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Knowledge increases awareness of biodiversity despite firsthand experiences

Published October 13, 2016
Island foxes
Foxes on Santa Cruz island. Photo courtesy Mario Nonaka.
  • Understanding what people value can guide management decisions for parks and protected areas.
  • Identifying discrepancies between management priorities and social values for ecosystem services can help balance public interests with the protection of biodiversity.

URBANA, Ill. – Protecting an ecological paradise like the island of Santa Cruz can be challenging for its resource managers who want to maximize visitor experiences while minimizing negative impacts on the park. As the largest of five islands in Channel Islands National Park off the coast of California, Santa Cruz boasts over 2,000 species of plants and animals, some of which are not found anywhere else on earth. But a recent University of Illinois study says the island’s rich biodiversity may not be what’s valued most by its stakeholders.

Two-thirds of the island is managed by The Nature Conservancy. It is reserved for scientific research and environmental preservation and is off limits to the public. The eastern third of the island is managed by the National Park Service and is a popular place to spend a day hiking or camping overnight.

For the U of I study, 323 randomly selected visitors to the island were surveyed before boarding a boat to return to the mainland. Using a map of the island, they allocated “preference points” which were used to weigh the importance of 12 social values such as aesthetics, recreation, and perceived biodiversity.

“We found that people were more likely to place biodiversity values on areas of the island that weren’t actually biologically diverse,” says U of I social scientist Carena van Riper. “There was a clear negative relationship between the likelihood of a point assignment and biodiversity.”

“They may have seen an island fox, for example. It’s a charismatic creature that’s everywhere in the park. They garner a lot of attention. People likely assigned biodiversity values to places where they had these unusual wildlife encounters, whereas a lot of other species wouldn’t be seen where people are on trails,” van Riper says. “They also placed value on rocky cliffs, mountain summits that don’t have a lot of vegetation. They’re aesthetically beautiful, but they aren’t biologically diverse.”

Van Riper says the top ranking qualities that people are looking for in these types of landscapes are aesthetics, recreation, learning, therapeutic benefits, and perceived biodiversity—although as she learned, their perception of what areas are actually biodiverse may not be accurate.

The study also finds that people with more knowledge of the park recognized the biodiversity values of places in the protected two-thirds of the island that they hadn’t experienced firsthand. Those with knowledge didn’t have to experience those areas to detect their intrinsic qualities and benefit from their “ecosystem services.”

“Knowledge shapes people’s perceptions of biodiversity. Those with less knowledge were more inclined to ascribe biodiversity values to the places they had visited within the protected area. That face-to-face interaction with the resource was important for people who didn’t have an understanding of why the protected area was important,” van Riper says.

Although most visitors to the islands were environmentally friendly, van Riper says that surprisingly there weren’t that many rugged, outdoorsy people. “I saw a fair number of people come off the boat with suitcases on wheels on the dirt roads. There isn’t much infrastructure on the island so a lot of folks were surprised to learn that they couldn’t purchase a coffee like they could have just across the harbor in Ventura.”

The desire for comforts or amenities is in conflict with what natural resource managers are trying to accomplish. “For some visitors, environmental degradation is often preferred.  Not necessarily major infrastructure, but a trail system, a campsite where vegetation has been cleared, places where you can easily hang a lantern on a tree, or tie up a pack animal. All of these are different forms of impact and they’re desired.  That was confirmed through our results. And people didn’t recognize these as having potential environmental impacts,” van Riper says.

Mapping the island for its social values can allow managers of protected areas like Santa Cruz to make decisions that are in line with what people see, what they experience, and what they believe, van Riper says. Having this tool to represent people’s perspectives in relation to the environment can help managers understand what attracts people, why they care about protected landscapes, and may lead to engagement in stewardship activities.

Something as simple as providing access is an important consideration. “If you’re making decisions about development, such as where to put a trail system and what areas to feature or showcase, knowing what people believe is valuable can help and may even generate support for the park among stakeholders,” van Riper says.

The study looked at management priorities, what features visitors value, and where they overlap. “By mapping values we can identify areas that people recognize as valuable and other places the managers find valuable but go unrecognized by visitors. We can determine the economic importance of an area because people are willing to pay to come to an area, but this tool also allows us to identify intangible social values such as the spirituality of a place and the aesthetics. These are social values that aren’t easily captured with traditional methods,” van Riper says.

“Toward an integrated understanding of perceived biodiversity values and environmental conditions in a national park” is authored by Carena J. van Riper, Gerard T. Kyle, Benson C. Sherrouse, Kenneth J. Bagstad, and Stephen G. Sutton. It is published in Ecological Indicators. The research is based on van Riper’s previous work in the Applied Biodiversity Sciences NSF-IGERT Program at Texas A&M University.



ACES Town Hall with Dean Kidwell

2:00 PM - 5:00 PM
ACES Library, Monsanto Room

Join newly appointed ACES Dean Kim Kidwell for an open discussion

The College of ACES is a place for thoughtful dialogue on complex issues. Our college is community oriented and has a unique ability to solve problems through interdisciplinary collaboration. We can also examine the aspects of our college community and culture we care about most to make ACES an even better place to learn, work, and live. Join ACES Dean Kim Kidwell for an open discussion on:

  • Transition in the Dean's Office
  • Discovery plan
  • Research collaboration
  • Communication strategy
  • Budget concerns

Find out updates on these topics and more. Please bring your questions and concerns. Your input is welcome and needed! For the most thorough responses and answers, please submit your questions in advance.

Participate Online

Details on joining the town hall online will be provided her closer to the date.

Ask a Question and RSVP

New booklet gives farmers strategies to reduce nitrogen runoff

Published October 11, 2016
conventional drainage
Conventional drainage systems allow nitrogen runoff to waterways
  • Water draining from farm fields in the Midwest is typically loaded with excess nitrogen, polluting local and distant waterways.
  • A new booklet published by University of Illinois Extension describes ten nitrogen loss-reduction strategies for farmers.
  • Using the information in the booklet, farmers can choose the most appropriate and cost-effective solution for their specific circumstances.

URBANA, Ill. – The Midwest, blessed with rich soils and abundant precipitation, leads the country and the world in corn and soybean production. It also contributes the majority of the nitrate load in the Gulf of Mexico, leading to its large low-oxygen “dead zone.” Nitrate applied to farm fields also winds up in local drinking water supplies, which must be removed at a major cost to municipalities. Fortunately, there are ways for farmers to reduce nitrogen loss, and a new University of Illinois Extension booklet provides details on 10 suggested practices.

“In this booklet, we present a consistent source of information about a variety of practices that can reduce nitrate in drainage water,” says University of Illinois assistant professor of water quality Laura Christianson.

The 10 practices described in the booklet are broken down into three categories: reducing nitrate in the plant root zone, reducing delivery of nitrate to the field’s edge, and removing nitrate at the edge of the field or downstream.

“We wanted to present a variety of options that are practical for farmers, and provide some comparison between the practices. Where does each practice work? How much will it cost? How well does the practice work? People can get a good idea of what’s going to work for them,” Christianson says.

To reduce nitrate in the plant root zone, farmers can improve nitrogen management, plant winter cover crops, or increase their use of perennials. These practices minimize the amount of nitrogen that enters drainage tile pipes in the first place.

Christianson explains that many farmers in Illinois are already applying nitrogen fertilizers at the university recommended rate. “For them to reduce their rate wouldn’t make any sense and wouldn’t provide water quality benefits. The timing of nitrogen application and use of nitrification inhibitors are probably the management changes I’d focus on more rather than rate, as long as you’re following university guidelines,” she says.

Farmers might instead choose to change the physical drainage system in their fields. The practices recommended in the booklet include adding controlled drainage structures to keep drainage water in the soil; recycling drainage water; and reducing drainage intensity by increasing spacing between drains and decreasing drain depth.

“The new practice of drainage water recycling is especially exciting because there is a significant potential to increase crop yields by storing drainage water and reapplying it when it’s needed by the crop. This practice doesn’t come cheaply, but could be good for yields and downstream waters,” Christianson notes. 

The final category consists of edge-of-field practices including adding bioreactors or constructed wetlands, converting drainage ditches to two-stage ditches, or using saturated buffers. Christianson is a vocal advocate of bioreactors, and admits that this practice is her personal favorite. But she knows other practices might hold more appeal.

“The important thing is just trying something new—getting a new practice on the landscape to improve water quality. A bioreactor might not work for someone, but they might want to do a cover crop and that’s great,” Christianson says. “In fact, cover crops might have the biggest chance of adoption. And if everyone started planting cover crops, especially grass-based cover crops that overwinter like cereal rye, that would be our best chance of having a positive water quality impact. 

“Really, the best practice is the one that works for each individual farmer. That’s why providing a list of options and being able to compare them is important,” Christianson says.

Each practice comes with a detailed description explaining what it is, how it improves water quality, how effective it is, where it will work, whether it has any additional benefits, and its level of acceptance. The booklet also contains a chapter on economic considerations of each strategy. An online course for certified crop advisors is being developed to accompany the booklet, with a likely launch near the end of spring 2017.

The booklet, “Ten ways to reduce nitrogen loads from drained cropland in the Midwest,” is co-authored by Extension faculty from Purdue University, South Dakota State University, Iowa State University, and the University of Minnesota, and collaborators at the Iowa Soybean Association. It is currently available as a free download at Christianson’s website, or printed copies can be purchased for a nominal fee at PubsPlus.

Additional Images:
  • booklet cover

Prospects for corn use for ethanol production

Published October 10, 2016

URBANA, Ill. – The USDA will release a new forecast of the size of the 2016 U.S. corn harvest on Oct. 12, reflecting updated forecasts of both acreage and yield.  The new production forecast is expected to confirm prospects for a very large harvest, but perhaps slightly smaller than the September forecast of 15.093 billion bushels.

According to University of Illinois agricultural economist Darrel Good, corn prices following harvest will be influenced by the pace of consumption and the likely size of year-ending stocks. The September World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates report projected that exports, feed and residual use, and corn use for ethanol production during the current marketing year will all be larger than during the 2015-16 marketing year.  Projected increases are 13.6 percent for exports, 8.7 percent for feed and residual use, and 1.3 percent for ethanol use. The pace of export inspections and export sales during the first few weeks of the marketing year has been brisk. Cumulative export inspections as of the week that ended Sept. 29 were 77 percent larger than during the same period last year and unshipped export sales were nearly twice as large as unshipped sales of a year earlier.  

Good says the pace of feed and residual use of corn will not be known until the USDA’s Dec.1, 2016, Grain Stocks report is released in the second week of January. Feed and residual use during the last quarter of the 2015-16 marketing year, however, exceeded that of a year ago by 90 million bushels (17 percent) and was the largest use for that quarter in seven years. Low corn prices and expanding livestock numbers should result in large feed and residual use during at least the first half of the current marketing year.

“Although the expected increase in corn used for ethanol production is relatively small, deviations from the projected level will still impact the magnitude of year-ending stocks,” Good says. “Based on ethanol production estimates provided by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, U.S. fuel ethanol production during the 2015-16 corn marketing year totaled 15.136 billion gallons. That is a year-over-year increase of about 470 million gallons (3.2 percent). Imports of fuel ethanol of 47 million gallons were equal to those of the previous year and exports of 876 million gallons were 20 million gallons larger. Ethanol inventories increased by 56 million gallons and domestic use of 14.25 billion gallons was 440 million gallons (3.2 percent) larger than during the previous year.”

While domestic ethanol production increased by 3.2 percent during the 2015-16 corn marketing year, the USDA’s Grain Crushings and Co-Products Production reports indicate that corn used for fuel ethanol production totaled only 5.206 billion bushels, an increase of 0.1 percent from use during the previous year.

“The small increase reflects increased year-over-year use of other feedstocks, particularly sorghum,” Good says. “The USDA does not report sorghum use for every month in order to avoid disclosing data for individual operations. Reported use of sorghum for fuel ethanol production during the 2015-16 corn marketing year totaled 137 million bushels, compared to 18 million bushels during the previous year. Combined corn and sorghum use during the past year was 2.4 percent larger than reported use during the previous year. The increase was smaller than the increase in ethanol production as the implied yield of ethanol per bushel of feed stock increased 0.8 percent, from  2.81 gallons to just over 2.83 gallons.”

Good says the use of corn for ethanol production during the current marketing year will be influenced by a number of factors, including the:

  • magnitude of domestic gasoline consumption
  • rate of increase in the domestic consumption of higher ethanol blends
  • magnitude of fuel ethanol trade
  • change in the level of ethanol stocks
  • use of other feed stocks, particularly sorghum, to produce ethanol
  • ethanol yield per unit of feedstock

“Domestic gasoline consumption will be influenced by the price of crude oil and gasoline prices,” Good says. “If those prices remain near current levels, gasoline consumption would be expected to continue to increase, perhaps as much as 2 percent. The retail price of higher ethanol blends, particularly E85, appears to have become much more competitive with E10 in recent months. If prices remain competitive, some modest increase in consumption of those higher blends would be expected, but will not likely add substantially to total domestic ethanol consumption this year. Another small increase in ethanol production efficiency would moderate any increase in feed stock consumption this year. An increase of 300 million gallons in domestic ethanol consumption would add about 110 million bushels to feedstock consumption. An unchanged level of year-ending stocks would reduce ethanol production by 56 million gallons and reduce feed stock consumption by 20 million bushels.”

According to Good, the magnitude of ethanol imports and exports have been very stable the past two years and substantial changes are not expected this year. With a smaller sorghum crop in 2016 and higher sorghum prices relative to corn prices, use of sorghum for ethanol production might continue the decline seen in August. “A decline of 25 to 50 million bushels for the year seems likely,” Good says.   

“Taken together, these factors point to use of about 5.345 billion bushels of corn for ethanol production during the current marketing year, 70 million larger than the current USDA projection,” Good says. “Ethanol production is off to a fast start, with production in September about 4 percent larger than in September 2015.”



Global Food Security Symposium 2017

All Day Event
Washington, D.C.

From the Chicago Council on Global Affairs:

Next year’s annual Global Food Security Symposium will be held on March 29 and 30, in Washington, DC—so please save the date. From now until then, we’ll be developing our next major publication, which will focus on reinvigorating US and global commitments to food security, in light of the transitioning presidential administration. The case is stronger than ever that supporting actions to reduce hunger and poverty not only makes moral sense, but is central to US national security and economic interests. 

Our 2017 symposium will showcase the best of business, social, and policy innovation early in the next administration. We’ll invite top visionaries from every sector to bring the productive dialogue and actions necessary to advance global food security.


For more information, click here.

New method provides a tool to develop nematode-resistant soybean varieties

Published October 6, 2016
Soybean cyst nematode
Soybean cyst nematode
  • Many soybean varieties have a naturally occurring genetic resistance to the soybean cyst nematode, a major pest affecting the crop.
  • The number of copies of the resistance gene varies among cultivars; a new method, developed by University of Illinois researchers, is able to efficiently quantify this variation for the first time.
  • The new method has been tested in greenhouse trials to show that the more copies of the gene, the greater the resistance to soybean cyst nematode.
  • Breeders can use this method to develop new soybean varieties with greater and more reliable resistance.

URBANA, Ill. – Soybean cyst nematode is the number one soybean pest worldwide, accounting for estimated annual losses of nearly $1.3 billion in the United States. Some soybean varieties have resistance to the tiny parasitic worms through conventional breeding of naturally occurring resistance genes, but the current level of resistance is becoming less reliable.

“Our interest is in finding new sources of resistance, because the sources that people have been using are breaking down. Nematodes are becoming better at overcoming the resistance we have in current cultivars. We are also, interested in improving our understanding of how this resistance works so we can do a better job of selecting for it,” says University of Illinois plant breeder, Brian Diers.

In 2012, U of I geneticist Matthew Hudson, Diers, and Andrew Bent, a collaborator at the University of Wisconsin, discovered the naturally occurring genetic locus (region on a chromosome)  that is critical in controlling resistance to soybean cyst nematode, but that was only the beginning.

“It turns out that at this locus, there’s a repeat of four genes,” Diers explains. “Different diverse soybean types that are resistant have different numbers of repeats. For example, in PI 88788, which is the original source of SCN resistance for most soybean varieties in the Midwest, there are nine repeats of those four genes. In the susceptible varieties, there’s only one copy of those four genes. Another source of resistance, Peking, has three copies of those repeats.”  

This difference in repeat number is known as copy number variation, and is more common than previously thought. But before now, there was no easy or cost-effective way to quantify the number of gene repeats. Using a method recently developed in Hudson’s laboratory, the number of gene repeats can be accurately monitored by measuring the ratio between two genes.

Although the researchers suspected that having more copies of the gene sequence might confer a greater degree of resistance, they had no way of testing their suspicions before the new assay was developed. After getting the new assay, the team set to work again.

“We grew soybean plants in a greenhouse, inoculated them with nematodes, and then used the assay to determine how many repeats each plant had. As predicted, we found that the more repeats a plant had, the more resistant it was,” Diers explained. “This proved that the number of repeats is important.”

Armed with this information, the researchers plan to look at the number of repeats present in existing nematode-resistant soybean varieties in an attempt to explain why some display better resistance than others in field settings. They also plan to improve breeding programs by ensuring parental lines have the maximum number of repeats available in a given genotype, and to select for new variants with additional copies that may show superior resistance.

“Ultimately,” Diers adds, “if we can select for more copies, that could benefit farmers because we could get stronger resistance. Breeders will now have better tools to select for and verify resistance.”  

The research described here is published in two articles. “An efficient method for measuring copy number variation applied to improvement of nematode resistance” is published in The Plant Journal. Lead author Tong Geon Lee is now at the University of Florida. Diers and Hudson, from U of I, are co-authors. “Impact of Rhg1 copy number, type, and interaction with Rhg4 on resistance to Heterodera glycines in soybean” is published in Theoretical and Applied Genetics. Lead author Neil Yu is now at Monsanto, and co-author Daniele Rosa is at the Federal University of Vicosa, Brazil. Lee, Hudson, and Diers are additional co-authors. Both studies were supported by the United Soybean Board.