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Biofuels and the Fiction of the Average Farm

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BY JOHN SHEEHAN

Several years ago, Gevo Inc., which operates a biorefinery in Luverne, Minn., approached the University of Minnesota with what seems like an obvious question: How sustainable is the corn it uses in its southwestern facility?
 
I say "obvious" because almost everyone (experts and nonexperts alike) thinks they already know the answer. It seems like we take it for granted that fuels and chemicals made from corn are a "bad idea" because of corn's apparently large carbon footprint, which Argonne National Lab estimates to be 371 grams CO2 per kilogram of corn harvested on average in the U.S.

50 Ways to Leave Your Food

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Did you know that nearly half the American food supply gets neglected or outright rejected?

Love Letter to Food, the latest video from MinuteEarth, laments the myriad abuses suffered by food because the convenience of wasting it outweighs the cost.

The video is based on a new issue brief by Alex Reich, a graduate research assistant at Institute on the Environment and one of the creators of MinuteEarth, and IonE director Jonathan Foley. Among other things, the brief, Food Loss and Waste in the U.S.: The Science Behind the Supply Chain, reports that roughly 40 percent of the U.S. food supply is never eaten, with much of the waste occurring when edible food is discarded at home or in restaurants and cafeterias.

MinuteEarth offers mini science lessons via YouTube to engage the general public in science and environmental issues.


 



Common Ground

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This article is part of a series of profiles of IonE resident fellows highlighting the value of their collaborations across the U of M, Minnesota and the world.

Conventional wisdom has it that farmers and conservationists don't see eye to eye. Conservationists want to see farmers plant diverse vegetation, in addition to crops like corn and soybeans, that produces ecosystem services; farmers' main priority is earning a living. Right?

"Farmers care just as much about the environment as anyone, but there are financial realities," says Nick Jordan, a resident fellow with the Institute on the Environment and an agroecology professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences.

Tim Gieseke, a fourth-generation Minnesota farmer with a background in environmental science, explains that it's just not that easy to plant multiple crops on a landscape. "Adding crops means more work, more equipment, more time. Plus, lots of third- and fourth-generation farmers don't know how to grow crops other than the ones they've been growing," says Gieseke. "The level of expertise for the crop they know is high and the margin of error is tight. You only get one season, one chance."

How can these interests be reconciled? With the help of two cool technologies, Jordan and a cross-disciplinary team from the University of Minnesota are bringing farmers and conservationists together in an attempt to satisfy both economic and environmental bottom lines.

Suppers Sow Inspiration for Campus Garden

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BY TASHI GURUNG & ELIZABETH TOLLEFSON
 
A series called "Garden Suppers" launched in January on the Crookston campus of the University of Minnesota that aims to sow inspiration for a campus garden. The IonE-sponsored events, featuring guest speakers and brainstorming activities, seek to engage students, faculty and community members in the project.

Turning Wind Into Fertilizer

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Minnesota farmers spend more than $400 million per year on nitrogen fertilizer. To keep more dollars in the Gopher State and reduce fossil fuel consumption in agriculture, the University of Minnesota's West Central Research and Outreach Center is using wind energy to produce anhydrous ammonia that can be used as fertilizer. The project was funded through an IonE Initiative for Renewable Energy & the Environment grant. 

Kaler's Spotlight Shines on IonE Projects

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In University of Minnesota president Eric Kaler's year-at-a-glance video on U of M achievements, several IonE-affiliated projects get the spotlight.

A MODEL OF COLLABORATION - The Resilient Communities Project is an initiative of the U's Sustainable Faculty Networkwith funding and administrative support provided by IonE and the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs. In its second year RCP is partnering with the city of North St. Paul to address community-identified sustainability projects. 

HIGH NOTES -  Daniel Crawford, College of Liberal Arts undergraduate; Scott St. George, IonE resident fellow and professor of geography, College of Liberal Arts; and Todd Reubold, IonE director of communications, put their heads together to develop "A Song of Our Warming Planet," which sets climate change data to music.

ALL THE MORE POWER - The University of Minnesota Morris - West Central Research and Outreach Center project that uses wind energy to produce anhydrous ammonia that can be used as fertilizer was funded through an IonE Initiative for Renewable Energy & the Environment grant. The project is part of a larger goal to reduce fossil fuel consumption in agriculture. 

Connections not featured in the video but ones of which we are equally proud are UMD's Large Lakes Observatory, which is supported by IonE, and Sarah Hobbie, who is an IonE resident fellow. Both are listed on the president's "2013 A Year to Remember" Web page.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.

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