How can we break the cycle of bigger farms and fewer farmers?

Read the full post in Grist.

This article is part of a mini-series on the plight of the mid-sized farm. Read part 1 on the difficulties of organic farming and part 2 on the contrasts between foodies and farmers. 

The calculus that drives farmers off the land, and drives the documentary Dryland, is simple and inexorable. Historian Keith Williams lays it out halfway through the movie: Think of the farmer cutting wheat by hand, then zoom forward in history, past the farmers harvesting with teams of horses, past the first tractors, past the first combines (so called because they combined the reaping, threshing, and winnowing in one machine), to the air-conditioned, satellite-guided modern combine. “Well, that same change has really altered the farm size, which means the farm can grow,” Williams says. “More capitalization, they can get more equipment. All of this translates into more acreage per farm. But that also means fewer farmers.”

More efficiency, more land, fewer farmers. It’s also the calculus that has given us cheap food. Cheap food relies on ridiculously cheap grain. One farmer in the film notes that he bought a loaf of whole wheat bread for the same price that he sold an entire bushel of wheat.

Dryland, directed by Sue Arbothnot and Richard Wilhelm, is a wistful documentary — lots of long shots on beautiful empty fields, empty storefronts, empty streets, rusting equipment — and rightfully so. The way of life it captures is contracting, ratcheting in on itself, leaving small towns that are unable to support businesses, and schools without students.

References and Resources for Just-in-Time Teaching

From The Scout Report, Copyright Internet Scout 1994-2014.

The scholars at the Science Education Resource Center (SERC) at Carleton College have created this set of Just-in-Time Teaching (JiTT) resources designed for the busy educator. Visitors can learn how to use these resources in a range of different disciplines, including biology, chemistry, economics, and the history of photography. Additionally, there is a list of general resources, such as newsletters and articles, that discuss how to implement these practices into the classroom. In the Complementary Pedagogies area visitors can look over helpful “how-tos” in peer instruction, reading question development, and more. Finally, visitors can also sign up to learn when new resources are added to the site. [KMG]

EPA Releases Final Risk Assessment on TCE

Read the full story in Environmental Leader.

The EPA has released a final risk assessment for trichloroethylene (TCE), a chemical the agency says may harm human health and the environment.

The final risk assessment identifies health risks from TCE exposures to workers when TCE is used as a degreaser in small commercial shops and as a stain removing agent in dry cleaning. It also identifies health risks to consumers using spray aerosol degreasers and spray fixatives.

TCE is carcinogenic to humans and can harm the central nervous system, kidneys, the liver, the male reproductive system, the immune system, and can cause abnormalities in developing fetuses, according to the EPA’s human health assessment.

The genesis of climate change activism: from key beliefs to political action

Download the open access publication.

Climate change activism has been uncommon in the U.S., but a growing national movement is pressing for a political response. To assess the cognitive and affective precursors of climate activism, we hypothesize and test a two-stage information-processing model based on social cognitive theory. In stage 1, expectations about climate change outcomes and perceived collective efficacy to mitigate the threat are hypothesized to influence affective issue involvement and support for societal mitigation action. In stage 2, beliefs about the effectiveness of political activism, perceived barriers to activist behaviors and opinion leadership are hypothesized to influence intended and actual activism. To test these hypotheses, we fit a structural equation model using nationally representative data. The model explains 52 percent of the variance in a latent variable representing three forms of climate change activism: contacting elected representatives; supporting organizations working on the issue; and attending climate change rallies or meetings. The results suggest that efforts to increase citizen activism should promote specific beliefs about climate change, build perceptions that political activism can be effective, and encourage interpersonal communication on the issue.

Engineers turn LEGOs into a scientific tool to study plant growth

Read the full story in R&D Magazine.

Ludovico Cademartiri had what seemed like an impossibly demanding list of requirements for his lab equipment.

The Iowa State University assistant professor of materials science and engineering wants to understand environmental effects on plant growth, specifically how variations in climate and soil characteristics affect root growth. That requires highly controlled environments that expose whole plants to environmental effects such as nutrients, water, oxygen gradients as well as physical obstacles for the roots…

Cademartiri and his research group report their use of LEGO bricks to successfully build engineered environments for plant and root studies in a paper just published by the peer-reviewed, online journal PLOS ONE.

Visualize This: Carbon Storage Tool for Now and the Future

Announced on the one-year anniversary of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, a new “Land Carbon Viewer” allows users to see the land carbon storage and change in their ecosystems between 2005 and 2050 in the lower 48 states.

The Land Carbon Viewer Website, developed by U.S. Geological Survey in collaboration with the University of California-Berkeley, is based on the national biological carbon assessment for ecosystems, completing the carbon inventory for the lower 48.

The new Land Carbon Viewer will give the public access to the national inventory of the capacity of land-based ecosystems to naturally store, or sequester, carbon. Researchers used the data on ecosystem carbon storage, or sequestration, in the national assessment to build maps, graphs and text for the land carbon viewer.

The resulting products will help land and resource planners and policy makers easily see how much carbon is sequestered in the different land types in their regions now, and up to 2050, under various land-use and climate scenarios. The tool also allows users to download data in their particular areas or ecosystems of interest.

“The new Land Carbon Viewer demonstrates how the Interior Department can significantly contribute to the U.S. effort to establish a national carbon inventory and tracking system as part of the President’s Climate Action Plan,” said Suzette Kimball, acting USGS director.  “USGS is committed to taking the next step, which is to make this approach useful for specific sites and situations.  Incorporating carbon science directly into management planning is critical to ensure sound land use and land management decisions that will affect future generations.”

The USGS mapped how much carbon is sequestered in ecosystems using streamgage, soil and natural-resource inventory data, remote sensing techniques, and computer models. Based on the U.S Environmental Protection Agency’s ecoregion map, the USGS Land Carbon Viewer shows the lower 48 divided into 16 ecoregions defined by similarities in ecology and land cover. The ecosystems examined are terrestrial (forests, wetlands, agricultural lands, shrublands and grasslands), and aquatic (rivers, lakes, estuaries and coastal waters).

For example, the Southeastern USA Plains Ecoregion is the largest ecoregion in the eastern United States, and users can explore the baseline (2001-2005) and future (2006-2050) carbon storage in different kinds of ecosystems using three different IPCC carbon emission scenarios combined with economic models:

  • Moderate population growth, high economic growth, rapid technical innovation and balanced energy use,
  • Continuous population growth, uneven economic and technical growth, and carbon emissions triple through the 21st century, and
  • High economic growth, a population that peaks by mid-century and then declines, a rapid shift toward clean energy technologies, and a CO2 concentration that approximately doubles by 2100.

“The new USGS Land Carbon Viewer allows decision-makers to view and explore various ecoregions, and download data over their area of interest,” said Suzette Kimball.  “The resulting products will help land and resource planners and policy makers easily see how much carbon is sequestered in the different land types in their regions now, and up to 2050, under various land-use and climate scenarios.”

Among the many benefits of ecosystems and farmlands to society, these areas also store, or sequester, biological carbon. Biological carbon sequestration is the process by which carbon dioxide (CO2) is removed from the atmosphere and stored as carbon in vegetation, soils and sediment. Such storage reduces the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Since a 2007 congressional mandate in the Energy Independence and Security Act, USGS scientists have been building a national inventory of the capacity of land-based ecosystems to store carbon naturally, information vital for science-based land use and land management decisions are expected to be completed in 2015.

Another concern arises over groundwater contamination from fracking accidents

Read the full post at Science Codex.

The oil and gas extraction method known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, could potentially contribute more pollutants to groundwater than past research has suggested, according to a new study in ACS’ journal Environmental Science & Technology. Scientists are reporting that when spilled or deliberately applied to land, waste fluids from fracking are likely picking up tiny particles in the soil that attract heavy metals and other chemicals with possible health implications for people and animals.