Institute on the Environment Discovering solutions to Earth's most pressing environmental challenges Fri, 28 Aug 2015 14:00:33 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Get in on the action: Sustainability Action! Open House Wed, 26 Aug 2015 15:32:31 +0000 Continue reading Get in on the action: Sustainability Action! Open House ]]> On September 4, thousands of first-year students will have the chance to sneak a peek at the many environmental- and sustainability-related opportunities offered across the University of Minnesota at the seventh annual Sustainability Action! Open House. The Institute on the Environment and University Services are co-hosts of this full, fast-paced day devoted to sustainability-focused games, displays, meet and greets, food samplings, shows, and information. The Learning & Environmental Sciences building will transform into a dynamic space with hands-on activities, demonstrations and chances to see, touch, taste and try.  

For the first time this year, Sustainability Action! will present a collaborative public art project known as Water Bar, “an open space for the generation of conversations and connections around the life-sustaining, precarious, communal activity of drinking tap water,” according to the Water Bar website. Local artists Shanai Matteson and Colin Kloecker are donating the barware and water samples to the University in anticipation of future collaborations with students who want to explore public art as an approach to sustainability work.

Students will also be invited to locate places in the Twin Cities that are important to them on a huge aerial map of the Mississippi River watershed, admire the bounty of good food from the five-acre campus organic farm, and discuss emerging research with faculty, students and staff whose work is to solve the world’s most pressing environmental challenges. These activities will be facilitated by staff and students working on sustainability from its most practical to most theoretical, including academic departments, student groups, research centers — from sustainable agriculture to nanotechnology — and campus operations teams handling recycling, transportation, energy, dining, housing, energy, to name a few.

At Sustainability Action!, students will learn how they can get involved in improving the sustainability of campus and the broader community. If your organization has a sustainability-related opportunity for students, contact us to discuss your participation in the event.

The Sustainability Action! Open house is Sept. 4, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., in the Learning and Environmental Sciences Building, St. Paul Campus.

Follow all happenings leading up to and during Sustainability Action! on Facebook and Twitter at #sustaction or @umsustain.

Photo courtesty of Sustainability Studies Minor, Institute on the Environment

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Food for thought: The Sustainable Agriculture Project Mon, 24 Aug 2015 15:26:35 +0000 Continue reading Food for thought: The Sustainable Agriculture Project ]]> Amidst uncertainties over how the global food system will respond to climate change, and the potential conflicts and resource scarcities that may accompany it, communities are turning more and more to locally grown and distributed food. The Sustainable Agriculture Project at the University of Minnesota Duluth is one such effort to build a resilient regional food system.

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


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

Photo by Jeanette (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Drones study has media buzzing Wed, 19 Aug 2015 16:03:15 +0000 Continue reading Drones study has media buzzing ]]> They’re becoming increasingly common, careening overhead at the beach or in the park. I’m not talking about mosquitoes, I’m talking about drones. And a new Institute on the Environment–supported study about drones and bears is creating a lot of buzz in the media.

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

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

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

Photo by Lee (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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IonE fellow to lead global project on sustainable cities Mon, 17 Aug 2015 16:46:43 +0000 Continue reading IonE fellow to lead global project on sustainable cities ]]> What is a healthy city? How does society weigh the conveniences of transportation, readily available water and electricity, and placement of that new shopping center against the environmental impacts of those assets?

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

University of Minnesota researchers — including several Institute on the Environment resident fellows — are part of a global team that has received a $12 million award from the National Science Foundation to bring together a unique network of scientists, industry leaders and policy partners committed to building better cities of the future.

“We have to think in new ways about a city’s physical infrastructure to develop sustainable solutions,” Anu Ramaswami, professor in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, IonE resident fellow and lead investigator and director for the project, said in a press release. “Understanding that these systems are interconnected serves as a foundation for this work. For example, urban farms wouldn’t work very well without thinking about water, energy and transportation infrastructure, as well as people, markets and policies.”

In this video, Ramaswami and several other members of the project team explain how the project will be implemented.

IonE resident fellows Matteo Convertino, assistant professor in the School of Public Health; Julian Marshall and Paige Novak, professors in the College of Science and Engineering; and Elizabeth Wilson, associate professor in the Humphrey School, are co-investigators on the project.

IonE’s nearly 70 resident fellows — faculty with appointments throughout the University of Minnesota system who come together here to share ideas, inspiration and innovation across disciplinary boundaries — are among the shining stars of IonE’s signature approach to addressing global grand challenges.

Read the full press release

Photo by m01229 (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Grand challenge: build resilient communities Fri, 07 Aug 2015 15:45:16 +0000 Continue reading Grand challenge: build resilient communities ]]> More than half of all people live in cities, a number expected to rise to 60 percent by 2050, according to the United Nations. That means that how we build and manage our urban areas is “one of the most important development challenges of the 21st century,” wrote John Wilmoth, director of the United Nations Population Division, in a recent report.

It’s not surprising, then, that the University of Minnesota has recognized the need to focus on cities in its recently released strategic plan detailing the first of a series of grand challenges it aims to address over the next 10 years: cultivating a sustainable, healthy, secure food system; advancing industry while conserving the environment and addressing climate change; and building vibrant communities that enhance human potential and collective well-being in a diverse and changing world.

Among the tools the University is using to deliver on that commitment is the Resilient Communities Project, an initiative supported by IonE and the Center for Urban Regional Affairs that organizes yearlong partnerships between the University and Minnesota communities, matching hundreds of graduate students to sustainability-related projects identified by the chosen community.

RCP director Mike Greco describes the program and how it is helping build more sustainable cities in this Q&A. 

What are some of the biggest challenges RCP teams are tackling? 

In these community-scale sustainability and resilience projects, the biggest challenge for students is finding appropriate solutions that align with the community context. Their work may be informed by projects and tools used in other places around the United States and around the world, but they need to consider what’s the right approach locally, taking into account the politics, demographics, development pattern, economy and other conditions that make the community unique. For Rosemount, our most recent RCP partner, students worked on any number of environmentally related projects, on topics such as climate adaption, alternative energy, recreation opportunities for underserved populations, and community gardening. Other projects were focused on neighborhood cohesion, student housing, and fire department staffing.  For all of the projects proposed by the community, the overarching goals included fostering resilience in the face of changing conditions and promoting environmental, social and political resilience.

How do transdisciplinary approaches figure into this work?

One unique aspect of RCP is the wide range of expertise we harness across the various classes that we engage to work on community projects. In some cases, multiple courses work on a single project, offering various types of expertise to the community and providing experiential learning opportunities to students from across the U of M.  For example, for a project in Rosemount focused on water reuse and conservation. RCP engaged students in an environmental sustainability clinic in the Law School, an environmental health course in the School of Public Health, and an adult education course in the College of Education and Human Development. For a project focused on exploring opportunities for new nature-based recreation and play opportunities, courses included a research and evaluation course in the Recreation, Park and Leisure Studies program, a liberal studies course on re-imaging arts for public parks in the Liberal Studies program, and a course on operations and management in the Environmental Education program at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

What is the impact on students of this kind of practical, hands-on approach?

RCP creates opportunities for students to work on projects that will give them a professional experience in classes that, in many cases, wouldn’t otherwise offer these kinds of experiences. All of the work is happening in close collaboration with our community partner staff and often engages other community stakeholders. This engagement helps ensure that work produced is relevant and has the potential to inform community decisions in the future.  For example, one of the projects we did with our first partner, the City of Minnetonka, was about stormwater management. The students’ work influenced the city to reexamine their street sweeping program to improve water quality.

Is there a take-home lesson?

We’re about to embark on our fourth partnership and each has been different, based on the projects we’ve worked on, the staff and community members involved, and the priorities for each community.  What’s so interesting is that each community found ways to connect to resilience and sustainability — whether an exurban community like Rosemount or a built-out first ring suburb like North St. Paul. These concepts can be helpful in getting communities to think about the future and the ways that they can shape that future through the decisions that they make now.

Where to next for RCP?

This year’s partnership will be with Carver County. We are excited for this new opportunity, as the county collaboration will include participation by three cities, the community development agency, the school district and the regional transit provider.  This coalition will provide opportunities to engage across a variety of projects and jurisdictions.

Photo © KIVILCIM PINAR (iStock)

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Featured Fellow: Roboticist Volkan Isler Mon, 03 Aug 2015 15:33:33 +0000 Continue reading Featured Fellow: Roboticist Volkan Isler ]]> What is your current favorite project?

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

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

Volkan Isler, IonE resident fellow and associate professor in the College of Science and Engineering. Photo courtesy of V. Isler.

What is your greatest environmental concern?

I’m worried about the intersection of biotechnology and the environment. For example, food and chemicals. We don’t know what the chemicals in our food are doing to us. With GMOs most people have a gut reaction for or against. For me, the biggest concern is that I don’t know what they’re doing to us and our children. Until recently, no one was eating food that contained chemicals, but now everything has them and we don’t know their long-term effects.

What is the most interesting thing in your backpack?

Annie’s snack bars, wet wipes and two bottles of hand sanitizer. You can tell we have a preschooler.

What is the personality trait you rely on most?


What gives you hope?

Young people, students. The general optimism and idealism that comes with being young and confident. As humans in general we rely on them to propel us forward. We get grumpy as we get older.

Banner photo by Jennifer C. (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Boosting nutrients gives a leg up to invasive species Thu, 16 Jul 2015 16:44:10 +0000 Continue reading Boosting nutrients gives a leg up to invasive species ]]> Species invasions come at a high cost. In the United States, the annual cost to the economy tops $100 billion a year and invasive plant infestations affect 100 million acres. While it’s tempting to focus attention on headline-grabbing cases of exceptionally fecund flora such as the kudzu vine, also known as “the vine that ate the South”, basic questions remain about how and whether exotic species are functionally distinct from native species and why they tend to take over when introduced into new environments.

A new study, led by University of Minnesota College of Biological Sciences researcher Eric Seabloom, addresses that gap, drawing on data collected at 64 grassland sites in 13 countries. Published in the July 15 issue of Nature Communications, the global study pinpoints functional differences in exotic and native plant species that contribute to the familiar narrative of out-of-control invasive species.

Seabloom, Elizabeth Borer and colleagues at the University of Minnesota and around the world, tested the responses of both native and exotic species to two fundamental drivers of invasion linked to human activity — the availability of nutrients needed by plants to grow, like nitrogen and phosphorus, and the density of herbivores that are eating plants. They found that species origin matters — where exotic species thrive on added nutrients (e.g. fertilizers), native species decline in abundance and diversity.

“What we found is that if you add nutrients, the only species you lose are the native species,” says Seabloom. “The same is not true for exotic species, which become more abundant when you add nutrients” he adds, “so we are basically giving preferential treatment to exotics by increasing nutrients through our use of fossil fuels and agricultural fertilizers.”

However, if herbivores are added to the mix, it tips the balance back toward light-hungry native species. Grazing animals effectively cut back on shade creating plants and create more favorable conditions for native species to thrive.

The researchers leveraged the global reach of Institute on the Environment’s Nutrient Network, an ecology research network that includes 80 grassland sites in 20 countries, to develop their findings. Seabloom and Borer founded the Nutrient Network as a way of conducting standardized experiments across disparate grassland sites to understand the effects of fertilization writ large.

“The key thing about this study is we collected data in a very standard way from a lot of sites around the world,” says Seabloom, noting that previous studies have provided wonderful, detailed data at a few sites or on a few species, but it is difficult to compare the work due to the different methods. “There are a lot of species involved. We wanted to understand not only which species were present, but their abundance and their response to human disturbance.”

The study was funded by the National Science Foundation and IonE.

Photo by Anita (Flicker/Creative Commons)

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What does climate change mean for Minnesota’s trees? Tue, 14 Jul 2015 18:12:39 +0000 Continue reading What does climate change mean for Minnesota’s trees? ]]> Climate change is affecting weather patterns across the globe — and on our doorstep. As temperatures warm and moisture availability shifts as a result, what effect will these changes have on Minnesota’s trees?

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

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

Photo by Justin Meissen (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Oil palm plantations & tropical peatland carbon loss Thu, 09 Jul 2015 14:39:21 +0000 Continue reading Oil palm plantations & tropical peatland carbon loss ]]> Draining tropical peatlands for oil palm plantations may result in nearly twice as much carbon loss as official estimates, according to a new study by researchers from the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment and the Union of Concerned Scientists in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

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

Kimberly M. Carlson, a postdoctoral research scholar with IonE’s Global Landscapes Initiative, and UCS researchers Lael K. Goodman and Calen C. May-Tobin designed their research to support site-specific greenhouse gas emissions assessments in tropical plantations. “We wanted to know whether water table depth could be used as a proxy for soil carbon loss in peatland plantations,” Carlson explained.

Major international companies that buy and sell products sourced from peatland plantations have committed to reducing their climate footprints. These companies can now trace a product through the supply chain back to its source. Consequently, specific information about the carbon balance of a producing plantation helps companies and consumers better understand the climate implications of purchasing choices.

The study, a comprehensive analysis of scientific literature on tropical plantation peatland carbon balance, found a correlation between long-term water table depth (the distance from the soil surface to the water surface) and soil carbon loss rate. This finding suggests that peat water table monitoring could help companies more accurately measure their greenhouse gas emissions.

The researchers compared two measurements of carbon loss: subsidence and mass balance. To find the subsidence rate, scientists measure how much the land has sunk over time and how much carbon is stored in the soil. Subsidence models alone cannot inform the global warming potential of peatland drainage.

Mass balance models estimate carbon emissions from the balance of carbon gains such as leaf decomposition and losses such as soil carbon dioxide emissions. With this method, both carbon dioxide and methane — a much more potent greenhouse gas — can be measured, permitting more accurate global warming potential assessments.

Carbon losses calculated from mass balance and subsidence methods differed substantially for oil palm plantations. At plantation drainage depths of 70 centimeters, the annual rate of carbon loss determined from the subsidence method is about 20 tons of carbon per hectare per year. This is almost twice the rate of 12 tons of carbon per hectare per year that the International Panel on Climate Change uses to calculate emissions from oil palm land use. This rate, as put forth in the 2013 Supplement to the 2006 Guidelines for National Greenhouse Gas Inventories: Wetlands, is partly based on the mass balance method.

The researchers caution that additional field studies are needed to reconcile these estimates. “While our calculations take advantage of an exciting set of newly published data, a serious lack of research in tropical peatlands means that such estimates of peat carbon loss from plantation systems remain uncertain, and are frequently based on assumptions rather than empirical measurements,” Carlson said.

Water table depth is only one of many factors, such as fertilizer application, that should be considered when quantifying carbon losses from cultivated peatlands.

Key findings of the study:

  • The lower the water table, the higher the rate of carbon loss.
  • More studies in tropical peatland plantations are needed to reduce uncertainty about the global warming potential of peat drainage.

The authors emphasize that reducing greenhouse gas emissions from peat requires preventing plantation expansion into intact peat swamp forests. “Our findings lend weight to the idea that draining peat soils should be avoided at all costs, due to the impact on global climate,” Goodman said.

The article, “Modeling relationships between water table depth and peat soil carbon loss in Southeast Asian plantations,” was written with support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, National Academies Keck Futures Initiative, and the European Federation for Transport & Environment.

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

Photo © Marcel Silvius

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U of M names Jessica Hellmann director of the IonE Wed, 01 Jul 2015 14:41:05 +0000 Continue reading U of M names Jessica Hellmann director of the IonE ]]> Renowned environmental researcher, scholar and communicator Jessica Hellmann has been named the new director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment. Hellmann, who is currently on the faculty of the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Notre Dame, will begin her tenure as director of the Institute on the Environment August 31, 2015. She also will join the University faculty as the Russell M. and Elizabeth M. Bennett Chair in Excellence in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior in the College of Biological Sciences.

“We are thrilled that Dr. Hellmann has accepted our offer to lead the Institute on the Environment,” said University of Minnesota Vice President for Research Brian Herman. “Her scientific background in ecology and extensive research and collaborative work on climate change provide a solid foundation from which to effectively guide the Institute as it addresses the most critical environmental challenges of our future while influencing change at the highest levels.”

Hellmann is one of the nation’s leading researchers on global change ecology and climate adaptation and the research director of the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index, which assesses and ranks the vulnerability of nations around the world to climate change and their readiness to adapt to climate change. In addition, she leads the climate change adaptation program at Notre Dame’s Environmental Change Initiative and directs GLOBES, an interdisciplinary graduate training program in environment and society, among numerous other high-level academic and scientific appointments. She also founded Notre Dame’s undergraduate minor in sustainability.

As director of the Institute on the Environment, Hellmann will provide strategic leadership for the Institute, an internationally recognized organization working to solve grand environmental challenges, while promoting interdisciplinary research, teaching and leadership across the university, engaging external partners and stakeholders.

Hellmann earned her Ph.D. in biology from Stanford University and served as a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation and the University of British Columbia’s Centre for Biodiversity Research. She is an alumna of Stanford’s Aldo Leopold Leadership Program, and a recipient of a career enhancement fellowship from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. She has been a member of the Notre Dame faculty since 2003.

Hellmann is a frequent contributor to leading scientific journals such as Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, BioScience and PLoS One. She serves on the editorial board of the journal Evolutionary Applications, is an associate editor with both Conservation Biology and Elementa, and serves on committees for the Ecological Society of America, the College Board and the National Academy of Sciences. She contributed to the 2014 National Climate Assessment and has served in numerous other positions that bring her scientific expertise to bear on solving environmental and societal challenges.

A skilled science communicator, Hellmann is routinely called upon by leading media outlets around the world such as CNN, NPR, Fox News, The Telegraph and the Chicago Tribune to provide expert input on topics related to global change and ways to minimize adverse impacts to people and nature.

“The University of Minnesota has extraordinary people and assets focused on environmental scholarship and application,” said Hellmann. “I look forward to building on those strengths to expand the scope, impact and visibility of the Institute on the Environment. Never has it been more critical for researchers to work with society to preserve precious resources, build resiliency to environmental change and identify new solutions to vexing environmental problems.”

Hellmann succeeds Jonathan Foley, who led the Institute from 2008 to 2014 and is currently executive director of the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.

For media inquiries, please contact Todd Reubold, Institute on the Environment,, 612-624-6140

Photo courtesy of Barbara Johnson (University of Notre Dame)

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Featured Fellow: Food systems expert Randel Hanson Wed, 01 Jul 2015 13:22:57 +0000 Continue reading Featured Fellow: Food systems expert Randel Hanson ]]> What’s the most interesting thing you’re reading now? 

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

Randel Hanson, IonE resident fellow and associate professor in the College of Liberal Arts, UMD. Photo courtesy of R. Hanson.

What was your biggest ah-ha moment?

That is a big question and fortunately for me I’ve had many! That may also say something about my starting point: Perhaps I needed many! But one that I had a couple years ago that still resonates involved a walk with John Fisher Merritt around the University land I farm. John is a sage man in the ways that farmers are, knowledge earned by trial and error, by hard work and being practitioners of many domains as they come to know and work with their parts of the Earth. He has managed his “food farm” organically for some 35-plus years and his soil is pretty amazing. He was explaining to me his rotation system and his various uses of cover crops and, although I also work with these techniques, I was suddenly struck with an uncanny understanding of the ways our industrial agriculture works against the grain of nature’s tendencies by suppressing growth/life with tillage, herbicides and pesticides, etc., and how the organic method, with its use of cover crops and other techniques, uses the inveterate nature of life to fill space with more life and works with it,  flooding the space in between the production plants with helping/cover/companion plants, thereby bypassing the need to fight the growth of unwanted weeds, etc.  Like many a-ha moments, in hindsight it comes across as a Simpson moment (DOH) but it was one of those times where perception, sensation and mind come together.

What is your current favorite project?

For the past several years, I’ve been building the Sustainable Agriculture Project Farm on the former/abandoned Northeast Experimental Station, which lies 4 miles north of the Duluth campus. SAP Farm is a 15 acre “land lab” for site-based research and teaching about sustainable practices in food, water, energy, land management, biodiversity enhancement, etc. We work with faculty across liberal arts, science and engineering, education, and human services in building an increasingly dense space for social ecological learning. The idea is to set in motion a bunch of interrelated projects that necessarily bump into each other and thus have to negotiate physical-spatial, disciplinary, institutional and ecological boundaries, forcing us to confront how we divide up the Earth in our various ways and thereby create social learning for ourselves, our students, our institution and our community in the process. We host more than a thousand students a year in varying capacities, and we work with a number of community organizations on site as well as enjoy a partnership with UMD Dining Services, which purchases almost all of the organic produce grown for use on campus and supports labor for the farm. We are currently completing a long process installing a farm-scale wind turbine on site, which integrated folks engaged in GIS, raptor studies, engineering, facilities management and other activities in what at times was frustrating but in the end very rewarding and instructive t’boot. So we’re treating this space as our laboratory, our classroom and (as part of the Earth) our only home, and the question is how to get people to work together to explore sustainable challenges and solutions in experiential ways.

What’s the thorniest question on your mind? 

Given the advancement of our human power and knowledge, we have a lot of thorns among our flowers. For me the thorniest is how to use the power of disciplines without their blinders and the consequent harm of powerful ignorance. On one hand that’s impossible, for every enabling frame necessarily leaves things out of the picture. But it’s not a secret that the disciplinary structure of knowledge and institutions in our present world creates a lot of destructive blind spots in enabling our human powers. Earth systems so in peril don’t operate by disciplinary division. And how to expand our literacy beyond disciplinary silos is really one of the great challenges of our time. We are at a point in history of unprecedented knowledge but all advance of knowledge creates expanding knowledge edges for more questions, not fewer. We have become amazingly proficient at depth knowledge, but the Anthropocene beckons for linking, crossing, intertwining, deepening our knowledge. We quite literally may risk the world with this thorn!

What’s the one personality trait you rely on most often? 

It’s probably my cultivated propensity to be able to talk with any and everyone. I grew up on a farm in a small town and so was acculturated to talk with everyone. Advanced training has lessened this skill: this past week I was flying home from a research trip and sitting next to me was a young man from Wheaton, Minn. He began to talk with me with no hesitation, asking me all sorts of questions. At first I was irritated because I was trying to read some articles, but I regrouped and marveled at his forthrightness, his ability to learn and share knowledge. It was also something I had just experienced widely in Mexico and Cuba. In building the SAP Farm, I have needed to work across all sorts of institutional silos, needing things from administrators, staff, students, faculty, community people, and it’s easy to get locked into one’s cultural/institutional space and shut down from engaging others on their own terms. At times doing so is necessary to get things done, but I try to cultivate an ability to meet people on their own terms. I’m not always good at it, but it usually pays dividends in working across silos!

Photo by jb (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Conservation and conversation in Costa Rica Tue, 30 Jun 2015 21:05:25 +0000 Continue reading Conservation and conversation in Costa Rica ]]> Can communication improve conservation? That was the goal in early June, when more than 80 biologists, conservationists, students and journalists gathered from around the world for a two-day open house to share ideas and experiences, network, and strategize how to communicate the value of the research and conservation activities going on at the Área de Conservación Guanacaste (Guanacaste Conservation Area) in northwestern Costa Rica.

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

The open house was coordinated by the nonprofit InvestigadoresACG (iACG), which was established to lend networking support to the researchers, facilitate interactions among researchers and ACG personnel, and promote science and conservation in the ACG.

Jennifer Powers, an IonE resident fellow and associate professor in the College of Biological Sciences, is a cofounder of the nonprofit along with Jeff Klemens, (Philadelphia University), Salvatore Agosta (Virginia Commonwealth University) and others. We met with Powers on her return from Costa Rica and got caught up on the project.

Give us a snapshot of the event. What activities did people engage in?

It was held at Horizontes Forestry Experimental Station, (Estación Experimental Forestal Horizontes), which is the main restoration and forestry sector of the ACG. There were presentations by ACG staff; researchers from universities in Costa Rica, Canada, Puerto Rico and Wales; and staff from other conservation areas in Costa Rica, in addition to breakout sessions. Some topics were “biodesarrollo,” the concept demonstrating the value of biodiversity to society; forest dynamics and secondary succession; food webs in bromeliads; mapping the extent of fires in Costa Rica; and bat conservation. We took them on a field trip of the forestry station and hosted a barbeque. The main objective was to get dialogues started.

IonE resident fellow Jennifer Powers, left, with Horizontes director Milena Gutierrez.
IonE resident fellow Jennifer Powers, left, with Horizontes director Milena Gutierrez.

What was the genesis of iACG?

My friends and I are passionate about the mission of conserving Costa Rica’s biodiversity in the context of the Área de Conservación Guanacaste. Forming iACG provided us with a platform for addressing what we felt were lost opportunities. Much of the research that occurs in the ACG is carried out by research groups working in isolation from each other and from the core programs of the ACG (e.g. research, education, eco-tourism, restoration). We wanted to provide Internet-based tools and in-person opportunities to bring ACG enthusiasts together. My IonE resident fellowship provided us with the resources and space to grow these relationships and collaborations.

For example, in 2010 we hosted a workshop at IonE that brought together ACG staff from different programs and iACG team members to hammer out a set of shared goals. In 2012 we realized our goal of bringing together the larger research community and ACG staff at our first open house, which took place in Santa Rosa, another sector of the ACG. We are building on that momentum with the second open house, which prominently featured Horizontes.

What was the significance of the open house? 

The value of the open houses is to bring together people from diverse backgrounds and positions with common interests in the ACG. This promotes collaboration among research groups and among researchers and ACG programs and staff. 

What is the most surprising thing to come out of the project?

One of the things that delighted me the most about the second open house was that scientists and staff from other conservation areas came from as far away as the Osa peninsula, as far south in Costa Rica as you can get. I think people realize that something exciting is happening in Guanacaste, and they want to understand it. I hope iACG can serve as a model for other conservation areas. 

What’s next for iACG?

Right now we are just trying to recover from hosting this event in collaboration with the staff at Horizontes and their director, Milena Gutierrez. Our next joint projects, in collaboration with Cathy Hulshof, University of Puerto Rico–Mayaguez, and Federico Matarrita, from Usematics, are to reestablish a list-serv of ACG researchers and interested staff, as well as write some publications about our activities and their impacts.

Photos courtesy of Jennifer Powers.

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Catch up with Frontiers in the Environment talks Mon, 22 Jun 2015 17:36:45 +0000 Continue reading Catch up with Frontiers in the Environment talks ]]> Can art help kids connect with nature? What do sustainability and happiness have in common? How can Twitter help researchers understand resource use? These are some of the questions we tackled in the Spring 2015 Frontiers in the Environment speaker series. University, government and industry experts engaged with attendees in hourlong conversations — and debates — over these and many other timely topics.

We’ve summarized each talk into a quick, easy read as well as archived the videos for you to watch on your own schedule. Review the entire list or peruse these top picks:

Tackling climate change is a global effort requiring action at the local level. Learn what the cities of Minneapolis and Bristol, England, are doing to decrease their carbon footprints in “6 things we learned about cities and climate change.”

Groundwater is a crucial resource in Minnesota and around the world, yet we don’t really know how much there is or how we should be managing it. Water experts from the University of Minnesota, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Geological Survey discussed the issue in “5 things we learned about aquifers.”

The Ebola crisis once again focused attention on the challenges of containing an epidemic in today’s world. Find out what’s happening on the front lines of hospitals in Minnesota and Liberia in “6 things we learned about managing pandemic threats.”

Frontiers will resume in September with more thought leaders grappling with the big questions of the day. Join us on Wednesdays at noon through fall semester 2015. All are welcome!

Photo by Photo Phiend (Flickr Creative Commons)

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Art exhibit: We watch the stream Fri, 19 Jun 2015 10:30:39 +0000 Continue reading Art exhibit: We watch the stream ]]> How do we learn to see the deep interconnections we have with the world around us?

That is the question Jonee Kulman Brigham seeks to answer with her art-led environmental education project, “River Journey: Exploring the Value of the Mississippi River.” Brigham, an IonE resident fellow, sustainable design program faculty member in the College of  Design and a visiting scholar in the College of Education and Human Development, wanted to help youth connect the Mississippi River to the water coming out of their taps at school and at home. Photographs and student reflections of this exploration are the focus of the art exhibit now on display in IonE’s Commons Meeting and Art Space.

We-Watch-Image-downsizeTo grasp the connection between the Mississippi River and their own personal relationship with water, students from River’s Edge Academy in St. Paul traced a path from the water intake station in Fridley to the McCarron’s Water Treatment Plant in Maplewood to the kitchen of their own school. There, they examined the many uses of water in their school and measured their own water use. One student remarked how the Mississippi is beautiful “but it is also used in our everyday lives. We use it to wash our hands, take showers, to cook and to drink. We can help not waste water by turning off water when we are done using it.”

Next, they toured the Metropolitan Council Environmental Services Wastewater Treatment Plant to understand how water leaving their school as sewage is cleaned and treated before being returned to the river.

The exhibit also includes online GIS story maps the students created that will be added in the coming month and linked from the exhibit website. The first of these is completed and is called “River Journey: Following the Flow.”

“While we all have this common, physical, interconnection with the river as a water resource, each student has their own ideas, experiences, and ways of expressing their relationship to the river. I smiled when a student wrote ”…water is like medicine,” or when another commented on the fishing spots. Each student connects in their own way and has their own story of the value of the Mississippi River.” More information can be found at the exhibit web page.

The exhibit is on display through October 12, 2015.

Image courtesy of Jonee Kulman Brigham

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U of M researchers advance natural capital principles around the world Tue, 16 Jun 2015 18:10:28 +0000 Continue reading U of M researchers advance natural capital principles around the world ]]> Key leaders around the world are becoming more aware of the importance of including the value of nature in development decisions — witness the publication this week of a special issue of the prestigious scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on the topic — thanks to the work of The Natural Capital Project and researchers affiliated with the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment.

It is exciting to see ecosystem services becoming more mainstream. We’ve seen some impressive successes as leaders begin to use the science of ecosystem services to make decisions with better outcomes for people and the planet. The next steps are to learn from these successes, to reform institutions so that we provide incentives for the stewardship of natural capital, and encourage widespread adoption of these ideas,” says Stephen Polasky, NatCap project lead, IonE resident fellow, and professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences.

Ecosystem services — the benefits we derive from the natural environment, including tangible resources such as timber or fish, and more intangible resources such as clean air and water or protection from flooding — have a value. Only recently, however, have land use planners, resource managers and business strategists begun to incorporate this value into their balance sheets and decision making. Ecosystem service valuation can be useful in setting priorities for development that preserve natural capital and promote human, economic and social well-being.

The Natural Capital Project, a partnership of IonE, Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment, the World Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy, is an internationally recognized leader in developing tools, knowledge and practices to help managers, government officials, non-profit staff and others include the value of nature when making decisions. The PNAS special feature, published June 16, includes a series of reports by IonE and other NatCap scientists examining the challenges and solutions for incorporating natural capital into various aspects of land-use and resource planning, including agricultural expansion, development in coastal regions and conservation of tropical biodiversity. Among them:

  • Polasky is the lead author of “Setting the bar: Standards for ecosystem services.” The paper stresses the need for standards that define terminology, acceptable data and methods, and reporting requirements for more rapid integration of natural capital valuation by public and private sector decision makers. “Ecosystem service standards should be tailored to specific use contexts, such as national income and wealth accounts, corporate sustainability, land use planning and environmental impact assessments,” he writes. “Progress has been made in aligning with existing organizations in areas such as product certification and sustainability reporting, but a major challenge remains in mainstreaming ecosystem service information into core public and private use contexts.”
  • Polasky and Bonnie Keeler, U of M NatCap lead scientist, are co-authors of “Natural capital and ecosystem services informing decisions: From promise to practice.” In this paper, Polasky, Keeler and fellow researchers argue that economic systems that reward production of marketed commodities but not the natural capital that supports it hinder our ability to end poverty and achieve sustainable population and consumption while protecting nature’s life-support systems.
  • Polasky is also co-author of “Impacts of conservation and human development policy across stakeholders and scales,” which examines the costs and benefits of the Relocation and Settlement Program of Shaaxi Province in China on government, downstream water consumers and others around the world.
  • University of Minnesota NatCap economist Justin Johnson is a co-author of “Spatial patterns of agricultural expansion determine impact on biodiversity and carbon storage,” which examines forest clearing for agriculture as a major threat to biodiversity and ecosystem services. The authors suggest that decisions about expanding agriculture should consider the impacts on ecosystem services.

The Natural Capital Project team recently met with leaders from business, industry, consulting, non-governmental organizations, foundations, academia, development agencies, government and elsewhere for the Stockholm Summit on Natural Capital in Stockholm, Sweden. Participants discussed “use cases” showing how different regions of the world, economic sectors and major actors were beginning to put natural capital principles into action. The overall goals of the gathering included a focus on scaling up these successful cases and accelerating the uptake of natural capital principles in decision making around the world.

On June 30, the Natural Capital Project will convene a public event in Washington, D.C., to discuss how businesses, governments and others can further integrate natural capital concepts into decision-making. This free, public event, which Polasky will moderate, will feature a panel of leading ecosystem services academics and practitioners, as well as experts from the public and nonprofit sectors, addressing core sustainability challenges of the 21st century and how ecosystem services valuation can help solve them.

Photo © Pamela Moore (iStock)

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Humans are inadvertently fertilizing grasslands around the world Fri, 12 Jun 2015 21:02:53 +0000 Continue reading Humans are inadvertently fertilizing grasslands around the world ]]> Gardeners know how a few key inputs can dramatically change the productivity of plants —timely additions of water and fertilizer, for instance, or the right soil conditions, can dramatically boost plant productivity.

Scientists seeking to understand what determines rates of plant growth in natural grasslands and rangelands have long focused on climatic conditions such as temperature and rainfall. However, in recent years a new suspect has emerged: nitrogen. The growth of fossil-fuel-based industrial activity, transportation and agriculture in recent decades has increased the amount of nitrogen traveling through the water and air around the world. One potential result is that areas that appear to be little impacted by human development and that are not being farmed can actually be fertilized from afar by these excess nutrients.

The Nutrient Network, a global distributed experiment supported by the Institute on the Environment, has just published a study examining this phenomenon in 42 natural grasslands on four continents. Pairing standard methodology to quantify the production (plant mass) at each site with a computer model that estimates atmospheric deposition of nitrogen around the world, the study showed that this fertilization effect explains a significant part of the difference in production across sites. In fact, the amount of nitrogen falling from the sky is a much better predictor of the production of these grasslands than the amount of rain or the temperature at each site.

“In essence, as a by-product of our fossil fuel based lifestyle, we are fertilizing the world’s grasslands,” said Nutrient Network coordinator Eric Lind, a study co-author and postdoctoral researcher in the University of Minnesota’s College of Biological Sciences.

Is this a bad thing? On the one hand, carbon uptake by plants in the form of increased production could buffer the ever-increasing carbon dioxide output from industrialized society, and grasslands are known to store much of their carbon below ground, essentially removing it from the atmospheric cycle. On the other hand, other NutNet work has shown that with the increased biomass comes a decrease in biodiversity of the plants. Because plant biodiversity is associated with stability, long-term productivity, and the diversity of everything from insect herbivores to soil microbes, diversity loss is of serious concern.

The Nutrient Network project continues to grow, and is now at 85 sites worldwide examining these and other questions.

Photo ©

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What happens when food crosses borders? Thu, 11 Jun 2015 14:00:12 +0000 Continue reading What happens when food crosses borders? ]]> If you’ve ever encountered Argentinian pears in your New York grocery or snacked on California almonds while visiting Tokyo, you’ve seen the global food market in action. How will the nuance and complexity of global food trade be affected if some agricultural areas benefit from a warming climate, while others get hurt? Graham MacDonald gave us a sneak preview. He’s a researcher at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, where he studies the role of trade in the global food system.

How much of our global food supply is traded internationally, as opposed to being “local” (or at least national)? 

We’re shipping a huge amount of food across borders. This can make it harder for us as consumers to understand how and where our food is produced. It also means that, in some cases, countries are becoming increasingly reliant on foreign land and water resources for their food supplies. Our calculations show that more than 20 percent of the calories produced in croplands are traded internationally. Not all of these calories end up on dinner plates, as imported crops could be used to feed livestock animals or for other nonfood purposes. We estimate that about two-thirds of traded calories enter the food system — that’s enough to feed almost 2 billion people a basic diet each year.

Who are the biggest importers and exporters?  What does each group have most in common?

This depends on what “lens” we use to examine trade. In a recent study, we considered four different measures — trade’s dollar value and caloric content, as well as the land and water used to produce exports.

The United States stands out as a key agricultural exporter, though it also imports a sizable amount of some foods. China, Japan and Mexico are examples of major overall importers. But we see different patterns of food trade depending on the metric used. Agricultural trade’s monetary value is concentrated within the European Union and North America (U.S., Canada and Mexico). For calories, exports from South America (Argentina and Brazil) and Southeast Asia (Malaysia and Indonesia) stand out. In terms of the agricultural lands used to produce exports, Australia emerges as a major player. The irrigation water used to produce food exports really emphasizes Pakistan, India and Thailand.

Figure 1. MacDonald’s research includes examining the land and water resources used to produce internationally traded foods. For instance, China leads when it comes to relatively land-intensive soybean imports (top map), while the hidden flows of irrigation water underlying rice and other cereal crop exports (bottom map) paints a much more complex picture that reflects the environmental context of production in different regions. Source: University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment; BioScience.

Nations don’t always neatly fit as “importers” or “exporters” — countries often trade one food for another, underscoring cross-border interdependencies. This is the case for France, Russia and Indonesia. What’s more, some really large agricultural importers, such as China, import a fairly small fraction of their domestic food supply. Other countries may contribute a tiny amount to global trade totals despite importing a huge fraction of their food supplies.

Broadly speaking, these patterns often reflect the size of each country’s agricultural land base relative to its population. Countries with lots of agricultural land per inhabitant tend to export more, and these exports tend to be of relatively lower-value and land-intensive commodities, such as soy. The opposite is true for countries with less land per inhabitant.

Is the production of biofuel having much of an impact on international food trade?

It’s hard to tease this apart. The implications of biofuels on international food trade are likely more indirect. For example, biofuels could alter the prices of crops such as corn — potentially influencing the types of crops that farmers in major “breadbaskets” like the U.S. Midwest decide to grow, or the ability for poor consumers to purchase imported foods. It all comes back to supply and demand.

What can research like yours tell us about the potential effects of climate change on where food is grown and how it gets to people?

International trade is likely to grow as locations of food production and food consumption continue to diverge. Climate change could have a role in this. Growing evidence suggests that the impacts of climate change on agricultural production will not be universal — some places could see reduced crop yields due to more severe droughts or the effects of year-to-year fluctuations in temperature and precipitation, while others could see longer growing seasons with greater capacity to produce certain types of crops. At the same time, demand for food is changing with a growing global “middle class,” urbanization and, to some extent, population growth.

So climate change compounds this complex story of food and globalization. New food trade relationships could emerge while others that have been around for many years may decline in magnitude.

What’s the one thing you’d like everyone to know about the future of food on a warming planet?

Climate change adds another dimension of uncertainty to global food security. In the long run, it could impact agricultural productivity. From one year to another, I wonder about the “ripple effects” that droughts or other extreme weather could have, especially for the food security of more import-dependent nations. For example, in the past, some countries have restricted exports of staple crops such as wheat in years with severe droughts, which can drive up food prices.

The question is therefore how to build more adaptive capacity into our increasingly globalized food system. More “cooperative” agricultural trade policies could help to alleviate some of this uncertainty for import-dependent nations. Increasing agricultural yields across key importing nations could also help to reduce the amount of food demand that needs to be sourced from abroad. Even simple things like reducing our food waste at home or how often we eat resource-intensive foods such as red meat could help to minimize the pressures on our food systems to produce more and more.

Banner photo by Jed Sullivan (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Featured Fellow: Epidemiologist Dominic Travis Thu, 11 Jun 2015 13:01:31 +0000 Continue reading Featured Fellow: Epidemiologist Dominic Travis ]]> What’s the most interesting thing you’re reading now?

I like to read 10 to 15 books at a time. Maybe because I’m subject-ADHD and a slow reader, I have many different reading moods. One book I am reading is the locally published Borlaug series (three volumes) by Noel Vietmeyer. It is amazing to see how the father of the Green Revolution had some of his formative years at the University of Minnesota and then to compare to the current culture here — I think the IonE concept follows on that fairly well. 

Dominic Travis, IonE resident fellow and epidemiologist in the College of Veterinary Medicine.
Dominic Travis, IonE resident fellow and epidemiologist in the College of Veterinary Medicine.

What pivotal experience led you to the work you’re doing today?  

When I was in veterinary school, I received an award to spend five months in South Africa and Zimbabwe as an exchange student. It was amazing to see how the rest of the world lives. Especially interesting to me was the connection between people, animals and the environment in developing countries with respect to health, food and water security. I came back spouting to all who would listen about this and, in the ensuing 20 years, the “One Health” or “ecosystem health” movements have come to exemplify these principles in my mind  which is why I am here in the ecosystem health division of the College of Veterinary Medicine.

What was your biggest aha moment?

I co-lead a project that basically provides veterinary and health research services to the Jane Goodall Institute in Gombe National Park, Tanzania. Thirteen years ago when we set this project up, I had the opportunity to “pitch” Jane about how I thought we could work together. Jane was not historically enamored with veterinarians and our dart guns  so I was told — so I was being very careful in my wording. It got to the point where she said, “Stop. Can I just say that what I am hearing is that you think you have a way to help my chimpanzees and the people around the park?”  I said, “Yeah, that is what I’m saying I guess,” and she said, “Great, when do we start?” It struck me that she boiled it all down to that so quickly  very simple and maybe obvious but very instructive at the time. Since then my one measure of success for all projects is, “Am I helping”?  If not, its time to reevaluate.

Who inspires you? 

I am inspired by local people in difficult situations who are trying to take fate into their own hands and better their situation and the situations of those around them  without automatically trashing their environment. Those who are proactive, who have almost nothing and are willing to do it the hard way should be celebrated.

What’s the one talent you rely on most often?

Communication and especially science communication. I am not a gifted scientist but I’ve been told I am a good communicator of science. I think in a world where people rebel against things like climate change and evolution  or even just math and critical thinking skills  this is an important point. The problem is that it is as much our fault as the nonscientific public’s. We are not a society that prioritizes multilingual abilities and science is a language. I’m hoping to focus a lot more on science communication in the future. I believe that science is greatly devalued if we cannot translate it to those who can use it to help.

If you could have a one-on-one conversation with someone you admire but have never met, living or dead, who would it be and why?

I was first a history of religion major in college before I started liking science so this is a big ask. However, I would like to convene a panel with Confucius, Gautama Buddha, Jesus Christ and Muhammad the Prophet and ask them what they think about how their words/teachings are being interpreted and implemented today. History is written by the victors and I’m not sure the victors in the past 2, 000 years have had the fundamentals in mind.

Photo by Diriye Amey (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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University-Rosemount partnership “a gift” Tue, 09 Jun 2015 14:44:04 +0000 Continue reading University-Rosemount partnership “a gift” ]]> During his speech at the Resilient Communities Project end-of-year celebration May 1, Rosemount, Minn., mayor Bill Droste called the partnership a “great gift.”

The University of Minnesota Resilient Communities Project celebrated the conclusion of its one-year partnership with Rosemount during a luncheon at the McNamara Alumni Center.

An initiative of the Sustainability Faculty Network at the University of Minnesota, with funding and administrative support provided by the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs and the Institute on the Environment, RCP organizes yearlong partnerships between the U of M and Minnesota communities to pursue sustainability-related projects. The partnership merged the expertise of hundreds of graduate students with projects identified by Rosemount city staff and community partners.

In all, more than 400 University of Minnesota students worked on 31 projects. RCP director and IonE resident fellow Carissa Schively Slotterback called the yearlong partnership a great success, adding that by working together the U and Rosemount advanced sustainability and resilience in the community in ways they couldn’t have individually.

Rosemount was named the U of M’s Resilient Communities partner for the 2014–15 school year in a competitive process. The city came up with 40 projects it wanted help tackling over the course of the year. The projects were assigned to various graduate courses.

Projects of note included investigating options for private housing for Dakota County Technical College students, exploring daytime staffing solutions for the Rosemount Fire Department, researching best practices for safe youth driving behavior, looking at alternative energy sources, considering stormwater management opportunities, probing transportation advancements and  exploring the possibilities of an eco-green business park.

Rosemount City Council member Jeff Weisensel said he was particularly impressed with the work done on the DCTC student housing project. The housing is something he would like to see developed in the community, and he expressed hope the project would help find a developer.

College of Design professor Lyn Bruin, who taught the class that investigated the housing project, said her students benefited from the opportunity to work with working professionals. In particular, Bruin said her students worked with senior planner Eric Zweber and staff from the Dakota County Community Development Agency. Bruin said her students learned firsthand about funding resources available for housing. “My students had exactly the experience I wanted them to have,” she said.

Resilient Communities Project manager Mike Greco said getting students practical learning experiences is part of what makes the program so successful. He said the experience adds a lot of value to their educational experience.

Community development director Kim Lindquist said the experience working with students on the various projects was great. While it had practical benefits for the city, Lindquist said working with young professionals also invigorated her. “This would be a great experience for any community,” she said.

In addition to observing the conclusion of its partnership with Rosemount, RCP also celebrated its future partnership with Carver County during the 2015–16 school year.

View Rosemount’s project here.

Photo courtesy of the City of Rosemount.

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Locavolts unite! Mon, 08 Jun 2015 14:38:25 +0000 Continue reading Locavolts unite! ]]> The U.S. electricity sector is responsible for 31 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions — higher than transportation, at 27 percent, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. With that in mind, states and utilities are rethinking how to reduce greenhouse gases while meeting societal needs by integrating solar, wind and other renewable energy into the power grid.

IonE resident fellow and Humphrey School of Public Affairs associate professor of energy and environmental policy Elizabeth Wilson talked with Minnesota Public Radio’s  Tom Weber about her research, new energy technologies and how locavolts — people who support locally produced energy — are influencing development of electricity infrastructure in Minnesota.

Listen to the broadcast.

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

Photo by Chris Hunkeler (Flickr/CreativeCommons)

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Community solar and Minnesota’s energy future Tue, 02 Jun 2015 15:52:34 +0000 0 The outsize role of Earth’s largest lakes Tue, 26 May 2015 17:08:25 +0000 Continue reading The outsize role of Earth’s largest lakes ]]> The Large Lakes Observatory at the University of Minnesota Duluth is the only institute in the country dedicated to the study of large lakes throughout the world.

IonE resident fellow Robert Sterner, LLO director and professor at the UMD Swenson College of Science and Engineering, talked with WTIP North Shore Community Radio about the importance of the Earth’s largest lakes, the mission of the LLO and an upcoming research project aimed at cataloging the ecosystem services large lakes provide.

Watch the lecture here.

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

Photo courtesy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Featured Fellow: Anthropologist Mark Pedelty Fri, 22 May 2015 17:59:27 +0000 Continue reading Featured Fellow: Anthropologist Mark Pedelty ]]> What’s your current favorite project?

I am writing a book whose working title is Environmentalist Musicians: Cases from Cascadia for Indiana University Press’s Music, Nature, Place series. It is based on six case studies of musicians working with environmental movements, starting with Dana Lyons and ending with the Idle No More movement, performers who mobilize communities through music. They shared their ideas, techniques and experiences with me over the course of two years.

Mark Pedelty, IonE resident fellow and professor in the College of Liberal Arts. Photo courtesy of M. Pedelty.

What environmental challenge concerns you most?

How do we bring people together to create sustainable institutions, policies and cultures? In other words, in addition to assisting policy-makers and industry, how might we assist environmental movements? I find that particularly important given the University’s public land grant mission. How do we serve a public good when it comes to environmental justice, biodiversity and health?

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

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, by Naomi Klein, Simon and Schuster, 2014.

What pivotal experience led you to the work you’re doing today?

Anti-apartheid organizing at the University of California Los Angeles taught me to realize that it is never enough just to talk and write about something. Theory without practice becomes esoteric and stale. I believe that is true in the arts, humanities, social sciences and material sciences. For example, ecological modeling that perpetually “black boxes” overdetermining social factors (the human factors causing pollution, climate change, etc.) will tell us less about ecosystems than they could if those factors were occasionally brought into such models. Without that, ideological assumptions about “anthropogenic factors” substitute for truly critical, scientific exploration of ecosystems in their greater complexity.

The same can be said of humanistic work, such as “ecocriticism,” when we simply step back and point fingers. I felt like I did that a bit with a recent project, Ecomusicology. Although I was pointing a few fingers backward at the often ineffectual participant observer (me and mine), there was too much in that analysis that was critical of the music industry without sufficient focus on more positive solutions. That is why I undertook my current work in the Pacific Northwest. I wanted to find and then examine model cases where performing musicians have been able to use their art in grounded ways that advance local and regional movements for environmental justice, education, biodiversity and health.

Who was your most influential mentor?

Todd Gitlin. He taught me to focus on solving problems. Rather than adopting ideological trends of the moment, Todd has remained independent, a truly critical thinker. Whether one is an artist, scientist or something in between, that quality of mind aids discovery. As Einstein said, “Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age 18.” Contemporary common sense includes unsustainable assumptions and fantasies, such as the idea that we can expand our population indefinitely without ecological consequences or that unbridled development has no impact on biodiversity or that our relatively utopian access to new products has no consequences for the people who assemble those products, many of whom live in appalling environmental conditions. One of the things that I’ve always liked about Todd is that he challenges common sense when it’s wrong, even if those views are unpopular. Plus, Todd is extremely hard working, another quality that, along with a sense of curiosity, makes new insights possible.

What inspires you? 

The Idle No More Movement. Idle No More began when four friends from Saskatchewan decided to take action against Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Bill C-45, an act that threatened First Nations’ sovereignty rights and greatly weakened Canada’s environmental protections. Although started in the interior, Idle No More is extremely active on the Canadian West Coast in British Columbia. Led by First Nations organizers and joined by many nonindigenous allies, the coalition has opposed development plans that would radically impact the Salish Sea (Puget Sound, Strait of Juan de Fuca and Georgia Strait). Much of British Columbia is “unceded territory,” meaning that indigenous people occupying the land never relinquished their homelands via treaty or other legal mechanism. Idle No More activists are struggling to steward land, water, air, animals and people within their unceded territories, which requires protecting them from the threat of unhealthy and unsustainable forms of development. For example, thus far they have stopped Enbridge and Kinder Morgan from building pipelines to export shale oil from Alberta. They are one of the big reasons that TransCanada and the Koch brothers have fought so hard and spent millions of dollars to get the Keystone pipeline approved. The people of western Canada won’t let it go that direction. One of the most important regulators of greenhouse gases in North America at the moment is Idle No More. Those who think that environmental movements are mere sideshows to the more serious work of science and policy simply aren’t paying enough attention to history or present day developments.

What gives you hope?

Public engagement and activism. As a scholar, I am probably better at studying and writing about public engagement than I am at actually doing it, but when I find myself in places and moments where knowledgeable and concerned people effectively voice their opinions — such as at an Idle No More protest in Vancouver or on Dana Lyon’s Coal Train Tour — things don’t appear nearly as bleak as they do when flipping through the channels.

Photo: Idle No More Solidarity Gathering in Sacramento, by Daniela Kantorova (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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New Mini Grant awards focus on Galapagos and more Tue, 19 May 2015 17:37:40 +0000 Continue reading New Mini Grant awards focus on Galapagos and more ]]> A workshop on invasive species in the Galapagos Islands, the launch of a food festival at the University of Minnesota Duluth, and the implementation of a new course on impact ventures in rural Nicaragua are some of the projects receiving Institute on the Environment Mini Grants this spring. Eleven projects received grants of up to $3,000 and one received $5,000 for a total disbursement of $43,300.

Mini Grants are designed to encourage collaboration on environmental themes among faculty, staff and students across University of Minnesota disciplines, units and campuses. Along with funding, each recipient is provided space for meetings, workshops and conferences and some administrative support for a year.

Following are brief descriptions of the projects. For more information, email

Invasive Species in the Galapagos Islands: Challenges and Solutions
George Heimpel, College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences

The project team will develop a workshop focusing on invasive species in the Galapagos Islands in June 2015. The workshop will bring together three units at the University of Minnesota — the Department of Entomology, the College of Veterinary Medicine and the College of Biological Sciences — in a novel way. The public workshop will feature presentations and directed discussions on invasive species and conservation in the Galapagos.

Creating Social Ecological Knowledge and Engagement Across Campus and Community: Inaugurating the Bulldog Food and Farm Festival
Randel Hanson, Program in Environment and Sustainability, UMD

The project team will hold a festival to highlight the interdependence of food, health and ecology on September 20, 2015, at the Sustainable Agriculture Project Farm at UMD’s Field and Research Studies Center. The festival will include a 5K run; a farmers market with area growers; various health- and wellness-oriented activities and education; campus and community based sustainability activities; food that features produce grown on the SAP Farm and prepared by UMD Dining Services; and tours of the SAP Farm to showcase organic agriculture practices, wind energy production, sustainable landscape management and habitat restoration.

Piloting Acara Impact Entrepreneurship Program in Rural Nicaragua
Brian Bell, Acara, IonE

IonE’s Acara program, EOS International and Iowa State University will partner to implement a class on human-centered design for an ISU study abroad program in San Isidro, Nicaragua, June 8 – July 3, 2015. Over four weeks, approximately 10 engineering and design students will work with Nicaraguan community members, EOS staff, and ISU and Acara–UMN instructors to design improved technologies and business models to address quality of life issues in San Isidro. Products in focus include a biochar reactor (energy access), water assisted ram pump (agricultural production, water access) and household rainwater catchment system (water access).

Climate Conversations in the Islamic Community
Julia Nerbonne, CFANS

The project team will develop a conversation model that works in Islamic centers and conduct group climate conversations. Team members will ask what participants know about climate change, what kind of information and services they have access to, and what their overall attitudes towards climate change are. They will also assess if there is a difference in attitude, knowledge and access to information based on location (rural/urban/suburban) and ethnicity/diversity of the community members.

World Wide Views on Climate and Energy
Daniel Myers, College of Liberal Arts 

On June 6, 2015, the World Wide Views on Climate and Energy program will convene citizens across the globe for a day of structured deliberation about climate and energy policy. The goal of the project is to host a WWV regional site, which will bring together 100 residents of Minnesota to learn, discuss and produce recommendations that will be disseminated to attendees of the 2015 U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP 21) and other policy-makers. This event will be a catalyst to increase regional interest in the COP 21 talks and in climate issues generally. Further, in collaboration with the four other WWV sites in the U.S., the event will produce invaluable data for research on citizens’ attitudes on climate issues and how these attitudes are shaped by discussion.

Design and Develop a Book for India Study
Fred Rose, Acara, IonE

The goal of the project is to design a book about design and development of environmental ventures in India. The book will be modeled after Design 4 Haiti, an effort by the College of Design, and be based on five years of students piloting and launching early-stage impact ventures in water, energy, food and agriculture in Acara’s program in India. 

Does Smallholder Use of Improved Irrigation Save Water?
Kate Brauman, Global Water Initiative, IonE

The project will explore the potential for water savings by smallholder farmers in southern India, home to 24 percent of the world’s farms. Contacts with farmers will be facilitated via project partner MyRain, an Acara-incubated distributor of drip irrigation systems. A second project partner, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, is also based in Bangalore.

Green Infrastructure at Natural Resources Research Institute
Ryan Hueffmeier, NRRI, University of Minnesota Crookston

The Natural Resources Research Institute, located at the headwaters of an impaired designated trout stream, is seeking ways to utilize the facility as a living laboratory for stormwater management. The goal of the project is to help students produce a concept paper on developing a green infrastructure demonstration project action plan.

Women’s Leadership in Interdisciplinary Writing
Jennifer Schmitt, NorthStar Institute for Sustainable Enterprise, Institute on the Environment

The project aims to increase publication success of early-career women researchers by conducting an interdisciplinary writing workshop, providing mentoring and peer networking to help increase publication success. Research leadership in environmental grand challenges requires academic publication; excelling in this area is challenging due to the interdisciplinary nature of environmental research and the demands on early career female researchers.

Restoring the Health of Agro-ecosystems in the Ecuadorian Andes
Christian F. Lenhart, CFANS 

The project team will organize a workshop on watershed management and soil restoration with Ecuadorian nonprofits, government agencies, farmers and local landowners to identify strategies that can be developed in partnership with the University of Minnesota. The workshop will take place in the Pedro Moncayo watershed northeast of Quito, Ecuador, in 2015. The project team will develop a white paper summarizing the findings of the workshop and outlining land rehabilitation strategies.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions on Phytoremediation Plots in France
Katy Nannenga, Math, Science and Technology, University of Minnesota Crookston

The project goal is to establish an international research/internship/teaching relationship between the University of Lorraine and the University of Minnesota Crookston. The relationship will allow a direct interaction between classes being taught at the University of Lorraine and classes being taught at UMC with students at both institutions working on a common project.

Sugarbush Summer: Reflections, Readings and the Future of Snow, a Lecture by Louise Erdrich
Kevin P. Murphy, CLA

Louise Erdrich, recently awarded the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction, gave a lecture April 29, 2015, on the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus focusing on indigenous resistance and reflecting on landscapes of the Upper Midwest and the new challenges facing Indian Country as communities cope with extreme fossil fuel extraction and other environmental injustices in their homelands.

Photo by Michael R Perry (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Grand challenge: sustainably feed the world Mon, 18 May 2015 15:24:36 +0000 Continue reading Grand challenge: sustainably feed the world ]]> The times are a-changin’. In his prophetic 1963 lyrics, Bob Dylan sings that if our time on Earth is worth saving, we’d “better start swimmin’ or . . . sink like a stone.” Whether the times bring food scarcity or abundance, water risk or availability, deforestation or revitalized ecosystems, is up to us. In other words, if we want a sustainable future, we need to start swimming — developing solutions that will allow us to adapt and thrive.

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

Since its inception in 2008, the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment has been supporting solutions-focused people and programs to address these and other grand challenges. Through its fellows program and many strategic initiatives, researchers are working on projects ranging from modeling disease transmission in wild and domestic animal populations to advancing the concepts of ecosystem services and accounting for natural capital.

One of the biggest challenges we face is how to sustainably feed the world now and in the decades ahead as the climate changes. Agriculture is the biggest driver of land use on the planet. It has tremendous impacts such as producing a third of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for 70 percent of global water use, and acting as one of the biggest drivers of change to forests, grasslands and other habitats.

Enter the Global Landscapes Initiative, an IonE strategic initiative that collaborates with leaders in agriculture and related sectors to develop solutions for meeting current and future global food needs while sustaining our planet.

GLI is co-led by Paul West and James Gerber. The two recently shared a few thoughts on how the initiative is building food security while helping advance the goals and vision of the University’s strategic plan.

What makes GLI unique?

A number of outstanding research teams at the U are focused on the issue of food security. One of the strengths of GLI is that we look at the issue from multiple perspectives while focusing on our ability to sustainably feed people both now and in the future. This approach allows us to assess the trade-offs among different management and policy strategies in different parts of the world.

How do transdisciplinary approaches — working across disciplines and with external partners — affect your outreach strategy?

At both IonE and GLI, we’re built for interdisciplinary work. We regularly work across disciplines at the University and also with external partners from government, NGOs and the private sector. These external partners help us understand the most pressing food security challenges they’re facing, which in turn helps shape our research. This puts us in a great position to identify problems early and then home in on solutions.

And it’s a two-way street. By helping shape sustainable strategies for leading nonprofit organizations, companies, scientists and others, we get our data out into the world where it can have the greatest impact.

Our collaborations help fill knowledge gaps and make data-driven decisions. Since each partner has a different focus and approach, we cater our communication and analysis to meet their needs. In this way, each collaboration is unique. Publishing papers in high-profile journals gets us credibility and is critical for advancing knowledge, but it is only one part of effecting change. The next step in having an impact requires helping partners in the context within which they operate.

How is GLI’s work transforming the future for the University’s community, business and government partners?

GLI works closely with other University programs to integrate demographic and environmental data, assess natural capital, quantify supply chain sustainability through life cycle analysis, and identify food safety risks to the U.S. food system.

But to influence global change, we need to work beyond the University. We bring a mix of University expertise, leadership, and a “Minnesota Nice” approach to working with leaders both locally and across the world. GLI has built a set of data and analysis approaches that are becoming a go-to standard for people working in non-governmental organizations, the investment community and fellow academic institutions. For example, we’ve developed research and analysis tools looking at multiple trade-offs for a broad set of issues such as food production; agriculture’s effect on climate, water availability and quality; and the role of diet and trade on global food systems.

What GLI discovery would you like to see take hold around the world?

A number of researchers are looking at on-the-ground interventions to improve outcomes for farmers and their environment. This is important work. You also have researchers identifying global-scale solutions to critical problems, and this is important work, too. Our biggest contributions are somewhere between those two ends of the spectrum. Our efforts help identify where in the world to start making a difference. These “leverage points” — such as optimal locations for improving crop production — are places or issues within the system where local-scale interventions will have the biggest impact on increasing sustainable food production. For example, increasing yields to 50 percent of their realistic potentials in only 5 percent of the area growing major crops could provide enough calories to meet the basic needs for 425 million people.

What’s next for GLI?

We want to focus on investigating the vulnerability of the food supply system itself. This includes food production but also risk to supply chains. For instance, how will changes in weather patterns increase the volatility of global food supply? Will evolving trade networks smooth out that volatility? What effect will an increasingly affluent global population have on demand for certain agricultural products?

We are also assessing issues related to risk and how we might build a more resilient food system that can provide food security for a growing population while preserving the environment we rely on. This is one of the greatest challenges facing the world today.

Photo by sandeepachetan (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Influencing outcomes for people and nature Thu, 14 May 2015 21:14:05 +0000 Continue reading Influencing outcomes for people and nature ]]> In March, the Natural Capital Project, a partnership among the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment, Stanford University’s Woods Institute of the Environment, The Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund that works to develop ecosystem services concepts, tools and science that influence decision making and lead to better outcomes for humans and nature, hosted a Natural Capital Symposium at Stanford. The three-day event provided a platform for a broad audience to learn new and existing tools, network among fellow researchers and practitioners, and share and discuss ongoing ecosystem services research and projects.

The Natural Capital Project will celebrate its 10-year anniversary later this year, so it seems appropriate that the organization hosted what some veteran participants heralded as the group’s “largest and best NatCap Symposium yet.” The participation and energy apparent at the conference suggest there is real momentum behind this work and continuing demand for ecosystem services science and applications across a variety of different contexts and scales.

This year’s event, which hosted three concurrent tracks — Pathways to Impact, Learning Exchange, and Trainings — attracted over 200 diverse participants and thought leaders from more than 20 countries representing non-governmental organizations, academia, government and the private sector. The U of M and IonE were well represented with over 10 participants, several of whom presented posters and led talks and discussion panels.

Here are five key lessons we learned at this year’s Natural Capital Project Symposium:

  1. Ecosystem service decisions occur at the human level and are context dependent. Engagement with those who have a stake in decisions is a critical component to effective ecosystem services research and projects. Accurately representing the diversity and complexity of stakeholder values is also key. We need to continue to zero in on where, when and in what decisions nature matters most to scale our research appropriately. These points were brought up time and again — starting with the symposium’s welcome address by NatCap director and Stanford University professor Gretchen Daily, to subsequent panel discussions about natural capital in policy and private sector decisions, among many others.
  2. We all need to become multilingual, both literally and figuratively. There was great diversity of backgrounds, disciplines and languages represented at the symposium, and it became immediately clear not only how important that diversity is to ecosystem services work but also how it poses very real communication challenges. Symposium panelists proposed a few ways to meet this challenge and reach more diverse audiences, which included telling more personal stories about our work; using simple, understandable language; and putting a human face on the problems we address.
  3. There is often a spatial mismatch between supply and demand for nature and its services. This gap, first touched on during the Nature in Cities: Frontiers in Urban Ecosystem Services plenary session, is quite evident in cities, where questions of access, scale and quality of urban “nature” are key and emerging topics. However, this mismatch is relevant in other contexts as well, as highlighted by discussions around certification programs for corporate supply chains and the diversity of water funds in Central and South America. In closing out the symposium, NatCap and TNC’s Peter Kareiva further emphasized a need to explore and fill research gaps in how the supply of ecosystem services affect social equity and people’s access to opportunities.
  4. Despite being in an era of Big Data, data is still expensive. Ecosystem services data — spatial or otherwise, needed for both biophysical modeling and valuation in ecosystem service assessments — and decision support tools have made leaps and bounds in the past decade (Google NatCap, and others presented innovative and exciting examples during the symposium), but information and technology needs are still limiting factors in many contexts and decisions globally. Reduced data processing time, increased access and transparency of data, and better understanding of uncertainty are just a few of the related topics NatCap will continue to explore with its partners in the future.
  5. The burden is on us to show that what we do changes decisions. Discussions throughout the conference highlighted a need for even greater support of the interface between ecosystem services science and policy. Steve Polasky, U of M College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences Regents professor and an IonE resident fellow, and University of Vermont’s Taylor Ricketts, both NatCap directors, highlighted the trade-offs between additional complexity in ecosystem service models and an ability to translate that science to decisions and policy. Impact evaluations of ecosystem service projects and engagements may be one place to start to improve our understanding of how ecosystem services science influences outcomes for both nature and people.

Banner photo by Asian Development Bank (Flickr Creative Commons)

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5 things we learned about sustainable supply chains Tue, 12 May 2015 16:57:49 +0000 Continue reading 5 things we learned about sustainable supply chains ]]> In the final Frontiers of the semester, Gary Paoli, director of research and program development with Daemeter Consulting, joined Frontiers to talk about the role of sustainability commitments within a supply chain. With a specific focus on palm oil in Indonesia, this lively talk looked at the needs, challenges and successes of such programs in improving corporate responsibility. Here are five things we learned.

1. Commercial agriculture is responsible for most tropical deforestation. This means industry can have a huge impact on the environment. Thus far, effort and attention to reducing adverse environmental impacts have focused on targeting the producers at very top of supply chains, generally through sustainability certification programs. While these programs have achieved some results, they have also been met with a certain level of dissatisfaction, particularly over the low rate of change and the level of commitment required. This approach also ignores many of the other players in the supply chain, such as processors, traders, manufacturers, retailers and consumers.

2. Changing the game. To strengthen the commitment to sustainability, the option for voluntary supply chain commitments began to emerge. Instead of focusing solely on upstream producers, this approach operates on idea that if we’re all part of the problem, we all need to be part of the solution. Campaigns in support of voluntary commitments have generally had success thus far and tend to target the leading industry traders, who can then have an impact on the smaller players. Rather than disappearing completely, certification incentives will most likely continue to exist in addition to the voluntary commitments.

3. “No Deforestation, No Peat and No Exploitation.” One big success story is the case of palm oil industry giant Wilmar International. After facing significant pressure from numerous nonprofits, the company adopted a “No Deforestation, No Peat and No Exploitation” policy in December 2013. While the “no deforestation, no peat” commitments would be significant alone, the idea of “no exploitation” is very important. It provides respect for customary rights, respect for human rights and fair sharing of benefits. The company also emphasized the importance of traceability through the supply chain, including traceability to the specific mill and to the plantation. This led to a chain reaction in commitment from other downstream traders. Due to the size and influence of Wilmar and these other traders, an estimated 90 percent of palm oil traded is now covered by some form of sustainability commitment.

4. There is uncertainty. As with any program, there are a number of challenges to using these voluntary programs. Questions remain regarding prioritization, data deficiencies and ground verification, not to mention broader problems of what players to engage and when others should be excluded. Questions of who will carry out monitoring, reporting and verification are also significant. Structural challenges such as amnesty, lag times, smallholder exclusion and the potential growth of a two-tiered market are also concerns. Furthermore, the complexity of land use makes it difficult to completely understand the present situation and we obviously do not have the ability to predict the future, meaning we must proceed with some level of caution.

5. Priority areas of action. A number of key areas must be properly addressed if sustainable volunteer commitments are to be successful. We need to focus on proper implementation of sustainability commitments. Monitoring and verification tactics need to be improved, because they play a large role in the credibility of the program. Players throughout the supply chain need to have an active role and be engaged in the process. Government collaborations are also possible and could help strengthen the program if implemented properly.

Photo by CIFOR (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Grand challenge curriculum aims high Mon, 11 May 2015 21:46:54 +0000 Continue reading Grand challenge curriculum aims high ]]> Can we feed the world without destroying it? Good question — one that students in the University of Minnesota’s Grand Challenge Curriculum (GCC) 3001 course will tackle this fall.

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

At the nexus of global health, environment and economics, GCC 3001 will examine questions such as, “What does it mean to feed the world?” and “What does it mean to destroy it?”

The course is open to all students and fulfills an honors experience, and registration is still open. Through readings, guest panelists and class projects, students will delve into organics, food waste, genetically modified organisms, the bioeconomy and more.

“What makes this course special is the way in which we tackle this question of ‘Can we feed the world without destroying it?’” says Jason Hill, course co-instructor and assistant professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. “Each reading, lesson and activity is focused on advancing student understanding of the course’s central question and seeking realistic and equitable answers to it.”

Research on food systems conducted at IonE provides much of the academic foundation for the course, but students will be encouraged to think broadly about the issues.

Economics student Emily Gilbertsen, who took the course last year, says she went into it with a limited understanding of science-based solutions. “The instructors did a great job of making the scientific information accessible, and I left with a much more applicable understanding not just of current technologies but also of how to stay up-to-date on scientific literature,” she says.

“We want students to leave the course with an appreciation for the complexity of these problems. These are grand challenges for a reason — they won’t be easily solved,” says Hill.

“One thing that stood out to me in the course was that future food security relies on changes we make now,” says Gilbertsen. “Previously, I had been under the vague assumption that the science of the future would save us from ourselves. Because of the course, I have realized that the impact of climate change and our current farming practices will not be my children’s problem, it will be my problem. Science alone will not change the future. It is incumbent on changes in our political and cultural priorities, which require a greater engagement of all parts of the economy in adjusting for a sustainable future.”

Space is still available, so register today!

Course number: GCC 3001
Course title: Can We Feed the World Without Destroying It?
Course instructors: Jason Hill, assistant professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences; and David Tilman, Regents professor in the College of Biological Sciences.

The University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment envisions a future in which sustainable agriculture feeds the world; renewable energy powers the planet; every person has access to food, clean water and shelter; oceans, lakes and rivers are unimpaired; cities have vibrant economies, neighborhoods and cultures; and thriving ecosystems support thriving economies and societies.

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Shape a brighter future? These grads are on it. Thu, 07 May 2015 00:48:38 +0000 Continue reading Shape a brighter future? These grads are on it. ]]> If you ever thought a young adult is too inexperienced to make a difference, you haven’t met the participants in the Institute on the Environment’s Acara impact entrepreneurship program.

Through Acara, students from colleges across the University of Minnesota build practical business skills and global experiences while simultaneously launching impactful entrepreneurial ventures aimed at addressing global grand challenges. They are motivated to change the world for the better, and many who participate in the program go on to do so during their careers.

While we’ve worked with more than 110 University of Minnesota students in the 2014–15 academic year, there are several exceptional graduating students who will be pursuing Acara experiences  through Acara Fellowships, which provide teams with up to $6,000 per team to pursue their ventures.

Lighting Up India

Robin Walz is a co-founder of Stimulight, a renewable energy business that seeks to improve the quality of life in rural India through the use of clean and reliable LED lights driven by solar-powered microgrids in place of kerosene lamps. Following a few months in his home country of France, Walz is partnering with SELCO India from August to November 2015 to work with its team and communities in rural Orissa, India, launching solar energy operations and thereby bringing solar energy access to communities that have never before had access to grid power. Walz is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the College of Science and Engineering in May 2015.

E-Waste Solution

Aika Mengi is co-founder of E-Grove, an electronic waste management company seeking to address the need for improved access to electronics recycling options in the U.S. and India. E-Grove will pilot its innovative collection model in cooperation with Tech Dump in Minnesota in summer 2015 and will transition to pilot in India in winter 2015. Mengi will be the first U.S.-based Acara fellow to partner with a local social enterprise. Mengi is graduating with a master’s degree in urban and regional planning from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs in May 2015.

Good Water, Good Health

Anna Schulte is co-founder of Ripple, which helps water purification and testing companies connect their products and services with rural markets to improve health in rural communities. Following Acara’s three-week India study abroad program in June 2015, Schulte will pursue a fellowship with Swasti, a health resource center focused on public health outcomes for socially excluded and low-income populations, while exploring the Ripple business model in India. Schulte is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in business and marketing education from the College of Education and Human Development in May 2015. She will pursue a master of public health degree beginning in Fall 2015.

Better Bees

Erin Kayser is co-founder of Apis Krishi. This agricultural venture aims to help rural Indian farmers leave the cycle of poverty by promoting beekeeping education and removing the financial risk of beekeeping. After completing Acara’s India global seminar, Kayser will partner with Last Forest in rural Tamil Nadu, India, for a three-month fellowship to support the development of beekeeping in the region. She will develop an online portal for beekeepers as well as work with farmers to enhance adoption and improve efficiency of beekeeping operations. Erin is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the College of Science and Engineering in May 2015.

Photo courtesy of Acara

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Elizabeth Wilson named Carnegie Fellow Tue, 05 May 2015 01:50:44 +0000 Continue reading Elizabeth Wilson named Carnegie Fellow ]]> This article is reprinted with permission from the University of Minnesota.

IonE resident fellow Elizabeth Wilson has been selected to the inaugural class of Andrew Carnegie Fellows. Wilson, a leading researcher in energy and environmental policy and law, is one of 32 scholars chosen from more than 300 nominees. She will receive a $200,000 award to support her research examining the complex relationship between renewable and nuclear energy, climate change and economic development, and how policy drives the evolution of energy systems.

“I am thrilled and humbled to have been selected to be an Andrew Carnegie Fellow,” says Wilson, associate professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. “My research focuses on energy and environmental policy implementation, and the challenges I work on are interdisciplinary and require solutions involving many different fields of study and expertise. This award reminds me how lucky I am to work at the University of Minnesota, with colleagues who are committed to working together to address the world’s grand challenges.”

Wilson’s research focuses on how energy systems are changing and how renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar power are affecting how the electricity system operates. She studies how policies and institutions are responding to risks like climate change by incorporating new technologies into existing energy systems. Her project under the Carnegie Fellowship, titled “Nuclear Futures in a Windy World: A Comparative Analysis Balancing Energy Security, Climate Change and Economic Development,” will examine the integration of nuclear energy with renewable energy technologies, the perceptions surrounding that integration, and how to implement future policy to support both environmental concerns and economic development.

The study will compare how energy policies are being implemented in Denmark, Germany and Spain — three countries Wilson selected for their high levels of renewable resources, different policies toward nuclear power, and different electric grid architectures and integration policies. The project will include interviews with experts in the energy industry, governments, academia and non-governmental institutions to create more insights of how to implement energy policy and current stakeholder perceptions of the transitions.

IonE’s nearly 70 resident fellows — faculty with appointments throughout the University of Minnesota system who come together here to share ideas, inspiration and innovation across disciplinary boundaries — are among the shining stars of IonE’s signature approach to addressing global grand challenges.

Read the full press release

Photo by Patrick O’Leary (U of M photo library)

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