New Study Highlights Environmental and Financial Benefits of Diversifying Crop Rotations

Graphic of an Iowa corn field
Via Flickr

Nicole Welle | September 3, 2020

A new study from researchers at Iowa State University and the University of Minnesota found that diversifying crop rotations keep farms profitable while greatly reducing the negative environmental and health impacts of farming.

Farmers have practiced corn and soybean crop rotation for a long time. However, this new research found that adding more crops, like oat and alfalfa, to the rotation can improve soil quality and the productivity of farmland. It also benefits the environment and human health by reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers.

The study used data from a long-term field experiment at Iowa State University’s Marsden Farm. This experiment began in 2001 and compared performance characteristics of a two-year corn-soy rotation with a three-year corn-soy-oat rotation and a four-year corn-soy-oat-alfalfa rotation. They used this information to better understand the amount of pollution and fossil fuel use associated with each cropping system, according to a article.

By looking at pollution from both farming and the supply chain, researchers found that the production of synthetic fertilizer requires a lot of fossil fuel. Its application also produces poor air quality by emitting greenhouse gases and pollution. Less fertilizer is required when small grains and forages are added into rotations, and the addition of just one small grain crop can reduce fossil fuel use and pollution by half, according to the study.

While it may take time for farmers to further diversify their crop rotations, this information could provide long-term success for farmers, the public and the environment.

Researchers to explore Des Moines-area sustainability potential on NSF grant

Downtown Des Moines and the surrounding six-county area are the subjects of a new research project on urban sustainability (via Creative Commons).

Julia Poska | January 24, 2020

The National Science Foundation granted a group of mostly Iowa-based interdisciplinary researchers $2.5 million to explore potential scenarios for making greater Des Moines more sustainable.

The Sustainable Cities Research Team –12 researchers from Iowa State University, University of Northern Iowa and University of Texas at Arlington– received the grant this week. The group’s engineers, environmental scientists, psychologists and others will holistically study food, energy and water systems within a six-county area to develop and analyze “scenarios” for improved sustainability.

An ISU press release said the approach would include analysis of potential for increased local and urban food production as well as building and transportation energy efficiency. The researchers will survey and collaborate with local residents and stakeholders, including farmers and community leaders.

The research effort could inform not only the future of the Des Moines area, but planning and policy in other Midwestern cities, too.

Iowa State University scientists research advantages of horticultural bioplastics

The flower on the left is planted in a bioplastic container while the flower on the right is planted in a conventional petroleum-based pot. ISU researchers have studied the environmental advantages bioplastic containers may present. (ISU, James Schrader)

Jake Slobe | November 23, 2016

Research conducted by Iowa State University horticulturists show that new bioplastic materials could allow gardeners to tend their plants more sustainably and could potentially help plants self-fertilize and grow healthier roots.

“Bioplastics present a range of environmental advantages, such as improved biodegradability, that conventional petroleum-based plastics can’t claim”, said William Graves. Grave, associate dean of the ISU Graduate College and professor of horticulture, and a team of researchers recently concluded their five-year study on bioplastics in an attempt to find materials that show promise for horticultural uses, such as the plastic pots and flats that retailers use to sell immature plants.

Bioplastics come from renewable biological sources like plants and large-scale adoption in the marketplace could ease dependence on fossil fuels.

The study looked at many options for bioplastic made from sources such as polylactic acid and the more biodegradable polyhydroxyalkanoates. They also included byproducts that result from the production of corn, soybeans, and ethanol.

They found bioplastic containers have the potential to offer another major advantage that petroleum products can’t:  the ability to self-fertilize plants.

Plastics made from bio-based materials can release nutrients as the plastic degrades. That could lessen the workload for gardeners, and encourage root growth that will improve the plant’s performance once transplanted into soil or into another container, he said.

The study was funded by a $1.94 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture and provided results from conducting market research on consumer preferences regarding bioplastics. The researchers found that consumers prefer bioplastic products that resembled petroleum plastics as closely as possible in appearance, color and texture.

ISU researchers develop decision-making tool for sustainable cities

The city of Des Moines is involved in ISU’s “Big Data for Sustainable City Decision-Making” research project. (Jason Mrachina/Flickr)

Jenna Ladd | October 28, 2016

Researchers at Iowa State University (ISU) and the city of Des Moines are working together to develop a decision-making tool that could revolutionize the way cities tackle climate change and social issues.

Ulrike Passe, associate professor of architecture and director of ISU’s Center for Building Energy Research, is the lead faculty researcher. Passe said, “There’s so much unrelated data available — from census and economic information to policy studies and weather records — but it needs to be merged into a useable model.” Passe added that city planners and officials need to have “a data-based tool that helps them decide how to allocate resources for conservation measures like tree planting and storm water management.”

Passe’s team of 16 researchers from over a dozen disciplines is working closely with Scott Sanders, Des Moines city manager. Sanders said, “The creation of this this decision-making system will provide staff access to an amalgamation of big data, which they presently have no way to effectively evaluate, that is a critical component to the future of successful and resilient cities.” Sanders noted that citywide interest in sustainability is on the rise, he said, “The demand far outweighs the city’s ability to provide all of the required and desired improvements within its current budget constraints. The need for a data-driven process and policy to help assess and prioritize the city’s investments has never been higher.”

The project is focusing its efforts on communities in east Des Moines such as Capitol East, Capitol Park and MLK Jr. Park. Linda Shenk, associate professor of English at ISU, is also involved in the study. She said, “We focus on marginalized populations because they are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change due to limited resources, yet the most difficult for cities to reach and engage in data collection.” For her part, Shenk has been discussing climate change and brainstorming local solutions with neighborhood groups and high school students. Meanwhile, other researchers in the neighborhoods are gathering data about how citizens interact with their city, communities, and homes using computational thermal-physical models.

Other ongoing projects include a tree inventory in the Capital East neighborhood and energy efficiency research through controlled experiments at ISU’s net-zero energy Interlock house located at Honey Creek Resort State Park. The study’s goal for this year is to compile data about human behavior related to energy use. Moving forward, Passe said, “Our objective is to create decision-making support systems that will help cities and their residents translate this research into actions — new policies, incentives for individual behaviors and community resilience.”

The above graphic outlines the four phases of the research project along with the 16 ISU faculty that are involved. (Iowa State University)

On the Radio: ISU’s BioBus Club uses vegetable oil to create fuel for local buses

Photo by manop, Flickr.
Photo by manop, Flickr.

Listen to this week’s radio segment here or read the transcript below. This week’s segment discusses the BioBus Club at Iowa State University.

Iowa State University’s BioBus Club recycles vegetable oil into biodiesel fuel.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Continue reading

UI and ISU participate in EPA’s College and University Green Power Challenge

Photo by Photo Mojo Mike, Flickr.


The University of Iowa and Iowa State University participated in the EPA’s 2012-2013 College and University Green Power Challenge.

This challenge compared the green power usage of the collegiate athletic conferences. The Big Ten Conference and the Big 12 Conference finished first and second. The University of Iowa contributed 9,842,480 kWh of Green Power, while Iowa State University contributed 17,964,3300 kWh.

Check out the rest of the results here.

Climate change alters animal reproduction

Photo by GraphicReality, Flickr.
Photo by GraphicReality, Flickr.

Climate change could affect reproduction in some animals.

Specifically, some animals – especially reptiles – have temperature dependent sex determination. In other words, the temperature leading up to some animals’ birth will determine if the offspring is male or female. Cold weather usually leads to more males, and warm weather leads to more females.

The worry is that this could lead to the extinction of some species as the planet continues to warm.

Listen to the full story, including interviews with Iowa State University researchers, here.

ISU to host Symposium on Sustainability

The event will take place in ISU's Memorial Union. Photo by jimmywayne, Flickr.
The event will take place in ISU’s Memorial Union. Photo by jimmywayne, Flickr.

Next Monday, Feb. 25, is the beginning of Iowa State University’s Symposium on Sustainability.

The event will feature keynote speakers Adam Hammes, Manager of Sustainability for Kum and Go; Daniel Krohn, Global Sustainability Lead for Becker Underwood, Inc./BASF; Michael Smith,  Associate Vice-President Real Estate and Sustainability for Hy-Vee, Inc.; and Liv Watson, Director for International Business Development for WebFilings.

The symposium is free, but registration is required.

To register and find out more information, click here.

Sediment buildup accelerating in Iowa

Photo by docentjoyce, Flickr.
Photo by docentjoyce, Flickr.

An Iowa State University study has found that sediment buildup in Iowa’s lakes is accelerating.

This is occurring despite soil conservation efforts in the state.

According to the study, the sediment is building nearly six times as quickly as it did back in 1900.

Read more here.