ISA, Quantified Ventures, Cargill Partner
To Advance Agricultural Conservation in Iowa
The Iowa Soybean Association, Quantified Ventures and Cargill are announcing the launch of a collaborative, market-based program to accelerate soil health and water conservation across Iowa farmland and provide a critical new source of financial incentives to Iowa farmers.
The Soil and Water Outcomes Fund compensates farmers for implementing agricultural management best practices on their farms. The resulting environmental improvements, including enhanced water quality and carbon sequestration, are independently monitored, verified and purchased by municipal, corporate, and governmental entities who are seeking innovative ways to reduce their environmental impacts and costs.
“The Fund is a win-win for farmers implementing conservation practices and those benefiting from the outcomes of those practices,” says Adam Kiel, Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) Director of Conservation and External Programs. “Farmers are well positioned to play a lead role in improving water quality and sequestering carbon,” Kiel says. “It’s also an ideal way for farmers to scale beyond the acre and contract limits of traditional government funded cost share programs.”
Nearly 10,000 acres in Iowa are already enrolled in the Soil and Water Outcomes Fund. This year, the Fund will achieve an estimated 100,000 pounds of nitrogen reductions and 10,000 pounds of phosphorus reductions in water. Additionally, 7,500 tons of carbon dioxide will be sequestered in soils, an amount equivalent to removing 1,480 cars from the road. The intent is to scale the Fund into additional states and regions to realize even greater positive environmental impacts and farmer benefits.
The outcomes-based funding model aligns with Cargill’s strategic focus to develop scalable, public-private partnerships that enable farmers to improve soil health, carbon storage and water quality and access.
“Cargill is excited about the potential of this innovative approach to support and mitigate risk for farmers as they invest in soil health and other conservation best management practices,” said Ryan Sirolli, Director of Row Crop Sustainability at Cargill. “We’re incentivizing more participants to implement best management practices that provide positive benefits for their business and the environment.”
Outcomes generated by the Fund will have far-reaching benefits for multiple stakeholders.
For participating municipalities, benefits include flexibility with permit requirements, source water protection, flood risk reduction and cost savings over grey infrastructure.
Corporations and the industry see value in enhanced soil carbon sequestration to meet supply chain sustainability commitments. Farmers see improved on-farm agronomics and resiliency as they build healthier soils.
Mark Lambert, Director of Agriculture at Quantified Ventures, says the Fund represents an important evolution in the way agricultural conservation is incentivized.
“We believe that shifting from ‘pay for practice’ approaches to ‘pay for outcomes’ approaches will unlock the impact investment capital needed to mitigate climate change and improve water quality at scale,” he said. “By combining the multiple beneficiaries of conservation outcomes into a single transaction, the Fund can deliver cost effective and scalable impact.”
Development of the Fund was supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation. Amy Saltzman, Program Officer at the Walton Family Foundation, said solutions that work for both the environment and the economy are the ones that stand the test of time.
“This fund is poised for long-term success, which is good for clean water, healthy soil, and communities and jobs that depend on them,” Saltzman said. “The Walton Family Foundation is proud to support the creation of this fund, which will help leverage the power of markets for a more sustainable future.”
Sustainable Environmental Consultants, a third-party to the transaction, will quantify the outcomes of the program. Additional field verification will occur, including soil and water sampling. To ensure integrity of the environmental benefits generated, the Fund only supports practices and outcomes that are additive to a farmer’s current baseline of agricultural practices.
The Fund will be jointly administered by the Iowa Soybean Association and Quantified Ventures, with initial funding support provided by Cargill and the Walton Family Foundation. Opportunities for additional farmer enrollment will be announced later this year. Interested outcome purchasers are encouraged to contact the Fund for pricing and participation information.
Oil State Governors Wrong to Target RFS, Rural Jobs
The oil industry is seeking a reprieve from Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) obligations, citing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
An April 15 letter to EPA Andrew Wheeler from the governors of five oil-producing states – Texas, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Utah and Louisiana – asks the agency to waive renewable volume obligations (RVOs, required biofuel blending levels) called for under the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), claiming the new coronavirus was disrupting the oil industry’s production and distribution, leading to economic setbacks.
However, the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) issued a new analysis this week showing that as the coronavirus outbreak and crude oil glut continue to ravage world fuel markets, U.S. ethanol sales in 2020 could fall by more than $10 billion . Furthermore, the industry’s contribution to gross domestic product (GDP) could drop by nearly one-third.
RFA warned that the economic damages go far beyond the ethanol sector, noting that America’s farmers will also be negatively impacted. Ethanol typically provides a market for two out of every five rows of corn and more than one-third of the annual sorghum crop.
Ethanol industry leaders also expressed disappointment that a $19-billion aid package for U.S. farmers and food interests contain nothing for an industry that has seen half of its plants close down. The industry normally supports 350,000 jobs across all sectors of the economy, and contributes valuable co-products like distillers grains, corn distillers oil, and captured carbon dioxide to the food supply chain.
The Circuit Court of Appeals for the U.S. 10th District ruled Jan. 24 that the EPA “exceeded its statutory authority” and “abused its discretion” in granting exemptions from 2016 and 2017 RFS requirements to three small refineries. The White House chose not to appeal the ruling, while the court dismissed appeals sought by two of the three refineries. The ruling only impacted about a third of the nation’s small refineries, but it was expected to have a universal impact on the agency’s handling of small refinery exemptions (SREs).
However, the agency has done nothing to correct the imbalances in ethanol’s market availability resulting from the dozens of SREs granted during the Trump administration. For the 2016-2018 RFS compliance years, the EPA issued 85 SREs, more than four times the number granted over a similar period by other administrations.
The biofuel industry said the high number of SREs handed out by the EPA in recent years has eroded more than 4 billion gallons of renewable fuel blending requirements. In addition to defending its position before the Tenth Circuit appellate court, biofuel interests have said they will continue to consider other actions that can recapture the lost demand.
The COVID-19 outbreak has had a further debilitating effect on the both the ethanol and biodiesel industries. A study released April 13 by the Purdue University Center for Commercial Agriculture shows that the spread of COVID-19 in the United States is expected to reduce the demand for both corn and soybeans due to reductions in demand for ethanol and soy biodiesel.
Cooper said in a statement last week that the letter from the governors makes it clear “they know absolutely nothing about how the Renewable Fuel Standard actually works. They outrageously claim that a waiver is needed because of ‘depressed demand for transportation fuel.
Climate-Driven Megadrought Emerging in Western U.S., Says Study
With the western United States and northern Mexico suffering an ever-lengthening string of dry years starting in 2000, scientists have been warning for some time that climate change may be pushing the region toward an extreme long-term drought worse than any in recorded history.
Areas of southwestern North America affected by drought in the early 2000s; darker colors are more intense. Yellow box shows the study area. (Adapted from Williams et al., Science, 2020)
A new study says the time has arrived that a megadrought as bad or worse than anything even from known prehistory is very likely in progress, and warming climate is playing a key role. The study, based on modern weather observations, 1,200 years of tree-ring data and dozens of climate models, appeared April 17 in the leading journal Science.
“Earlier studies were largely model projections of the future,” said lead author Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “We’re no longer looking at projections, but at where we are now,” Williams said. “We now have enough observations of current drought and tree-ring records of past drought to say that we’re on the same trajectory as the worst prehistoric droughts.”
Reliable modern observations date only to about 1900, but tree rings have allowed scientists to infer yearly soil moisture for centuries before humans began influencing climate. Among other things, previous research has tied catastrophic, naturally driven droughts recorded in tree rings to upheavals among indigenous Medieval-era civilizations in the Southwest. The new study is the most up-to-date and comprehensive long-term analysis. It covers an area stretching across nine U.S. states from Oregon and Montana down through California and New Mexico, and part of northern Mexico.
Using rings from many thousands of trees, the researchers charted dozens of droughts across the region, starting in 800 AD. Four stand out as so-called megadroughts, with extreme aridity lasting decades: the late 800s, mid-1100s, the 1200s, and the late 1500s. After 1600, there were other droughts, but none on this scale.
The team then compared the ancient megadroughts to soil moisture records calculated from observed weather in the 19 years from 2000 to 2018. Their conclusion: as measured against the worst 19-year increments within the previous episodes, the current drought is already outdoing the three earliest ones. The fourth, which spanned 1575 to 1603, may have been the worst of all – but the difference is slight enough to be within the range of uncertainty. Furthermore, the current drought is affecting wider areas more consistently than any of the earlier ones – a fingerprint of global warming, say the researchers. All of the ancient droughts lasted longer than 19 years – the one that started in the 1200s ran nearly a century – but all began on a similar path to what is showing up now, they say.
Nature drove the ancient droughts, and still plays a strong role today. A study last year led by Lamont’s Nathan Steiger showed that among other things, unusually cool periodic conditions over the tropical Pacific Ocean (commonly called La Niña) during the previous megadroughts pushed storm tracks further north, and starved the region of precipitation. Such conditions, and possibly other natural factors, appear to have also cut precipitation in recent years. However, with global warming proceeding, the authors say that average temperatures since 2000 have been pushed 1.2 degrees C (2.2 F) above what they would have been otherwise. Because hotter air tends to hold more moisture, that moisture is being pulled from the ground. This has intensified drying of soils already starved of precipitation.
All told, the researchers say that rising temperatures are responsible for about half the pace and severity of the current drought. If this overall warming were subtracted from the equation, the current drought would rank as the 11th worst detected – bad, but nowhere near what it has developed into.
“It doesn’t matter if this is exactly the worst drought ever,” said coauthor Benjamin Cook, who is affiliated with Lamont and the Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “What matters is that it has been made much worse than it would have been because of climate change.”
Since temperatures are projected to keep rising, it is likely the drought will continue for the foreseeable future; or fade briefly only to return, say the researchers.
Researchers Study How Forests Are Adapting to Climate Change
As the climate is changing, so too are the world’s forests. From the misty redwoods in the west to the Blue Ridge forest of Appalachia, many sylvan ecosystems are adapting to drier conditions.
The warm sunshine streams through the canopies of two blue oaks in central California. Photo Credit: Leander Anderegg
Using the U.S. Forest Service Forest Inventory and Analysis database, researchers at UC Santa Barbara, the University of Utah and the U.S. Forest Service have studied how the traits of tree communities are shifting across the contiguous United States.
The results, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, indicate that communities, particularly in more arid regions, are becoming more drought tolerant, primarily through the death of less hardy trees.
To understand what might be driving changes in the ability of forests to cope with climate change, the scientists considered two main physiological traits: a species’ average tolerance to water stress and how close this was to its maximum tolerance (essentially how much wiggle room it had when dealing with water stress).
“We basically put a number on what species composition means in terms of their ability to deal with water stress,” said lead author Anna Trugman, an assistant professor in UC Santa Barbara’s Department of Geography.
Fortunately for the team, the U.S. Department of Agriculture tracks tree species, size and abundance in more than 160,000 forest plots randomly distributed across the country. What’s more, the U.S. Forest Service Forest Inventory and Analysis database includes over 200 different types of ecosystems ranging from dry pinyon pine forests to cypress swamps, and Atlantic hardwood forests to the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest.
Trugman and her colleagues matched the traits they were interested in to the species abundance in these plots. Then they used this to calculate a weighted average value for the community of trees in each plot, which essentially corresponded to the community’s drought tolerance. Since these plots are surveyed every five to 10 years, the scientists could track shifts in community trait composition and relate these to tree mortality, recruitment and climate.
There are two ways a community can become more drought tolerant: Less hardy trees can die or more resilient trees can grow faster. Both result in a community that is hardier overall.
Trugman found that it was primarily the death of less robust trees that drove the shifts toward greater drought tolerance, though she notes that the effects of sapling recruitment have been less evident over such a short time span. She also noticed that the scope of traits in a given plot didn’t automatically correlate with the number of species present. “You don’t necessarily have a larger range in strategies if you have more species,” she said.
For instance, the eastern U.S. doesn’t experience as much routine drought stress as its western counterpart, but it has relatively high species diversity. As a result, most of the trees have similar strategies to cope with water stress. Compare that to the Southwest, where there are species living together that have a range of strategies for dealing with drought, despite many plots having relatively low species diversity overall.
Maps of plant traits are useful to scientists because they inform the models that forecast how climate change will affect the landscape, Trugman explained. The trait maps help researchers assess the mismatch between climate suitability and the community’s current trait composition.
Climate Change Could Cause Fast Biodiversity Losses Worldwide
A warming global climate could cause sudden, potentially catastrophic losses of biodiversity in regions across the globe throughout the 21st century, finds a new study led by researchers at University College London (UCL).
The findings, published April 8 in Nature, predict when and where there could be severe ecological disruption in the coming decades, and suggests that the first waves could already be happening.
“We found that climate change risks to biodiversity don’t increase gradually,” said the study’s lead author, Alex Pigot, with the UCL Centre for Biodiversity & Environment Research. “Instead, as the climate warms, within a certain area most species will be able to cope for a while, before crossing a temperature threshold, when a large proportion of the species will suddenly face conditions they’ve never experienced before.”It’s not a slippery slope, but a series of cliff edges, hitting different areas at different times.”
Pigot and colleagues from the United States and South Africa were seeking to predict threats to biodiversity over the course of the 21st century, rather than a single-year snapshot. They used climate model data from 1850 to 2005, and cross-referenced it with the geographic ranges of 30,652 species of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and other animals and plants. The data was available for areas across the globe, divided up into 100 by 100 km square grid cells.
They used climate model projections for each year up to 2100 to predict when species in each grid cell will begin experiencing temperatures that are consistently higher than the organism has previously experienced across its geographic range, for a period of at least five years.
“The historic temperature models, combined with species ranges, showed us the range of conditions that each organism can survive under, as far as we know,” said the study’s first author, Christopher Trisos, with the African Climate and Development Initiative at the University of Cape Town, and the National Socio-Environment Synthesis Center at the University of Maryland.
“Once temperatures in a given area rise to levels that the species have never experienced, we would expect there to be extinctions, but not necessarily – we simply have no evidence of the ability of these species to persist after this point,” he said.
The researchers found that in most ecological communities across the globe, a large proportion of the organisms will find themselves outside of their niche (comfort zone) within the same decade. Across all of the communities, on average 73 percent of the species facing unprecedented temperatures before 2100 will cross that threshold simultaneously.
The researchers predict that if global temperatures rise by 4 degrees Celsius by 2100, under a “high emissions” scenario, which the researchers say is plausible, at least 15 percent of communities across the globe, and potentially many more, will undergo an abrupt exposure event where more than one in five of their constituent species crosses the threshold beyond their niche limit within the same decade. Such an event could cause irreversible damage to the functioning of the ecosystem.
If warming is kept to 2 degrees Celsius or less, potentially fewer than 2 percent of communities will face such exposure events, although the researchers caution that within that 2 percent includes some of the most biodiverse communities on the planet, such as coral reefs.
The researchers predict that such unprecedented temperature regimes will begin before 2030 in tropical oceans, and recent events such as mass bleaching of corals on the Great Barrier Reef suggest this is happening already. Higher latitudes and tropical forests are predicted to be at risk by 2050.
The study was funded by the Royal Society, the National Science Foundation (USA) and the African Academy of Sciences.
Study Evaluates and Quantifies Ecosystem Service Flows
What do chocolate, migratory birds, flood control and pandas have in common? Many countries benefit from ecosystem services provided outside their nations. This can happen through economic relationships, biological and geographical conditions, but how and where these ecosystem service flows occur is hardly known.
Cocoa plantation in West Africa Photo: Janina Kleemann
Scientists at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) and the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) show in a recent study, published in the journal Global Environmental Change, how interregional ecosystem service flows can be identified and quantified.
“Ecosystem services are not constrained by borders,” says Aletta Bonn, a researcher at the UFZ and iDiv. “For example, one country benefits from agricultural products originating from other continents or flood protection provided by floodplains in a neighboring country.”
The close links between distant regions arising from ecosystem services are known as telecoupling. Understanding these flows can help to recognize the value of intact nature, identify global drivers of biodiversity loss or soil erosion in distant regions, and develop measures for more sustainable management.
“It is important to understand the interlinkages and the environmental costs caused by domestic consumption of ecosystem services in other countries,” says Bonn. “This information can then be used in political decisions, such as fair trade standards, environmentally and socially acceptable certification, and financial compensation measures.”
But how can ecosystem service flows be identified, quantified and ultimately balanced between countries? The researchers investigated these issues, including an examination of the extent to which Germany uses ecosystem services that are provided in other countries.
“In previous work, we had already developed a conceptual framework for quantifying interregional ecosystem service flows,” says Bonn. “Here, we differentiated between four types of flows which were examined for Germany in more detail.”
The scientists assessed trade flows using cocoa imports as an example and their impact on biodiversity in the producing countries.
“It turns out that approximately 85 percent of imported cocoa comes from only five mainly West African countries – Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon and Togo. Significant impacts on biodiversity are considered for Cameroon and Ecuador due to cocoa trade with Germany,” says Janina Kleemann, former UFZ researcher and now at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg.
In the “migratory species” category, the scientists investigated the importance of migratory birds for German agriculture.
“Our results indicate that Africa’s tropical and subtropical climate zones provide a habitat for the majority of migratory bird species that make an important contribution to pest control in German agricultural landscapes,” explains Kleemann.
Ecosystem services associated with flood protection are assigned to the “passive biophysical flow” category. Here, the researchers concluded that Germany benefits by almost two-thirds from flood regulation provided in other countries’ floodplains, and in return also exports around 40 percent flood regulation to downstream neighboring countries such as the Netherlands. In the “information flows” category, the loan of a Chinese giant panda to Berlin Zoo served as a case study. The research team highlighted the political, economic, scientific and cultural aspects of this exchange for the relationship between Germany and China.
The UFZ study is one of the first studies to identify, systematically quantify and assess several interregional ecosystem service flows for a specific country using examples. Awareness of and understanding these flows represent the first step toward fairly balancing ecosystem services use and sustainable resource management.
“When we know how and to what extent we influence global biodiversity with our consumption patterns and international trade, we can make better decisions regarding individual and national consumption of resources and develop adequate measures for sustainable management,” says Bonn. “Our study clearly demonstrates that countries such as Germany bear a global responsibility to protect and conserve biological diversity worldwide.”