Presidential hopefuls discuss sustainable ag at last weekend’s Heartland Forum


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Photo by Julia Poska, 2019. 

Julia Poska | April 4, 2019

Last weekend, four 2020 presidential candidates and one likely contender gathered in Storm Lake, Iowa to discuss their visions for struggling rural America at the Heartland Forum. Here’s what each said about sustainability and agriculture:

Julián Castro: The former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Obama was asked a question about promoting eco-friendly family food farmers for economic, social and environmental resiliency.

“Our family farms help feed America—and the world, really—so we need to make sure that they can succeed, and also that people in these rural areas and rural communities can have clean air and water. Number one, I would appoint people to the EPA who actually believe in environmental protection,” he said. He specifically discussed boosting funds to enforce the Clean Air and Water Acts.

Rep. John Delaney (D-MD): Delaney’s “Heartland Fair Deal,” which he discussed at the forum, lays out plans for investing in negative emissions technology and focusing on climate resiliency and flooding.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN): Klobuchar said she would re-enter the Paris Climate Agreement on her first day in the White House. She also discussed her experience on the Senate Agriculture Committee.

“What we’ve learned over time, is that [if] we’re going to get [the Farm Bill] passed… we need to have a coalition of people who care about nutrition, people who care about farming and people who care about conservation,” she said.

She said she wants to keep Farm Bill conservation programs strong.

Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH): Hailing from the industrial “Rust Belt,” Ryan has little experience with rural areas, but he said he believes the two regions face many of the same issues and should come together politically. He spoke to opportunity in the clean energy and electric vehicle industries, which he would like to see driven into “distressed rural areas” to replace lost manufacturing jobs.

He also spoke about Farm Bill conservation programs; “These are the kind of programs we need to ‘beef up,’ no pun intended,” he said.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA): Senator Warren did not speak about sustainability directly. Her platform mainly focused on addressing monopolies in agribusiness to support small, family farmers. One of her proposals is to break up the Bayer’s acquisition of Monsanto, a merger that was heavily criticized by environmentalists. 

The Heartland Forum was moderated by Pulitzer prize-winner Art Cullen, editor of the Storm Lake Times, and two reporters from HuffPost. Those news organizations organized the event alongside Open Markets Institute and the Iowa Farmers Union.

 

On The Radio- Crops increasing, biodiversity decreasing


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Corn fields (flickr/ Tom)

Kasey Dresser| March 25, 2019

This weeks segment looks at decreasing biodiversity in crops around the world. 

Transcript:

The number of crops grown around the world has increased, yet crop biodiversity has declined. 

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus. 

Species richness, the number of unique species present in a defined area, often represents true biodiversity poorly. It discounts species evenness, which measures the relative proportion of each species’ population in the whole community. 

Even though 156 crops are grown globally — up from the mid-20th century — overall biodiversity is low because just four types of crops cover about 50 percent of cropland. A new study from the University of Toronto found that corn, rice, wheat, and soybeans dominate industrial agriculture around the world despite differences in climate and culture.

This impacts the affordability and availability of culturally significant foods in certain areas and leaves the global food supply increasingly vulnerable to pests and diseases. 

Increasing crop variety will make our food supply more resilient to pests and potentially reduce hunger.

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

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

Water quality researcher/blogger puts fresh perspective on stinking problem


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This map from Chris Jones’ blog relates the “real populations” (based on animal waste) of Iowa watersheds to the human populations other global areas.

Julia Poska| March 21, 2019

The public rarely gets its science straight from the source; we depend largely on the media to distill complicated academic research for us. University of Iowa researcher and adjunct professor Chris Jones is one of a rare breed of scientists who can adeptly communicate science on his own.

Jones has spent his career monitoring and researching the Iowan environment for institutions ranging from Des Moines Water Works to the Iowa Soybean Association. As an IIHR research engineer today he conducts original research and runs a blog where he explores the systems and nuances surrounding Iowa’s degraded water.

Recently, Jones calculated “Iowa’s real population” based on the nitrogen, phosphorus and solid matter in animal waste. He explained that Iowa’s millions of hogs, cattle, chickens and turkeys produce as much waste as 134 million people. The map pictured above matches the human populations of global cities and U.S. states to the “real populations” of Iowa’s watersheds.

“Managing the waste from these animals is possibly our state’s most challenging environmental problem,” he wrote. Weather and plant life cycles create a limited time window to apply it to fields, and hauling and handling it presents other challenges. When nutrients from manure enter waterways, they contribute to harmful algae blooms locally and in the Gulf of Mexico.

In another recent post, Jones used public data to compare the amount of nitrate purchased commercially and produced via manure in each Iowa watershed with the Iowa State University recommended application rate for corn. He found that, on average, Iowa farmers over-apply synthetic nitrogen by 35 pounds per acre. The addition of manure brings that surplus to 91 pounds per acre.

Other posts explore historical, social and political angles. Earlier this week, a post called “Ransom” related efforts to protect Lake Eerie in Ohio to the economic reality of farming and agribusiness in Iowa. “Who is getting the outcomes that they want from our policies, and in particular, the old school policies targeting improved water quality?” Jones asked.

Overall, Jones’ blog offers an informative and rather accessible expert perspective on a hugely complex issue. To subscribe yourself, visit here and enter your email at the bottom of the left sidebar.

***In an earlier version of this post, the number “134 million” was incorrectly written as simply, 134. Big difference! Thanks so much to those who pointed out the error***

Journalists and scientists talked environment at summit Tuesday


 

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Cwiertny, Dalrymple and Jones answer audience questions on nitrate pollution in Iowa (photo by Julia Poska).

Julia Poska | March 7, 2019

Urgent environmental challenges like climate change have made it increasingly vital for the public to know the facts. General audiences get information largely through news media, but distilling complicated science accurately is not always easy for writers. Friendly collaboration between scientists and journalists is crucial, for the sake of accuracy and public good.

An Environmental Journalism Summit in Grinnell, Iowa brought students and professionals in both fields together Tuesday to share thoughts on improving environmental science communication.

The University of Iowa’s Environmental Health Sciences Research Center organized the summit and presented on three “hot topics” in environmental news. Peter Thorne, head of the UI Department of Occupational and Environmental Health, spoke about his experiences advising the EPA under changing administration. Dr. Robert Blount discussed his medical research on air pollution and tuberculosis.  Darrin Thompson, associate director of the UI Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination (CHEEC), shared his knowledge and research on neonicotinoids, a controversial class of pesticides.

Two expert panels shared their knowledge and answered questions from moderators and audience members. The “Science and Media” panel featured Iowa Public Radio’s Amy Mayer, journalism professor Daniel Lathrop, Iowa Watch executive director Lyle Muller and engineer Craig Just, who discussed the complexities of communicating science. They stressed the importance of fact checking, including people in storytelling and maintaining responsibility to the audience.

Another panel focused on nitrates and water quality, featuring IIHR research engineer Chris Jones, CHEEC director David Cwiertny and Kajsa Dalrymple, who researches media effects on agricultural practices. They discussed gaps in coverage of the issue, the magnitude of the problem and the complex system that created it. 

Researchers also participated in more journalistic activities, like generating story ideas on hog manure. The summit ended with a showcase on Cedar Fall High School’s news team, which has published award-winning investigations on pesticide drift, climate  change education and drinking water nitrates through Iowa Watch. 

On The Radio- Benefits of GMOs


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On the road, Lesotho (flickr/Steve Lamb)

Kasey Dresser| March 4, 2019

This weeks segment looks at how GMO crops could help African farmers.

Transcript: 

A new study from Iowa State University says genetically modified crops are far more helpful than harmful

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus. 

GMO crops have been studied extensively. Iowa State agronomy researchers recently examined dozens of previous studies to assess the overall safety of genetic modification in plants. 

They determined that GMO crops are not only safe, but that delaying their adoption poses risks for humans and the environment in the developing world. Insect resistant crops could help African farmers battle an emerging invasive pest, the fall armyworm, which has been devastating corn crops in Africa since 2016. But fear has kept insect resistant corn commercially unavailable in all but one African country. 

Study co-author Walter Suza directs the Plant Breeding E-Learning in Africa Program, which develops digital learning materials for African universities. He hopes the study will help African policymakers embrace GMOs. 

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

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

The environmental legacy of Vietnam War herbicide weapons


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U.S. planes sprayed herbicide over the Vietnam jungle in the 1960s (flickr). 

Julia Poska | March 1, 2019

Forty-four years since the fall of Saigon, chemical weapons still exist in Vietnamese ecosystems. A new study from the University of Illinois and Iowa State University assessed the environmental impacts of one especially persistent chemical byproduct.

“Agent Orange,” banned in the U.S. since 1971, was a combination of two herbicides sprayed from U.S. aircraft to thin out the jungle and destroy crops. Individually, the herbicides would have disappeared in just days, but together they produced “TCDD,” a highly toxic dioxin can last over 100 years in the right conditions.

Illinois’ Ken Olson, professor emeritus of environmental science, and Iowa State professor of sociology Lois Wright Morton sorted through previous research and humanitarian reports on contaminated Vietnam air bases. They were able to determine TCDD’s paths through the environment, as well as “hotspots” where it still enters the human food supply.

They found that TCDD destroyed Vietnam’s mangroves and mature forests, which may not return to their previous condition for centuries and are now plagued with invasive species. In sprayed areas, runoff, soil erosion and landslides degrade soil, change topography and spread TCDD even further.

Researchers believe that TCDD persists longest in river and sea sediment. TCDD at the bottom of waterbodies is still eaten by bottom-feeding fish and stored in their fatty tissues. The toxin bioaccumulates and biomagnifies in the fatty tissues of their predators when the fish are eaten by humans or other animals.

According to the World Health Institute, the health effects of consuming dioxins like TCDD include skin lesions, altered liver function, and impairment of the immune, nervous, endocrine and reproductive systems.

Olson and Wright Morton advise that the only way to destroy TCDD is to incinerate contaminated soils and sediments.

 

Dubuque to hold water quality summit next week


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Screenshot from the event’s promotional flyer. 

Julia Poska | February 21, 2019

The 11th Annual Dubuque Area Watershed Symposium will be Wednesday, Feb. 27 at the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium from 3 to 9pm. The event is free to the public, but pre-registration is required to attend.

Subtitled “The True Value of Clean Water”, the event will focus on Iowa’s water quality concerns and current efforts to resolve them.  One of the first items on the agenda will be a presentation on the City of Dubuque’s recent Iowa Partners for Conservation Grant: $326,712 to be put towards engaging local farmers and helping them become leaders in efforts to reduce flooding and improve water quality in the Catfish Creek Watershed.

Other presentations will cover conservation practices, land-use practices, soil health, and water quality.

Later in the evening, keynote speakers Michael Schueller, director of environmental operations the State Hygienic Lab, and Larry Webber, IIHR research engineer and co-founder of the Iowa Flood Center, will share their knowledge and ideas about Iowa water quality.

The organizers want to hear from non-experts, too, and will hold a roundtable discussion on drafting the Dubuque County Conservation Strategic Plan, as well as encourage questions after the keynotes.

For more information visit the City of Dubuque’s official website.