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U of I students inspired by attending World Food Prize events

Published November 17, 2016
U of I students at the World Food Prize.

Eighteen University of Illinois students who are passionate about food security attended the annual World Food Prize in Des Moines, Iowa during October. The students’ trip was sponsored by the ACES Office of International Programs and ACES Office of Academic Programs.  

“Every year the Borlaug Dialogue and World Food Prize convene high level representatives from governments, industries, NGOs and international agencies to discuss the challenges of hunger and progress being made to address them. These are issues that many Illinois students are passionate about and that are at the core of the International Food Security at Illinois (IFSI) mission. Giving our students the opportunity to observe, interact with, and be inspired by leaders in the campaign to end world hunger is a natural thing for the Office of International Programs to do,” said Alex Winter-Nelson, director of the ACES Office of International Programs.  

The World Food Prize is the foremost international award recognizing – without regard to race, religion, nationality, or political beliefs – the achievements of individuals who have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world. The award is presented each October in conjunction with The Normal E. Borlaug International Symposium, a three-day event known as “the premier conference in the world on global agriculture.”

The Illinois students had the opportunity to interact with international experts, policy leaders, business executives and farmers as they worked together to address cutting-edge issues in food security. They listened to such distinguished speakers as U.S. ambassadors and the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. Other dignitaries present this year included: the President of Mauritious, the former President of Malawi, the President of the World Bank, and current and past World Food Prize Laureates.

The students left informed and inspired. Some of their thoughts are included below. 

Morgan Doggett, a senior in agricultural and consumer economics:

"Attending the World Food Prize was quite the experience. From visiting with University of Illinois alumnus, Dr. Robert Fraley, to meeting agriculture and policy leaders from around the globe, it was leaps and bounds away from anything I could have imagined when I applied to be a student representative for the University of Illinois."

Thomas Poole, a junior in crop sciences: 

 "Attending this prestigious conference with such a diverse group of colleagues brings hope for the future of agriculture. With passion and perseverance, we can lead better days through better ways and bring an end to world hunger."

Kara Brockamp, a sophomore in agricultural and biological engineering:

"This year’s symposium continued the legacy of the Father of the Green Revolution, Norman Borlaug, in as stellar of a way as ever, giving young people like me countless role models to pave the way to a hunger-free world."

Lotte Reinhoudt, exchange student in Human Nutrition from the Netherlands:

"Enhancing the ability of food systems to deliver high quality diets is essential. The lecture at the World Food Prize has made me even more aware of this and I am very grateful that I had the opportunity to listen to the experts in this field. I will keep this knowledge in mind and try to think outside the box and broaden my vision when working on nutrition problems in the future."


Launch of the Initiative on Big Data, Food Security and the Environment

Published November 16, 2016
Kathy Baylis, Prasanta Kalita, Chancellor Robert Jones, Amy Marshall Colon and AJ Christensen at the GODAN Summit in New York City, September 2016.

Big data is a big deal.

The 2016 International Food Security at Illinois (IFSI) Spring Symposium, "Using Big Data to Improve International Food Security," convened experts from across the University and beyond to explore opportunities to apply novel data sources and new analytic techniques to the issues of food security across the globe. While analysis of domestic agricultural production and distribution has relied increasingly on data-rich methods to target production and marketing decisions, data analytics have not been applied so intensively to international food systems towards the goal of increasing food security. Researchers at the University of Illinois plan to change that through the launch of the Initiative on Big Data, Food Security and the Environment. 

Professor Kathy Baylis has been named the faculty lead of the Initiative on Big Data, Food Security, and the Environment, an effort within the IFSI program. With OIP support, she and other ACES faculty have engaged with multiple domestic and international groups trying to identify the challenges in international food security that could be addressed using novel data collection and analytical tools. Working with the Mid-West Big Data Hub, ACES faculty and collaborators across the campus are uniquely positioned to utilize these methods to help feed the world without sacrificing the natural resources upon which agriculture depends.

Please visit to see the website for this new initiative and to get an overview of the issues, the plans, and the faculty involved in engaging in this area. If you are interested in joining the initiative, please use the contact link on the webpage or contact Dr. Baylis directly.

The College’s ties in this area extend well beyond the campus. Jamie Adams, graduate of the Agricultural and Consumer Economics Department is leading the USDA’s efforts in the Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN) initiative. GODAN constitutes an international partnership to share data “to deal with the urgent challenge of ensuring global food security.” ACES faculty share this aim and are interacting with GODAN as well as international agricultural research centers, government agencies, and other universities to find ways to use data analytics to reduce global hunger.

Photo: Kathy Baylis, Prasanta Kalita, Chancellor Robert Jones, Amy Marshall Colon and AJ Christensen at the GODAN Summit in New York City, September 2016.

News Source:

Alex Winter-Nelson

Perennial plant of 2017 – Asclepias tuberosa

Published November 15, 2016
Asclepias tuberosa flowers
Orange Asclepias tuberosa flowers

URBANA, Ill. – With all the “buzz” about bees and butterflies, the Perennial Plant Association is celebrating a plant known for its ability to support birds and insects, including a beloved North American native butterfly. The Association has just announced Asclepias tuberosa as its 2017 Perennial Plant of the Year™.

Commonly known as butterfly weed, this long-lived and striking perennial is native to much of the continental United States, along with Canadian provinces Ontario and Quebec.

“With vibrant orange, red, and yellow flowers that seem to jump out at you, butterfly weed is a great addition to a sunny garden with average to dry soils,” says University of Illinois Extension educator Martha Smith. “As the common name suggests, these plants are butterfly magnets. They also have a medicinal history as a treatment for pleurisy, a common ailment in early colonial times, causing wheezing, coughing, and great pain due to the inflammation of the pleura round the lungs. Asclepias tuberosa reportedly was so effective in treating this ailment it earned the common name pleurisy root.”

Butterfly weed is a member of the Apocynaceae or milkweed family. This family includes plants with a milky sap poisonous to most insects. Unlike other milkweeds, Asclepias tuberosa contains little sap. The hairy leaves are 2 to 5 inches long, growing close together as they spiral up the hairy stem. Stems are branched near the top with flat clusters, or umbels, of many showy flowers in late spring through mid-July.

“Butterfly weed flowers are easy to recognize because of their ‘five up and five down’ appearance,” Smith says. “Each flower has five colorful petals that hang down and five upright curved petals called hoods, each possessing one orange horn. When cross-pollinated, a dry fruit, called a follicle, forms. The mature follicle opens along one side to disperse the seeds.”

Smith recommends deadheading Asclepias tuberosa to prevent reseeding, to keep the plants more attractive, and to promote a second flush of color later in the season.

Asclepias tuberosa makes excellent, long-lasting cut flowers. “Cut stems when more than half the flowers are open; buds do not open well once the stem is cut. Searing the cut end is not necessary to prevent sap from seeping out of the stems. Instead, cut flowers have a good vase life if they are immediately placed in warm water after cutting and either placing stems in a refrigerator for 12 hours or transferring the stems to cold water. This process eliminates what little sap may be produced,” Smith notes.

Butterfly weed is hardy to zones 4-9 and reaches 2 to 3 feet high with a 2-foot spread. Smith cautions gardeners to be patient, as butterfly weed is slow to emerge in the spring. Young plants grow from a single central stem, but with age, plants will develop additional shoots at the base. Mature plants do not transplant well, although they can be divided carefully in early spring before new growth begins. “Dig carefully,” Smith says, “but if enough root is left behind, they will regrow. Don’t cut back in late fall, rather wait until early spring. To prepare young butterfly weed for the winter, put mulch down around them to prevent frost heaving.”

Butterfly weed is often grown from seed. Experts report 50-80 percent germination if fresh cleaned seed is used. “If germination does not occur after 3 to 4 weeks, provide a 2 to 4 week cooling period,” Smith says. “Collected seed will result in flower color variation. To ensure color, purchase seed from a reputable source. Propagation through root cuttings can be used to ensure quality from forms showing merit. Cutting back once, early in the growth cycle, will promote compact growth.”

Since Asclepias tuberosa is a native prairie plant, butterfly weed is quite comfortable in meadow gardens, native plantings, and wildlife sanctuaries, but it is finding its way into semi-formal to formal urban gardens. Smith suggests planting it in large masses, for an unrivaled display of eye-popping orange flower color. Orange butterfly weed pairs well with summer blooming Phlox, Hemerocallis sp., Liatris spicata, Echinacea sp., Salvia sp., and most June/July sun-loving perennials. Another bonus is that if the garden is visited by deer, they will leave Asclepias tuberosa alone.

Many bees, wasps, ants, butterflies, and beetles visit butterfly weed, as well as hummingbirds. All members of the milkweed family serve as larval food for the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), queen butterfly (Danaus gilppus), and the milkweed tussock moth (Euchaetes egle). “Let them munch on butterfly weed and you will be rewarded with these ‘flowers of the air,’” Smith says.

News Source:

Martha Smith, 309-734-5161

Researchers develop new treatment for reducing inflammation, treating obesity-related diseases

Published November 14, 2016
  • Obesity can lead to conditions such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, and some cancers.
  • Chronic, systemic inflammation is the causal link between obesity and the conditions that stem from it.
  • A team of U of I researchers developed a unique targeted drug delivery method to treat inflammatory cells through the use of nanomedicine, in order to alleviate these conditions.

URBANA, Ill. - Obesity can lead to potentially life-threatening conditions such as high blood pressure (hypertension), type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, gallbladder disease, osteoarthritis, some cancers, and clinical depression or anxiety.

With such an intense group of problems, treating obesity and the conditions that can result from it is a major health and economic imperative.

Kelly Swanson, a professor of nutrition and nutrigenomics in the Department of Animal Sciences at the University of Illinois, has been part of a team of researchers from across the U of I campus examining ways to alleviate these conditions. The team is led by Andrew Smith, a bioengineering assistant professor at U of I. Their work, published in a recent issue of ACS Nano, describes a unique approach the team developed that could point the way to innovative, highly effective treatments for those who suffer from obesity.

Over the last decade or so, medical research has shown that, in the obese state, adipose tissue (mostly made of fat cells) becomes enlarged and inflamed. This causes systemic inflammation, which is believed to be a causal link between obesity and the conditions that stem from it.

“In the obese state, there are a huge number of immune cells that get into the adipose [fat] tissue,” Smith says. “They wouldn’t normally be there in such large numbers, and their presence is what is responsible for this inflammation. These cell types that we talk about are called macrophages.”

These macrophages are white blood cells that are a typical part of a healthy body and perform such important functions as detecting, engulfing and destroying foreign substances. In an obese body, these macrophages enter the adipose tissue in large numbers and their behavior changes: They become inflamed.

“That means they are telling the body that something is wrong,” Smith says. “They secrete molecules that cause a response throughout the entire body.”

With the knowledge of how these macrophages work, Smith wanted to find a way to shut down their inflammatory response. He and his team developed a unique way to attack the problem through nanomedicine.

Usually nanomedicine involves targeted treatments for diseased tissue like a tumor that constitutes only a very small part of the body. In this case, the adipose target is physically much larger, and it is found surrounding the organs in the peritoneal cavity (where the digestive system is located). The goal was to evaluate treatments injected into the peritoneal cavity to determine if they were able to reduce inflammation.

U of I bioengineering assistant professor Wawrzyniec Dobrucki oversaw the PET/CT imaging, image processing, and analysis in the studies.

“Using noninvasive imaging approaches, we demonstrated that synthesized nanoscale polysaccharides efficiently targeted adipose-targeted macrophages,” Dobrucki says. “The surprise was—this was a big deal, actually—that, with this technique, we could deliver therapeutic agents aimed at adipose-derived macrophages with a very high efficiency. We found that 63 percent of the injected dose stayed within the adipose tissue for 24 hours. It was just remarkable. If you are planning to develop targeted treatment strategies, it is essential to maximize the retention of the drug within the area you are trying to target.”

Typically a standard, systemic approach with a medicine administered in the bloodstream would result in effective concentrations at the target area in the range of 1 percent or less. To have a concentration 63 times that is astonishing and was the highest concentration reported to date in the literature. Such targeting could lead to a need for smaller doses per treatment, and it could result in fewer, or less intense, side effects from the drugs themselves.

Swanson oversaw the team that prepared the mice population for the study and conducted blood marker and gene expression analyses. His group carefully monitored what the mice ate, ensuring that there was a control lean group, as well as the diet-induced obese population. An expert in nutrition and obesity, Swanson says that he and his fellow researchers hope these treatments can be a useful tool for lessening inflammation and improving disease prognosis. However, this would not be a replacement for a healthy lifestyle.

“The best way to control obesity and related diseases is a healthy diet and exercise,” Swanson says. “Controlling simple overeating is the biggest thing, but also eating healthy foods. For those who struggle to keep the weight off, nanomedicine-based therapeutics may soon help manage the disease.”

The study also resulted in collaboration among researchers on campus who might otherwise not interact on a single research project.

Swanson, for one, believes this was a benefit of the project, saying, “It’s been a great experience. This kind of collaboration has opened up my eyes and my research lab to a new area. We are very different—from an expertise perspective—but it merges well for a study like this. It has been truly mutually beneficial.”

The new therapy still needs additional testing before the procedure could be used in human subjects. Further pre-clinical studies are necessary to determine if there are any long-term toxicity issues with the procedure. Also, the injection within the body cavity itself poses some risks, so the research team also is investigating new ways to minimize the number of administrations in that area.

The potential benefits to humans are promising, according to the researchers. With this treatment, people who are trying to control obesity through diet and exercise would at least be able to reduce or eliminate potential obesity-related complications and could increase their ability to control obesity with greater safety.

A recent award from the National Institutes of Health of nearly $2 million, over the next five years, will allow the researchers from the U of I departments of bioengineering, animal sciences, molecular and integrative physiology, and veterinary pathology to continue exploring the use of this unique, tissue-specific drug delivery method that uses polysaccharides as nanoscale drug carriers, targeted at the inflammation-causing cells.

Initial funding for the work came from a Future Interdisciplinary Research Exploration (FIRE) seed grant from the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at U of I. The aim of the FIRE grant program is to spark creativity and collaboration between ACES faculty and their research partners, both within and outside of U of I.

“Efficient targeting of adipose tissue macrophages in obesity with polysaccharide nanocarriers,” is published in the journal ACS Nano. Authors include Liang Ma, Tzu-Wen Liu, Matthew A. Wallig, Iwona T. Dobrucki, Lawrence W. Dobrucki, Erik R. Nelson, Kelly S. Swanson, and Andrew W. Smith, all of the University of Illinois.

Adapted from a U of I Department of Bioengineering press release.

Mississippi River could leave farmland stranded

Published November 14, 2016
road on Dogtooth Bend peninsula
  • Seasonal flooding events along the Mississippi in 1993, 2011, and 2016 have left farmland underwater, threatening the agricultural future in the area.
  • Climate scientists predict a continued pattern of extreme rainfall events in the upper Mississippi River region.
  • Repeatedly repairing the levee breaches, building a bridge over the shortcut created by the flooding, or letting the Mississippi chart its own course are some solutions to the problem.

URBANA, Ill. – If the Mississippi River continues to go unchecked, the farmland on Dogtooth Bend peninsula may be only accessible by boat. According to a University of Illinois study, each successive flood carves a deeper channel across the narrow neck of the peninsula. This floodwater shortcut threatens to permanently reroute the Mississippi River, leaving Dogtooth Bend an island rather than a peninsula.

U of I researcher Ken Olson and his colleague from Iowa State University, Lois Wright Morton, have studied the seasonal Mississippi River flooding for over a decade. They’ve paid particularly close attention to the damages caused by major flooding events in 1993, 2011, and most recently in January 2016.

“Approximately 15,000 acres of farmland in the Dogtooth Bend area would no longer be accessible by road if the Mississippi River is allowed to realign naturally. In some cases the land use would likely shift from agriculture to other uses,” Olson explains.

Olson says climate scientists predict a continued pattern of extreme rainfall events in the upper Mississippi River region. This suggests that unexpected above-average rainfall events in the Ohio and Mississippi River basins will continue to increase the frequency of extreme flooding events.

“The 2016 Len Small levee breach was much more severe than 2011 because of its location,” says Olson. “The fast-moving river cut a 1-mile long breach in late December through early January, scouring out a crater lake and deep gullies info adjacent farmland. The southeast flow of the Mississippi River created a new channel connecting the old channel with the main stem of the river.”

Olson says Dogtooth Bend farmers and landowners, members and staff of the Len Small Levee and Drainage District, community and state-level leaders, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have some difficult decisions ahead in repairing the current landscape and preparing for future flood events—decisions that affect future land uses, resource allocations, and the livelihoods of the people of southern Illinois.

The study suggests three remedies for the situation. One is to continue to repair the Len small levee when needed. Olson says this is only a short-term fix.

A second idea is to proactively construct a diversion channel with embankments on both sides where the old meander channel is currently located. “During high water periods, the channel would temporarily redirect excess Mississippi River floodwaters and allow the water to exit back into the river at mile marker 15,” Olson says. This would also require one or more bridges be built over the diversion channel to allow access to farmland, homes, and recreational hunting areas.

“A third alternative is to assist the Mississippi River realignment tendency and construct a sixth-tenths of a mile wide new river channel through the 3.5 miles shortcut between mile marker 34 and 15 where the Mississippi River is already cutting with each major flooding event,” Olson says. “The USACE could accelerate this process even more by making this channel between mile markers 34 and 15 the main stem river navigation channel.”

This last alternative fix would require thorough hydrologic, environmental, social, and economic assessments. And, as Olson reminds, “over time, the mighty Mississippi River will eventually win, as it always has in the past.”

The study, “Mississippi River threatens to make Dogtooth Bend peninsula in Illinois an island,” is written by Kenneth R. Olson and Lois Wright Morton. It appears in the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation. Olson is a researcher in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois.

A pdf of the full paper is available online.

Funding was provided by the North-Central Regional Project No. NCERA-3 Soil Survey, the University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences, Iowa State University, and the National Great River Research and Education Center.


Corn use prospects

Published November 14, 2016

URBANA, Ill. – The USDA World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates released on Nov. 9 reported a significant increase in corn yield for the 2016-17 marketing year. According to University of Illinois agricultural economist Todd Hubbs, the yield increase is placing downward pressure on corn prices due to the supply concerns associated with the projected historic production in the United States.

Hubbs offers the following closer consideration of corn consumption prospects for the marketing year to help clarify the uses for this crop.

U.S. corn production is projected to be 15.2 billion bushels due to a 1.9 bushel per acre increase in projected corn yield. This yield increase came in at a higher level than pre-report estimates expected. The Crop Production report released on Nov. 9 indicated the increase in yield was particularly strong in the states of the western Corn Belt. Nebraska and South Dakota increased projected corn yields by 3 bushels per acre over the October numbers.  Minnesota corn yields increased 4 bushels per acre while North Dakota yields increased a surprising 17 bushels per acre over October’s yield projection.

In total, the yield increases in the four states over the October projections increased corn production by 132 million bushels. In conjunction with the already large yields in the rest of the nation, a record corn crop was created. The increased yield for the corn crop creates a scenario in which the ending stocks-to-use ratio for the United States is projected to be 16.4 percent under current consumption projections, a level not seen since the 2005-06 marketing year.

The USDA projects 2016-17 marketing-year corn exports to be 2.225 billion bushels. Census Bureau estimates for September corn exports were 248 million bushels. This was an 89 percent increase over September estimates of the previous year and provides confirmation of the strong corn export numbers expressed in weekly export sales reports. New sales need to average 27.8 million bushels per week to meet the USDA projection for the marketing year. The current pace of corn exports gives encouragement to meeting the export projection despite speculation on South American corn production and export possibilities.

Food, seed, and industrial use projections increased 85 million bushels to a total of 6.735 billion bushels. Because 25 million of the increase is related to corn used for ethanol, a 60 million bushel increase is projected for non-ethanol food, seed, and industrial uses. The Nov. 9 report indicated increased usage for the non-ethanol category for the 2013-14 and 2015-16 marketing years as well based on updated usage estimates. Clarification of the changes is expected in the upcoming Feed Outlook report on Monday, Nov. 14.

Corn used for ethanol projections increased by 25 million bushels in the recent report to reach 5.3 billion bushels. Corn crushed for ethanol in the recent grain crush report was 2 percent higher for September than the previous year. The 435 million bushels crushed for fuel ethanol reflect the strong domestic gasoline demand this year continued through the early fall. The United States Energy Information Agency reports ethanol production and ethanol stocks for the week ending Nov. 4 were 2 percent higher than last year. The strong ethanol production and gasoline demand thus far provides good prospects of reaching the corn used for ethanol projection.

The USDA projects feed and residual use of corn during this marketing year to be 5.65 billion bushels. This is a 10 percent increase over the 2015-16 marketing-year estimate. Livestock numbers are at high levels. Cattle on feed for 1,000+ capacity feedlots on Oct. 1 was equivalent to the 2015 numbers for the same period. Dairy cow numbers are .4 percent higher than 2015 for the third quarter of 2016. Weekly broiler chick placements through September and October of 2016 are running at approximately 2 percent higher than the placements last year.

The average number of layers on hand in August and September were up 7 percent from the layer numbers on hand in 2015. Hog slaughter numbers year-to-date are up 1.6 percent while pork production is up 1 percent. Despite strong livestock inventory numbers, there are a number of mitigating factors influencing feed use. Uncharacteristically mild weather this fall, an increased availability of wheat feed, and increased distiller’s grain availability from the higher levels of ethanol production combined with reduced exports to China create concern for feed projections. The pace of feed use can be measured by using USDA quarterly corn stock estimates. The Dec. 1, 2016, corn stock estimate will be released on Jan. 12, 2017, with the quarterly grain stock report. Although increasing livestock numbers gives an indication of increased feed use, the mitigating factors make this a report to monitor given the major increase in feed and residual projections and large corn crop production. The ability to anticipate residual use magnitude is difficult.

While a deserved focus has been placed on corn exports, foreign production, and corn used for ethanol, a major portion of each corn crop is fed to livestock. Given the large projected increase for feed and residual in 2016-17 marketing year, monitoring feed and residual use projections will be important for the marketing-year ending stocks and corn use totals.

NRES Graduate Students Receive Recognition

Published November 11, 2016
L-R: Mary Arenberg; Christine Parker; Mara Rembelski; Jeffrey Brawn; Tim Swartz; James Miller
NRES Awardees Mary Arenberg; Christine Parker; Mara Rembelski; Tim Swartz; Department Head Jeffrey Brawn and Graduate Coordinator James Miller

NRES graduate students were recognized at the 2016 ACES Graduate Student Recognition Luncheon, sponsored by the Illinois Chapter of Gamma Sigma Delta, the Honor Society of Agriculture, and the College of ACES. The event was held at the Alice Campbell Alumni Center in Urbana, Illinois.

NRES Recipients and their awards:

Mary Aranberg
Fellowship: Odell Graduate Fellowship in Soil Science
Advisor: Yuji Arai

Jaime Coon
Fellowship: Illinois Distinguished Fellowship
Award: Wilson Ornithological Society's Louis Agassiz Fuertes Grant
Advisor: James Miller

El Lower
Fellowship: Jonathan Baldwin Turner Graduate Fellowship
Advisor: Bethany Cutts

Christine Parker
Award: Land of Lincoln Scholarship Illinois State Chapter of the National Wild Turkery Federation
Advisor: Jeff Hoover

Mara Rembelski
Fellowship: Spaeth-Boggess Forestry Fellowship
Advisor: Jennifer Fraterrigo

Timothy Swartz
Fellowship: Jonathan Baldwin Turner Graduate Fellowship
Advisor: James Miller

Congratulations from NRES!


News Source:

Illinois Chapter Gamma Sigma Delta