities Tue, 10 Jun 2014 21:23:46 +0000 For many Minnesotans, “tropical” connotes vacation, beaches, pineapples and suntans. With the help of an Institute on the Environment Mini Grant, the Twin Cities Tropical Environments Network (TC-Tropics for short) hopes to expand this view to include the great diversity of tropical environments beyond the beach.

Why the Tropics?

Tropical regions occur between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, the area of the earth surrounding the equator. The tropics contain the greatest levels of biodiversity in the world, including charismatic animals such as the orangutan and numerous species that have not yet been discovered by humans. Equatorial regions are home to beautiful coral reefs, forests that are critically important to global climate, and billions of people who live in remote rural areas, cities and everywhere in between. In other words, the tropics are a varied and vital part of the planet.

Despite residing more than a thousand miles away from the nearest tropical region (Mexico), plenty of tropical enthusiasts populate the Twin Cities. These include people who work at not-for-profit organizations, businesses that source products from tropical farms or academic institutions, as well as individuals who are from or feel a strong connection to the tropics. A common theme among such individuals is their recognition of the many challenges, such as deforestation and rapid urban development, faced by tropical environments.

TC-Tropics was founded in order to bring these people and organizations together. The group aims to foster connections and networking in an atmosphere where ideas and collaborations surrounding tropical environments flow freely. TC-Tropics provides a venue in which tropics-specific projects are developed, funding sources are identified and ideas are shared. It’s modeled on the Bay Area Tropical Forest Network, a group in the San Francisco Bay Area broadly interested in tropical forest conservation and ecology.

Tropical Feature: Dry Forests

In 2014, TC-Tropics is hosting monthly meetings all over the Twin Cities. At the April event, hosted at the Institute on the Environment, Maga Gei, a University of Minnesota doctoral candidate, discussed her research in the tropical dry forests of Costa Rica.

One of the most endangered tropical ecosystems is tropical dry forest, such as the Atlantic Forest on the coast of Brazil. Unlike their lush, green and humid forest cousins, tropical dry forests are often spiny, hot and, during parts of the year, very dry. These attributes make dry forests very suitable for agriculture, and many tropical dry forests have already been converted to croplands or pasture.

Gei told us that most of the world’s nitrogen fixation — the process by which plants gather nitrogen from the air and use it to support growth — occurs in the tropics. She is doing experiments in Costa Rica to understand how trees tune nitrogen fixation to available resources such as light. If you are interested in learning more about her work, you can check out Gei’s website.

Upcoming Events

During the summer months, TC-Tropics events will be relaxed happy hours for networking and conversation. The next get-together is June 17 at Republic 7 Corners at 5 pm. Check the TC-Tropics website for upcoming July and August events.

Starting in Fall 2014, TC-Tropics will feature discussions with some amazing scholars and practitioners who have worked extensively in tropical regions. William Moseley, a geography professor at Macalester, will be talking on Thurs., Sept. 11. Jahi Chappell, director of agroecology and agriculture policy at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, will be joining us Nov. 11 to discuss the need for action, ethics and values in ecology, with examples from food systems in the tropics.

If you are interested in speaking at a TC-Tropics gathering, hosting an event or suggesting a speaker, please email with your idea!

For more information about the Twin Cities Tropical Environments Network, please visit our website.


When not researching how to improve the sustainability of tropical agriculture as a post-doc at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, you can find Kimberly running around a lake, learning to speak Portuguese or dancing Lindy Hop.

Photo: Robert Pittman (Flickr Creative Commons)

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Four new Project Grants awarded Mon, 09 Jun 2014 19:23:45 +0000 Congratulations to the four latest recipients of Institute on the Environment Project Grants! IonE Project Grants (formerly known as Discovery Grants) help highly innovative, world-class research activities get off the ground with a one-time investment of venture capital funding. The new recipients for fiscal year 2014 are:

Climate, Conflict and Displacement: Shifting Patterns in Kenyan Pastoral Communities

Project Leads: Cheryl Robertson (School of Nursing), Paul Porter (College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences), Innocent Rwego (School of Public Health) and Fred Rose (Institute on the Environment)

This project will conduct a focused study to better understand the human experience of climate variability, conflict and displacement due to climate change. It will also build multidisciplinary academic and multisectoral partnerships to develop a program that can improve the health and resilience of climate-displaced communities.

Releasing the Power of Nature for Cleaning Pollutants in Drinking Water

Project Leads: Alptekin Aksan (College of Science and Engineering) and Larry Wackett (College of Biological Sciences)

This collaboration between industry, academia and regulating federal, state and multinational agencies aims to develop a low-cost, low-energy-demand self-sustained bioremediation system that can be rapidly deployed anywhere in the world.

Food System Design for Resilient Population Health: The Minnesota Model

Project Lead: Matteo Convertino (School of Public Health)

This project will apply a comprehensive approach to designing an integrated, transdisciplinary food transportation system that intends to build resilience into the food web by providing dynamical indication over time of critical pathways, trade suggestions, disease outbreak locations, stakeholder connectivity needs, local investigation needs and real-time updates.

Sustainable Cities: Building an Integrative Research Network to Incorporate Natural Capital Into Design of Urban Systems     

Project Leads: Sarah Hobbie (College of Biological Sciences), Bonnie Keeler (Institute on the Environment) and Stephen Polasky (College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences)

The goal of this project is to advance understanding of the role of green infrastructure in sustainable cities and position the University of Minnesota as a leader in the field of urban sustainability and environmental science. The project aims to stimulate new collaborative research on urban ecosystem services through short-term, high-impact research activities; identify key knowledge gaps and barriers to sustainability and develop proposals to address those gaps; and support integration of research and practice through partnerships, opportunities and stakeholder engagement.

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Lewis Gilbert named interim director Wed, 04 Jun 2014 14:52:51 +0000 In April, we announced that IonE director Jonathan Foley will be departing the University of Minnesota Aug. 15 to take a new position with the California Academy of Sciences. Under Foley’s leadership, IonE has grown to be a prominent, internationally recognized organization working to solve grand environmental challenges, and the University intends to uphold those high standards as senior leaders work to define IonE’s future direction and leadership.

To guide IonE through this transition, Vice President for Research Brian Herman has appointed Lewis Gilbert, IonE’s current managing director and chief operating officer, as interim director. Gilbert joined IonE in 2011, bringing with him extensive experience in academic entrepreneurship and in the design, implementation and management of complex interdisciplinary activities in large research universities. Among other accomplishments, Gilbert was one of the key architects in the creation of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. Gilbert will assume leadership of IonE Aug. 15.

Additionally, the Office of the Vice President for Research has appointed a committee to lead a broad, consultative process that will result in a set of recommendations and a strategy for IonE going forward. As part of that process, the committee will consult widely with both internal and external stakeholders to determine the right path forward. Once the committee has made its recommendations, a search committee will be established to develop the profile and search process for the director position. The vice president for research hopes to have the new management structure in place by next summer.

Your input and support will continue to be invaluable going forward as the University establishes a firm foundation and launching pad for the future of IonE.

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Ellen Anderson named executive director of energy lab Tue, 27 May 2014 19:54:54 +0000

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.

A strategic initiative of the University’s Institute on the Environment in partnership with the Office of the Vice President for Research and the Law School, the Energy Transition Lab will bring together leaders in government, business and nonprofit organizations to develop new energy policy pathways, institutions and regulations. As executive director, Anderson will work with the lab’s faculty director, Law School professor Hari Osofsky, to build collaborations, establish and monitor projects, and develop the lab into a focal point for innovative solutions.

“Ellen Anderson has been a leader in Minnesota’s energy transition for over two decades, and I cannot imagine someone more qualified to serve as the Energy Transition Lab’s inaugural executive director and help this lab make a major impact,” Osofsky said. “Her experience as a legislator crafting our key renewable energy legislation, as the chair of the Public Utilities Commission regulating energy in the state and as a senior advisor to Governor Dayton on these issues will be invaluable to this new initiative.”

“We need the University of Minnesota’s great researchers and thought leaders to help our energy system transition to meet the challenges of the 21st century,” Anderson said. “I am thrilled to lead this critical endeavor, and look forward to working with the public, private and community sectors to catalyze innovative solutions.”

The Energy Transition Lab will focus on four core strategies: boosting energy efficiency; increasing use of clean, renewable energy sources; improving systems that move energy to where it’s needed; and advancing energy and environmental justice. The lab will address these by taking on projects in partnership with community leaders, moving from problem to tangible solution through consultations, research, public meetings, and outreach initiatives. An annual conference will bring together business, public policy and thought leaders to report on progress and identify next steps—which could include other high-impact activities. Specific products will include policy reports, legislative testimony, model legislation and regulations, as well as valuable learning opportunities for students, who will participate in shaping solutions through class activities and capstone projects. Public events will build awareness of the energy transition and of the lab’s activities.

According to Osofsky, the Energy Transition Lab aims to become the “go-to” place for experts and leaders beyond the University to work with University faculty, students and staff toward solutions to energy challenges.

“We have already begun the process of collaborating with key leaders in business, government and non-governmental organizations to develop projects that will help advance the energy transition in the Twin Cities, Minnesota, nationally and internationally,” Osofsky said. “We are excited to continue work with these and other leaders to make the Energy Transition Lab’s efforts as helpful as possible. We are aiming to find the leverage points in which our work can fill a gap and make a difference in important law and policy areas.”

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