Iowa Legislature Plays Politics With Critical Scientific Research Center
By Andrea Basche
There has been unsettling news out of my former home over the last week, as the Iowa legislature plays politics with critical scientific research in the state.
In the closing days of the legislative session, two budget bills moved swiftly that could force the closing of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, a nationally recognized center for sustainable agriculture research. There were also threats to a research center dedicated to mitigating flood impacts (which I wrote about last year for its excellent forecasting that literally helped saved lives), but that appears now to be safe.
A little bit of background: the Leopold Center was established in 1987 by Iowa's Groundwater Protection Act. This law passed as the farm crisis of the 1980's was raging (it is estimated that nearly one-third of the state's farms went out of business) and there was growing recognition of the problems associated with soil degradation and water pollution. Forward-thinking Iowa legislators came up with a funding stream—a small fertilizer and pesticide tax that generates several million dollars a year—to be dedicated to research on alternatives that offset the economic and environmental impacts of agriculture.
The resulting funding stream launched several important research enterprises—for example, a center studying health effects of environmental contaminants at the University of Iowa, long-term agricultural research sites across the state, as well as the Leopold Center, which is based at Iowa State University.
Since that time, the Leopold Center's competitive grants program has funded research that benefits both rural and urban constituents, with projects that range from local food infrastructure to crop diversification to beginner farmer programs. Many of the innovative topics the center has investigated are now widely accepted largely thanks to its efforts, so it's important to recognize how critical this type of rare funding support is for encouraging and spreading transformative ideas.
Research Far and Wide Has Benefited from the Leopold Center
The Leopold Center's research not only supports progress at the state level, but also has direct application to progress on a national level.
Our own research here at the Union of Concerned Scientists has benefited from the Leopold Center's novel work. In our 2016 report, Growing Economies, we evaluated the economic impact of more local food purchasing in the state of Iowa. We were able to do that using survey data generated by the Leopold Center, in which institutional and intermediate food purchasers were asked about their ability to support local food.
And in Subsidizing Waste, we calculated the economic impact of scaling up the integration of perennial vegetation into corn and soybean fields, to save money on water clean-up costs. The STRIPs project has long been supported by funding from the Leopold Center. Finally, a report we're preparing to release next month will detail how a crop rotation system developed at Iowa State and supported by the center could be expanded, spreading economic and environmental benefits across the state and the Corn Belt.
Also, earlier in my career while I was a Ph.D. student at Iowa State University, I received two Leopold Center research grants to study the long-term impacts and farmer adoption of cover crops. That was an invaluable professional development opportunity for me as an early career scientist: from developing the proposal to helping administer the project and to making decisions on dollars spent.
If a research center like this disappears, it would be yet another significant blow in the broader conversation over how much funding goes toward sustainable agriculture. In a recent analysis, we looked at competitive grants programs within the USDA, concluding that agroecological research (similar to projects supported by the Leopold Center) is woefully underfunded, with less than 15 percent of funding going to projects that included any element of this type of work. We need more of this type of research, not less, and nearly 500 Ph.D. level scientists agree.
Lawmaker Claims "Mission Accomplished" in Sustainable Agriculture (LOL!)
An Iowa state representative this week in an interview claimed: "A lot of people felt that the mission for sustainable agriculture that [the Leopold Center] undertook, that they have completed that mission." The same lawmaker also claimed that sustainable agriculture research at Iowa State can continue, but through other channels. These comments either suggest an utter lack of understanding around the reality of sustainable agriculture, or otherwise reveal the politics fueling these budget bills.
The agriculture and natural resources committee budget bill directs the Leopold Center to shut its doors this summer, and directs their funds to another center at Iowa State University. The other center does not currently have a track record of transparently administering research dollars, and has a far narrower scope than the current vision of the Leopold Center.
Comments to the tune of "someone else will do the research" always give me pause. The common thread I've noticed is that research deemed duplicative or unnecessary often simply doesn't jibe with financial interests. It is easy to see that research describing less use of pesticides, for example, might be viewed as controversial to powerful business interests. (Many examples of this already exist!)
Further, to claim "mission accomplished" on sustainable agriculture is laughable, and hints at willful ignorance about the current economic and environment realities in Iowa. They bear similarities to the 1980s: soil erosion and water pollution remain persistent and costly challenges, and farm incomes have been steeply declining for several years.
Research Should Be Free of Interference Even When the Politics Are Thorny
Even though it might not be popular for those with a financial stake in the status quo, the research made possible by the Leopold Center plays a critical role in the future of the state, if not the nation, and has broad public support. So it's hard not to see this incident as part of the larger political attacks on science, with parallels to the Trump Administration's numerous attacks on climate action.
In addition to research funds, the Leopold Center supports a diverse dialogue by bringing in valuable speakers and lectures to Iowa State's campus; I shudder to think how that important dialogue will change if the state legislature votes to close its doors. The center has a successful and important track record benefitting local and national public interests, and I hope it stays that way.
Andrea Basche is a Kendall Science Fellow in the Union of Concerned Scientists Food & Environment program.
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Jean-Marc Neveu and Olivier Civil never expected to find themselves battling against disposable mask pollution.
When they founded their recycling start-up Plaxtil in 2017, it was textile waste they set their sights on. The project developed a process that turned fabrics into a new recyclable material they describe as "ecological plastic."
Mounting Piles of Waste<p>It is not only the streets of Chatellerault where pandemic pollution is piling-up, but also the world's beaches and oceans. Once there, they can take up to 450 years to degrade and disappear.</p><p>Esther Röling, co-organizer of the annual Adventure Clean Up Challenge held on Hong Kong Island, has seen this waste firsthand. In October the sports challenge pitted teams against one another in a competition to remove trash from 13 hard-to-reach coastal areas around the city.</p><p>They find tons of both disposable and reusable masks, said Röling. "You wonder how it ended up there. Was it just thrown on the ground? Or was it in a garbage bag that broke open?"</p><p>Almost 10,000 kilometers away in Antibes on the sunny French Riviera, it's a similar picture. For the past few months, divers and clean-up volunteers working with an ocean clean-up non-profit called Operation Mer Propre have been collecting an increasing number of masks found on land and in the sea.</p><p>"Since the beginning of the lockdown when we started to count, we've reached 800, 900, [and now in total] 1000 masks," said co-founder Joko Peltier. </p><p>According to <a href="https://unctad.org/news/growing-plastic-pollution-wake-covid-19-how-trade-policy-can-help" target="_blank">UN estimates</a>, up to 75% of all coronavirus-related plastic could end up as waste in oceans and landfills.</p>
The Limits of Recycling<p>Yet not all are convinced the recycling of this waste is possible on a global scale. </p><p>"What those citizen groups are doing is really beneficial but once they collect it, it should just go to a landfill or an incinerator. They shouldn't necessarily expect it to get recycled," said Jonathan Krones, an industrial ecologist and visiting assistant professor of environmental studies at Boston College.</p><p>That's because mask recycling programs like Plaxtil are few and far between and most don't have the benefit of a readily adaptable production process. </p><p>Even in countries with solid recycling infrastructure, he says, the system is designed to separate out specific types of waste like bottles or cardboard.</p><p>"I imagine that it would be technically feasible to develop a separation process to filter out masks, but there simply aren't enough of them to make that economical," he said.</p><p>Collection is a big hurdle, he adds. Since each mask only weighs a fraction of a gram and they're scattered on roads or mixed with other trash, it is difficult and costly. </p><p>"You need a lot of raw material of the right quality to make investing in the recycling technology and the recycling system worthwhile," he said.<span></span><br></p>
Hemp, Sugar Cane and Sustainable Alternatives<p>Some projects are instead addressing the material used to make masks.</p><p>French company Geochanvre have created a mask made primarily from hemp, while in Australia, researchers at the Queensland University of Technology are experimenting with a disposable product made from agricultural waste. </p><p>Biodegradable options are exciting alternatives to reduce the fossil fuels needed for the creation of plastic-based masks, said Krones, but they don't absolve the wearer from the responsibility of what happens afterwards. </p><p>Bio-based masks often need their own composing solutions, he explains, because in landfill they can produce high amounts of the greenhouse gas methane when anaerobic bacteria feeds on the organic material. Methane is known to be significantly more potent than carbon dioxide.</p><p>"I think as long as we have in our mind that we want to have disposability, we're going to have to wrestle with a variety of different sorts of environmental tradeoffs," he said, adding that reusable, fabric masks are the best option available to most people.</p><p>Precimask is developing a clear face covering with an optional visor made from hard plastic, designed to be long-lasting.<br></p><p>Air enters either side of the cheeks through a technology normally found in pool filters and car exhaust systems, said company spokeswoman Juliette Chambet.</p><p>"We wanted to make ceramic-based filters that would be washable and cleanable, which would allow them to be reused as many times as desired without having to buy a new consumable or produce waste," she said. </p><p>Ultimately, encouraging mask wearers to think about the entire lifecycle of a mask is key, explains Neveu. </p><p>"We want people who put on the masks to realize that they are also responsible for the waste, he said. "It's not inevitable that this [pandemic] will become an environmental catastrophe.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.dw.com/en/covid-19-recycling-pollution-trash-pandemic/a-55707817" target="_blank">Deutsche Welle</a>.</em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649032193#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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