On The Radio- West Nile virus in Iowa


34301252464_7c3440cfb3_o.jpg
(flickr/cesar monico)

Kasey Dresser| June 17, 2019

This week’s segment looks at the unwanted guest brought into Iowa by the rain and flooding this season. 

Transcript: 

The West Nile virus may soon run rampant because of the flooding that has been occurring in western Iowa.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Mosquitoes are not abnormal residents in the western region of Iowa. Yet these types of mosquitoes, the Culex tarsalis (Cool-ex tar-say-lis)  is carrying a virus that could hurt human beings.

The Culex tarsalis, have risen in grand numbers because they gather and breed in large pools of water and flooded areas. Iowa State University came out with new research that shows western Iowa has the largest presence of the West Nile virus, due to the resurgence of these mosquitoes.   

Iowa State professor and entomologist Ryan Smith believes that the virus is concerning as it is the common mosquito-born disease in the United States. The virus could affect one in five people bitten by the mosquito, and could lead people to develop fevers and potentially fatal symptoms.

The best way to protect yourself, would be to consistently spray insect repellent or wear long sleeve shirts. Make sure that you are fully covered before stepping outside.

For more information, visit Iowa environmental focus dot org.

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

 

How environmental fluctuations affect our food


agriculture arable barley blur
Changing weather patterns have greatly impacted our core crops | Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | June 4th, 2019

Ongoing climate change could drastically alter our relationship with food.

We often imagine our crops and sources of food being struck down by an intense weather event–a drought, a heatwave, an endless spell of rain. But small changes can affect our ecosystem and our crop yeild. In 2016, French wheat farmers were stunned at how much their crop yeild had decreased–all resulting from a few seemingly small seasonal changes in the weather.

Even incrementally warmer temperatures increase the lives of pests that damage and kill crops. Rain leeches soil of its nutrients. Fluctuations in weather patterns have a bigger impact on our food than we would often like to think. Rising levels of carbon dioxide also affect plants, as most staple crops don’t grow well in CO2-rich environments.

Senthold Asseng, a researcher at the University of Florida, used data and modeling to determine the effect that temperature has on crops worldwide. Wheat, rice, corn, and soybeans are the top four staple crops, feeding billions accross every nation. A global temperature increase of just 1 degree Celsius impacts all of these core foods, reducing the crop yields of wheat and corn by 6 to 8% and rice and soybean yields by roughly 3%. For a richer nation, these numbers mean little; for poorer areas, decreases like this could lead to extreme food shortages or famine.

Ongoing research into crops and agriculture and how these two link to climate change will help us find alternatives and solutions to continue feeding our nation.

 

A different look at glyphosate


shallow focus photography of white boneset flower
Glyphosate, found in most weed-killers, is not cancer-causing, EPA finds | Photo by Dan Hamill on Pexels.com

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | May 1st, 2019

UPDATE: We find it important to mention that though glyphosate has been found to not contribute to cancer by the EPA, some independent groups have their doubts about the safety of this chemical, and it’s true that we are not fully aware of what long-term exposure to glyphosate does. The article has been revised accordingly.

Cancer is scary, carcinogens scarier. The uncertainty behind many common carcinogens and chemicals–what leads to cancer after prolonged exposure and what doesn’t–is certainly stressful, which is why extensive studies into different suspected cancer-causing chemicals is essential.

Sometimes, before concrete evidence can be found, suspected carcinogens spark widespread panic. Glyphosate is one such suspected carcinogen. A common chemical found in RoundUp weedkiller, the ingredient has been linked to alleged negative health effects for years. Glyphosate works by blocking enzymes in certain plants, effectively regulating weeds that would otherwise leech crops of their nutrients.

Recently, Monsanto, the conglomerate that produces RoundUp, was hit with several lawsuits, including one from a customer who had used the weedkiller for decades–and claimed that his cancer diagnoses was a result of long-term exposure to the glyphosate in the product. The federal jury overseeing the case ruled in the man’s favor. Monsanto has, so far, appealed all of the lawsuit rulings.

Glyphosate touches more than just weeds in lawns–it’s the most-used herbicide in US agriculture. It also may not be as dangerous as we thought: studies from the US Environmental Protection Agency suggest that glysophate is not, in fact, a carcinogen. They say that there is not much evidence linking glyphosate exposure to the development of cancer cells, and the EU, following thousands of peer-review studies, has long sanctioned glyphosate herbicides as safe for general use.

Of course, glyphosate–and weedkiller in general–should not be ingested in any way, and basic caution is recommended when handling the product. While the risk of developing cancer from spraying away a cluster of dandelions from a front-porch garden may be slim to none, the health effects of larger, long-term glysophate exposure is still up for debate.

 

 

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


IMG_5519.JPG
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.

 

Biofuel: a battleground


nature field sun agriculture
Biofuel has its issues as well as its benefits | Photo by SplitShire on Pexels.com

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | April 3rd, 2019

A surprisingly high amount of biofuel is produced in Iowa, but the products that fall under this category and the ways in which they are produced spark frequent controversy and debate.

To begin, let’s break down what “biofuels” actually are. Defined by National Geographic as “plant-based solutions to the Earth’s growing energy problems“, biofuels are sourced from plant matter instead of petroleum. Gasoline and diesel are technically also biofuels, being made from decomposed and fossilized plants, but they emit massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere–causing a number of dangerous effects that heavily contribute towards climate change. Biofuels are more specifically made from living plant matter.

Ethanol is an example of a common biofuel produced worldwide, and Iowa is a top producer. Ethanol can be made through fermentation and a breakdown of sugars and starches, making corn an ideal component. An increase in biofuel use, theoretically, should reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

There is some debate about the effectiveness of biofuels when taking into account everything required to harvest and process the crops needed for this form of energy, however, with many pointing out that despite its benefits, the production of ethanol leaves a large carbon footprint anyway. With Iowa being a major producer of ethanol, these arguments tend to converge on our cropland, and farmers are split on the issue, as biofuels provide some significant advantages over fossil fuels.

Setting debates aside, a common ground most debaters find themselves on is the desire to figure out a way to reduce our overall carbon footprint, and this is a journey that we will likely be on for a long, long while.

On The Radio- Crops increasing, biodiversity decreasing


3623153374_cc4e8eba62_o.jpg
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


Screen Shot 2019-03-19 at 4.23.04 PM.png
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***