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A decade later, older Americans are still going hungry

Published September 6, 2017
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URBANA, Ill. – Hunger does not respect age. A recent report comparing data from 2007 to 2015 finds 5.4 million people age 60 or older in the U.S., or 8.1 percent, are food insecure. Although this percentage went down from 2014 to 2015, it’s still unacceptable, according to a University of Illinois economist.

“After six consecutive years of increased hunger in seniors since the Great Recession began, the slight drop in 2014 is good news, but not good enough,” says Craig Gundersen, who coauthored the report. “And it’s important to remember that the decrease is in hunger on the national scale. Some individual states saw an increase.”

The report identifies the top 10 states in terms of senior food insecurity rates. “Seven of those 10 states are in the South, plus New Mexico, New York, and Indiana,” Gundersen says. The report states that when seniors who experience marginal food security are included, the rates vary from 6.1 percent in North Dakota to 24.3 percent in Mississippi.

Gundersen says seniors who reported a disability were disproportionately affected, with 25 percent reporting food insecurity and an additional 13 percent reporting marginal food security.

“Food insecurity is known to adversely affect a person’s health, and the implications can be particularly problematic for seniors,” Gundersen says. “Compared to food-secure seniors, food-insecure seniors consume fewer calories, vitamins, and other key nutrients. They are also more likely to experience negative health conditions, including depression, asthma, and chest pain.”

Gundersen says the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program) has been demonstrated to reduce food insecurity. He recommends that policymakers and program administrators pursue efforts to increase participation in SNAP, with a particular emphasis on older adults.

The report, “The State of Senior Hunger in America in 2015,” was produced by Feeding America in partnership with The National Foundation to End Senior Hunger. It was coauthored by James Ziliak from the University of Kentucky Center for Poverty Research and Craig Gundersen from the University of Illinois.

Gundersen is the Soybean Industry Endowed Professor in Agricultural Strategy and professor in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics at the University of Illinois and a member of the Division of Nutritional Sciences at U of I.


Herbicide rotation ineffective against resistance in waterhemp

Published September 6, 2017

URBANA, Ill. – Farmers have been battling herbicide-resistant weeds for generations. A common practice for most of that time has been to rotate between different herbicides every season. But despite farmers’ best efforts, herbicide resistance has grown through the years, with some weed populations showing resistance to not one but four or five different herbicides. A new study from the University of Illinois explains why herbicide rotation doesn’t work.

“If you were to ask farmers what is the one thing you can do to delay resistance evolution, they’ll say rotate herbicides. This study shows that’s not true,” says Pat Tranel, Ainsworth Professor in the Department of Crop Sciences at U of I.

Herbicide resistance results from random genetic mutations that keep weeds from being harmed by a particular herbicide. When farmers continually spray the same herbicide year after year, those with the mutation, referred to as a resistance allele, survive and reproduce. Over time, the proportion of plants with the resistance allele grows.

Conventional thinking says that any defense trait—in this case, herbicide resistance—should come at a cost to the plant. It might be well protected against the herbicide, but it might not grow as tall, or flower as early. When the trait reduces a plant’s reproductive output, that’s known as a fitness cost.

A fitness cost to herbicide resistance should be apparent in years when alternative herbicides are used. “If plants have glyphosate resistance, but they’re sprayed with 2,4-D, for example, the majority of those plants will die because they’re not resistant to 2,4-D. But no herbicide kills 100 percent of the weeds, resistant or not,” Tranel says. “You have to think about the small percentage that live.

“If there’s a high fitness cost to the glyphosate resistance allele, most of the surviving plants will be small or will flower late and they won’t produce many seeds. But if the fitness cost is low, those plants will produce just as many seeds as plants that don’t have the allele. Herbicide rotation relies on the assumption that the fitness cost is high.”

To test that assumption, Tranel and his research team designed a simple, if time-consuming, experiment. They took female waterhemp plants with no resistance alleles and allowed them to be pollinated by males with resistances to five different herbicides. Because female waterhemp plants can produce as many as a million seeds, it was easy to get the 45,000 they needed to start the experimental population.  

They scattered seeds on the soil floor of a greenhouse and just let them grow. When females started producing seeds, they were collected to start the next generation. Between generations, the researchers removed all the plants and made sure no seeds remained in the soil. The cycle was repeated for six generations over three years.

How could the study test the efficacy of herbicide rotation if no herbicides were sprayed? It comes back to fitness cost. Remember, the assumption is that without the herbicide, the resistance allele offers the plant no benefit, and could carry a cost. The researchers were allowing those fitness costs a chance to play out during the study.

“If the resistance alleles had a high fitness cost, we should have seen them decrease in frequency or disappear over the six generations,” Tranel says. Instead, the alleles for almost all five resistance types were essentially unchanged.

The allele that confers resistance to ALS-inhibiting herbicides was statistically lower after six generations, but the decrease was tiny in terms of real numbers. “The frequency decreased by less than 10 percent a year,” Tranel says. “At the rate it was decreasing, even if a farmer used an alternative herbicide for 9 years, the frequency of resistance to ALS inhibitors would only be cut in half.”

Waterhemp has two known strategies to ward off glyphosate-based herbicides, such as Roundup, and the researchers tested the frequency of both.

“Plants with one type of glyphosate-resistance mechanism make multiple copies of the target site for glyphosate, a gene called EPSPS. And that’s what we found went away; the proportion of plants with multiple copies of EPSPS decreased about 15 percent with each generation,” Tranel says. “But I want to emphasize something: even though it decreased quite a bit, it didn’t disappear by any stretch. If you applied glyphosate, that resistance mechanism would come back even if you waited six years between applications.”

The other glyphosate-resistance mechanism involves the same gene. This time, it’s a specific mutation in the EPSPS gene that guards the plant against the effects of glyphosate. The researchers found that the mutation in EPSPS actually increased about 10 percent in each generation. Tranel thinks it may have been easier for one mechanism to replace the other because they both involve the same gene.

“This study tells us that fitness cost isn’t going to help you much in terms of herbicide resistance, so even long rotations aren’t going to work,” Tranel says. “I tell farmers, ‘Once you have resistance, you’re stuck with it.’ It gives us that much more incentive to do the right things to avoid resistance in the first place. That means using multiple herbicides, using a PRE and coming back with a POST. If you have escapes, getting out of your tractor and getting rid of them before they set seed. Because if they set resistant seed, this study tells you that you will have that resistance trait for life.”

The article, “Limited fitness costs of herbicide-resistance traits in Amaranthus tuberculatus facilitate resistance evolution,” is published in Pest Management Science. Tranel’s co-authors include Chenxi Wu and Adam Davis, from U of I. The study was supported by a grant from USDA NIFA [grant no. 2012-67013-19343].  

Relationship science: How can couples keep moving forward

Published September 6, 2017
Brian Ogolsky, associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies

URBANA, Ill. – For some couples in romantic relationships, just staying together is good enough. But others want to see their relationship move forward—to get better and better—and are willing to put in the effort to get there.

Family studies researchers at the University of Illinois who study the science behind maintaining romantic relationships focus their work on the central organizing unit—the relationship—rather than on the individual. Through their work, they hope to find out what works and, maybe, what doesn’t in keeping a relationship moving forward.

“We know relationships are key,” says Brian Ogolsky, associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at U of I. “We spend all of our time in these relationships. Whether we are at home, with our siblings, our parents, or our colleagues, these are all extremely important. And consequently we spend very little time alone with our thoughts. So it’s critical that we carefully and methodically understand what’s going on in relationships and what is unique that two individuals bring that you can’t get from studying person ‘x’ and person ‘y’ separately.”

In a recent study published in the Journal of Family Theory and Review, Ogolsky and his research team discuss romantic relationship maintenance and the two primary motives behind a couple’s attempts at staying together: threat mitigation and relationship enhancement.

Ogolsky calls these “macro-motives,” or the main reasons people maintain their relationships. In their study, the researchers provide a visual framework of how relationships may be maintained by staving off threats or moved forward by relationship enhancement strategies, which involve putting effort into the relationship for the pleasure of it. For the most part, relationships include a combination of both.

“Threats to the relationship come from all kinds of different places,” he explains. “Generally, there are many threats early in relationships that can cause problems, but that is not to say that these disappear later. We know couples cheat in the long-term, people end up in new work places and in new situations where possible alternative partners show up, conflicts arise, or a lack of willingness to sacrifice time for your partner emerges.”

Some threat mitigation tactics can actually become enhancement strategies over time, Ogolsky says, but adds that the reverse is not usually true. “We get to a place where we are pouring energy into the relationship simply because we want to keep the relationship moving forward rather than just mitigating threats.”

In their integrative model of relationship maintenance, the researchers also illustrate individual versus interactive components of maintenance. “This question of ‘is this an individual thing or is this a couple-level thing’ often goes unanswered. But as we were doing this review, we started noticing that there are ways to maintain the relationship that we can characterize as ‘more or less in our own heads.’ We are doing something to convince ourselves that this is a good relationship and therefore it’s good for our relationship,” Ogolsky explains. “Things like positive illusions, the idea that we can believe our relationship is better than it is or that our partner is better than he or she is. We can do that without our partner.”

Mitigating conflict, however, is something that partners must do together. “Good conflict management or forgiving our partner for doing something wrong is an interactive process. When a threat comes in, we can do one of two things: we can ditch our partner or forgive them over time.”

The same is true of enhancement strategies: partners can do things individually or interactively. “Individually, even the act of thinking about our relationship can be enhancing. Whereas engaging in leisure activities together, talking about the state of our relationship, these are all interactive,” Ogolsky says.

But why study relationship maintenance as a science?

While Ogolsky rarely offers direct interventions to couples, he explains that he tends to study the positive side of relationships because of what can be learned from people who are going through what, he says, is inherently a very turbulent thing.

“Relationships have ups and downs. I never go into my work saying people should stay together or they should break up. Relationships are individualized, a unique pairing of people that comes with a unique history. What we are talking about here are processes that exist across different kinds of couples, some of which work very well for some people, some of which may not work for some people. I am interested in understanding processes that keep relationships moving.”

For the review, Ogolsky and his team searched for previous research, regardless of discipline, dealing with relationship maintenance. They eventually discussed about 250 studies in the paper (reviewing more than 1,100) that deal with romantic relationships and that met their criteria. Ogolsky hopes the review will bring together relationship scholars from across many disciplines.

The paper, “Relationship Maintenance: A review of research of romantic relationships,” is published in the Journal of family Theory and Review. Co-Authors include Brian G. Ogolsky, J. Kale Monk, TeKisha M. Rice, Jaclyn C. Theisen, and Christopher R. Maniotes, all in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the U of I.

The work is supported in part by a USDA/NIFA HATCH grant (ILLU-793-326).

Storing corn and soybeans in 2017

Published September 5, 2017

URBANA, Ill. – The current price structure of corn and soybean futures markets indicate positive carry in both markets. This raises the question of whether producers should make decisions about grain sales. The decision by producers to store corn or soybeans should be determined by the returns to storage.

According to University of Illinois agricultural economist Todd Hubbs, the current projection for 2017-18 marketing-year corn supply is 16.573 billion bushels, 367 million bushels smaller than last year's supply. The soybean supply is projected at 4.777 billion bushels, 249 million bushels larger than last year’s supply. Total supplies (production, beginning stocks, and imports) of wheat, feed grains, and soybeans are currently estimated or forecast by the USDA to be 21.780 billion bushels, 16 percent smaller than supplies of a year ago. The USDA estimates on-farm and off-farm grain storage capacity as of Dec.1 each year. Total storage capacity on Dec. 1, 2016, was estimated at 24.317 billion bushels.

“Although storage capacity is not consistent over different areas or by type of crop, storage capacity appears capable of handling 2017 crops,” Hubbs says.

Harvest bids for corn and soybeans possess a weak basis, although conditions vary over different regions, Hubbs adds. At interior elevators in south central Illinois, current harvest time corn bids reflect an average basis of about -32 cents per bushel. This basis is around 7 cents weaker than the basis at this time last year and about 3 cents weaker than two years ago. The carry from December 2016 to July 2017 in the corn futures market is about 26 cents per bushel, around 3.71 cents per month. For soybeans, current harvest time bids in south central Illinois reflect an average basis of approximately -3.25 cents per bushel. The basis is about 10 cents weaker than at this time last year and about 2 cents weaker than that of two years ago. The carry in the soybean futures market from November 2016 to July 2017 is approximately 34 cents per bushel, about 43 cents per month.

“A producer’s storage decision is based on their storage capacity and the expected returns from storage,” Hubbs says. “Returns to storage can be captured by selling the crop for later delivery at a price that exceeds the spot cash price by more than the cost of owning and storing the crop. This can be accomplished through a forward cash contract or by selling deferred futures contracts. Using a forward cash contract eliminates all uncertainty about the return to storage. By selling futures to price a stored crop, uncertainty about future basis levels can impact the actual returns to storage. Returns to storage can also be captured by storing the crop unpriced in anticipation of higher cash prices. Forward pricing eliminates downside price risk but also eliminates a return from higher price levels. Storing a crop unpriced allows the producer to capture higher prices, but provides no protection from lower prices.”

For corn, average harvest bids on Sept.1 in south central Illinois are near $3.24 per bushel, slightly below the $3.30 mid-point of the range of the U.S. average farm price projected by USDA, Hubbs reports. “The relatively low price, weak basis, and carry futures market encourages storage of the 2017 crop. In south central Illinois, the average basis for corn typically strengthens to around -10 cents by spring, as it did in 2015 and 2016. In 2017, the average basis remained weak throughout the spring with the strongest basis occurring in late April at -14 cents relative to the July 2017 futures price. Given the current production and demand scenarios, an expectation of the typical basis pattern for corn over this marketing year is reasonable.”

As of Sept.1, Hubbs says average harvest time bids for soybeans in south central Illinois are near $9.17 per bushel, below the mid-point projection of $9.30 for the U.S. average farm price projected by USDA for the 2017-18 marketing year. “The average basis in south central Illinois usually strengthens in the spring but there has been no discernable pattern in recent years,” he says.  In 2017, soybean basis remained weak with the strongest basis occurring in early June at -28 cents relative to the July 2017 futures price.

Hubbs says basis risk could be substantial this marketing year depending on South American crop production and U.S. export market competitiveness.

“The uncertainty surrounding corn and soybean yield projections for 2017 may encourage a patient approach to pricing crops,” Hubbs says. “By storing corn and soybeans unpriced, one holds an expectation of prices increasing by more than the cost of owning and storing these crops. Over the short term, significantly higher prices require a large reduction in the production forecasts by the USDA on Sept. 12 or Oct. 12. Over a longer horizon, higher prices may occur if demand is stronger than currently forecast. Southern hemisphere crop problems could also materialize to provide a price increase.” 







Could switchgrass help China’s air quality?

Published September 5, 2017
Loess Plateau

URBANA, Ill. – Researchers from the United States and China have proposed an idea that could improve China’s air quality, but they’re not atmospheric scientists. They’re agronomists.

“China’s poor air quality is caused by a combination of coal burning and particulates from soil erosion. The Loess Plateau is the major source of erosion in China, and air quality there is just terrible. If erosion in the Loess Plateau can be improved, air quality will improve,” says D.K. Lee, an agronomist in the Department of Crop Sciences at the University of Illinois.

Although the region has been farmed for millennia, much of China’s Loess Plateau could be described as a barren moonscape: dry, dusty, and prone to erosion. In fact, the distinctive loess soils in the area have been called the most erodible in the world. In a massive soil conservation effort, the Chinese government is creating incentives for farmers to plant sustainable and erosion-reducing cropping systems, including orchards, forests, and perennial grasses. Researchers from U of I are recommending switchgrass.

“When we’re looking at revegetation, ideally we’re planting something that can bring in revenue for farmers. Switchgrass produces a lot of biomass that can be harvested and burned as a cleaner source of energy,” Lee says. “Not only can switchgrass reduce air pollution by holding the soil, if it is burned instead of coal, it can reduce air pollution in a second way.”

Switchgrass is stress tolerant and small-scale testing in the area has shown that it can produce plenty of biomass even with limited irrigation and fertilizers. But, Lee says, cultivar selection and management practices will depend on where switchgrass is planted within the Loess Plateau. “Most areas should be okay, but elevation, latitude, and moisture level should be taken into account when selecting the appropriate switchgrass cultivar for the area.” 

Although switchgrass has been introduced in China, it hasn’t caught on as a biomass crop yet. That’s where the research team— including experts in switchgrass cultivar selection, agronomy, and management—comes in, and their new article provides this information in practical terms for future evaluation by Chinese scientists and government agencies.

“Stopping erosion in the Loess Plateau is not going to be easy. It was the birthplace of agriculture in Asia, and it has been farmed for several thousand years. The land has been intensively farmed. But when I visited, I saw people out there planting trees by hand. It’s changing. And maybe switchgrass can be part of that change,” Lee says.

The article, “Switchgrass as a bioenergy crop in the Loess Plateau, China: Potential lignocellulosic feedstock production and environmental conservation,” is published in the Journal of Integrative Agriculture. Lee’s co-authors include Danielle Cooney, Hyemi Kim, Moon-Sub Lee, Jia Guo, and Lauren Quinn from U of I, and Chen Shao-lin and Xu Bing-cheng from China’s Northwest A & F University in Yangling. The work was supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Hatch Project.


News Source:

D.K. Lee, 217-333-7736

Adding commercial soy in developing countries brings unique challenges

Published September 5, 2017

URBANA, Ill. – Growing commercial soybean in developing countries comes with a set of unique challenges. Pests and weeds are more difficult to control than on farms in the United States, and using chemical inputs is often unfamiliar to farmers. University of Illinois agricultural economist Peter Goldsmith says when they decide to grow commercial crops like soybean, it will likely raise their profits and ability to pay a higher wage to workers, but may require a major shift in thinking in relation to crop production and management.

“Convincing farmers in developing countries to grow soybean as a commercial crop involves a change in how they farm,” says Goldsmith. “It will be different than what they’re used to. It may require new equipment and training. Farmers who have been growing native staples like cow peas for generations have tacit knowledge about the seed, how to store it or where to buy it locally next year, the best row spacing, and other production details.

“With soybean, a new introduction, the best seed sources are certified. Reliable seed suppliers store seed well, can better assure high germination rates, and reflect varietal improvement, local adaptation, disease resistance, and high yield. But unlike cowpea, high quality soybean seed suppliers are commercial, not necessarily a farmer’s usual local source in the next village or from their own saved stores. Production practices to maximize soybean yield and profitability in the tropics requires fertilization and pest management, which involves commercial purchases and application of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.”

Goldsmith recognizes there are some people who would prefer that fewer or no chemicals be used. But there is also the reality that growing productive commercial crops to raise the income level for farmers in developing countries requires chemical inputs to be economically sustainable. He asks, can we do it in balanced, smart way?

Goldsmith analyzed three data sets to demonstrate how using chemical inputs in soybean production affects the economic outcome.

  • In west central Brazil, a low labor cost (only 9 percent of the total cost) and high input cost results in high yields. The outcome means $4.04 for each dollar of labor and has huge implications for elevating rural wages. But, this also came with a tradeoff—chemical inputs are 47 percent of the total production costs.
  • In northern Ghana, labor represents 75 percent of the total cost of production. The yield is one-fifth of the yield in Brazil. With almost no chemical inputs, this example is very environmentally green, but with zero operating profits, it’s unsustainable. These farmers lost money and accordingly generated low returns to labor (wages).
  • The USAID Soybean Innovation Lab research farm in Nyankpala, Ghana, represents a middle path. Results from the SMART (Soybean Management and Appropriate Research and Technology) Farm show employing some basic agronomic and production practices and locally available technologies dramatically improves yields and profitability. Labor costs are still high at 55 percent, but with chemical and fertilizer inputs, yield is better and the profit allows for 79 cents per dollar of invested labor.

“To me, the traditional low-input scenario in northern Ghana is unacceptable,” Goldsmith says. “Asking farmers to grow soy without inputs is like giving them a tractor with three wheels or a pump with no handle. The outcome is going to be bad. Farmers will get frustrated, produce one crop and then stop. It’s a waste of donor dollars.”

Goldsmith says his findings from the three scenarios aren’t pessimistic about soybean catching on in developing countries. Rather, it is a caution to be realistic and appropriately investing in these programs.

“Just today I got a call from a company in Ethiopia that wants to produce edible soy,” Goldsmith says. “I get a lot of calls like that one. Industry demand for soybean as either a food, food oil, or animal feed is great and they want farmers to grow the crop. Prices reflect the strong regional demand. For example, we analyze soybean prices in Ghana. The prices in Northern and Central Ghana, inland, are on average comparable to soybean prices in Chicago (about 4 percent less). "

Goldsmith identifies some of the changes that need to be addressed when shifting from growing native staples such as cowpea to successful and sustainable soybean production in developing countries:

  • Weed and pest pressure are high, so chemical inputs will be required and bundled with environmental stewardship training.
  • Soil quality is poor, so correction and fertilization are important.
  • Traditional practices of seed saving or local procurement may result in unreliable soybean seed supply, so farmers will need to access certified seed supply chains.

He adds, “If changes like these can be implemented, commercial crops like soybean offer remarkable new opportunities for poverty reduction, nutrition improvement, rural economic development, but there is a tradeoff. They will require changes to the norms of traditional agricultural production.”

Goldsmith’s paper, “The Faustian bargain of tropical grain production,” is published in Tropical Conservation Science. He is a professor and economist in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at U of I and principal investigator of USAID’s Soybean Innovation Lab. Funding for this work was provided by USAID.