Keeping Our Environment Healthy Blog
UC Berkeley doctoral candidates Jose Daniel Lara, Allegra Mayer and Carmen Tubbesing, UC ANR's Carbon Neutrality Initiative (CNI) fellows for 2017-18, are studying new sources of renewable energy and strategies to cut carbon emissions.
The UC President's Carbon Neutrality Initiative Student Fellowship Program, established in 2015, funds student-generated projects that support the UC system's goal to produce zero-net greenhouse gas emissions by 2025.
The 2017-18 CNI fellows:
Jose Daniel Lara of San Jose, Costa Rica, is a first-year Ph.D. candidate in the Energy and Resources Group at UC Berkeley. Lara aims to determine the feasibility of producing electric power from dead trees. To analyze the resources available from tree die-off, he will develop a method to simulate harvesting of dead trees and evaluate the cost of harvesting dead biomass for electricity production. These results will inform policies regarding the use of biomass feedstocks to generate electric power and help mitigate the consequences of massive tree die-offs in forest communities throughout California.
Agriculture in California is on both sides of the climate change challenge. It is a sector that releases significant quantities of climate-warming greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. At the same time, it is vulnerable to the expected effects of climate change, including increased drought and flooding and more intense and longer heat waves.
Three review articles in the current issue of California Agriculture, the research journal of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, summarize the state of knowledge on three topics at the intersection of climate and agriculture in California: agricultural resilience to climate change (“climate-smart” agriculture); cropland emissions of nitrous oxide, the most important non-livestock source of agricultural emissions; and opportunities for working lands to contribute to meeting state greenhouse gas targets.
The first article, Long-term agricultural experiments inform the development of climate-smart agricultural practices, discusses the research underway to incorporate resiliency in agriculture to extreme and unpredictable weather patterns induced by climate change.
The authors describe the “Century Experiment” at UC Davis. Established in 1992, the Century Experiment is a replicated research project that includes 72 one-acre plots planted to 10 different cropping systems. The plots will be monitored and data collected for a period of 100 years, but Californians won't have to wait that long to see results.
In the first 20 years, for example, testing has found that soil carbon increased significantly more in the organic tomato-corn system than it did in any other crops and management systems. Soil infiltration rates and aggregate stability were also greater in the organic than conventional tomato-corn system.
Soil amendments – such as agricultural and food wastes and winter cover crops – have led to increased soil carbon sequestration, higher infiltration rates and greater aggregate stability in the organic system, compared to conventional systems.
The authors believe maintaining healthy soils is a key to climate-smart agriculture. Properties such as porosity, water retention, drainage capacity, carbon sequestration, organic matter content and biodiversity all help to confer resilience to new pests, diseases and weather extremes brought on by climate change.
The second article, Nitrous oxide emissions from California farmlands: A review, presents the results of 16 California-based studies.
Nitrous oxide emissions are the largest direct source of greenhouse gases from cropland in California and nationally.
The studies reviewed in the paper indicate that the nitrous oxide emissions factor – the fraction of applied nitrogen that ends up being released as nitrous oxide – can vary widely depending on crop, irrigation method, climate and other variables. Accounting for these large differences is important in improving the accuracy of estimates of overall nitrous oxide emissions from farmland, and in designing measures to reduce those emissions.
The final article, Review of research to inform California's climate scoping plan: Agriculture and working lands, covers the range of ways that California's diverse agricultural systems can contribute to meeting the state's commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2030.
Slowing farmland conversion to urban uses and reducing emissions from the intensive livestock sector appear to provide the best opportunities for agriculture-related reductions. About two-thirds of direct agricultural emissions are from livestock production, particularly the dairy sector (the largest sector of the state's agricultural economy by annual revenue).
Because of the dairy sector's comparatively large contribution to agriculture's greenhouse gas emissions, the authors expect it to be a primary target for state climate regulations and incentives for emission reduction. They note, however, that policies should account for the already high levels of resource efficiency at California dairies.
The best opportunities for reductions in emissions from livestock operations center on feed and manure management. A report submitted to the California Air Resources Board says it may be feasible for California to achieve a 50 percent reduction in methane emissions from dairy if supportive practices are taken. Such practices might include:
- Switching from flush water lagoon systems to solid-scrape or dry manure management.
- Covering manure lagoons to capture biogas.
- Installing anaerobic digesters to capture and use methane.
- Use pasture-based dairy management.
The Legislature recently approved using $99 million in funds from the state cap and trade program to support the expansion of manure digesters and other technologies designed to greatly reduce emissions from livestock operations.
The review article also discusses potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural land in California by engaging in farmland and rangeland preservation, improved soil and nutrient management, integrating and diversifying farming systems, employing alternative practices in rangeland management and producing energy with biomass.
Innovative cooling technologies tested on dairy cows at UC Davis are addressing the long-standing challenge of keeping dairy cows cool in heat-stressed California.
Standard livestock cooling methods, such as fans and sprinkling cows with water, require significant amounts of electricity and water. The new technologies, being tested at UC Davis by the Western Cooling Efficiency Center and the Department of Animal Science, are designed to reduce water by up to 86 percent and electricity by up to 38 percent over conventional methods.
Milk production and heat stress
Milk is the most valued agricultural commodity in California, with $9.4 billion in retail sales in 2014. Roughly one in every five dairy cows in the nation lives in California. In addition to disturbing the cow, heat stress is a major cause of diminished milk production in dairy cows, with annual losses directly related to heat stress exceeding $800 million.
“The process of rumination, where cows ferment their food, produces a lot of heat, as does milk production itself,” said Cassandra Tucker, a professor in the Department of Animal Science who focuses on dairy cattle welfare. “When the outside temperatures also rise, it's a challenge for the animal in how she's going to try to keep cool. This project is trying to reduce the energy and water use associated with that to help both the cows and the dairy producers.”
How it works
The technologies involve two approaches. The first is conduction cooling, where the bedding area is cooled using heat exchange mats placed where cows lie down. To reduce energy consumption, water flowing through the mats is cooled through a novel evaporative chiller called a Sub-Wet Bulb Evaporative Chiller.
The second approach is targeted convection cooling, which uses fabric ducting to direct cool air onto the cows while they lie down and when they eat. The air is cooled using a high-efficiency direct evaporative cooler.
"This is an exciting research opportunity for UC Davis to combine our expertise in engineering with our expertise in animal science,” said Theresa Pistochini, senior engineer at the Western Cooling Efficiency Center. “There is significant potential to apply existing technologies in a novel way to reduce both energy and water used to cool dairy cows. Through this project we aim to design, test and demonstrate an efficient alternative.”
The project is part of a four-year, $1 million grant from the California Energy Commission to help improve water and energy efficiency in California's dairy industry. The data being collected now will help determine which technology the team should use to pilot at a commercial dairy in a future phase of the project.
For more information, contact:
Kat Kerlin, UC Davis News and Media Relations, 530-752-7704, 530-750-9195 (cell), email@example.com
Paul Fortunato, UC Davis Western Cooling Efficiency Center, 530-752-0280, 916-412-3022, firstname.lastname@example.org
On the second Saturday of every month, Tuesday Simmons heads to the downtown Berkeley farmers market. Among the produce stalls and coffee stands, she sits behind a table with a sign that reads “Talk to a scientist!” She and other students spend the day fielding questions from strangers about topics that range from genetically modified foods to climate change and more.
“We never know who we'll talk to at our public events, or what kinds of questions we'll be asked,” said Simmons, a graduate student in the UC Berkeley Department of Plant and Microbial Biology (PMB). “This makes the farmers markets fun.”
Simmons' monthly visits to the farmers market are organized by the student group CLEAR (Communication, Literacy, and Education for Agricultural Research). The group aims to mentor the next generation of science communicators by engaging in open, transparent, and active conversations with the public about science and research. Funded through the University of California Global Food Initiative, CLEAR offers a series of scientific outreach events including activities at the farmers market, student-led lectures at libraries, and discussions with the public at local pubs.
The events are aimed at making science accessible.
“For members of the public who think scientists are a group of scary, isolated individuals funded by companies with special interests, these brief exchanges can be enough to make them question that assumption,” said Simmons, who also noted that translating her microbiology research for the public has helped improve her communication skills.
Learning to create compelling and impactful science communications is also a draw for Daniel Westcott, who joined the group in 2015. As a PMB graduate student who studies a specialized field — photosynthetic energy conversion in algae and plants — Westcott noted that discussing his research with non-scientists felt like a challenging hurdle to overcome.
Students like Westcott practice their communications skills through writing for the CLEAR blog. In their monthly blog posts, group members have tackled the economics of the meat industry, and the science behind the Impossible Burger, and the difficulty in labeling foods as “natural,” as well as highlighting CLEAR's ongoing outreach efforts.
Westcott understands that sharing his research with the public through the blog and other CLEAR activities is essential.
“Nearly two million scientific articles are published each year,” Westcott said. “Today's successful scientists must be media savvy in order to rise above the noise.”
Launched in 2015, CLEAR began as a project across three UC campuses — Berkeley, Davis, and San Diego. At Berkeley, co-founders Peggy Lemaux and Dawn Chiniquy, a PMB postdoctoral fellow, saw the funding as an opportunity to focus on outreach activities and mentorship opportunities, such as helping graduate students write for and talk to non-scientific audiences.
Lemaux is a UC Cooperative Extension specialist and PMB faculty member who studies food crop performance and quality. She said CLEAR is a student-driven organization. All members of CLEAR are volunteers, and a mix of undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral researchers participate in the group's activities. Many of members are PMB students, but students from other scientific fields also participate in CLEAR's events and monthly meetings. Student scientists from across campus are welcome.
As the faculty organizer of CLEAR, Lemaux mentors students by providing feedback and guidance on their public presentations and blog posts. Recent student-led lecture topics include pesticide use and genetically modified foods, and as new members join the group, they'll continue to add new presentations to their calendar of events.
CLEAR also hosts workshops and trainings to foster students' science communication and writing skills. Last spring, the group invited NPR science writer Joe Palca to present a talk, “Real News or Fake Science.” More recently Brian Dunning of Skeptoid gave a presentation tittled “Science Communication in a Minefield of Fiction.” This fall, Sara ElShafie, a graduate student in the Department of Integrative Biology and founder of Science Through Story, will give a science communication workshop for CLEAR students.
In recent years, Lemaux has seen a shift in students' interest in outreach and science communication.
“Today's generation of scientists understand that they must be scientists in the lab and translate the message of their research — and research in general — for the public,” she said.
Some CLEAR students have pursued careers in public communication after leaving Berkeley. Mikel Shybut, PhD ‘15 Plant Biology, is now a fellow at the California Council on Science and Technology where he provides scientific analyses to state legislators. After arranging a day of informational meetings in Sacramento for a group of CLEAR students, Shybut commented, “It's heartening to see what CLEAR has accomplished in the last two years. The group's outreach efforts demonstrate that scientists can be effective messengers.”
Visit CLEAR's calendar to learn more about upcoming events. In September join CLEAR at the following events:
Downtown Berkeley Farmers Market: Come chat with CLEAR members and check out their science demos at the farmers market. They feature a different science theme each month and are always looking forward to listening to community members' science questions and concerns.
Science Café with PMB professor John Taylor: Join CLEAR members for a beer, fun fungus exhibits, and Dr. John Taylor's tentatively titled "Felons, Fungi and Rats: California's Valley Fever Epidemic.”
With a little care and planning, anyone can make their little corner of the earth safe and friendly for bees.
UC Master Gardener volunteer Clare Bhakta of San Joaquin County shared bee-friendly strategies during a community workshop in August, extending the reach of research information developed by UC Agriculture and Natural Resources.
"Lure bees in," Bhakta said. "If you make it comfy, they will come."
Bhakta is a newly minted Master Gardener, having graduated in June from the intensive training program presented by UC advisors and specialists. She is part of the San Joaquin County MG speakers bureau; the "Buzz about Bees" was her inaugural engagement.
"We want bees in our gardens," Bhakta said. "Ninety percent of flowering plants and 75 percent of human crops depend on pollinators, including bees. Bee pollination makes about $15 billion in human food in the United States each year."
About 1,600 species of bees are found in California, many of them natives. Most of the bee species live independently, occupying holes in trees trunks or branches, or in the ground. Their sizes range from inch-long metallic black bumble bees to tiny sweat bees 3 millimeters in length. These species rarely sting since they don't have hives to protect.
California's most recognizable bee is the European honeybee, imported from the Old Country by settlers in the 1600s. The insects serve as efficient pollinators and produce more honey than they can use themselves - offering humans an abundance of natural golden sweetener with antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.
Bees work hard to produce honey. It takes 2 million flower visits - about 55,000 flight miles - to make a pound of honey. An individual worker bee lives just six weeks and produces about one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime.
Sharon Butler, president of the Ripon Community Garden, attended the free workshop. The 2.5-acre garden at the corner of Vera and Doak avenues has dozens of raised garden plots. The community just added several bee hives. Butler asked at the workshop about an unexplained phenomenon in their first honey harvest.
"A couple of racks had dark spots with honey that had a cinnamon taste," she said.
Bhatka said the variation was probably the result of nectar from different plants.
"I wish I knew what plant it is, I'd plant a lot more," Butler said.
Creating a bee friendly garden may go against the grain for tidy gardeners. Bees don't prefer the well-trimmed plants and homogeneous color scheme of a formal outdoor space.
"Bees love herbs," Bhakta said. "I let my sage go crazy this year and I couldn't believe how tall they got."
For best results, don't over garden. Follow these five tips from the UC Master Gardener program:
- Rather than cover all soil with mulch, leave open areas for ground nesting bees.
- Keep a few dead tree stumps or branches. Particularly if it has holes, it makes an ideal nesting site for solitary bees.
- Let plants "go to seed," even when they begin to look overgrown and leggy.
- Provide a shallow water source. Filling it with pebbles or marbles allows the bees access to the water.
- Avoid using pesticides. Visit the UC Integeted Pest Management website for environmentally sound methods of controlling pests and weeds.