Editorial calls for more emphasis on land management to reduce carbon emissions

Corn and hay grow on these rolling hills in Clayton County, Iowa (Todd Ehlers/Flickr)
Corn and hay grow on these rolling hills in Clayton County, Iowa (Todd Ehlers/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | November 25, 2015

An Iowa City writer recently published an editorial in The New York Times outlining ways that Iowa is reducing and will continue to reduce carbon emissions.

Jeff Biggers – a writer-in-residence for the UI’s Office of Sustainability and founder of the Climate Narrative Project – points out efforts Iowa is currently taking to reduce its carbon footprint such as using wind power to generate roughly 30 percent of the state’s electricity needs as well as the WACO school district which soon hopes to generate 90 percent of its electricity from solar.

Biggers also discussed specific ways that an agriculturally-focused state such as Iowa can keep its carbon in the soil and out of the atmosphere. He points out that land misuse accounts for 30 percent of carbon emissions, a potential talking point for world leaders attending the COP 21 conference which begins later this month.

“Far too few climate change negotiators took notice of an important proposal called the Four Per Thousand Initiative, which France’s Ministry of Agriculture, Agrifood and Forestry introduced earlier this year. This proposal simply calls for a voluntary action plan to improve organic matter content and promote soil carbon sequestration in soil though a transition to agro-ecology, agro-forestry, conservation agriculture, and landscape management. According to France’s estimates, a “.4 percent annual growth rate for the soil carbon stock would make it possible to stop the present increase in atmospheric CO2.”

Earlier this week, Biggers appeared on Iowa Public Radio’s River to River to discuss soil carbon sequestration and other environmental issues with fellow author Courtney White who recently published Two Percent Solutions for the Planet.

“We’re looking at soil carbon sequestration efforts through regenerative agriculture, through organic farming, through a whole host of activities that are happening now in the rural areas that really give me a lot of hope in terms of the climate change issue.”

10-year study finds Renewable Fuel Standard falls short

A corn field in Pomeroy, Iowa. (keeva999/Flickr)
A corn field in Pomeroy, Iowa. (keeva999/Flickr)
KC McGinnis | November 12, 2015

A ten-year study conducted by the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture on the Renewable Fuel Standard has called into question the benefits of dependence on corn ethanol.

The study used both economic analysis and agricultural modeling to determine whether the RFS has so far met its economic and environmental goals.

“Corn ethanol has resulted in a number of less favorable environmental outcomes when compared to a scenario in which the traditional transportation fuel market had been left unchanged,” the study reads.

Examining the life cycle emissions of corn production including land use change through practices like excessive tilling which release carbon into the atmosphere,  the study finds that corn ethanol may be an inefficient means of reducing total carbon emissions. Citing a University of Minnesota study, the report also links increased corn production due to the RFS to heightened levels nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, sulfur dioxide and ammonia. Corn ethanol production releases over 800% more particulate matter and sulfur dioxide than would be released through conventional gasoline production.

The study also examined the perceived economic benefits of the corn ethanol industry, which has received $50 billion in taxpayer subsidies since 2005. An analysis of the profitability of corn ethanol without subsidies showed that the industry is unlikely to survive without mandated fuel volume requirements.

“A rational investor interested in collecting a reasonable return would not have invested in a new ethanol facility after October 2008,” the study reads.

The study has implications both for corn growers and policy makers in Iowa. It concludes by recommending investment-based solutions to help get more environmentally and economically friendly energy sources off the ground like wind and solar, which do not have the built-in infrastructure of mature technologies like those related to ethanol production. It suggests that the $50 billion in taxpayer funding of corn ethanol could have been better spent on these sorts of energy sources.

Iowa DNR, environmental group disagree on manure efforts

(Mark Evans / Flickr) A farmer sprays liquid manure onto a field.
(Mark Evans / Flickr) A farmer sprays liquid manure onto a field.
KC McGinnis | October 27, 2015

After stating that it has met its goals to improve manure management at Iowa farms, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources is facing criticism from an Iowa environmental group over its manure management efforts.

Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (CCI) says the DNR’s efforts since 2013 haven’t gone far enough in reducing nutrient pollution from manure spills in Iowa, where the number of impaired waterways listed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has increased 15% in two years. The group is calling for the EPA to step in to provide stricter enforcement of Clean Water Act standards at factory farms.

The DNR’s current work plan required it to increase oversight to 20% of Iowa’s livestock farms being inspected every year. The DNR met that goal over two years, managing a 41% inspection rate. CCI wants the DNR to require permits requiring farmers to maintain manure-related equipment and pay fines for spills. The DNR claims that issuing such permits is actually forbidden for states under EPA rules.

CCI and DNR members will meet November 3 to talk about Iowa’s manure management plan in more depth.

Fish kills reported across the state

An example of a large fish kill in California (Bruce Evans / Flickr)
An example of a large fish kill in California (Bruce Evans / Flickr)
KC McGinnis | October 6, 2015

Fish kills stretched across more than 20 miles of Iowa waterways last week.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources first reported on September 28 that a massive fish kill was spotted in Stoney Creek northwest of Spencer. After finding elevated ammonia levels in the creek, the DNR later concluded that egg washing liquid from Sunrise Farms near May City had been dumped into a corn field that flowed into Stoney Creek, leading to an 18.2 mile spill that killed more than 160,000 fish.

Another spill along Buchanan County Creek was traced to a hog confinement where below-building manure pits had overflowed, leading to a two mile fish kill. Spilled grease from a food processor led to another small spill west of Osceola in Clarke County.

DNR officials said fish can be at greater risk this time of year as manure pits begin filling up. DNR environmental specialist Sue Miller reminded farmers to check their manure levels frequently to avoid additional spills.

The string of fish kills affected mostly minnows and chubs, with those lost in Stoney Creek valued at more than $28,000.

On The Radio: Iowa cattle producers honored with environmental award

Glenn and Bev Rowe on their Union County farm. (IowaAgribusiness/YouTube)
Bev and Glenn Rowe on their Union County farm. (IowaAgribusiness/YouTube)
August 31, 2015

This week’s On the Radio segment looks at two Iowa cattle producers and their efforts to maintain an environmentally-sustainable operation. Listen to the audio below, or continue reading for the transcript.

Transcript: Iowa cattle producers honored with environmental award

Two southwest Iowa cattle producers were recently honored for their efforts to maintain an environmentally-sustainable operation.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Earlier this year, Glenn and Bev Rowe of Lorimor  were named regional winners of the National Cattle Association’s Environmental Stewardship Award Program. The Rowes were honored because of several sustainability projects they partnered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture for, including rotational grazing, rural pipeline installation, and stream bank stabilization.

The couple first started with a small cattle herd in rural Dallas County in 1969 and now manage roughly 1,000 acres in Union County. In addition to cattle grazing land, the farm also includes 250 acres of no-till cropland as well as about 40 acres of wildlife refuge.

The Rowes will now compete with the winners from six other regions for a change to take the top spot in the nation which will be announced during the Cattle Industry Annual Convention and Trade Show in San Diego this January.

For more information about the Rowes and their award visit iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.



UI Study: More consumers choosing locally-produced foods

A shot from the Iowa City Farmers Market in 2011. (Alan Light/Flickr)
A shot from the Iowa City Farmers Market in 2011. (Alan Light/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | August 27, 2015

A new study by researchers at the University of Iowa finds that American consumers are choosing to shop at local food markets more than ever before.

The study was led by Ion Vasi, an associate professor with joint appointments in the Department of Sociology and the Tippie College of Business, who shared his findings during the American Sociology Association Annual meeting in Chicago last weekend. Vasi found that consumers are supporting local food producers not just because they think the food tastes better but also because they like knowing who grows their food.

“It’s not just about the economical exchange; it’s a relational and ideological exchange as well,” Vasi told Iowa Now.

Farmers markets, food cooperatives, community-supported agriculture providers (CSAs), and other local food markets create what sociologists call a “moralized market,” which allows consumers to combine economic activities with their social values. Vasi’s research found that communities with a strong commitment to civic participation, health, and the environment were more likely to be supportive of local food markets. These markets were also more likely to thrive in areas with higher levels of education and income and where institutions of higher education are located. Researchers on this project conducted 40 interviews with producers and consumers in different local food markets in Iowa and New York.

Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show there were 8,268 farmers markets in the U.S. in 2014 compared to 3,706 in 2004. The data also show that Iowa currently has 229 farmers markets.

On the Radio: Record blue-green algae blooms causing health concerns

(Bobby McKay / Flickr)
(Bobby McKay / Flickr)
August 24, 2015

This week’s On the Radio segment looks at public health concerns over the record number of blue-green algae blooms in Iowa this summer. Listen to the audio below, or continue reading for the transcript.

Transcript: Blue green algae causing health concerns

Toxins from dangerous algal blooms are appearing in record numbers across the state this summer.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The most recent report from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources advises Iowans to avoid two beaches that exceed healthy levels of a toxin produced by cyanobacteria, also known as blue green algae. This brings the total number of advisories this summer to 25, already ahead of the record of 24 set in 2013.

Toxic cyanobacteria blooms are an indirect effect of nutrient runoff and weather conditions aided by climate change. That’s according to CGRER’s Peter Thorne, head of Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Iowa:

“Higher surface temperatures and reduced mixing of hot surface water with deeper colder water, and increased nutrient loads, produce growth of toxic cyanobacteria which make the water unsuitable for consumption.”

Contact with the blooms can cause severe sickness and even death in humans and animals, and fish kills like one in Crystal Lake that claimed the lives of thousands of fish in July. Continued sunny and dry conditions will likely lead to more warnings in Iowa lakes before the end of the summer.

For more information about algal blooms, visit IowaEnvironmentalFocus.org. From the UI Center for Global & Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.