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.

Wind turbines may improve growing conditions, study finds


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An Iowa State University study of a 200-turbine wind farm between Radcliffe and Colo found that turbulence from the structures have a positive effect on growing conditions. (jonbgem/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | December 22, 2016

Recent research from Iowa State University found that wind turbines may improve growing conditions for Iowa crops.

Gene Takle, a climate scientist at the university, and his team measured several factors including temperature, humidity, precipitation, as well as wind speed and direction on a 200 wind turbine farm in central Iowa. The researchers collected data from 2010 through 2013 using research towers.

Overall, the study shows that wind turbines have a positive impact on several factors that affect growing conditions. Turbulence generated by the turbines prevents the formation of dew and dries the crops, which can keep fungi from growing, researchers say. Wind turbines also alter the temperature around them. The turbulence increases nighttime temperatures by a half-degree to a full degree and cools daytime temperatures by a half-degree. Data shows that the wind produced by the turbines rustle up plants situated above cropland as well, allowing the sun to shine through.

Takle said, “That’s beneficial. It allows light to move deeper into the canopy.”

Iowa sources nearly 36 percent of its total energy from wind turbines, more than any other state. In all, energy companies have invested $12 billion in wind production in the Hawkeye state, and landowners earn $20 million each year in lease payments for wind farms.

The study is a part of a $20 million, five year grant from the National Science Foundation. Moving forward, Takle said that he is interested in researching the effects wind turbines might have on regional weather patterns.

He said, “If you had warm, humid air rising and cooling over a wind farm, it could lead to more cloud formations, possibly even enhance or influence … rainfall patterns.”

Takle added, “We’ve been measuring changes on the wind farm, but this would measure effects outside the wind farm.”

EnvIowa Podcast: Soybean crops found to contribute to nitrate levels in Iowa’s waterways


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Jenna Ladd | November 4, 2016

On episode three of EnvIowa, we sit down with Dr. Chris Jones, IIHR Research Engineer, to discuss his recent research, which looks at the effects of soybean crops on water quality in Iowa. Much of the research over the last 40 years has been focused on corn, given that corn plants require more fertilizer than soybean plants. However, studies in 2009 and 2016, both of which Dr. Jones co-authored, suggest that soybeans play a larger role than previously understood.

Dr. Jones helps us understand why nutrient pollution has increased steadily as more and more farmers have integrated soybeans into crop rotation, replacing smaller grains and cover-crops, and what it will take to turn this science into water quality policies that benefit Iowans.

The EnvIowa podcast can also be found on iTunes and soundclound. For a complete archive of past episodes, click on the EnvIowa Podcast tab at the top of this page.

Iowa State researcher looks at corn’s adaptive powers


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The corn plant can grow in high elevations near mountain ranges or at sea level, researchers at the Iowa State University are taking a closer look at what makes this crop so versatile. (jev55/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | September 20, 2016

An Iowa State University researcher is taking a closer look at how corn has adapted over many centuries to prosper in several different environments and elevations throughout the Americas.

Matthew Hufford, an assistant professor of ecology and evolution and organismal biology at the University, is co-principal investigator of a collaborative study with scientists from University of California at Davis, University of Missouri, and the National Laboratory of Genomics for Biodiversity in Irapuato, Mexico. The research project recently received a five year, $4 million grant from the National Science Foundation. About $800,000 of those funds will be used to support Hufford’s laboratory at Iowa State University.

Hufford said that gaining a better understanding about how corn adapted to grow beyond its origin in Mexico could help plant breeders to produce crops that perform better. He said, “With this project, we hope to identify good candidates for genes that played key roles in helping maize adapt,” he added, “You could use that new knowledge to design corn to deal with the environmental challenges of today, like climate change and other stresses.”

Corn started growing in the hot lowlands of southwestern Mexico about 10,000 years ago. Hufford explained that in a relatively short amount of time the plant has changed to grow in much higher elevations with different climates across the Americas. After he compared highland corn to lowland corn, Hufford found that highland corn is darker in color and equipped with macrohairs that insulate plant when temperatures drop. Striking differences such as these help explain how the plant is able to grow anywhere from near sea level up to 13,000 feet in elevation.

Moving forward, the researchers plan to cross highland corn with lowland corn in order to study the genetics of parent and offspring varieties.

On the Radio: Study looks into benefits of GM crops


A corn field in Pomeroy, Iowa. (keeva999/Flickr)
A corn field in Pomeroy, Iowa. (keeva999/Flickr)
December 29, 2014

This week’s On the Radio segment looks at a recent study that looks at the benefits of genetically modified crops. Listen to the audio below, or continue reading for the transcript.

A recent German study suggests that genetically modified crops may be more beneficial for the economy and the environment than previously thought.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The study – which was funded by German and European Union agencies – was published in November. The researchers examined genetically modified crops from 1995 to 2014 and concluded that genetically modified crops reduce pesticide use by 37 percent, increased crop yields by 22 percent, and increased farmer profits by 68 percent. This decrease in pesticide use resulted in cost savings for farmers and less potential runoff.

In 2014, Iowa planted more genetically modified corn and soy beans than any other state in the country.

For more information about this study and genetically modified crops, visit IowaEnironmentalFocus.org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Jerry Schnoor.

http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2014/11/german-study-finds-gm-crops-good-for-farmers-and-the-environment/#.VGGt0_nF_Jc; http://www.commondreams.org/views/2014/07/20/iowa-goes-bananas-gmos

On the Radio: Superweed spreads into Iowa fields


Palmer amaranth, an aggressive superweed found in five southern Iowa counties. (University of Delaware Carvel REC/Flickr
Palmer amaranth, an aggressive plant found in five southern Iowa counties so far. (University of Delaware Carvel REC/Flickr

This week’s On the Radio segment looks at palmer amaranth, an invasive superweed that has recently been spotted in five Iowa counties. Listen to the audio below, or continue reading for the transcript.

Transcript: Superweed

A new superweed that can now be found in five southern Iowa border counties may pose a serious threat to Iowa farmers.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Palmer amaranth is an extremely aggressive plant that can grow up to seven feet tall in a matter of weeks. It has only reached Iowa in the past year, but it has been seen in Southern states since as early as 2005.

Farmers who have dealt with the weed report that it has significantly reduced their crop yield. The weed’s rapid growth and superior size allow it to spread quickly and outcompete other plants.

Research is in progress to determine if Palmer amaranth may be herbicide resistant. If so, the plant would join the ranks of 20 other Iowa weeds that are unaffected by most weedkillers.

Herbicide resistant weeds force farmers to use stronger chemicals and increased tillage to preserve their crops, tactics which cause concern among environmental experts.

For more information about Palmer amaranth, visit IowaEnvironmentalFocus.org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Jerry Schnoor.

http://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/money/agriculture/2014/06/22/superweeds-choke-farms/11231231/
http://www.extension.iastate.edu/CropNews/2014/0220hartzler.htm

Video highlights Iowa farmer challenged by weather extremes


Wet fields in Centerville, Iowa. (David Morris/Flickr)
Wet fields in Centerville, Iowa. (David Morris/Flickr)

Extreme weather is taking a toll on Corning, Iowa farmer Ray Gaesser, as seen in a recent video produced by documentary organization The Story Group.

Gaesser, who has been farming for over 45 years, said extreme weather has become more common over the last ten years, during which his costs of growing crops have gone up almost five times. Among the added expenses were new machinery and costly soil infrastructure investments.

The extreme weather also means lost time for farmers in Iowa, where heavy rain in June and July reduced suitable fieldwork days to less than two per week in some parts of the state, making it more difficult for farmers like Gaesser to maintain their crops.

According to the 2014 National Climate Assessment, human-induced global warming is responsible for the increased number and strength of extreme weather events like heavy downpours. These increases are attributed to warmer air, which can hold more water vapor than cooler air. The greatest increase in heavy rain has been seen in the Northeast and Midwest.

With the National Climate Assessment predicting an increase in climate disruptions to agricultural production over the next 25 years, farmers like Gaesser will need to further adapt to lost days in the field and added stresses like crop disease and soil erosion. These adaptation measures will be necessary to prevent serious consequences for food security in the United States.