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The future of American food: A discussion between land and sea.

By  Paul Greenberg, David Brandt and Lance Nacio 8/4/2020

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, goes the saying. Pre-2020, many people who produce this nation’s food might have argued that American agriculture and seafood was anything but broke. On land, the efficient American farmer grows more calories per person than just about any farmer anywhere on earth: U.S. farmers crank out more corn and beef than any nation in the world, are the No. 2 producer of soybeans, and rank in the top four nations for overall tonnage of wheat, pork, and chicken.

At sea, they’re no slouches either. The United States harvests 8 billion pounds of wild fish and shellfish yearly, putting it in a not-too-shabby fourth place globally. All this despite an aging agricultural and fishery workforce that has been losing labor to retirement year after year.

But in 2020, business-as-usual became unusual business. Trade disputes and COVID-driven disruption of international markets flattened sales of core U.S. commodities. This flattening came at a time when corn and soy prices had already dropped sharply off their 2010s highs. Today, American farmers get about half of what they got for a bushel of corn or beans a decade ago.

At sea, too, a tide of problems washed over American food producers in 2020. About 70% of fish in the United States is sold in restaurants. With those markets effectively shuttered, a major disruption rippled its way backward from diner to dock.

All this while, the conditions to farm and fish got tougher. In the last decade, average temperatures in the country’s agricultural heartland rose significantly and precipitation became wild and hard to predict. Meanwhile, at sea, the hypoxia area or dead zone in the continental United States’ most important fishing grounds in the Gulf of Mexico, at the receiving end of most of the nation’s agricultural runoff, grew by more than a third.

Now, as the country tries to find its bearings and producers survey the changed landscape, two seasoned American producers, one on land and one at sea, tell what they think the future holds for American food. Neither is a doomsayer, but both share a belief that a major rethink is in order. With the goal to feed Americans the healthiest food possible, while contributing the most toward profitable agriculture and fisheries, here is a boiled-down version of their thoughts.

LAND

On David Brandt’s farm in Fairfield County, Ohio, in mid-July, the temperature outside is 101°F., but Brandt wasn’t sweating it too hard. His soil temperature is steady at 87°F., while soil on conventional farms in the region roast at a withering 122°F. (Corn tends to shut down and go on the defensive when soil temps top 90°F.)

The reason for this difference, and for Brandt’s overall resilience in the face of 2020’s various crises, is that a long while back he decided to focus on cutting costs rather than boosting harvests. Beginning in 1971, Brandt started shifting his 900 acres from a standard till-and-sow, corn-on-soy rotation to one that puts soil health first.

“Behind corn we plant rye,” he says. “Then comes soy and then small grains and from small grains we go back to corn. We want to loosen that soil. We want our legume crops to catch as much atmospheric nitrogen as possible and put it in the root zone. With the ground covered, we eliminate soil loss to almost zero.”

Brandt does all this cover cropping and soil management not for some hazy hope of helping the environment, but because in the end it’s the best thing for the bottom line. Altogether, the combination of no-till and cover crops saves Brandt something like 60% of his fertilizer and other input costs.

“We are the exception,” Brandt says. “Most farmers are afraid of losing yield. We are not driven by yield – we are driven by cost and return on investment.”

Brandt’s fixation with cost reduction may be the thing that can help lead farmers out of their present quandary. While commodity prices often fall, cost of production nearly always increases. So, as Brandt sees it, even if farmers continue to get better yields out of their lands, the costs, in the end, can easily eat up whatever profits those increased yields might bring.

All of this does indeed bring a tremendous environmental benefit to ecosystems downstream from his farm, and Brandt looks at it as simple common sense.

“It’s in interest to all producers to keep soil on the farm. If we keep filling the Mississippi with sediment, how are we going to ship our crops to market?” Brandt points to the fact that the average Ohio farm loses 3 pounds of soil for every pound of soy beans they produce. “How long can we keep this up?” he asks.

So why aren’t more farmers in Ohio and throughout America’s corn and soy heartland pursuing a cost-saving rather than a yield-boosting strategy?

“It’s not easy to use cover crops,” Brandt explains. “The fields don’t look pretty. Farmers don’t like to see yellow cover crop plants in the field. Or weeds for that matter. For years we’ve been told we could not have one weed in the field and as far as I’m concerned, that’s wrong.”

But Brandt is hopeful that the tide is turning. “The big factor is education. We are getting more and more producers thinking about cover cropping and no-till mainly because the return on investment in business as usual has not been there. Commodities are in the toilet. Guys are strapped. And now, finally we are starting to see a lot of farmers making changes. Even if they just do one cover crop, rye for example – that saves one pass with herbicides.”

And then once they quit using tillage, Brandt adds, they see even more savings in terms of fuel. “The return they’ll see,” Brandt concludes, “is in the fall when they see what’s in the bank.”

SEA 

About 1,100 miles south of David Brandt, Lance Nacio works the northern Gulf of Mexico with two vessels – one outfitted for shrimp, the other targeting reef fish like yellow edge grouper, snapper, and amberjack. Like Brandt, Nacio has been in the food production business for decades.

And like Brandt, Nacio has felt the bite of emphasizing big yields over efficiency. Every year right around this time, a hypoxia area, more commonly known as a dead zone, has been forming in the Gulf. The dead zone forms when water rich in nitrogen from fertilizers triggers algae blooms which in turn die and suck in oxygen when bacteria gobble it up. Last year the Gulf dead zone reached a record size of 6,952 square miles, bigger than the state of Connecticut.

“It’s consistently a problem,” Nacio says. “But last year we were really struggling. The fishing was horrible. The color of the water is the big indicator. When it’s green, that means trouble. Normally we can get out past that green into the blue. But last year everywhere we were going was green. We were really struggling to find places to fish.”

And just like farmers to the north who have huge outlays of cost before a single ear of corn goes through the harvester, Nacio has to put a lot of cash out before a single fish hits the deck. “I have to pay $75,000 to lease quota and then $8,000 on top of that in fish taxes. That’s more than $80,000 right off the top.”

The dead zone makes that off-the-top bite even bigger. “We should be able to shrimp close in. But when the dead zone hugs up against the shore, you can’t find shrimp to save your life. Oftentimes that means we have to make a 20-mile steam out to sea. That definitely adds to cost.” 

True, fishermen got a slight break this past month when hurricane Hanna moved through the Gulf and mixed oxygen into normally hypoxic water, but the 2020 dead zone still ended up bigger than the state of Rhode Island. 

And while Nacio is not one to cast aspersions at his fellow food producers, he increasingly feels exasperated by a situation where the nation seems to rob Peter to pay Paul. He thinks it doesn’t have to be that way.

“If agriculture can minimize the nitrogen runoff and we can get better water out of the Mississippi, it would help prevent the hypoxic zone and would create more life in the gulf. Normally fresh river water is good for the gulf and the health of estuaries. But what we don’t want is hypoxic water. We need fresh water to mix with saltwater – that creates the conditions where things grow. If they could clean the river, it would be a big help.”

But there’s another aspect to this robbing Peter/paying Paul dynamic that Nacio feels needs to be addressed that goes back to the emphasis on yields rather than good ag policy. Because, even as he feels the pinch from dead-zone-induced fisheries damage, Nacio is also crimped by competitors in Asia. Even though the U.S. controls more ocean than any country on earth, something like 80% to 90% of the fish and shellfish Americans eat is coming from abroad. A large portion of that foreign seafood is farmed in Asia. And what do farmers in Asia feed all of that shrimp and fish that they farm? Quite often American soy.

Asian producers further cut costs and make competing difficult by resorting to a number of different strategies that wouldn’t be allowed here in the U.S.

“We really need to level the playing field,” Nacio says. “We need to hold imports accountable. We need to regulate seafood from countries that use slave labor, banned substances, and antibiotics. There was even a story recently where shrimp coming from Ecuador was turned away because the packaging was infected with COVID.”

Speaking of COVID, the pandemic was just one more blow to Nacio’s bottom line. With restaurant orders coming from New Orleans and other big cities nearby grinding to a halt, Nacio has had to rethink distribution, pairing up with other small fishing operations elsewhere in the country to try to offer a direct-to-consumer model.

THE FUTURE

There is no shortage of food in America and no shortage of enthusiasm to bring healthy things to eat to American plates. But both David Brandt and Lance Nacio agree that the current way we’re treating land and sea has to be changed if we’re to get the most benefit for the most Americans. Those changes range from things David Brandt is already doing like using cover crops, limiting tilling, and managing water precisely on his farm.

Changes could also include thinking about what we grow, what we export, and what we import. Do corn and soy have to be the only two crops grown by so many American farmers? Could we start to think about diversifying the agricultural portfolio of the heartland? As temperatures rise, so many more things could be grown in Ohio and elsewhere that currently are deficit items in the American trade portfolio. Fruits, vegetables, and a range of specialty crops could easily work in Midwestern soil.

At sea, do we have to continue to be a seafood debtor, importing so much shrimp and fish from China and the rest of the world? Could we start to treat our home waters better and give American fishermen a leg up in the market so that they could sell their products to their fellow Americans in a fair economic environment?

Could we give American seafood a further helping hand by speeding American fish to the American consumers through new models of distribution and direct-to-consumer methods that Nacio and a few other people are just beginning to employ?

Yes, we can. The hard truth about American food has been laid bare by the multiple crises of 2020. Unfortunately, it is broken. But fortunately, we can fix it.

Published by Successful Farming 8/4/20 https://www.agriculture.com/farm-management/the-future-of-american-food-a-discussion-between-land-and-sea

Lost Cities, an Interactive Coral Documentary Funded with a Grant from the HWH Foundation, Receives Multiple Awards

Originally published by the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. Original article available here.

Lost Cities, interactive coral documentary, wins awards and recognition

Posted on May 21, 2020 by Marcie Grabowski

The interactive coral documentary Lost Cities, a collaboration between Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology’s (HIMB) Gates Coral LabCaravanLab and Belle & Wissell Co, is racking up awards and recognition.

At the International Wildlife Film Festivalheld virtually in April 2020, Lost Cities was selected as the winner of the “New Visions” category.

Just this week, Lost Cities was announced as the winner of the Webby award in the Science category. The Webby awards “honor the best of the internet” and are voted on by the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences. The Academy is comprised of Executive Members—leading Internet experts, business figures, luminaries, visionaries and creative celebrities—and Associate Members who are former Webby Winners, Nominees and other Internet professionals.

Lost Cities has also been named a finalist in the Raw Science Film Festival and shortlisted for the Best Educational Media Award. Results of those nominations are forthcoming.

Released in 2019, the production uses the web to create an interactive experience. Viewers can move through 13 short films in the order they choose, and access entry points to dive deeper into the themes through additional clips and photographs.

Read the related 2019 UH News story.  

From the stunning, rarely-seen inner world of a single coral to massive reef structures visible from space, the story takes viewers underwater and into the lab to explore corals and their connections to us.

The film also contains the last recorded interview with Ruth Gates, a powerful and visionary voice for corals who died in 2018 while serving as director and researcher at HIMB at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.

Lost Cities was funded by Pamela Omidyar, Bill Price and the Herbert W. Hoover Foundation.

Rattan Lal, HWHF Funded Soil Scientist, Receives Prestigious World Food Prize

Originally published by Farm and Dairy. Original article available here.

Ohio State scientist Rattan Lal wins World Food Prize

June 12, 2020

Rattan Lal
Rattan Lal is the first from Ohio State University to be awarded the World Food Prize. He was recognized for his work in increasing the global food supply by helping small farmers improve their soil. (Photo courtesy of Ohio State University)

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A soil scientist at Ohio State University whose research spans five continents was awarded this year’s World Food Prize for increasing the global food supply by helping small farmers improve their soil.

Over five decades, Rattan Lal, a distinguished university professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, has reduced hunger by pioneering agricultural methods across the globe that not only restore degraded soil but also reduce global warming.

“Every year we are astounded by the quality of nominations for the prize, but Dr. Lal’s stellar work on management and conservation of agriculture’s most cherished natural resource, the soil, set him apart,” said Gebisa Ejeta, chair of the World Food Prize Selection Committee and 2009 recipient of the award issued by the World Food Prize Foundation based in Iowa.

“The impact of his research and advocacy on sustainability of agriculture and the environment cannot be overstressed,” Ejeta said.

Big impact

Beginning in the 1970s with his research in West Africa, Lal has discovered ways to reduce deforestation, control soil erosion, and enrich soil by managing a critical element in the soil: organic carbon.

His research has provided the scientific foundation to show that soil can not only solve the global challenge of food insecurity but also global warming. As the 2020 winner of the World Food Prize announced via webcast, Lal was awarded $250,000, which he will donate for future soil research and education. He is the first at Ohio State to receive the award.

“It is a privilege and honor to be of service to the many small farmers from around the world because I was one of them. They are stewards of the land. They are the ones with the tremendous challenge of feeding the world,” said Lal, who is founding director of the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center in CFAES at Ohio State.

Lal was listed by Thomson Reuters as among the top 1% of the most-cited scientists in agriculture for the 2014 to 2019 period and among the world’s most influential scientific minds in 2015.

A faculty member at Ohio State for 33 years, Lal was recognized for his contributions to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former U.S. Vice President Al Gore.

In 2019, Lal became the first soil scientist and the first person at Ohio State to receive the Japan Prize. A year before, he received the 2018 World Agriculture Prize and the 2018 Glinka World Soil Prize.

Life story

Beyond Lal’s worldwide contributions to soil health, one of his more remarkable aspects is the trajectory of his life. At age 5, he and his family left west Punjab, resettling in northern India, as refugees, in a village without electricity. There, he and his family worked a small 7-acre farm using oxen. Drought was frequent and temperatures brutally hot. On that farm, Lal came to realize that soil can play a critical role in creating a buffer against harsh conditions by holding onto water and nutrients.

While his elder siblings ran the family farm, Lal was the only one who had a chance to go to school, the only one in his family who learned to read and write. Making the most of that opportunity, Lal pursued the education and research that have allowed him to have an impact on how policy makers and farmers across the world think about and treat soil.

In the 1990s, Lal co-wrote the first documented report showing how restoring degraded soil by taking in carbon dioxide from the air not only improved the soil but also defended against rising levels of carbon dioxide.

In the decades before and since, Lal has promoted agricultural practices that optimize the soil’s ability to act as a sponge, soaking up carbon dioxide in the air through photosynthesis, and returning it to the soil when the plant decomposes. This in turn enriches the soil, making it more conducive to growing crops.

His work

The techniques Lal has advocated include eliminating plowing, retaining crop residue left after harvest, planting cover crops, minimizing the use of chemical fertilizers, and setting aside land and water for nature, rather than for agriculture or other purposes. Each practice comes at low cost, affordable even to farmers in the developing world.

The agricultural practices Lal has promoted are now at the heart of efforts to improve agriculture systems in the tropics and globally. Lal’s research began in 1963 with studies on low corn production in India.

Working with farmers in Asia, Africa, and Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s, Lal introduced changes to the common practice of cutting down and burning swaths of trees, causing erosion of valuable topsoil. During a 10-year project that began in 2000, Lal worked with farm communities across India to promote adoption of best management practices to enhance and sustain production.

Along with his research, Lal has partnered with international and national policy makers as well as industries to increase carbon in the soil and prevent fields from eroding, keeping both sediment and chemicals from getting into nearby waterways.

All of Lal’s work has been guided by one principle: The health of soil, plants, animals, people, and the environment all depend on each other. “When the health of soil degrades, it creates a domino effect,” Lal said. “Restoring soil health is essential to restoring human health.”

New Study Shows More Than 1,000 Tons of Plastic Dust Lands on U.S. National Parks Each Year

Originally published by American Association for the Advancement of Science. Original article available here.

Plastic dust is blowing into U.S. national parks—more than 1000 tons each year

By Erik Stokstad Jun. 11, 2020 , 5:30 PM

Remote wilderness areas and national parks in the western United States are getting a dusting of plastic every year, perhaps 1000 tons or more, according to a new study. Up to one-quarter of the microscopic pieces of plastic—which come from carpets, clothing, and even spray paint—may originate in storms passing over nearby cities, whereas the rest likely comes from farther flung locations. The findings, the first to tease apart geographic origins, add to mounting evidence that such microplastic pollution is common worldwide.

“We created something that won’t go away,” says Janice Brahney, a biogeochemist at Utah State University and lead author on the new paper. “It’s now circulating around the globe.”

Brahney didn’t set out to track plastic pollution. Instead, she wanted to study how wind-blown dust delivers nutrients to ecosystems. So, she set up a pilot study with the National Atmospheric Deposition Program to collect such dust at a network of weather stations usually used to sample rainwater across the United States, mostly in remote locations.

Looking at samples from 11 remote areas in the western United States, including the Grand Canyon and Joshua Tree National Park, Brahney noticed brightly colored fragments under the microscope. “I realized that I was looking at deposition of plastics, which was really shocking.” Brahney didn’t have funding to study microplastic pollution, so she did the analysis on her own time, spending a “very long and stressful year” of evenings and weekends counting nearly 15,000 tiny pieces—most of them less than one-third the width of a human hair.

Brahney found a lot of tiny fibers, likely from clothes, carpets, and other textiles. She also found minuscule particles, about 30% of which were brightly colored spheres. Smaller than the plastic microbeads that have been used in cosmetics and other personal care products, the spheres are components of paints that might be released to the atmosphere during spray painting, she says.

Microplastic beads, like this one on the tip of tweezers, are used in paint. JANICE BRAHNEY/UTAH STATE UNIVERSITY 

Chelsea Rochman, an ecologist at the University of Toronto who studies microplastics, calls that finding “striking.” The paints are “a whole new source that hasn’t really been discussed before.”

The remaining 70% of the particles were harder to classify. So Brahney and a colleague turned to a technique called Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy to analyze those particles and the fibers. It showed that the samples contained on average 4% plastic. “That number blew us away,” says Brahney, who had expected less than 1%.

After running the numbers, Brahney and her colleagues estimated that about 132 pieces of microplastic land on every square meter of wilderness each day. That adds up to more than 1000 tons of plastic per year across national parks and other protected areas of the western United States—the equivalent of 300 million plastic water bottles, they report today in Science. Other studies have found similar amounts of microplastics in remote locations, including Europe’s Pyrenees Mountains and in Arctic. But the new study has far more detailed data, which helped Brahney in her next step: figuring out where the plastic was coming from.

To do that, Brahney used a weather model to identify the paths of storms for 48 hours before they reached the sampling sites. Storms that had passed over or near large cities carried more microplastic than other storms, she found. The largest amounts were carried in storms that had passed over Denver; these storms deposited 14 times as much microplastic in the Rocky Mountain National Park sample station as storms that came from other directions. The pieces of microplastic were also larger than those that settled out of the air in dry weather, suggesting the strong winds of the storms had picked up the heavier pieces.

Brahney says most of the plastic is likely coming from more distant locations, brought in via high-altitude winds rather than regional rainstorms. About 75% of the plastic was deposited during dry rather than rainy weather. Those pieces tended to be smaller—the size of extremely fine dust, which can travel for thousands of kilometers. In addition, the deposition patterns showed some influence of the jet stream. Higher elevation sites also tended to have more microplastic, further implying that the particles move high in the atmosphere—and may circulate globally.

Rochman calls this piece of the study the “wow” part. Trying to understand the patterns and processes of how microplastics move around the globe is only just beginning, she says.

Brahney is now working with atmospheric scientists who specialize in dust transport to study such questions as how plastic particles move through the atmosphere, where they might come from, and how much could be in the air. Much of this microplastic might have been circulating for years, if not decades, she says. The particles may have first settled in farm fields, or deserts, or the ocean and then have been picked up again by winds as part of a global “plastic cycle.”

Ocean Health Voyage, an Online Educational Platform Created with Funding from HWHF, Offered to Members of the Hemispheric University Consortium

Original press release available here.

Cinematic voyage across the globe’s oceans captivates and educates


The Ocean Health Voyage, an online educational platform produced by a University of Miami professor and award-winning filmmaker, is now offered to members of the Hemispheric University Consortium. 

For two years, Ali Habashi, an award-winning filmmaker and assistant professor at the University of Miami School of Communication, set off to meet with 10 world-renowned marine biologists in 10 remote locations around the globe in order to unearth stories about the health of the world’s oceans. 

Even as Habashi moved from country to country, through thrilling helicopter rides and deep-sea dives, his goal always remained clear. The project had to be more than just a visually pleasing production; it had to leave a lasting impression on his audience. 

“As a filmmaker, you always have to think about who is going to watch and the type of impact your work is going to have. There’s no point in creating something that’s going to be forgotten in a day,” said Habashi.

“When it comes to addressing challenges such as environmental or global public health issues or climate change, we need to find ways to reach all the students no matter if they’re studying at the School of Communication, College of Engineering, School of Education and Human Development, or Miami Herbert Business School. They all need to have that essential education,” he added.

“So,” Habashi continued, “part of the innovation here is to create a sustainable framework where we as communicators and filmmakers can incorporate our cinematic skillset to capture the inspiration that drives a distinguished researcher dealing with such issues in a distant location and bring that global experience to our students across the hemisphere. The new generation of students are hardly willing to settle for anything less.”

With funding from the Herbert W. Hoover Foundation, the hundreds of hours of footage Habashi collected on his journey culminated in the making of Ocean Health Voyage, an innovative educational online platform that weaves a modular syllabus with adventurous documentary-style films.

As Habashi explained, the educational cinematic experience features marine researchers on-site from field locations, above and underwater, as they teach fundamental ocean science and shine a light on the real-life complexities of working with stakeholders, finding solutions for balancing resource consumption, and conservation.

“Re-channeling the energy it takes to tackle a global film and incorporating high-caliber documentary media into an innovative online platform, which can then be experienced and meaningfully retained by a much broader scope of students, can be a turning point for those professional documentary filmmakers who are working on a global scale,” he said.  

Now, this educational platform is available to the 14 university members of the Hemispheric University Consortium (HUC). Initiated by the University of Miami in 2018 and led by President Julio Frenk, the HUC aspires to be a space “where unique partnerships are formed among equals, subject to mutual benefit and mutual accountability, where knowledge is co-constructed, and research and innovation are shared.”

With the support and leadership of each partner institution’s administration and directors of innovation, the HUC universities have now adopted this educational platform. This semester, the course went from the University of Miami to being taught at Universidad Austral in Argentina, Universidad de los Andes in Colombia, Pontificia Universidad Católica Madre y Maestra in the Dominican Republic, Universidad San Francisco de Quito in Ecuador, Tecnologico de Monterrey and Universidad de las Americas Puebla in Mexico, and Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia in Peru. 

As one of the major educational initiatives the HUC, Ocean Health Voyage provides real-life educational experiences for students throughout the hemisphere by taking them on virtual journeys to Chile, Brazil, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Netherlands, Hawaii, and various locations in the United States to learn about biodiversity, fisheries (commercial and artisanal), clean waters, climate change and carbon storage, coastal protection, port economies, iconic species, natural products, and ecotourism. 

Maria de Lourdes Dieck-Assad, the University’s vice president for hemispheric and global affairs, whose office champions the HUC, described the Ocean Health Voyage as “an innovative opportunity to collaborate and engage academic institutions throughout Latin America, the Caribbean, and Canada to mobilize their faculty and students working on issues like climate change and sustainability as one of the central pillars of the consortium,” she said.

“We are proud of the results the Ocean Health Voyage course has had in a short time fostering global collaboration to address global challenges among students and professors across the hemisphere and look forward to the valuable knowledge it will impart on a new generation of learners,” she added. 

Gabriela Geron, director of partnerships, innovation, and communications in the office of hemispheric and global affairs, agreed that Habashi “has created an incredible course that is gaining worldwide recognition for its innovation. We are proud to support this online partnership engaging with other institutions and implementing the best technologies available for international collaboration.” 

In the summer of 2019, Ocean Health Voyage was featured by Virtually Inspireda prestigious online platform powered by Drexel Online University that showcases innovation in online learning, which in turn led to a significant national exposure.

The course presents opportunities for students in different countries to collaborate remotely on group discussions, assignments, and capstone projects specifically designed to help them develop awareness of the marine conservation issues.

The student experience across universities is entirely flexible. Even before online learning became the norm as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, University of Miami students, together with their counterparts across the hemisphere, were learning about ocean health at a custom pace that met each school’s individual needs. 

“Each university has its own dynamics, even in terms of the date their semester starts, or unique background of the identified faculty members. In some universities, this is a fully online course where the student will log in on their own. And, in others the faculty members use this platform as a framework for their in-person teachings,” explained Habashi.

“When you are in uncharted territory, there is clearly a need for a mixture of persistence and flexibility,” he added.

José Maria Cardoso da Silva, chair of the department of geography and regional studies in the College of Arts and Sciences who is currently teaching the course at the University of Miami, pointed out that the course’s online delivery has proven to be indispensable as the world adapts to the coronavirus crisis

“During the course, students explore our relationships with the oceans. They use the videos combined with hands-on research to acquire a multidimensional view on the importance of the oceans for humanity. Because most of the materials are available online and I use a student-centered method, there was no problem transitioning the course to a remote format due to the pandemic,” he said.

Article Highlighting Threats to Drinking Water Quality Across the Great Lakes Co-authored by HWHF Funded Scientist Joseph D. Ortiz

Originally published by The Conversation. Original article available here.

Climate change threatens drinking water quality across the Great Lakes

This story is part of the Pulitzer Center’s nationwide Connected Coastlines reporting initiative. For more information, go to https://pulitzercenter.org/connected-coastlines-initiative.

Authors: Gabriel Filippelli, Joseph D. Ortiz

April 29, 2020

“Do Not Drink/Do Not Boil” is not what anyone wants to hear about their city’s tap water. But the combined effects of climate change and degraded water quality could make such warnings more frequent across the Great Lakes region. 

A preview occurred on July 31, 2014, when a nasty green slime – properly known as a harmful algal bloom, or HAB – developed in the western basin of Lake Erie. Before long it had overwhelmed the Toledo Water Intake Crib, which provides drinking water to nearly 500,000 people in and around the city. 

Tests revealed that the algae was producing microcystin, a sometimes deadly liver toxin and suspected carcinogen. Unlike some other toxins, microcystin can’t be rendered harmless by boiling. So the city issued a “Do Not Drink/Do Not Boil” order that set off a three-day crisis

The City of Toledo water intake crib surrounded by algae in Lake Erie, about 2.5 miles offshore, Aug. 3, 2014. AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari

Local stores soon ran out of bottled water. Ohio’s governor declared a state of emergency, and the National Guard was called in to provide safe drinking water until the system could be flushed and treatment facilities brought back on line. 

The culprit was a combination of high nutrient pollution – nitrogen and phosphorus, which stimulate the growth of algae – from sewage, agriculture and suburban runoff, and high water temperatures linked to climate change. This event showed that even in regions with resources as vast as the Great Lakes, water supplies are vulnerable to these kinds of man-made threats. 

As Midwesterners working in the fields of urban environmental health and climate and environmental science, we believe more crises like Toledo’s could lie ahead if the region doesn’t address looming threats to drinking water quality.

Vast and abused

The Great Lakes together hold 20% of the world’s surface freshwater – more than enough to provide drinking water to over 48 million people from Duluth to Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Toronto. But human impacts have severely harmed this precious and vital resource. 

In 1970, after a century of urbanization and industrialization around the Great Lakes, water quality was severely degraded. Factories were allowed to dump waste into waterways rather than treating it. Inadequate sewer systems often sent raw sewage into rivers and lakes, fouling the water and causing algal blooms.

Problems like these helped spur two major steps in 1972: passage of the U.S. Clean Water Act, and adoption of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between the United States and Canada. Since then, many industries have been cleaned up or shut down. Sewer systems are being redesigned, albeit slowly and at great cost. 

The resulting cuts in nutrient and wastewater pollution have brought a quick decline in HABs – especially in Lake Erie, the Great Lake with the most densely populated shoreline. But new problems have emerged, due partly to shortcomings in those laws and agreements, combined with the growing effects of climate change.

Warmer and wetter

Climate change is profoundly altering many factors that affect life in the Great Lakes region. The most immediate impacts of recent climate change have been on precipitation, lake levels and water temperatures. 

Annual precipitation in the region has increased by about 5 inches over the past century. Changes in the past five years alone – the hottest five years in recorded history – have been particularly dramatic, with a series of extreme rainfall events bringing extremely high and rapidly varying water levels to the Great Lakes.

Record high precipitation in 2019 caused flooding, property damage and beachfront losses in a number of coastal communities. Precipitation in 2020 is projected to be equally high, if not higher. Some of this is due to natural variability, but certainly some is due to climate change. 

Another clear impact of climate change is a general warming of all five Great Lakes, particularly in the springtime. The temperature increase is modest and varies from year to year and place to place, but is consistent overall with records of warming throughout the region.

Lake levels continue to reach record highs or near-record highs across the basin. What problems does this cause?

Coastal erosion
Flooding
Infrastructure damage
Economic loss

Learn more—Great Lakes Quarterly Climate Impacts & Outlook report: https://mrcc.illinois.edu/pubs/docs/GL-2020Winter_Final.pdf …

Great Lakes graphic with info about climate in different cities around the basin: record warm minimum temperatures set in Marquette Michigan in December, Detroit recorded 55mm of rain on January 12 and set daily maximum rainfall record for month of January, Toronto set daily rainfall record of 59mm on January 11, and Buffalo New York did not record a single-digit temperature until February 14 - 2nd latest date record

More polluted runoff

Some of these climate-related changes have converged with more direct human impacts to influence water quality in the Great Lakes. 

Cleanup measures adopted back in the 1970s imposed stringent limits on large point sources of nutrient pollution, like wastewater and factories. But smaller “nonpoint” sources, such as fertilizer and other nutrients washing off farm fields and suburban lawns, were addressed through weaker, voluntary controls. These have since become major pollution sources. 

Since the mid-1990s, climate-driven increases in precipitation have carried growing quantities of nutrient runoff into Lake Erie. This rising load has triggered increasingly severe algal blooms, comparable in some ways to the events of the 1970s. Toledo’s 2014 crisis was not an anomaly.

These blooms can make lake water smell and taste bad, and sometimes make it dangerous to drink. They also have long-term impacts on the lakes’ ecosystems. They deplete oxygen, killing fish and spurring chemical processes that prime the waters of Lake Erie for larger future blooms. Low-oxygen water is more corrosive and can damage water pipes, causing poor taste or foul odors, and helps release trace metals that may also cause health problems.

So despite a half-century of advances, in many ways Great Lakes water quality is back to where it was in 1970, but with the added influence of a rapidly changing climate.

Figure showing total phosphorus (TP) tributary loading to Lake St. Clair and the western Lake Erie in 2018 in metric tons per annum (MTA). Runoff from agricultural areas is the major source of nutrient loadings with about 70% from commercial fertilizer application and 30% from animal manure. IJC

Filtering runoff

How can the region change course and build resilience into Great Lakes coastal communities? Thanks to a number of recent studies, including an intensive modeling analysis of future climate change in Indiana, which serves as a proxy for most of the region, we have a pretty good picture of what the future could look like.

As one might guess, warming will continue. Summertime water temperatures are projected to rise by about another 5 degrees Fahrenheit by midcentury, even if nations significantly reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. This will cause further declines in water quality and negatively impact coastal ecosystems. 

The analysis also projects an increase in extreme precipitation and runoff, particularly in the winter and spring. These shifts will likely bring still more nutrient runoff, sediment contaminants and sewage overflows into coastal zones, even if surrounding states hold the actual quantities of these nutrients steady. More contaminants, coupled with higher temperatures, can trigger algal blooms that threaten water supplies. 

But recent success stories point to strategies for tackling these problems, at least at the local and regional levels.

A number of large infrastructure projects are currently underway to improve stormwater management and municipal sewer systems, so that they can capture and process sewage and associated nutrients before they are transported to the Great Lakes. These initiatives will help control flooding and increase the supply of “gray water,” or used water from bathroom sinks, washing machines, tubs and showers, for uses such as landscaping.

Cities are coupling this “gray infrastructure” with green infrastructure projects, such as green roofsinfiltration gardensand reclaimed wetlands. These systems can filter water to help remove excess nutrients. They also will slow runoff during extreme precipitation events, thus recharging natural reservoirs. 

Municipal water managers are also using smart technologies and improved remote sensing methods to create near-real-time warning systems for HABs that might help avert crises. Groups like the Cleveland Water Alliance, an association of industry, government and academic partners, are working to implement smart lake technologies in Lake Erie and other freshwater environments around the globe. Finally, states including Ohioand Indiana are moving to cut total nutrient inputs into the Great Lakes from all sources, and using advanced modeling to pinpoint those sources.

Together these developments could help reduce the size of HABs, and perhaps even reach the roughly 50% reduction in nutrient runoff that government studies suggest is needed to bring them back to their minimum extent in the mid-1990s.

Short of curbing global greenhouse gas emissions, keeping communities that rely so heavily on the Great Lakes livable will require all of these actions and more.

HWHF Funded Scientist, Michael Beck, and Colleague Discuss Economic Impact of Mangroves

Originally published by The Conversation. Original article available here.

Protecting Mangroves Can Protect Billions of Dollars in Global Flooding Damage Each Year

Authors: Michael Beck, Pelayo Menendez

March 10, 2020

Hurricanes and tropical storms are estimated to cost the U.S. economy more than US$50 billion yearly in damage from winds and flooding. And as these storms travel across the Atlantic, they also ravage many Caribbean nations. 

We study coastal ecosystems and how to value the natural coastal defenses provided by mangroves, marshes and coral reefs. In a new study, we map flood risks along more than 435,000 miles (700,000 kilometers) of subtropical shoreline in 59 countries around the world. 

Mangroves in Loxahatchee, Florida. NOAA

Along these coasts, we calculate that flood risks exceed $730 billion annually in direct impacts to property. Many government agencies and insurers estimate that indirect impacts to livelihoods and other economic activity are two to three times these direct flood costs

We also estimate that across these 59 countries, mangroves – salt-tolerant trees that grow along tropical coastlines worldwide – reduce risk to more than 15 million people and prevent more than $65 billion in property damages every year. Mangroves do this by blocking storm surge– the rise in sea level during storms – and dampening waves, which protect people and structures near the shore. 

Battered coastlines

Tropical storms are a well-recognized hazard along many coasts. In 2019, which was an above-normal year for tropical storm activity, 90 named storms formed around the world, including 62 days with major tropical cyclones.

As one example, Hurricane Dorian devastated the northern Bahamas with sustained winds of some 185 miles per hour. Throughout its life, Dorian’s path impacted more than 17 nations and 15 U.S. states and territories, from Grenada to Newfoundland. 

And Dorian was not even the strongest cyclone of the year. That title went to Super Typhoon Halong in the Western Pacific, which steered clear of land. Many scientists predict that climate change will make these storms more intense, with a likely increase in the proportion of storms that reach Categories 4 and 5.

It would be logical to assume that countries map the flood risks from these storms, since they have to protect residents who live near coasts, along with public infrastructure such as ports, airports, wastewater treatment centers and power plants. These facilities often are built in low-lying areas around urban and suburban centers.

However, governments and businesses only develop flood risk analyses for the shorelines of highly developed nations, where people have the resources to pay for or insure against these risks. This excludes most tropical countries, where many of the world’s most vulnerable people live.

Tropical storm tracks since 1842. NOAA

Defending shorelines

Our study was designed to quantify these flood risks worldwide and identify solutions for reducing them. We used tools that are standard in the insurance and engineering industries, along with a five-step approach for calculating expected damage, to develop high-resolution estimates of flood risk globally. Then we coupled spatially explicit hydrodynamic flood models with economics to estimate impacts to people and property.

We focused on mangroves because they are large trees that grow quickly in salt water at the edge of the coastal zone, where they form a front line of defense. Mangroves are also excellent at trapping sediments and building land. On average, land around mangroves grows vertically by 1 to 10 millimeters per year.

We generated maps summarizing the benefits that mangroves provide in 20-kilometer coastal units around the world. They show that there are 100 coastal areas where mangroves avert $100 million or more in property damages every year. These are clearly priority zones where mangrove conservation and restoration will yield highly cost-effective benefits to people, property and national budgets.

According to our estimates, the U.S., China and Taiwan receive the greatest economic benefits – protection of property – from mangroves. Vietnam, India and Bangladesh receive the greatest social benefits – protection of people. 

Along some 20-kilometer coastal stretches, mangroves provide up to $500,000,000 in flood reduction benefits yearly.Michael Beck, CC BY-ND

Mangroves as green infrastructure

Mangrove destruction has been widespread, largely because of coastal development and aquaculture. From 1980 through the early 2000s, the world lost up to 20% of existing mangrove habitat. The rate of loss has slowed but still continues, driven by urban expansion, pollution and agriculture. 

Given our findings about how valuable mangroves are for coastal protection, we believe they should be viewed as national infrastructure and made eligible for funding from hazard mitigation and disaster recovery budgets, just like other coastal defense structures. Paying for mangrove restoration can work through the same approaches that are currently used to fund engineered protective structures such as seawalls. 

Several new studies done collaboratively with Risk Management Solutions, a leading insurance risk modeling firm, show that coastal marshes and mangroves provide significant storm reduction benefits. These findings could underpin the development of innovative insurance options for natural systems. 

Examples are already being developed for coral reefs in Mexicoand across the Caribbean. Conserving mangroves where they occur together with coral reefs can multiply the flood protection benefits from habitats. 

Working with the World Bank, countries like the Philippines and Jamaica are assessing how the benefits of mangroves can be incorporated into national finances, disaster management and proposals for the U.N. Green Climate Fund, which was created in 2010 to help developing countries mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change. Our work was supported by the World Bank and Germany’s International Climate Initiative to help inform solutions for nations that are most at risk.

In many places, preserving and restoring mangrove forests can be an extremely economically effective strategy for protecting coasts from tropical storm damage. As national governments and insurers grapple with disaster management costs that are growing nearly exponentially worldwide, we believe our research can create new opportunities to pay for mangrove conservation and restoration using climate adaptation, disaster risk reduction and insurance funds.

HWHF Grant Brings Renowned Marine Scientist to Stark County for Free Lecture

Renowned marine scientist Michael W. Beck, Ph.D., will discuss the importance of coastal conservation at a free lecture on March 4.

Beck, a research professor in the Institute of Marine Sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz, focuses on conserving our coastlines in an effort to reduce the risks of storm surges and flooding to property, people and our planet.

Thanks to a generous grant from the Herbert W. Hoover Foundation, Beck will speak at 7 p.m. March 4 in Auditorium 101 in the Science & Nursing Building at Kent State University at Stark, 6000 Frank Ave. NW. The event is open to the public; no tickets or reservations are required.

Beck’s approach to research is multidisciplinary – across ecology, engineering and economics – in an effort to bring clear results to decision makers. A fellow of both the Fulbright Scholar Program and the Pew Marine Conservation Program, Beck worked for 20 years at The Nature Conservancy helping to establish a global marine program before being named lead marine scientist.

“Even though Stark County is a long way from the ocean, it’s important that we generate an interest in ocean biodiversity, especially as threats to that biodiversity continue to increase,” said Greg Smith, Ph.D., assistant professor of biological sciences at Kent State Stark. “There is great value in the preservation of our natural ecosystems that buffer our coastlines from damaging storms, for example. Understanding what we are losing is crucial to creating sustainable solutions for the future.”

As part of the grant from the H.W. Hoover Foundation, Kent State Stark students will travel to Florida this summer to study the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf Coast and the Everglades ecosystems, along with Smith and Robert Hamilton IV, Ph.D., associate professor of biological sciences. The grant will also support Beck’s continuing research.

“We are thankful to the H.W. Hoover Foundation for providing the means for our regional campus to collaborate with top-tier researchers,” Smith said. “It provides our students and our community with an incredible opportunity to understand the critical need of preserving our endangered marine ecosystems.”

Blue-green algae linked to ALS in UM study, but researchers also found promising treatment

Originally published by the Miami Herald. Original article available here.

BY HOWARD COHEN FEBRUARY 28, 2020 11:45 AM 

Florida’s persistent blue-green algae problem in waterways has already been linked to respiratory problems. 

Now, a team of researchers, led by a University of Miami neurology professor, have found that the toxin in those algae blooms can lead to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a debilitating and progressive neurodegnerative disease that destroys nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.

On the positive side, the new study also found a promising advancement in the treatment of ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

The study, published in the Journal of Neuropathology & Experimental Neurology on Feb. 20, linked a toxin produced by blue-green algae to ALS. But it also found that a naturally occurring amino acid, L-serine, could be a possible treatment to combat the painful and deadly disease that wastes away muscles.

The scientists led by the study’s first author, David Davis, UM’s neurology professor and director of the Brain Endowment Bank, included Deborah Mash, a research professor at Nova Southeastern University’s Dr. Kiran C. Patel College of Allopathic Medicine, and Paul Alan Cox, executive director of the Brain Chemistry Labs in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

The team, working at the Behavioral Science Foundation, a research facility on the island of St. Kitts, exposed vervet monkeys to a cyanobacterial neurotoxin called BMAA that is produced by blue-green algae, which has wreaked havoc on Florida’s shores.

The monkeys began to exhibit pathological changes in their bodies similar to what happens to people’s spinal cords in the early stages of ALS. Monkeys, rather than rodents, were used because they more closely mirror how ALS develops in humans, according to Davis.

But when these vervet monkeys were fed the L-serine amino acid at the same time they were dosed with the blue-green algae toxin for 140 days, the strategy proved illuminating. These monkeys showed a reduction in ALS-like maladies in their spinal cords.

“The big message is that dietary exposure to this cyanobacterial toxin triggers ALS-type pathology, and if you include L-serine in the diet, it could slow the progression of these pathological changes,” Davis said in a statement provided by UM. “I was surprised at how close the model mirrored ALS in humans.”

Mash said the results “holds promise for identifying a cause of sporadic ALS, which accounts for 90% of all ALS cases,” in a statement provided by Brain Chemistry Labs.

“While these data provide valuable insights, we do not yet know if L-serine will improve outcomes for human patients with ALS,” added ALS expert Walter Bradley, who was also an author on the study. 

“We need to carefully continue FDA-approved clinical trials before we can recommend that L-serine be added to the neurologists’ toolbox for the treatment of ALS. However, this vervet BMAA model will be an important new tool in the quest for new drugs to treat ALS,” Bradley said in a Brain Chemistry Labs release.

This will be the “next step” in the researchers’ plans, Davis said in a UM report. “We are very curious about how BMAA affects individuals in South Florida.”

L-serine is found in soy products, sweet potatoes, eggs, meat, and some edible seaweed, according to Cognitive Vitality. L-serine is also sold as a dietary supplement. 

The new study did not specifically say consuming these foods or taking a supplement would halt the progression of ALS or make one immune from getting the disease. 

BLUE-GREEN ALGAE TOXINS

Howard Simon, founder of the Clean Okeechobee Waters Foundation, worked alongside Davis’ team. Simon, who retired as the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida in 2018, summarized the blue-green toxic findings as such:

▪ Cyanobacteria produces an enormous number of toxins, including microcystin and BMAA (β-Methylamino- l-alanine).

▪ Microcystin has been linked to non-alcoholic liver disease and liver cancer.

▪ BMAA has been linked to neuro-degenerative diseases, including ALS, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

▪ The newest research establishes that BMAA is a cause of early stages of ALS in vervet monkeys.

“Of course, more research is needed to determine how much exposure to the cyanobacteria toxin BMAA, and over how long a period, increases the risk of neurodegenerative diseases — much like the question several decades ago: how many cigarettes will increase my risk of lung cancer?” Simon said in an email to the Miami Herald.

WHAT IS ALS?

ALS takes two forms: sporadic — the most common form accounting for between 90% to 95% of all cases — and familial, or inherited ALS, which accounts for 5% of the cases, according to the ALS Association.

Four drugs are approved by the FDA to treat ALS and there are nationwide support groups devoted to education on the disease, but there is no cure.

ALS usually strikes people between the ages of 40 and 70 and there are an estimated 16,000 Americans who have the disease at any given time, according to the ALS Association.

New York Yankees great Lou Gehrig, who died at age 37 of ALS in 1941, may be the adopted namesake of the disease that was discovered by French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot in 1869, but other notable people also suffered from the ailment. 

These names include theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Jim “Catfish” Hunter, Toto bassist Mike Porcaro and actor David Niven.

FLORIDA’S ‘MASSIVE’ BLUE-GREEN ALGAE PROBLEM

“This latest research advances the understanding of crippling and terminal neuro-degenerative diseases, including ALS and Alzheimer’s disease,” said Simon. “The evidence from research is mounting, and it is pointing in the same direction: cyanobacteria (commonly called blue-green algae) produces the toxin BMAA, which has been linked to Alzheimer’s — and this latest research now shows that it triggers the earliest stages of ALS in vervet monkeys.”

Simon, now a public policy advocate in Sanibel, Simon hopes the research spurs action in Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration.

In April 2019, DeSantis named the state’s first panel to tackle what he called a “massive problem” — blue-green algae. 

Among those on the panel were researchers from Florida International University, the University of Florida, Florida Atlantic University, Florida Gulf Coast University and the Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce.


Simon says the UM-led researchers’ L-serine findings are timely today.

“This research lends greater urgency to the effort to get the Legislature to convert science into effective policies,” Simon said. “Pending legislation (Senate Bill 712, the Clean Waterways Act) needs to be strengthened with regulatory strategies to curb the pollution of Florida waters that fuels algae blooms — which in turn creates the toxin that is poisoning the people of Florida.”

A sign warns of blue-green algae in the water near the Port Mayaca Lock and Dam on Lake Okeechobee in 2018.
An alligator swims through blue-green algae on Lake Okeechobee in July 2018, when blooms covered most of the lake and were released into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers. CHARLES TRAINOR JR. CTRAINOR@MIAMIHERALD.COM
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