Thursday, May 22, 2008

U of I's Dan Anderson on recent research about the benefits of organic agriculture

Recent research on the benefits of organic agriculture

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As sales of organic food increase from one year to the next, it is clear that American consumers feel good about organic farming. And the wide variety of organic products available indicates we’ve come a long way since the days of hippie farmers. But questions about organic agriculture linger—is it really better for people and the environment? And does it represent a realistic alternative to the conventional systems developed over the course of the 20th century?

I attended a talk last week by Dan Anderson, who’s a research specialist in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at the U of I and Chair of the Illinois Sustainable Agriculture Committee. In his talk, Anderson addressed three questions that are often raised about organic agriculture, with reference to recent studies that lend support to the good feelings people have about organic production with university research.

The first question Anderson addressed was whether organic food promotes human health. The answer to this is “yes,” at least in one significant respect. Researchers who studied the content of certain cancer-fighting compounds in tomatoes over a ten year period found significantly higher concentrations in those that were produced organically.*

The second question Anderson addressed was whether organic agriculture is less productive than conventional farming, which is an important consideration given the pressure worldwide to convert more and more land to human use. He answered this question with reference to a paper that brings together information from recent studies of corn, soybeans, wheat and tomatoes. In each of the studies cited, the productivity of organic systems was comparable to that of conventional systems—no lower than 94 % in any case. ** Anderson emphasized that this level of productivity in organic agriculture has been achieved with only miniscule support for research, noting that less than 1% of agricultural research funding goes to work on organic practices.

The third question Anderson addressed was how organic agriculture benefits the environment. In response he cited studies that show organic farms support a greater diversity of pollinators than conventional farms, which is especially important now, as both honeybees and wild bees that are native to North America seem to be in steep decline. Anderson also noted that organic production does not pollute waterways in the same manner as conventional production, and cited other studies showing that organic agriculture uses less energy per unit of output than conventional production, so it has a smaller carbon footprint.***

Despite all of the benefits he cited, Anderson does not envision organic agriculture replacing conventional farming practices altogether in the United States any time soon. He noted that while it is possible to grow row crops organically using all of the same equipment used in conventional farming, the change is not so easy when it comes to producing fruits and vegetables. That’s because producing fruits and vegetables by organic methods currently requires much more human labor than conventional methods.

You can link to video of the talk referred to here via the website of the Waste Management Research Center, which hosted it, at

You can learn more about support for organic agriculture at the U of I beginning at the home page for the Agroecology and Sustainable Agriculture Program.

A forum conducted by the Illinois Local and Organic Food and Farm Task Force regarding the food system in Illinois will take place this Wednesday, May 28, 2008, from 7:00 – 9:00 P.M. at the Urbana Civic Center. The public is invited to hear from experts on the panel and to voice their interests and concerns for inclusion in a report that will be delivered to the Illinois General Assembly later this year. For more information about the forum, please contact Lisa Bralts at (217) 384-2319 or at .

References from Dan Anderson's talk:

* 2007. A. E. Mitchell, Yun-JeongHong, EunmiKoh, D. M. Barrett, D. E.Bryant, R. Ford Denison, and S. Kaffka. Ten-Year Comparison of the Influence of Organic and Conventional Crop Management Practices on the Content of Flavonoids in Tomatoes. J. of Agric. and Food Chem. American Chemical Soc.

** 2001. Bill Liebhardt. Get the facts straight: organic agriculture yields are good. OFRF Information Bulletin, Summer 2001, #10.

2008. J.L. Posner, J.O. Baldockand J.L. Hedtcke. Organic and Conventional Production Systems in the Wisconsin Integrated Cropping Systems Trials: I. Productivity 1990–2002. Agron Journal, 100: 253.

*** 2008. Holzschuh A., Steffan-DewenterI., Tscharntke T. Agricultural landscapes with organic crops support higher pollinator diversity. Oikos. 117: 354-361.

2008. Rundolf M., Nilsson H., Smith H. Interaction effects of farming practice and landscape context on bumble bees. Biological Conservation 141: 417-26.

2007. Ziesemer, Jodi. Energy Use in Organic Food Systems. Natural Resources Management and Environment Department Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Enjoying spring warbler migration

Enjoying spring warbler migration

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Have you noticed friends or coworkers looking a little sleep-deprived lately? Perhaps these same people complain of a sore neck, and look past you into the trees while you’re talking. You may be encountering birders caught up in the excitement of spring migration.

Sure, a variety of birds have been migrating through central Illinois since February. During the late winter and early spring approximately 240 species of birds belonging to 39 families pass this way. But for most birders, the highlight of spring is songbird migration, and that becomes most intense in the next couple of weeks.

There are great numbers of birds and a great variety of species represented in this wave. According to Dave Enstrom of the Illinois Natural History Survey in Champaign, hundreds of thousands of individuals belonging to over 120 species move through or into central Illinois at this time.

Most exciting among these are members of a family of birds known as warblers. [The hooded warbler, right, was photographed at Busey Woods in Urbana by Greg Lambeth. Click here to see Greg's other bird photos.] These are strikingly beautiful little birds that average only about a third of an ounce in weight. Although they are small, warblers migrate long distances, from wintering ranges in Mexico, Central, and South America to breeding areas in the U.S. and Canada.

As they move north, warblers feed on insects, especially the caterpillars, bees and wasps that populate the crowns of trees as they flower and leaf out. (This habit of the birds accounts for “warbler neck” among birders who spend too much time looking up at them.)

Although 20 species of warblers breed in Illinois, only 7 species nest in Champaign County. Most individuals of the 37 warbler species that occur in Illinois are just passing through on their way further north.

Ironically, the highly fragmented nature of the central Illinois landscape makes for great warbler watching. Migrating birds that need trees to feed in when they stop are concentrated in urban areas and the isolated woodlands that remain here.

It seems almost foolish to try to describe in words the vivid beauty that prompts birders to get out before sunrise day after day. Some warblers are all about color. The blackburnian warbler’s throat and head, for instance, exhibit such a bright combination of orange and yellow that it looks to be on fire. [Click here to see photo and species account at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" website.] And the cerulean warbler—well, if you’ve only experienced “cerulean” as the color of a crayon, you’ve got to see this bird.

Other warblers are about patterns. The aptly named black and white warbler, for example, makes up for its lack of color in the same way a zebra does, by sporting stripes so bold they appear to be painted.

If you’re new to birding, or just interested in getting out with people who share your enthusiasm, you might want to check out the Sunday morning bird walks hosted by the Champaign County Audubon Society at Busey Woods in Urbana. Walks start out from the parking lot of the Anita Purves Nature center at 7:30 a.m. and last until about 9:00.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Preserving biodiversity begins with native plants at home

Preserving biodiversity begins with native plants at home

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There’s something very particular about the diet of monarch butterfly caterpillars, and I bet if you give yourself a moment you can recall it. (If you can’t, just ask the nearest elementary school student.) That’s right, monarch caterpillars feed only on plants in the milkweed family. In doing so they obtain both the nutrients they need to grow and a chemical defense system, since milkweeds contain compounds that are toxic and distasteful to insect eating creatures.

Now ask yourself this: are there any plants in my yard that will sustain monarch caterpillars?

I raise the question in order to introduce a book I’ve been reading lately, called Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens. It’s written by Douglas Tallamy, who is a professor of entomology at the University of Delaware. Tallamy argues convincingly that the preservation of biodiversity in North America must begin at home, with the use of native plants in our yards.

You are probably familiar with some other reasons for using native plants in home landscaping, and Tallamy acknowledges these. Unlike many exotic species, native plants thrive without supplemental watering or the use of fertilizers and pesticides, and so provide us enjoyment without depleting or degrading our water resources. But for Tallamy it is crucial that people come to understand the ecological significance of the choices they make when they plant.

He emphasizes, first, how much of the American landscape has been transformed by agriculture and urban and suburban development. “As far as our wildlife is concerned,” he writes, “we have shrunk the continental United States to 1/20th its original size.” A straightforward ecological calculation tells us that little fragment will support only 5% of the species that were found here when Europeans first arrived.

Thus the only way we can hope to slow the trend toward extinction is to begin remaking our urban and suburban landscapes with native plants. Native plants, in turn, support native insects, which are the key to survival for all other species.

If you’re interested in reading more about the why of landscaping with native plants, I encourage you to pick up a copy of Bringing Nature Home. It really is an eye-opening book.

If you’re ready to start on the how, of landscaping with native plants let me introduce you to two local resources. The first is a book published by University of Illinois Extension, called Native Plants in the Home Landscape for the Upper Midwest. This book describes a wide variety of native wildflowers, grasses, trees, and shrubs that work well in home landscapes and provides specific plans for installing them in gardens that look great, too.

The second local resource you should be aware of is a conservation group, Grand Prairie Friends. Each Spring they grow and sell native plants to raise funds for their efforts and promote biodiversity in our area. The Grand Prairie Friends Native Prairie Plant and Woodland Wildflower sale will take place this Saturday, May 10th, at Lincoln Square Village in Urbana.

Among the plants you can purchase there, few are more beautiful than butterfly milkweed. And if you plant some of that in your yard, you will know where to look for Monarch caterpillars this summer.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Impact of ethanol production in Champaign on Upper Kaskaskia and Mahomet Aquifer

Impact of ethanol production in Champaign on Upper Kaskaskia and Mahomet Aquifer

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Correction: This evening's meeting will take place in Building D (south side of campus), Room D244, Parkland College in Champaign.

Next Monday evening, May 5th, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency will conduct a public hearing regarding a proposed permit for the discharge of wastewater by the new ethanol plant under development in northwest Champaign. It is fortunate that, thanks to the federal Clean Water Act, the public has the opportunity to weigh in on this matter, since the discharge from the plant will enter the Upper Kaskaskia, and so impact a river that stretches 320 miles, from Champaign to the Mississippi.

For now, the land adjoining the Kaskaskia just west of Champaign is still producing corn and soybeans, but there is less than a mile between the stream and the nearest newly constructed houses. If the developers’ signs that recently went up near Rising Road are an indicator, it won’t be long before backyards or businesses replace farming there, bringing people into contact with the water.

The discharge from the Andersons ethanol plant will affect the Kaskaskia in three important ways. First, it will increase stream flow significantly, by about 720,000 gallons a day. (That means during the three months of the year stream flow is lowest, effluent from the plant will account for more than half of the stream.) Second, it will introduce a number of contaminants to the stream, including arsenic, boron, chlorides, iron, manganese, sulfates, and suspended solids. Third, it will raise the temperature of the stream, since it will be discharged from the plant at about 90° F. That’s especially a concern in summer, when low flows and nutrient pollution already combine to promote excess algae growth, resulting in degraded conditions for fish and other aquatic life.

Now, while it’s important that people work to safeguard the public interest as Illinois EPA develops wastewater discharge permits for ethanol plants, it’s even more important that we support the development of public policy concerning how water resources are allocated.

Currently in Illinois, there are no disincentives to using enormous quantities of water in ethanol production. Nationwide, the industry standard is moving downward, toward about three gallons of water per gallon of fuel produced, but it is anticipated that the plant in northwest Champaign will use more like six gallons of water per gallon of ethanol. That will mean pumping about 2 million gallons a day from the Mahomet Aquifer, some of the highest quality water on earth. That’s an increase of nearly 10% over the total amount currently used by Champaign, Urbana, and nearby communities combined.

While the aquifer can likely accommodate this particular additional use, the day is coming when the demand for water will outstrip supply in east central Illinois, as it has already in so many other places around the country and the world. And even before then, it’s quite possible that increased pumping could degrade the aquifer in other ways, by making it vulnerable to contamination with surface water pollutants, or mobilizing naturally occurring arsenic within it.

We owe it to future generations to develop state policy on water use before more serious conflicts arise. And, to return to my earlier point, we owe it to ourselves to participate in the public process EPA conducts as it develops wastewater discharge permits.

You can take part in the public hearing on the discharge permit for the Andersons ethanol plant on Monday, May 5th, at 6:00 p.m. in Building D (south side of campus), Room D244, Parkland College in Champaign.