Hy-Vee supermarkets take on U.S. food waste problem


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Hy-Vee stores have announced a program offering “ugly” produce in order to combat food waste in the United States. (Sarah R/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | February 9, 2017

Iowa’s Hy-Vee supermarket chain announced a new initiative to reduce food waste last month.

The employee-owned corporation began offering “ugly” produce in nearly all of its 242 stores in mid-January. “Ugly” produce are those vegetables and fruits that typically are not sold at market due to industry size and shape preferences. Hy-Vee partnered with Robinson Fresh to offer its original line of Misfits® produce. Depending on what is available seasonally, four to six Misfits® produce items are delivered to Hy-Vee stores where shoppers can purchase them at a discounted price. The program’s produce offerings include peppers, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes and apples, among other fruits and vegetables. On average, consumers can expect to pay 30 percent less for the “ugly” items.

John Griesenbrock is Hy-Vee’s vice president of produce/HealthMarkets. He said, “As a company with several focused environmental efforts, we feel it’s our responsibility to help educate consumers and dispel any misperceptions about produce that is not cosmetically perfect.”

The company’s press release notes that a movement to reduce food waste through the purchase of less-than-perfect produce has spread across Europe and is picking up steam in the U.S. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that 30 to 40 percent of the U.S. food supply goes to waste. Food waste makes up the vast majority of waste found in municipal land fills and quickly generates methane, which is a greenhouse gas that is 84 times more potent than CO2 during its first two decades in the atmosphere.

Hy-Vee’s Misfit® program supports the USDA and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency effort to achieve a 50 percent food waste reduction nationwide by 2030.

“We understand that there is product left in the field because farmers don’t think there’s a market for it,” said Robinson Fresh general manager Hunter Winton. He added, “With the Misfits program, farmers have an outlet to sell more produce and customers have an opportunity to save money and help reduce waste.”

As global temperatures rise, future of agriculture uncertain


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Soybean yields could decrease by as much as 40 percent due to rising temperatures. (United Soybean Board/flickr)

 Jenna Ladd | January 20, 2017

Without further action to curb greenhouse gas emissions, global temperatures are expected to rise as much as 6.1 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial averages, which may meaningfully impact agricultural outputs.

According to a recent study by the the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and the University of Chicago, rising temperatures could significantly reduce U.S. grain harvests. Using a set of computer simulations, the researchers found that yield reduction could reach 40 percent for soybeans and almost 50 percent for corn by the end of the century if carbon emissions are not cut drastically. Wheat would fare slightly better, with its yields decreasing by an estimated 20 percent.

The researchers said, “The effects go far beyond the U.S., one of the largest crop exporters. World market crop prices might increase, which is an issue for food security in poor countries.”

A report by the European Union’s Joint Research Centre came to a different conclusion. They found that wheat may actually benefit from higher concentrations of carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere, while corn yields would decrease.

Although the global temperature has reached record highs for three consecutive years, U.S. corn and soybean yields were seemingly unaffected. Thanks in part to genetically modified seed, which can have adverse environmental impacts, corn and soybean output was higher than ever in 2016.

However, the extreme drought of 2012 serves as a reminder that agricultural productivity is vulnerable to a changing climate. That year, U.S. corn harvests decreased considerably and caused global corn prices to skyrocket.

Conservation Reserve Program amended to support new farmers


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Buffer zones curb soil erosion and help to filter nutrients before they enter waterways. (USDA National Agroforestry Center/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | December 30, 2016

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has modified a national conservation program in order to support beginning farmers.

Since 1985, the Conservation Reserve Program has paid farmers a yearly rent for removing environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production. Most contracts last 10-15 years. Previously, if farmers broke the contract early, they were required to return all the rental payments with interest. With the policy change, farmers may now end their contracts early without penalty if they sell or lease the land to a beginning farmer.

Agriculture Deputy Under Secretary Lanon Baccam announced the policy change, which will take effect January 9th, at the Joe Dunn farm near Carlisle in central Iowa. Dunn’s son-in-law, Aaron White, is a beginning farmer on a small acreage near Carlisle.

White said, “I think the biggest obstacle beginning farmers face is land access. This program would help alleviate some of those problems.” Lanon Baccam agreed, he said giving the next generation of farmers a chance at success makes perfect sense.

Signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1985, the Conservation Reserve Program is the largest private-land conservation effort in the country. It is unclear how the program’s stated goal of improving water quality, reducing soil erosion and protecting habitat for endangered species will be effected by putting environmentally sensitive land back into production for beginning famers.

More information about the Conservation Reserve Program in Iowa can be found here.

Northey requests additional funds to prepare for potential Avian flu outbreak


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The 2015 Iowa bird flu outbreak resulted in the death of 30 million hens. (Open Gate Farm/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | December 6, 2016

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey requested an additional $500,000 in funding last week for the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship’s Animal Industry Bureau.

The money would be used to prepare for and respond to a potential High Path Avian Influenza Disease outbreak. Northey’s request follows Iowa’s Avian Influenza outbreak last year, which resulted in the death of 30 million hens and 1.5 million turkeys. Northey said,

“I recognize we are in a very tight budget time in the state, due in large part to the challenging economic environment in Iowa’s ag industry.  However, it is important we continue to invest in priority areas that put the state in a good position for continued growth.”

Following the 2015 outbreak, Iowa’s economy took an estimated $1.2 billion hit and 8,400 people lost their jobs. Northey said that the funds would be used to help farmers increase biosecurity efforts against the disease, which can include vaccines and disinfecting shoes, hands, tires, and anything else that may come in contact with a poultry flock.

“The value of Iowa’s animal industry is $13.45 billion, and growing. Unfortunately, the High Path Avian Influenza outbreak last year showed how devastating a foreign animal disease can be in our state.  These funds would allow the Department to better prepare for a future animal disease emergency response,” Northey said.

In his statement, the secretary also emphasized his support for a proposal passed by the Iowa House of Representatives which would provide nearly $500 million through 2029 for water quality improvement.

On The Radio – 2016 Iowa Climate Statement


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Jake Slobe | October 10, 2016

This week’s on the radio discusses the sixth annual Iowa Climate Statement. The full statement can be found here.

Transcript: The sixth annual Iowa Climate Statement was released on October fifth.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The document, titled Iowa Climate Statement 2016: The Multiple Benefits of Climate-Smart Agriculture, was signed by 180 science researchers and faculty from thirty-eight Iowa colleges and universities. This year’s statement centers around Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s U.S. Department of Agriculture Initiative “Building Blocks for Climate-Smart Agriculture.” Vilsack’s initiative aims to expand nation-wide voluntary, incentive-based programs for farmers to combat human-induced climate change.

The climate statement champions proven conservation techniques such as planting perennial plants on marginal cropland and reduced-till or no till farming that would decrease nation-wide net emissions and increase carbon storage in soil. Statement authors note that the document is part of a larger effort, strengthened by the December 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, to offset human-caused climate change.

For more information about the 2016 Iowa Climate Statement or to read the full document, visit iowaenvironmentalfocus.org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

Iowa scientists urge action on Climate-Smart Agriculture


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 Jake Slobe | October 5, 2016

Iowa researchers and educators at nearly every college and university in the state have produced annual statements describing the real impacts Iowans are experiencing from climate change.

Released today, the sixth annual statement titled, “Iowa Climate Statement 2016: The Multiple Benefits of Climate-Smart Agriculture,” was signed by 187 science faculty and researchers from 39 Iowa colleges and universities. Listen to the statement here:

This year’s climate statement comes shortly after a month of heavy rain and flooding throughout Iowa.

Director of  Environmental Science and Policy Program at Drake University David Courard-Hauri has been involved with the Iowa Climate Statement since its inception in 2011. He says,

“Iowa’s recent extreme rainfall events and flooding reminds us that climate change is real and needs to be addressed on both the farm and in our communities.” 

This year’s statement illustrates the need and benefits of more widespread adoption of proven soil conservation practices. Specifically, it discusses U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Tom Vilsack’s initiative, Building Blocks for Climate-Smart Agriculture. The USDA plans to implement climate-smart agriculture primarily by increasing incentive-based programs allowing farmers to confront these challenges head on.

Co-director of the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research Jerry Schnoor said that Iowan farmers are beginning to experiencing real impacts from climate change in the forms heavier rains, increased flooding and soil erosion.

“We believe Iowa should play a leadership role in this vital effort, just as our state has already done for wind energy.  We urge our representatives to help Iowa’s innovative farmers and land managers establish a multi-faceted vision for land stewardship by vigorously implementing federal, state, and other conservation programs.” 

More information about this year’s climate statement as well as all previous Iowa climate statements can be found here.

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.