Stories tagged Institute on the Environment

Apr
15
2011

What’s in a super hero?
Superhero schmuperhero
Superhero schmuperheroCourtesy karla_k

Growing up, my dad had the classic Marvel comic heroes like Spiderman and Captain America whereas my brother and I watched and played Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers. These days I ask a little more from my heroes. I want them to increase energy efficiency, vanquish upper respiratory diseases like asthma, stop world hunger, and -- Wait! What?? Who’s this?! Gaba-gaba and Plumpy’nut to the rescue! -- Strangely named heroes they may be, but these are among the super foods fighting global malnutrition.

Food insecurity and hunger is a big deal. It affects about 200,000 households in Minnesota, about 13 million households in the United States, and 925 million people (more than the population of the U.S., Canada, and European Union combined!) worldwide. You are more likely to be among these effected populations if you live in a developing country, are female, and/or are a child. With a global population racing towards 9 billion (that’s 9,000,000,000) people, worldwide food insecurity and hunger is increasing rather than decreasing. As we say here in Minnesoooota, “Uff-da! Dat’s a big problem dere.”

Gaba-gaba and Plumpy’nut are being deployed around the world to fill bellies.
(Like) Gaba-gaba: These are probably your everyday, run-of-the mill sweet potatoes.  Super food sweet potatoes usually wear capes.
(Like) Gaba-gaba: These are probably your everyday, run-of-the mill sweet potatoes. Super food sweet potatoes usually wear capes.Courtesy Wally Hartshorn

Essentially, gaba-gaba is a naturally bred (read: not genetically engineered) variety of sweet potato containing an insane amount of essential vitamins and minerals like vitamins A, C, and E, calcium, iron, and folic acid (needed for healthy red blood cells). These nutrients build immunity, improve digestion, strengthen the heart, hydrate the body, improve eyes, and provide energy. But wait! There’s more!! Not only does it do all that, but gaba-gaba is fast growing as well as drought and disease resistant making it ideal for tough climates in places like Mozambique, Africa. Mega-extra bonus: I’ve heard gaba-gaba can be eaten raw or cooked and can even be squeezed for juice or ground into flour! Talk about a versatile veggie.

According to the International Potato Center -- Pause. Did you even know there is an International Potato Center? It’s totally legit. Bono went there with some of his U2 band members! Play. -- As I was saying, the IPC reports that Bono has eaten gaba-gaba to get in shape. “Gabba Gabba Hey!” is also a lyric to “Pinhead” by the Ramones. Clearly, this means that gaba-gaba is pop star endorsed. Coolness.

Meanwhile, Plumpy’nut is a “ready-to-use therapeutic food,” which, to my notion, looks like the kind of food astronauts eat in outer space. Also cool, right?

I imagine the Plumpy’nut recipe card to read something like, “ Step 1: Gather your peanuts, sugar, vegetable fat, milk powder, vitamins, and minerals. Step 2: Pulverize into a smooth paste. Step 3: Enjoy!” Ridiculously simple for a paste that can provide 500,000 calories per 92 gram (about 3.25 ounces) serving, and can be used at home, making it possible to treat severe acute malnutrition without hospitalization. Nutriset, the makers of Plumpy’nut, thought of everything! They even made sure the nutritious paste can last up to two years without refrigeration. Neat, huh?

It’s pretty amazing what science and technology can do to make the world a better place to live. We’ve written about food security, rising global population, and hunger before on the Buzz. I wrote this post a little over a year ago on the subject. It highlights the role of the Institute on the Environment’s Global Landscapes Initiative’s efforts to stretch our agriculture resources and feed a growing population.

I’ll be keeping my eyes out for more super foods and modern day heroes. If you know of any, share them in the comment box below!

Mar
03
2011

Just a few of your billions of hungry friends
Just a few of your billions of hungry friendsCourtesy SchuminWeb
Buckle up, because this is a long post. But it’s about your second favorite thing: food. If you’re the impatient type, skip to the end for the bullet points.

(The number one thing is Hollywood gossip, duh. Go on and act like it’s not.)

So … imagine you and six of your friends standing in a room together. I know some of you don’t have six friends (Facebook doesn’t count), but for the sake of science pretend that you do. And I don’t know why you all are just standing around in a room. Trying to prove a point, I guess.

Imagine you and six of your friends are standing in a room together. Now, imagine one hundred times that number of people. Now imagine one hundred times that number. And one hundred times that number. And a thousand times that number.

That’s seven billion people, all just sort of standing around a room, and that’s about the number of people we have on the planet today.

And the thing is, all seven billion of y’all eat like Garfield. (Garfield, for all of you foreign Buzzketeers, was the 20th president of the United States, and he loved lasagna.) Seven billion people, eating, eating, eating. That’s you.

Obviously y’all have to eat, so we put a lot of effort into producing food. Right now, humans have used up about 40% of the planet’s land surface, and the vast majority of that is dedicated to agriculture (i.e., food production). In fact, if you were to take all the crop-growing land in the world and lump it together, it would be the size of South America. And if you were to take all of the pastureland (land for raising animals) in the world and lump it together, it would be the size Africa!
The land we use: Green areas are used for growing crops, brown areas are used for raising animals.
The land we use: Green areas are used for growing crops, brown areas are used for raising animals.Courtesy IonE

That is obviously a lot of land. The transformation of that land from its natural state into agricultural land may be responsible for about a third of all the carbon dioxide mankind has released into the atmosphere. And each year agriculture is responsible for more than 20% of all the new greenhouse gas emissions. And the whole process takes 3,500 cubic kilometers of water, and hundreds of millions of tons of non-renewable fertilizers, and lots of people don’t have enough food …

But we’re pretty much doing it. It’s not pretty, but we’re feeding the planet.

Here’s the punch: there’s a lot more people coming soon, and not much more food. By 2050, there will very probably be about 9 billion people on the planet. How are we going to feed 2 billion more people than are alive today? While there is a lot unused land out there, very little of it is arable. That means that we’ve already used up almost all of the land that’s good for growing food.

Oh, shoot.

What we need to do is produce more food with just the land we’re already using. Fortunately, scientists are working on ways to do this.

I’m going to get the first one out of the way right now, because you aren’t going to like it …

Eat less meat. Eat a lot less meat.
A handy meat conversion chart!: Keep one in your wallet, or tattooed on your forearm.
A handy meat conversion chart!: Keep one in your wallet, or tattooed on your forearm.Courtesy IonE

Don’t get me wrong—I agree with you that meat is delicious and manly (or womanly), but we eat a lot of meat, and raising meat animals is a really inefficient way to get food. To get lots of meat, and to get the animals to grow quickly, we feed them grains that we farm. But to get just one pound of beef (not one pound of cow; one pound of beef) we have to feed a cow about 30 pounds of grain. Say what you will about meat being calorically more dense, it doesn’t have 30 times the nutritional value of grain.
How much of what we grow gets eaten?: Crops grown in the blue areas are mostly eaten by people. But in the yellow and red areas, the crops are mostly used as animal feed. Say what?
How much of what we grow gets eaten?: Crops grown in the blue areas are mostly eaten by people. But in the yellow and red areas, the crops are mostly used as animal feed. Say what?Courtesy IonE

If you look at the maps that compare the volume of crops we grow to the volume of crops we actually eat, you find that places like North America and Europe actually use most of their crops for something besides directly eating—mostly because we’re feeding them to animals (and using them for biofuel feedstock).

Leaving alone the amount of water animals need, and the pollution they can cause, eating meat doesn’t make a lot of sense.

So there you go. I told you that you wouldn’t like it. If it makes you feel any better, you’re not the only one causing the problem—the rest of the world, as it gets wealthier, wants to eat as much meat as you, and so unsustainable meat production is on the rise for just about anyone who can afford it.

Ok, here’s the next idea:

Cut it all down, and turn the planet into one big ol’ farm.
You can barely hear the chainsaws: ...over the sound of the baby animals crying. Seriously, though, as awesome as that would be, it's probably an awful idea.
You can barely hear the chainsaws: ...over the sound of the baby animals crying. Seriously, though, as awesome as that would be, it's probably an awful idea.Courtesy Jami Dwyer

We aren’t going to be growing crops in the arctic any time soon, but there are areas we could take advantage of still. Like the tropical forests. We could bulldoze those suckers down, and use the land for crops.

This, of course, is a horrible solution, and I snuck it in here just to bother you. Even if you don’t prioritize the biodiversity of the world’s tropical forests, or the ways of life of the people who live in them, tropical forests play a huge role in keeping the planet a livable place. So we should table that one for a while, unless you really, really want to bulldoze the rainforests.

And then there’s this idea:

Grow more food on the land we’re already using.

Of course! Why didn’t we think of this before?!

Well, we did think of this before, about 60 years ago. Back in the middle of the 20th century, populations in developing countries were exploding, much faster than food production was increasing. Trouble was on the horizon.

And then … Norman Borlaug came along. Of course, lots and lots of people helped deal with the food crisis, but Borlaug was at the center of what became known as the Green Revolution. He worked to build up irrigation infrastructure (to water crops), distribute synthetic fertilizers (mostly nitrogen chemically extracted from the atmosphere), and develop high-yield crop varieties that would produce much more food than traditional crops, when given enough fertilizer and water.
The man they call Borlaug: On the left. The other guy is just some hanger-on, I guess.
The man they call Borlaug: On the left. The other guy is just some hanger-on, I guess.Courtesy University of Minnesota

Now, some folks point out that the Green Revolution had plenty of environmental and social drawbacks, but the fact remains that it also kept millions upon millions of people from starving. And Borlaug himself said that while it was “a change in the right direction, it has not transformed the world into a Utopia.”

The change in the right direction part is what scientists are working on now.

Researchers at organizations like the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment (IonE) are figuring out implement the sorts of things Borlaug worked on more fully, and more efficiently.

By combining satellite data with what can be observed on the ground, IonE is determining exactly where crops are growing, how much each place is growing.
This is how much corn we grow right now
This is how much corn we grow right nowCourtesy IonE
This is how much corn we could grow: If we grew corn everywhere.
This is how much corn we could grow: If we grew corn everywhere.Courtesy IonE
This is how much more corn we could grow: If we focus on the areas where we already grow corn. The green areas are growing almost as much as possible, but the yellow areas could grow a lot more. Eastern Europe, West Africa, and Central America could grow a lot more food with the right resources.
This is how much more corn we could grow: If we focus on the areas where we already grow corn. The green areas are growing almost as much as possible, but the yellow areas could grow a lot more. Eastern Europe, West Africa, and Central America could grow a lot more food with the right resources.Courtesy IonE

They can then compare this information with estimates of how much each place could grow, given the right conditions. The difference is called a “yield gap.” What it will take to close the yield gap, and get area place growing as much as possible, differs from place to place. But IonE is trying to figure that out too—some places need more water, and some need more nitrogen, phosphorus, or potassium fertilizers.

Knowing how much of a particular resource a place needs, and what the food payoff will be when it receives those resources is a big step in working up to feeding nine billion people. It’s not the last step, not by a long shot, but it provides an excellent map of where future efforts would be best invested.

Aaaaannnnd … the bullet point version for you osos perezosos out there:

  • In a few decades, there will be about 9 billion people on the planet.
  • There’s not enough food for 9 billion people.
  • There’s not really enough land available to grow enough food for 9 billion people.
  • We can get more food out of the land we’re already using.
  • Scientists are trying to figure out which areas have the potential to grow more food, and what it will take to get them to do it.
  • Doing this will be difficult, but probably not impossible.
Feb
15
2011

May I have your attention, please?

(…Will the real Slim Shady please stand up?)

Very funny. But seriously, I’ve got breaking news!

The Institute on the Environment’s Dialogue Earth program is bursting into the online community. With their first press release, Twitter account, Facebook page, YouTube channel, and blog, they’re drawing attention, and new supporters, every day. They've even been featured on The Line, SUNfiltered, The Daily Crowdsource, and Crowdsourcing.org.

Big things, folks. I’m telling ya: big things.

(Um, excuse me, KelsiDayle, but what is Dialogue Earth?)

Oh, gosh. I’m always getting ahead of myself. I’ll allow Dialogue Earth to explain for themselves:

“The Dialogue Earth™ team is working to increase public understanding on timely issues related to the environment by delivering engaging, trustworthy multimedia content to large, diverse audiences.”

Consider these three main ways people gather information about the environment:

  1. Personal experiences,
  2. Conversations with other people, and
  3. Media coverage.

Dialogue Earth is developing ways to monitor the ‘chatter’ from each information source.

For example, weather and gas price data sets allow Dialogue Earth to monitor these environmentally-relevant personal experiences.

Twitter provides the Dialogue Earth team with an intriguing sample of peoples’ conversations that have some connection to the environment. Dialogue Earth has developed a method of analyzing Tweets for sentiment through crowdsourcing.

Emerging or social medias, like blogs, are changing our understanding of what’s news, but there are still ways to understand the content, frames, sentiment, and assertions of stories. Dialogue Earth is working on developing a responsive and scalable method for so doing.

Eventually, Dialogue Earth hopes to help people process through the hot topics of the day, but for now Dialogue Earth is focusing on understanding what the big issues are and how people are communicating about them. Knowing these things first should help Dialogue Earth develop additional effective communication tools in the coming months. In fact, Dialogue Earth has already conducted their first experiment in crowdsourcing creative content via Tongal. Check out the winning science video on the topic of ocean acidification below:

Pretty great stuff, huh?

Jan
18
2011

If you're a total Buzz nerd like JGordon, you may have noticed a number of posts with the tag "Future Earth" over the last couple of years. They started when the folks here at the Science Museum of Minnesota began researching a new permanent exhibit called Future Earth, opening Fall 2011 at SMM. This exhibit will ask, "How do we survive and thrive on a human-dominated planet?"

EarthBuzz: This new branch of the Buzz focuses on Future Earth topics.
EarthBuzz: This new branch of the Buzz focuses on Future Earth topics.Courtesy SMM

This is a different question than we're used to asking, but it's a vital one. Understanding the answer means studying more than just global warming, rising sea levels, and population growth--we also have to think about energy production, agriculture, retreating glaciers, transportation, hunger, poverty, development, and the list goes on. It turns out that because all of these issues are interrelated, we can't study or address any one of them in total isolation.

This new way of understanding is what inspired the Future Earth exhibit. Future Earth will look at environmental issues with a fresh perspective, explore the ways we study and understand our impacts on the environment, and shed light on projects that offer innovative solutions to complex problems, such as this one we hope to implement at Science Museum of Minnesota. The goal is to foster understanding, hope, and action.

Future Earth is part of a larger effort taking place at SMM, the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment, and a team of other institutions called the Future Earth Initiative. Funded by the National Science Foundation, FEI aims to raise awareness and offer workable solutions for life in a human-dominated environment. Given adequate time and resources, these solutions could help reduce our negative impacts on the environment while providing us all with the energy we need to live. Think of it as saving two birds with one…thing that you save birds with…

Jan
12
2011

You know what I think makes humans unique? Our ability to solve problems. Ingenuity. Our can-do attitude. Throughout history, if we found a problem, we sought a solution. Too cold at night? Fire. Killing a mammoth with your hands too deadly? A team of spearman. Flash forward thousands of years and our problems became more sophisticated. Horse and buggy too slow? Automobiles. Candlelight not bright enough? Light bulbs. Washing laundry and dishes too tedious? Washing machines and dishwashers. Typewriters cramping your style? Computers. Computers cramping your style? Android phones. (Have you caught my drift? Good.) Now, some of our solutions are becoming new problems. Cars and electricity emit pollutants and greenhouse gases. Washing machines and dishwashers are using too much water. Computers and cell phones require the mining and eventual disposal of toxic metals. Once again, it’s time for some good ol’ human problem solving.

A Literal Eco-Footprint: Somehow, I don't think this is exactly what Sarah Hobbes and team had in mind.
A Literal Eco-Footprint: Somehow, I don't think this is exactly what Sarah Hobbes and team had in mind.Courtesy urje's photostream (Flickr)

Sarah Hobbes and her collaborators identified a problem: we aren’t doing enough to reduce our household ecologic footprints, especially regarding carbon. Now, they’re working on a solution by researching what influences families to change their living habits and minimize their footprint. This past Sunday’s edition of the Star Tribune covered Sarah’s research story (the Buzz’s own Liza was even quoted!). Sarah Hobbes is an ecologist at the University of Minnesota and a resident fellow at the Institute on the Environment. Her research project doesn’t take place in a lab, but rather in peoples’ home – including the St. Paul house Sarah shares with her husband (also a University of Minnesota ecologist) and two children. The research team uses a 23-page survey to understand what kind of ecological footprint Ramsey and Anoka county homes are leaving. (Btw, kudos to those of you who already completed the lengthy survey! Science really appreciates people like you.)

Some of the initial results aren’t surprising: While most of us really do care about the environment,

“For most families, cost and convenience are more important than concern about the environment. People in the suburbs tend to use more fertilizer than those in the urban core. People with bigger houses and bigger families had a bigger carbon footprint, as did people who drove farther to work.” (Star Tribune article)

But what’s most interesting is that competition really gets us going. That is, respondents were motivated to reduce their ecological footprint after they compared their own rank to their neighbors’. Larry Baker, a project collaborator, stated,

“We expect that attitudes will drive 10 or 20 percent of the carbon emissions… If we could reduce energy use by 20 percent, that would be a huge benefit.” (Start Tribune article)

No kidding! That would be fantastic!! The full survey report hasn’t been published yet, but I’m sure looking forward to the recommended solution.

Want to know your ecological footprint? Try out this online Ecological Footprint Quiz.

Dec
01
2010

The University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment has made some great movies examining what they call "big questions."

Big question: Feast or famine?
IonE's first Big Question asks: How do we feed a growing world without destroying the planet?

Big question: Is Earth past the tipping point?
Have we pushed our planet past the tipping point? That's a critical issue the IonE explores in our second Big Question video.

Big question: What is nature worth?
Plants, animals, even entire ecosystems are disappearing. So what? "What is Nature Worth" offers a three-minute look at what we’re REALLY losing – and what we can do about it.

Interesting problems, right? If you're intrigued, and want to know more about the folks posing the questions and trying to find the solutions, jump over to Future Earth.

Oct
07
2010

What if I told you University of Minnesota geology and geophysics professor, Martin Saar, says geothermal energy can be made even greener through carbon sequestration?!

You’d probably say, “Huh?? Hold on, what is geothermal energy anyway, and how does it work?”

Geothermal is heat from deep inside the earth. Because heat is a form of energy, it can be captured and used to heat buildings or make electricity. There are three basic ways geothermal power plants work:

  1. Dry steam plants: Uses high-pressured hot steam to turn generator turbines. Think “steam to turbines.”
  2. Flash steam plants: Uses high-pressure hot water to create steam to turn generator turbines. Think “water to steam to turbines.”
  3. Binary cycle power plants: Uses high-pressure hot water to heat another liquid, which then turns to steam and turns the generator turbines. Think “water to other liquid to steam to turbines.”

(Click here for great diagrams of each of these geothermal energy production methods.)

“And what about carbon sequestration too? What’s that and how does it work?”
Carbon Sequestration: This nifty diagram illustrates both terrestrial and geologic carbon sequestration pathways.  Bonus!
Carbon Sequestration: This nifty diagram illustrates both terrestrial and geologic carbon sequestration pathways. Bonus!Courtesy Department of Energy

Carbon sequestration includes carbon (usually in the form of carbon dioxide, CO2) capture, separation, transportation, and storage or reuse. Plants, which “breathe” CO2, naturally sequester carbon, but people have found ways to do it artificially too. When fossil fuels are burned to power your car or heat your home, they emit CO2, a greenhouse gas partially responsible for global climate change. It is possible to capture those emissions, separate the bad CO2, and transport it somewhere for storage or beneficial reuse. CO2 can be stored in under the Earth’s surface or, according to Martin Saar’s research, used in geothermal energy production.

Alright. We’re back to Professor Saar’s research. Ready to know just how he plans to sequester carbon in geothermal energy production?

It’s a simple idea, really, now that you know about geothermal energy and carbon sequestration. Prof. Saar says geothermal energy can be made even greener by replacing water with CO2 as the medium carrying heat from deep within the earth to the surface for electricity generation. In this way, waste CO2 can be sequestered and put to beneficial use! As a bonus, CO2 is even more efficient than water at transferring heat.

But don’t take my word for it. Come hear Professor Martin Saar’s lecture, CO2 – Use It Or Lose It!, yourself during the Institute on the Environment’s Frontiers on the Environment lecture series, Wednesday, October 27, 2010 from noon-1pm.

Frontiers in the Environment is free and open to the public with no registration required! The lectures are held in the Institute on the Environment’s Seminar Room (Rm. 380) of the Vocational-Technical Education Building on the St. Paul campus (map).

(I had thought some of you might be too young to appreciate a reference to the greatest simulation computer game of all time, but apparently they've made updated versions as recently as 2001. This is good news for America's children.)

Pioneering: Avoiding flash floods and disease was a problem for America's earliest pioneers, similar to how renewable energy and land use are posing challenges for the U.S. today.
Pioneering: Avoiding flash floods and disease was a problem for America's earliest pioneers, similar to how renewable energy and land use are posing challenges for the U.S. today.Courtesy David

Anyway, real reality is always more exciting than virtual reality, and have I got something really exciting for you!! More chances to meet scientists and field experts right here in Minnesota's capitol city.

The Institute on the Environment's (IonE) annual lecture series, Frontiers in the Environment, begins this week!

Frontiers "...explores the frontiers of knowledge in climate change, renewable energy, land use, food security and many other environmental hot topics. Our speakers provide the audience with a true understanding of the issue, its global significance and breakthroughs on the horizon."

Weekly on Wednesdays, noon-1pm
IonE's Seminar Room (#380), VoTech building on the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus
Events are free and open to the public.
Lectures also air live on the Web.

The 2010 season will begin tomorrow, Wednesday, September 22nd, with "Biochemical Bloodhounds: Using Enzymes to Detect Toxins" by Professor Larry Wackett. Check out the Frontiers webpage for the rest of the year's schedule and more details.

It's not every day that I agree with the NYTimes' John Tierney. But today, I do. He offers up seven rules for a new breed of environmentalist: the "Turq."

"No, that’s not a misspelling. The word is derived from Turquoise, which is Stewart Brand’s term for a new breed of environmentalist combining traditional green with a shade of blue, as in blue-sky open-minded thinking. A Turq, he hopes, will be an environmentalist guided by science, not nostalgia or technophobia."

Check out the rules. Are you a Turq? Does any of Tierney's advice surprise you?

Earth Day
Earth DayCourtesy Cornelia Kopp

Jon Foley, of the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment, has similar advice. "There are no silver bullets," he says. "But there is silver buckshot."

Human activities, rather than nature, are now the driving force of change on the planet. And experts say that there will be nine billion of us on the planet by 2050. Making sure that we all have the chance to survive and thrive will require a lot of innovation, and a lot of blue-sky thinking. Who's up for the challenge?