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.

“Frost-free” days increase, so does allergy season


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Climate Central’s graph illustrates how the number of frost-free days in Des Moines has increased over time. (Climate Central)
Jenna Ladd | April 11, 2018

Given that spring snow fell across Iowa this weekend, it may be hard to believe that the frost-free season across the U.S. is actually getting longer.

A recent report found that, on average, the last spring freeze is occurring earlier while the first fall freeze is happening later. Researchers define the frost-free season as the total number of days between the last day of 32 degree Fahrenheit or lower weather in the spring and the first day of 32 degree Fahrenheit weather in the fall.

The lengthening of this season means that pollen-producing plants have a longer growing period. One study in particular found that the growing season for ragweed, a common allergen in the U.S., lengthened by two to four weeks between 1995 and 2009. This data was collected from ten sites from the southern U.S. through Canada. Iowa has added nine days to the average length of its frost-free season from 1986-2015 when compared with the average from 1901-1960.

Not only are allergy-causing plants benefiting from longer growing seasons, but an uptick in atmospheric carbon dioxide also increases pollen counts. Last year was the worst allergy season in recent record and experts expect this year to be similar.

Dr. Joseph Shapiro, an allergist and immunologist from California told CBS news, “A recent study showed that pollen counts are likely to double by the year 2040, so in a little more than 20 years we’re going to see a significant increase [in seasonal allergies].”

Climate Central’s recent report provides an interactive graph that allows users to select a U.S. city and see how the frost-free season’s length there may have changed since 1970.

Biodiversity declining worldwide


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The sun sets over one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world, the Amazon Rainforest. (Anna & Michael/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | March 30, 2018

Biodiversity, or the overall variety of life forms on Earth, is decreasing substantially in every region of the world due to land use change and climate change.

A compilation of four new United Nations scientific studies, which were recently approved by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), details the loss. Over three years, researchers assessed biodiversity and ecosystem services in the Americas, Asia, the Pacific, Africa and Europe. They found that biodiversity and nature’s ability to provide for humans’ basic needs has declined in every region due to habitat loss overexploitation and unsustainable use of natural resources, pollution, increasing numbers of invasive species and climate change.

In the Americas, the studies found that species richness is about thirty percent less than it was when Europeans first arrived on the continent, and the rate of biodiversity loss in that region seems to be speeding up. They report that under “business as usual” circumstances, 40 percent of the region’s biodiversity will be lost by 2050. While land use and population growth plays a larger role in other regions of the world, climate change is the primary driver behind species loss in the Americas. Given that the natural world provides an estimated $24 trillion per year in ecosystem services to humans in the Americas alone, biodiversity loss is not a concern reserved only for environmentalists.

Protection of key biodiversity areas in the Americas increased by 17 percent between 1970 and 2010. However, the authors point out that these efforts fall short as less than 20 percent of crucial biodiversity areas in the Americas are currently protected.

Sir Robert Watson is the chair of IPBES, he said,

“Biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people sound, to many people, academic and far removed from our daily lives. Nothing could be further from the truth – they are the bedrock of our food, clean water and energy. They are at the heart not only of our survival, but of our cultures, identities and enjoyment of life. The best available evidence, gathered by the world’s leading experts, points us now to a single conclusion: we must act to halt and reverse the unsustainable use of nature – or risk not only the future we want, but even the lives we currently lead. Fortunately, the evidence also shows that we know how to protect and partially restore our vital natural assets.”

To read more about the types of biodiversity loss in other areas of the world, click here.

Alliant energy offers trees at significant discounts to costumers


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Maple trees make up one-third of all trees in Iowa, making them more susceptible to disease and pest problems. (Dee McIntyre/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | October 4, 2017

Alliant Energy’s Operation ReLeaf tree distribution program will continue this week and into October. During this time, the company provides landscape-quality trees to their customers at a significant discount. Thoughtful placement of trees can cut energy costs for homeowners by providing shade in the warmer months and wind blocks during colder months.

Customers can buys trees that typically retail for $65 to $125 for just $25 each. Residential tree distributions will be held in Buena Vista, Fayette, Lee, Linn, Lucas and Story counties this October.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources provides several resources for homeowners looking to select the appropriate tree for their yards. In one of the DNR’s publications, “Rethinking Maple: Selecting Trees For Your Yard,” officials point out that maple trees make up more than one-third of all trees in Iowa, which increases their risk for disease and pest problems. The pamphlet encourages homeowners to consider other tree species based on desired qualities such like vibrant fall color, storm resistant, salt tolerant and others.

Trees will be distributed on a first-come, first-serve basis at the following locations on the following dates:

Buena Vista County – Storm Lake

Partner: City of Storm Lake

Location: Kings Point Park

Date: Oct. 4, 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Lee County – Montrose

Partner: Lee County Conservation

Location: Lee County Conservation Center

Date: Oct. 5, 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.

Tree planting and care workshop: 5:45 p.m.

Linn County – Marion

Partner:  Linn County Conservation Board

Location:  Squaw Creek Park

Date: Oct. 7, 7:30 a.m. to 9 a.m.

Tree planting and care workshop:  8:15 a.m.

Story County – Ames

Partner: Story County Conservation

Location: East Petersen Park

Date: Oct. 19, 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Tree planting and care workshop: 5:15 p.m.

ISU Horticulture Research Station celebrates anniversary


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ISU’s Horticulture Research Station provides opportunities for hands-on research for students and faculty. (Iowa State University)
Jenna Ladd| September 22, 2017

Iowa State University’s Horticulture Research Station celebrated its 50th anniversary this week.

The anniversary was marked with a farmer’s market, farm tours, children’s games and a produce washing demonstration on Saturday.

The 235 acre station is home to 80 to 90 research projects each year. Scientists from horticulture, forestry, botany, ecology, plant pathology, entomology and natural resources use the space to study everything from vegetables to honeybees to wasps to swallows. The land bears apples, pumpkins, watermelon, hops, grapes and more.

Ben Pease is a Horticulture Research Associate at Iowa State. He said, “We are able to sell most of what we grow. If it’s part of a research project once it’s done we can sell it or we’re growing stuff to use the land we’re able to sell it,” to Iowa State Daily. Pease added that the station has made over a million dollars selling produce since 2006. Much of the food is sold to ISU’s dining halls, which buys about 5 tons of green peppers each year.

The land, which features a 15 acre lake as well, is located just three miles north of Ames on highway 69.

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.

EVENT: UI Biomass Fuel Project meeting on plant invasive risk


S_barney-jacob    Dr. Jacob Barney from Virginia Tech University will be at the University Capital Centre to talk about the management of risk related to plants in general, and specifically speak to the planned use of dedicated energy crops to support the biomass fuel project. The meeting is open to the public and free.

2:00 pm at the University Capital Centre (Old Capital Mall), room 2525D, Iowa City.