Feds, CDFA, State Partners Form Soil Health Work Group
EPA and USDA officials earlier this month met with representatives from other federal agencies, California state officials, state agency leaders and key representatives from the region’s agriculture and food production industries to launch a multi-faceted campaign to improve soil health and stem climate change.
CDFA Secretary Karen Ross alongside NRCS State Conservationist Carlos Suarez at the roundtable discussion in Santa Ynez.
Officials say the interagency collaboration between 15 federal, state, and regional agencies is committed to developing a regulatory pathway to address permitting challenges and create incentives to support on-farm composting of agricultural materials to decrease nutrient loading, reduce agricultural burning, and improve soil health.
Also attending the roundtable discussion Feb. 6 in Santa Ynez, CA, were representatives from Central Coast farm and producer organizations, along with officials with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA).
CUTLINE: CDFA Secretary Karen Ross alongside NRCS State Conservationist Carlos Suarez at the roundtable discussion in Santa Ynez.
The roundtable focused on enhancing communication with Central Coast growers on healthy soils practices and sharing lessons learned from environmental successes. Participants heard from growers to better understand barriers to implementation of healthy soils practices.
“Healthy soils are the foundation of a productive agricultural system and a key part of our efforts to fight climate change,” said California Secretary for Environmental Protection Jared Blumenfeld. “California’s EPA looks forward to working with our local and federal colleagues in supporting our state’s farmers and ranchers in adopting carbon farming practices.”
“[These agencies are] committed to supporting California’s agricultural community in their efforts to improve soil health,” said CDFA Secretary Karen Ross. “Healthy soil is key to sequestering atmospheric carbon while improving nutrient management, water management and agricultural productivity,” Ross said.
The work group, co-led by CDFA, NRCS, California Environmental Protection Agency, and the EPA, will develop a regulatory pathway to address permitting challenges and create incentives for on-farm composting in order to decrease nutrient loading, reduce agricultural burning, and improve soil health.
“Meeting with local farmers is an opportunity for EPA to listen, learn, and develop new approaches to environmental challenges,” said EPA Pacific Southwest Acting Regional Administrator Deborah Jordan. “We are excited to announce the creation of the interagency On-Farm Compost Work Group, which will support California’s farmers, ranchers, and food producers and help bring about more efficient ways to work together as stewards of our natural resources.”
“I am very pleased that we will have stakeholder input from the very beginning,” said NRCS state conservationist in California Carlos Suarez. “Our farmers and ranchers have always been very conservation minded and understand very well the value of good land stewardship”
For more information on the work group, click HERE.
Microscopic Partners Could Help Plants Survive Stressful Environments
Tiny, symbiotic fungi play an outsized role in helping plants survive stresses like drought and extreme temperatures, which could help feed a planet experiencing climate change, report scientists at Washington State University.
Blue-stained filaments of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungus, which lives in symbiosis with plants, inhabit plant roots in this microscope image.
(Photo by Ashley Finnestad, WSU).
Recently published in the journal Functional Ecology, the discovery by plant-microbe biologist Stephanie Porter and plant pathologist Maren Friesen sheds light on how microbe partners can help sustainably grow a wide variety of crops.
While some microscopic fungi and bacteria cause disease, others live in harmony with plants, collecting water and nutrients in exchange for carbohydrates, or changing plants’ internal and external environment in ways that help plants grow.
These benefits help plants tolerate stresses that come from their environment. Dubbed abiotic stresses, challenges such as drought, extreme temperatures, and poor, toxic, or saline soils are among the leading causes of crop loss and decreasing farm productivity.
PHOTO CUTLINE – Blue-stained filaments of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungus, which lives in symbiosis with plants, inhabit plant roots in this microscope image (Photo by Ashley Finnestad, T.E. Cheeke Lab, WSU).
“Plants’ abilities to tolerate stress are impacted by the bacteria and fungi that live on or inside them and make up the plant microbiome,” said Porter, assistant professor in the School of Biological Sciences. “Just like how microbes in our digestive system help keep us healthy, microbes play an incredibly important role in plant health.”
Setting out to measure how beneficial microbes affect plants under both normal conditions and stress, Porter and Friesen reviewed 89 research experiments ranging from common Northwest food crops to wild species.
Working with colleagues at Michigan State University and WSU, they compared five different classes of symbiotic bacteria and fungi that live on, in, and around plant roots, under stresses that included fungal diseases, grazing by animals and microscopic worms, heavy metal contamination, and drought, cold, and saline soils. Then, they tallied the effect on plant growth, biomass and yield.
Results showed that while beneficial bacteria are more helpful in normal conditions, symbiotic fungi provide added benefits during crises.
“Stress makes these fungi even more important to plants, which we think is really interesting,” said Friesen, assistant professor in the Department of Plant Pathology.
With earth’s population predicted to top 9 billion by 2050, scientists predict that current crop yields will need to double.
“As we expand where we grow crops, we’re using marginal areas that are more stressful for plants,” Porter said. “And as our climate changes, that creates stress for plants.
Microbes offer a more sustainable tool for stress tolerance than applying hormones or chemicals, noted Friesen.
“Farmers are now having challenges with pathogens no longer responding to chemical treatments,” she said. “There’s already a lot of interest in scientific and industry circles in identifying and harnessing microbial solutions to agricultural problems. This study gives us ideas about where to look.”
UCF Research Underscores Environmental Benefits of Ethanol
University of Central Florida researchers have determined that ethanol is the best biofuel when it comes to producing the least amount of soot, a deadly byproduct of combustion.
University of Central Florida researchers Subith Vasu and Samuel Barak performed unique experiments to determine which biofuels produced the least amount of soot, a deadly byproduct of combustion.
Credit: Karen Norum, University of Central Florida Office of Research
The UCF researchers say they recognize that there are thousands of types of biofuels that can offer potential benefits as renewable fuels with cleaner emissions, making it difficult for the energy sector to focus on just a few for further development.
But in some of their latest research, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team worked to narrow the field of potential biofuels as part of a Department of Energy initiative, known as the Co-Optimization of Fuels & Engines.
Soot exposure is directly linked to respiratory disease, cancer and heart problems.
There are more than 10,000 potential candidates for biofuels, said Subith Vasu, an associate professor in UCF’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and as a part of this study, his research group was tasked with testing five that the Department of Energy considers some of the most promising.
“There are a lot of efforts within Department of Energy and other agencies to produce more economical, better high-performance biofuels,” Vasu said.
The finding bolsters the use of ethanol as a biofuel. Other biofuels Vasu’s team tested included methyl acetate, which is found in apples, grapes, bananas and some other fruits, and methyl-furan, which is found naturally in myrtle and Dutch lavender.
Ethanol, which is in most gas sold in the U.S., already has a leg up on other biofuels because of the existing infrastructure in place for its manufacture, its use in current engines, and its low cost. In the U.S., it’s often produced from corn.
Samuel Barak, a graduate of UCF’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering doctoral program and now a rocket-propulsion engineer at Boeing’s space program, was the lead student author of the study and the primary experimentalist.
“These biofuels are advantageous because they come from existing feedstock, such as crops, and are carbon neutral,” Barak said. “When they are utilized, the carbon is reintroduced into the atmosphere. Fossil fuels on the other hand remove stored underground carbon and put it into our atmosphere when burned.”
Barak said that despite advances, such as battery-powered vehicles, there are still a billion cars driving on the planet, and mixing biofuels with gas is a way to get cleaner emissions from this fleet.
“The beauty of this initiative is to determine which drop-in ready biofuel can be added to our fuel streams as soon as possible that can increase performance, reduce carbon emissions, and will have least impact on existing systems,” Barak said.
The study began in 2017 and will continue through 2021 as the researchers continue to generate data to improve combustion models. The research is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.
Adapting to Climate Change Requires Systems-Wide Changes: OSU Review
When it comes to adapting to the effects of climate change, scientists and policymakers are thinking too small, according to a new research review.
The authors argue that society should focus less on how individuals respond to such climate issues as flooding and wildfires and instead figure out what it takes to inspire collective action that will protect humans from climate catastrophes on a much grander scale.
Ohio State University researchers analyzed studies that have been published to date on behavioral adaptation to climate change. They found that most studies have emphasized the psychology behind individual coping strategies in the face of isolated hazards, and came from the point of view of a single household managing their own risk.
What is needed, they propose, is systems-level thinking about what is truly adaptive for society, and research on the dynamics that lead people to change entire systems through transformational actions and on barriers that keep people from embracing transformative efforts.
“What we know about adaptation has come from a longer history of studying the sorts of things that are getting worse because of climate change,” said Robyn Wilson, lead author of the paper and a professor of risk analysis and decision science in Ohio State’s School of Environment and Natural Resources.
“If we want to really adapt to climate change, we’re talking about transformational change that will truly allow society to be resilient in the face of these increasing hazards. We’re focused on the wrong things and solving the wrong problems.”
The research review was published Feb. 10 in the journal Nature Climate Change.
Wilson and colleagues are not being critical of their peer scientists – or of themselves. When the incremental nature of adaptation research became evident, the review became a platform to sound an alarm: We can’t take baby steps anymore when it comes to being ready for all that climate change will bring.
“Thinking holistically is part of what transformation research is all about – saying we have to work together to really think differently,” Wilson said. “We can’t all be individually running around doing our own thing. We need to think beyond the selfish individual who says, ‘What do I need to do to be better off?'”
Wilson’s colleagues Atar Herziger, Matt Hamilton and Jeremy Brooks of Ohio State’s School of Environment and Natural Resources co-authored the review.
‘Rule Breaking’ Plants May Be Climate Change Survivors
Plants that break some of the ‘rules’ of ecology by adapting in unconventional ways may have a higher chance of surviving climate change, according to researchers from Australia’s University of Queensland (UQ) and Ireland’s Trinity College Dublin.
Dr Annabel Smith measures a plantain during the annual census on Inis Oirr, Ireland.
Dr Annabel Smith, from UQ’s School of Agriculture and Food Sciences, and Professor Yvonne Buckley, from UQ’s School of Biological Sciences and Trinity College Dublin Ireland, studied the humble plantain (Plantago lanceolate) to see how it became one of the world’s most successfully distributed plant species.
“The plantain, a small plant native to Europe, has spread wildly across the globe – we needed to know why it’s been so incredibly successful, even in hot, dry climates,” Smith said.
The global team of 48 ecologists set up 53 monitoring sites in 21 countries, tagged thousands of individual plants, tracked plant deaths and new seedlings, counted flowers and seeds and looked at DNA to see how many individual plants have historically been introduced outside Europe.
What they discovered went against existing tenets of ecological science.
“We were a bit shocked to find that some of the ‘rules of ecology’ simply didn’t apply to this species,” Smith said.
Smith noted that in the typical understanding of population genetics, small populations tend to have little genetic diversity, while large populations with many offspring, such as those with lots of seeds, have a wider range of genes and traits introduced through reproduction. Though individuals may die under stress, this variation helps the species as a whole to survive in different conditions.
“But, in new environments, these rule breakers were adapting better than most other plants.”
The team found the plantain’s success was due to multiple introductions around the world.
Buckley, who coordinates the global project from Trinity College, said the DNA analysis revealed that ongoing introductions into Australia, NZ, North America, Japan and South Africa quickly prompted genetic diversity. “It gave these ‘expats’ a higher capacity for adaptation,” Buckley said.
“It’s important we now know that multiple introductions will mix genetic stock and make invasive plants more successful quite quickly – an important finding given invasive species cause extinction and cost governments billions of dollars,” Smith said. Also, “research on invasive plants gives us clues about how our native plants might adapt to climate change.
Past Climate Safe Havens Now Most Vulnerable
The profound threat of future climate change to biodiversity demands that scientists seek ever more effective ways to identify the most vulnerable species, communities and ecosystems.
In a new study, published in Nature Climate Change, an international team of scientists has shown that the most biodiverse regions on Earth are among the most vulnerable to future climate change.
By establishing global patterns of unusually extreme climate change events during Earth’s history, and comparing these to 21st century patterns, the researchers were able to show that human-driven climate change will quickly erode important mechanisms that are likely to have sustained biodiversity across time.
“Our results show that the magnitude and accelerated rate of future climate change will disproportionately affect plants and animals in tropical regions and biodiversity hotspots. Worryingly, these are regions on Earth with the highest concentrations of biodiversity,” says lead author Associate Professor Damien Fordham from the University Adelaide’s Environment Institute.
Historically these regions have been safe havens from climate change during glacial-interglacial cycles. By providing refuge for species during periods of unfavorable global warming, these climate safe havens have shaped biodiversity by allowing older species to survive and new lineages to generate.
“Disturbingly, our research shows that more than 75 percent of the area of these climate safe havens will be lost in the near future due to 21st century warming,” said Dr Stuart Brown from the University of Adelaide, who led the analysis.
“The future is most ominous for species in tropical oceans,” Brown continued. “Severe negative impacts on the richness of coral species and marine life they support are expected in regions such as the Indo-Pacific. This is likely to cause human hardship for communities that depend on these resources for food, employment and income.”
For areas where climate safe havens are forecast to persist until the end of this century, the researchers show that temperatures are likely to exceed the acclimation capacity of many species, making them short-term hospices for biodiversity at best.
More generally, the research shows that future climate change not only threaten species in polar environments, but also tropical regions, which contain particularly high biodiversity.
Climate Change Boosts Pathogens That Wreck Soil Health: Study
Climate change is affecting the health of agricultural soils, as increased heat and drought make life easy for the pathogenic fungus Pythium ultimum, which causes almost total crop failure in peas after a hot and dry stress event.
An international team of researchers led by the Universities of Kassel and Bonn in Germany has shown short-term soil recovery from the fungus seems to be possible only in exceptional cases. A study has now been published in the journal Applied Soil Ecology.
Pythium ultimum is an aggressive fungus that is transmitted through the soil and infects the roots in the seedling of important agricultural crops such as beets and peas, but also corn, soybeans and potatoes. The plants develop root rot and die.
“In some cases, there may be a total failure of the germinating seedlings,” says Christian Bruns, who is with the Section of Organic Farming and Cropping Systems at the University of Kassel.
However, soils also have protective mechanisms against these pathogens. Certain fungi act like “bodyguards” and protect the roots of plants, while some microorganisms parasitize the harmful fungus or simply consume it.
The scientists took soil samples from very different locations in cool and damp Scotland, temperate northeast Germany and dry and warm eastern Hungary. The soil samples, including the microorganisms living there, were put under stress in climate chambers with heat (40 degrees Celsius) and drought (only half soil moisture) and then infected with the aggressive fungus Pythium ultimum. The researchers investigated the effects of this stress event on the pathogen and ultimately the plants by subsequently sowing peas in these pre-treated soils.
The effect was dramatic.
“Only a few of the young pea plants survived, and these withered under the fungal attack,” said Thomas Döring, from the Agroecology and Organic Farming Group at the University of Bonn.
He said that in all soils, the stress event of heat and drought led to a strong reduction in resistance to Pythium ultimum. Soils from Scotland suffered the most, and those from Hungary the least.
“Apparently the protective microorganisms in the soils of cool, damp Scotland are less adapted to heat and drought than in Hungarian soils, which are often exposed to high temperatures and droughts in summer,” Döring states.
The scientists investigated how well the various soils can recover by taking a break of several weeks after treatment with heat and drought before infecting the soil with the harmful fungus and sowing the peas. While a soil sample from Scotland showed some recovery, with slightly more peas growing in it in comparison, the harmful effect of the fungus seemed to be made worse by the recovery phase in the samples from Hungary.
“The decisive factor seems to be how quickly the protective microorganisms are able to reproduce after the stress event,” says Bruns, referring to the results of other studies. “This ability is apparently not so pronounced in the soil samples from Hungary.”
Soils that are highly resistant to drought and heat therefore do not seem to have such a high recovery capacity. All of this indicates that if the climate in temperate and northern latitudes heats up more, the microorganisms in the soil will not be able to adapt as quickly.
Heat and drought have a negative impact on the soil organisms protecting plants from diseases, increasing the plants’ susceptibility to soil-borne pathogens, the researchers say. They add that in view of the advancing changes in climate, the risk of plant diseases and crop failures is growing.
However, the scientists say further research is still needed.