On the Radio- The benefits of rotational grazing


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Rooter Ranch in Texas uses the rotational grazing method. (USDA/flickr)

Eden DeWald | July 2, 2018

This week’s segment gives insight into rotational grazing and how it can benefit farmers.

Transcript:

Iowa farmers may be able to use conservation grazing as a way to help encourage prairie growth.

The is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Wendy Johnson, a farmer in Charles City, likes her livestock to graze in free range patterns to improve both the quality of life for the animals and the health of the pasture. She often allows two or more different types of animals to engage in multi species grazing, a method that allows livestock to graze as they please, and fertilize the land with their waste.

Will Harris, a farmer in Bluffton, Georgia, expanded his business exponentially using careful planning and a similar free range method. After observing the grazing patterns of different livestock, he realized that these patterns could be applied to the prairie as well.

According to the Grazing Animals Project, conservation grazing involves using a mix of different livestock that enjoy eating different types of plants. This method helps control species of plants that over dominate the prairie, and encourages the growth of smaller, less dominant plant types. Johnson and Harris both hope that their method of rotational grazing will be more widely implemented by other small farmers in Iowa.

For more information, visit iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, Sara E. Mason.

Increase in nitrate pollution from Iowa


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The Mississippi River transports nitrogen to the Gulf of Mexico. (Ken L/flickr)

Eden DeWald | June 27, 2018

A new study from the University of Iowa finds that nitrogen pollution coming from Iowa has increased by close to 50 percent during the year of 2016 when compared to previous annual averages. The pollution from synthetic fertilizer made its way off of farms and into the greater water system. Twenty-three watersheds in Iowa were assessed, all of which drained either into the Mississippi or Missouri River, both of which eventually drain into the Gulf of Mexico.

Excess nitrogen in a water system spurs algae growth. After these algae blooms eventually decompose, bacteria or other small organisms feed on the dead algae and deplete oxygen within the water. This process is known as aquatic hypoxia, or eutrophication, and is responsible for the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Iowa is not the only state that has problems with runoff, but with 72 percent of Iowa’s land being used for farming, Iowa is a major contributor to the eutrophication process.

The rise in nitrate pollution has occurred despite Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which just marked its five year anniversary earlier this year. The Nutrient Reduction Strategy is a voluntary program which involves 8,000 farmers and focuses on conservation methods such as cover crops and no-till techniques. Mike Naig, Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture, wrote in a Des Moines Register article that he sees outreach and education about the effect that nitrates have on the water system as an essential aspect of improving Iowa’s water quality.

Who is responsible for protecting Iowa’s water?


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In the wake of the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit, Iowans are faced with the question, who is responsible for protecting our water? (Tony Webster/Wikipedia)

Katelyn Weisbrod | June 22, 2018

This week’s episode of “Our Water, Our Land,” looks to the Des Moines Water Works a little over a year after a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit involving the utility.

In 2015, Des Moines Water Works sued Sac, Calhoun, and Buena Vista counties, claiming the northern Iowa counties were responsible for high nitrate levels in the Raccoon River — a source of water for 500,000 Iowans. The utility spent $1.5 million in 2015 removing nitrates from the water so it was safe for consumption.

The Des Moines Water Works was criticized for its decision to take the issue to court by politicians and rural Iowans, for both the legal costs and the blame on farmers.

Professor Neil Hamilton of the Agricultural Law Center at Drake University said the lawsuit has brought attention to the issue of water quality in the state of Iowa, and has raised the question of, who is responsible for keeping water safe and clean?

To learn more, watch the full episode below.

The impact of climate change on food yield and nutrition


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Leafy greens can provide calcium, magnesium, and potassium. (ccharmon/flickr)

Eden DeWald | June 13th, 2018

A new study, conducted by a team from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, studies the effect that consequences of climate change will have on the yield and nutritional content of vegetables and legumes. The environmental changes analyzed in the study include any change found in ambient temperature, salinity, water availability, and concentration of carbon dioxide and ozone in the atmosphere. The study complied information from 174 published papers, which utilized a total of 1,540 studies, and conclusions based on the information which encompassed data from 40 different counties.

Variations of each environmental factor analyzed changed prospective vegetable and legume yields in different ways. For example, an increase in carbon dioxide levels was found to increase the mean yields overall, whereas an increase in tropospheric ozone concentration was found to decrease mean yields overall. However, an increase in carbon dioxide was the only factor studied that would produced an increase in mean yields, and all others were found to incur a decrease in average yields. The study could not make an overall comment about a change in food nutrition, but two papers that were analyzed found that an increase in carbon dioxide and ozone resulted significantly  decreased nutrient concentrations within root vegetables.

Vegetables and legumes provide many vital nutrients such as potassium, vitamin C, folate, and dietary fiber. They are cost effective diet staples for many people around the world. A decrease in means yields could negatively affect public health, decrease agriculture revenues, and make living a healthy life style even more expensive.

 

On The Radio- Nitrogen oxide and agriculture


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Fields (Ivan Albrecht/flickr)

Kasey Dresser | April 23, 2018

This weeks segment looks at how agriculture affects nitrogen oxide emissions in California. 

Transcript: 

Agriculture is a large emitter of nitrogen oxide gases in California.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Over the last few years California has been working to reduce the amount of nitrogen oxide gases released in the air. Policy makers began by focusing on reducing the use of cars, trucks, and buses which are currently believed to be the largest source of nitrogen oxide emissions. New research has also shown that fertilizers with nitrogen can be a large factor. 

Excess amounts of nitrogen oxide can produce toxic smog and acid rain. Ecologist Maya Almaraz and her team at University of California, Davis used a plane attached with a chemiluminescence analyzer to detect the nitrogen oxide in the air. They flew over the entire state of California collecting data. The area with the most nitrogen oxide pollution was the Central Valley’s agricultural region.

According to this test and several others, croplands contribute anywhere from 20- 51 percent of the nitrogen oxide levels in the air. Almaraz warns that increasing temperatures will only increase nitrogen oxide emissions unless there are steps to reduce nitrogen fertilizer use. 

For more information, visit iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.

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

 

Important factors in preserving biodiversity on coffee plantations


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Black coffee beans begin as red cherry-like fruits on a tree. (Coffee Management Services/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | April 19, 2018

As final exams loom closer, many students may find themselves relying a little too heavily on coffee to get them by. But what is the relationship between the black midnight oil and biodiversity?

There are two distinct coffee plants that produce the stuff that fills students’ mugs: coffee arabica and coffee robusta. Arabica plants provide fuel for the coffee connoisseur as its flavor is know for being smoother, richer and more nuanced than coffee robusta. The two plants require different growing conditions, too. Arabica does well in areas that are partly shaded by surrounding canopy while robusta grows better in cleared out areas with more sun.

Researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society, Princeton University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison sought to determine whether there was a difference in impacts on biodiversity between the two plants. They collected bird species biodiversity data from coffee plantations in Western Gnats, India between 2013 and 2015. Some of the plantations grew arabica coffee while others grew robusta. Those areas producing arabica had roughly 95 percent canopy tree cover, and those areas growing robusta had 80 percent canopy tree cover. Shockingly, however, this had little effect on bird biodiversity. The difference between the number of species each of the areas supported was not significant.

“An encouraging result of the study is that coffee production in the Western Ghats, a global biodiversity hotspot, can be a win-win for birds and farmer,” said lead author Charlotte Chang to SIERRA magazine.

The story is not the same on a global scale, however. It has become increasingly popular for coffee farmers in South America and other parts of Asia to clear-cut forests around coffee plantations to make harvesting easier and increase plant productivity.

Researchers suggest that coffee consumers take more time to consider in what conditions their cup of joe was grown. If coffee is labeled Rainforest Alliance Certified or Bird Friendly, it is likely have had less of a negative impact on land use and biodiversity.

Carbon dioxide makes food less nutritious


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Less nutritious crops could pose health problems for many people worldwide who rely heavily on rice as their main food source. (Rob Bertholf/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | April 5, 2018

The changing climate is forcing farmers to adapt, but how do rising greenhouse gas levels impact the food on our dinner plates?

A Harvard School of Public Health study looked at how more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere affects nutrient levels in six primary food crops: wheat, rice, field peas, soybeans, corn and sorghum. The researchers split plants of the same crop up between two groups. The first group was cultivated in an environment with between 363 and 386 parts per million carbon dioxide (CO2). This was the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere at the time of the study, in 2014. The second group of plants grew up in an environment with between 546 to 586 parts per million of the greenhouse gas in the air. This is roughly the concentration of CO2 expected to be in Earth’s atmosphere within fifty years.

When it was time, the scientists harvested the crops and measured levels of key nutrients in them. They looked specifically at zinc, protein and iron. The study found that plants grown in environments with higher concentrations of CO2 were less nutritious than their counterparts. Wheat, rice and soybeans were all found to have lower levels of zinc, protein and iron in the higher CO2 conditions.

Animal products are the primary source of protein for most people in the U.S., but people in other parts of the world rely heavily on rice and wheat as their main protein providers. These foods are naturally low in protein and further deficiency could be devastating. One study in the Journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that these projected impacts could cause an additional 150 million people worldwide to be protein deficient by 2050. Protein deficiency can cause low birth weight and other health problems that stunt growth and development.