For most of the Midwest, the crops are in, whether corn, soybeans, oats or other commodities. Perhaps it’s a good time for a harvest of recent agriculture-related research developments to round out the year.
One has to do with new uses for crops and the byproducts of converting them into fuels. It could mean an inexpensive new adhesive.
Meanwhile, Iowa-based technology to make mass-scale commodity production more sustainable is getting national attention and praise.
And finally, there’s research showing that widespread crop production is having an out-sized influence on the carbon cycle.
First, let’s examine a sticky subject (rimshot).
Iowa State University recently received a $1 million U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to investigate new adhesives based on glycerin, a major byproduct from converting vegetable oils into biodiesel fuel. (The gory details are in this PDF.)
Glycerin is ubiquitous: It’s in soaps, shampoos, foods, and, uh, explosives. With so many uses, you might think glycerin (or, as it’s also sometimes called, glycerol) would be in high demand. But with biodiesel production rising, there’s expected to be a glut.
ISU researchers are working on new uses, including adhesives. The three-year project, led by Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering Prof. David Grewell and Chemical and Biological Engineering Prof. Eric Cochran, will focus on applications for construction materials, pressure-sensitive adhesives (like on Post-its) and rubber cement replacement. (Remember the enticing but dangerous smell of rubber cement? The new adhesive wouldn’t have those fumes, researchers say.) The plan, leading to a pilot plant to produce the new glue, is laid out in this ISU release.
Grewell directs ISU’s Biopolymers and Biocomposites Research Team, which I wrote about last year. At that time, the team had just received a National Science Foundation planning grant to create a Center for Bioplastics and Biocomposites under the Industry/University Cooperative Research Program.
The I/UCRC program is designed to promote collaborations between university researchers and companies that could commercialize technologies and hire graduates. The Iowa Board of Regents approved the new center earlier this month. It has 23 industry members, including Archer Daniels Midland Co. (a major biofuel and foods producer), 3M Co. (the Post-it people) and others.
Last year, the University of Massachusetts at Lowell was expected to be a university partner with ISU, building on its researchers’ expertise in polymer processing. As approved by the regents, UMass Lowell has withdrawn and Washington State University, in Pullman, is the new university partner. Washington State researchers focus on composites and polymers.
Increasing biofuel production, of course, also boosts demand for corn (for ethanol) and soybeans. That’s good for farmers.
But increased production can have consequences for the environment. Excess farm chemicals and soil are running off fields and into waterways, contributing to a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico and silting in lakes and rivers.
An ISU project that’s shown success in drastically reducing these unintended harms has gotten a lot of press lately.
It’s called STRIPS, for Science-based Trials of Row-crops Integrated with Prairie Strips. (It’s always amusing how researchers contort project titles to make appropriate acronyms.)
As the name indicates, the idea is to integrate sections of land planted with perennial prairie species into open farm fields, especially on slopes and along low-lying areas. The strips capture water (carrying soil, fertilizer and other farm chemicals) as it runs off from the fields, drastically cutting what goes into creeks, rivers, ponds and lakes.
The team’s experiments, in progress for several years at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, found the strips almost eliminate soil “export” while cutting phosphorus runoff by 90 percent and nitrogen runoff by 85 percent. The strips, meanwhile, increase plant diversity and provide habitat for birds, bees and other pollinators, and other wildlife.
The strips appear to be different from grass filter strips, which are common around the Midwest, because they have native prairie plants instead of just grass, and would be distributed along field contours rather than just along waterways.
In October, the project earned praise from a commentator at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental and antinuclear activist group. A month later, a New York Times contributor called STRIPS “A Sustainable Solution for the Corn Belt.” The Des Moines Register followed up with a piece on STRIPS researcher Matt Helmers earlier this month.
If you have 15 minutes or so, ISU’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, a project partner, has a nifty video:
Many questions remain, of course, including whether farmers will permanently set aside as much as 10 percent of their land for prairie strips. That’s a potential reduction in short-term production and income. In the long run, however, it will pay off in less erosion, better water quality, and more biodiversity.
Researchers are recruiting farmers who want to test the plan and had more than 30 signed up in 2014.
Meanwhile, other research out recently reveals the outsized impact oceans of crops have on the atmosphere.
First, a team of National Science Foundation (NSF) and university researchers reports that crops, especially corn, are responsible for large fluctuations in atmospheric carbon dioxide over the Northern Hemisphere, consuming huge amounts during growth and releasing it after harvest.
An NSF article says the fluctuation has increased by as much as half over the last 50 years and crops may generate up to a quarter of the increase in seasonal carbon cycle activity.
The model used global production statistics for the four biggest crops: corn, wheat, rice and soybeans. Production of the crops has more than doubled since 1961.
Croplands occupy 6 percent of the vegetative land north of the equator but generate a quarter of the increase in seasonal carbon dioxide exchange. Corn, in particular, has “exploded,” one researcher said, accounting for two thirds of the crops’ contribution to increased seasonal carbon exchange.
Crops’ outsized role in carbon dioxide fluctuations caused another researcher to call them “ecosystems on steroids.”
Some of the increase may be attributable to climate change, which has led to things like longer growing seasons, but the scientists aren’t sure what else is behind it.
To me, “ecosystems on steroids” is a good clue. Intensive plant breeding and biotechnology has boosted yield. Crops – with corn leading the way –take up carbon dioxide and water more efficiently. Each stalk produces more grain and new practices let farmers plant more seed per acre.
The NSF researchers recognize this extraordinary increase in production and point out how intensive agriculture increases demands on natural resources, particularly water.
At about the same time in November, NASA released an epic video visualizing a high-resolution computer model of a year’s worth of global carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide emissions.
It’s amazing to see, especially as red and yellow swirls turn to blue, green and gray through spring and summer, then back to red and yellow.
The narration does a great job of explaining what you see. It makes one point repeatedly: Winds carry emissions around the planet. What we produce here doesn’t stay here. That’s why any measures to halt climate change must be enacted globally, making meetings like the one held in Peru last week so important.