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The simple life isn't an easy one

February 12, 2014 12:00 AM

Simple life 1 - cabin After parking our car where the Forest Service road is no longer plowed, I step outside to be greeted by the howling of a nearby wolf pack. We load up our gear, put on our skis, and glide into the woods under the illumination of the Milky Way. An hour later the moon is peaking over the pines, outshining the stars and pouring light into the Northwoods, which I have grown to love. Approaching the glowing cabin window in the distance I am greeted by my friend Thistle, a massive polar husky retired sled dog. I open the cabin door, wipe the fog off my glasses, and warm up next to the wood burning stove. It’s good to be back.

Last summer I worked as a field technician for Rayma Cooley studying the Pagami Creek fire in Northeast Minnesota. I thank her for introducing me to two of the most inspirational people I have ever met: Bert and Johnnie Hyde. This couple lives completely off the grid deep in Superior National Forest just south of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Their lifestyle is unconventional, but it along with their vast knowledge of the land in which they live is truly humbling and something we could all learn a great deal from. Here are some of the lessons I have learned.

The simple life is not an easy one. Bert built their cabin and sauna with the red pine and white cedar he cut himself from their land in the 1980’s. They have propane gas for lamps and cooking, but there is no electricity. Heat comes from the firewood you split for the winter, and bathroom trips often mean braving -30 degree temperatures in the latrine. Your weekly shower can be accomplished by rinsing off in the lake (weather permitting) or sitting in the sauna. If you want drinking water for the next day, you have to boil some lake water before you go to bed. The year’s refrigeration comes from ice blocks cut from the lake during winter, which is what brought us to the Northwoods in late January.

Simple life 2- iceRayma, I, and two friends traveled north to help Bert and Johnnie with their annual ice harvest. We cut long slabs out of the lake, chopped them into manageable chunks, shuttled them to the icehouse via snowmobile, stacked them up, and tucked them in with sawdust and snow for insulation. The following day we split firewood to insure there would be enough fuel to last the winter. During breaks we warmed up inside the cabin watching gray jays, hairy woodpeckers, goldfinches, pine and evening grosbeaks through the kitchen window (a fine replacement for television). When we ran out of daylight we soothed our sore muscles in the comfort of the cedar sauna. At the end of the weekend and after a good night’s rest, we pack our bags, said our goodbyes, and skied out; stopping along the way to marvel at the massive wolf tracks imprinted in fresh snow.

Returning home on I-35, the pines and birch eventually turned back into barren corn fields. I romanticized about someday having my own cabin in the woods, living a simple life. Is it that farfetched I wonder? I turned my phone back on and got bombarded with messages and notifications which made me about my own resource use…

It’s amazing how the majority of the world looks up to the American economic growth model. America, the ‘land of opportunity’, but the American dream is an unsatisfying journey. We excel at production, consumption, and wastefulness at the expense of our natural resources. People working jobs they don’t like for years and years in order to earn money they can spend on material things they don’t need under the impression that they will be happy because of it, or to fill a void. We, as a nation, have lost our connection to the land we are a part of. No wonder so many people want to get their hands in the soil and start a farm.

Simple life 3 - Uganda While an undergraduate I was fortunate to participate in two international service learning trips, one in Uganda and one in Ecuador. These were invaluable experiences. Seeing people’s resilience to what most would regard as poor quality of life makes real the principal that quality of life is measured by things within, not by possessions or monetary wealth. Despite extreme poverty, malnutrition, disease, and government corruption the people of Uganda have a genuine happiness about daily life unmatched anywhere else I have visited. In Ecuador, I was amazed by the deep connection that the local people have with their land. Ecuadorian farmers recognize the important role forested land plays in the water cycle. They may not understand the biophysical processes, but they realize the importance of conserving their forest resources to store and deliver water consistently throughout the year. On service learning trips like these we are often considered “experts” since we have college educations, but in fact we often learn much more from the local communities we visit from the way they have been living for generations.

The transition back to my home is always a difficult one. I remember staring at my faucet feeling guilty I could access clean drinking water with the turn of a knob. In Uganda getting water means walking miles to a well and hauling heavy jugs back to your home every day. After returning from Ecuador I was in disbelief you can buy bananas at Kwik Star for 39 cents a pound.  It is at the expense of local Ecuadorian workers enduring long hours, poor wages, lack of unions, and heavy chemical exposure that we have the ability to access these tropical fruits at our convenience. It’s easy to take things for granted when you don’t see how the majority of the world lives or the repercussions of your choices.

Simple life 4- Bert Bert and Johnnie offer a similar learning opportunity to the service learning trips I participated in, but closer to home. They display the satisfaction of simple living. It may not be feasible for everyone to live off the land like they do, but what a difference it would make if we all sacrificed a few daily luxuries for minor inconveniences. Whether deciding what business to support or opting to bike to the grocery store instead of driving, the decisions we make every day have a real impact regardless of whether we see the results first hand.

Simple life 5 - Johnnie Bert and Johnnie remind me to live an examined life and aim for simplicity. Do what you love, start a garden, ride your bike, eat produce in season, learn an instrument, support local agriculture and businesses, get outside. The simple life is not an easy one, its hard work; that’s the point.


Louis Hilgemann completed his undergraduate degree in Forestry at Iowa State University last spring. After an informative field season last summer, he began pursuing his master's degree in Forestry with Dr. Peter Wolter. For his project, he is working with The Nature Conservancy to develop strategies for using remote sensing data for adaptive management and landscape monitoring in the North Shore Highlands of Minnesota.


Creating change when change is hard: A climate change perspective

April 9, 2014 12:00 AM

bike photoNote from the author: A few months ago, I wrote a blog post focused on communicating about and acting upon climate change, given its inherent, scientific uncertainties.  Though a strong consensus that climate change is real and largely driven by anthropogenic sources has been reached by the scientific community, the public remains unwilling to engage and act on this consensus.   This is problematic; scientists must be more effective at communicating controversial and often uncertain science, such as climate change, to the public.  This blog post follows up with insights on encouraging the critical behavioral changes needed to slow humanity’s contributions to climate change.  These insights were adapted from the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, which my lab mates and I are currently discussing.

Exacting the large-scale, meaningful behavioral changes required to reduce humanity’s effect on climate change has eluded scientists for the past two decades.   However, increasingly, tools and frameworks are being developed to help scientists recognize the importance of and methodologies for helping the public understand the realities of climate change, and the need for behavioral changes to combat it.   One such framework is explored in the popular book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by brothers Chip and Dan Heath.  The framework outlined in the book emphasizes the duality of human psychology, specifically the human desire to be rational and the human propensity to be emotional, and provides insight into harnessing this duality to move forward on a clear, action-oriented path.   Creating change, the Heath brothers write, can be boiled down to three critical pieces: (1) directing the rider, (2) motivating the elephant, and (3) shaping the path forward.   Let’s explore this framework further by returning to the topic of climate change.

The first part of the framework, directing the rider, appeals to the rational part of the human psychology and is centered on three main principles: (1) following bright spots, (2) scripting critical moves, and (3) pointing to the destination.  In the context of climate change, applying this framework may begin by emphasizing the bright spots: isolated pockets where behavioral change in response to climate change is already happening.  For example, recognizing the negative impacts of human activities on the climate, cities such as Portland, Oregon and Austin, Texas have begun to take steps to advance the efficiency of their transit systems and power grids, respectively.  Sharing the stories of these bright spots – like WWF’s use of online media – and continuing to outline procedures, processes, and methods to reduce carbon and mitigate climate change steer the rider toward behavioral changes.

SludgeTo exemplify the second piece of the Switch framework, motivating the elephant, travel from the urban cities mentioned above to my current home: central Iowa.   Motivating the elephant to make behavioral change is fixed on: (1) finding the feeling, (2) shrinking the change, and (3) growing your people.  At its core, finding the feeling is about attaching to an emotion, often provoked by a visual, which resonates with individuals.  For example, a few Tuesdays ago I spent the afternoon driving through agricultural fields in central Iowa.  With the recent increase in temperatures, the winter’s snow and ice had begun to move.  Extensive gullies mangled and abraded the tender landscape.   Farmers, desperate to expedite the removal of water from their water-logged fields and concerned over the likely probability of concentrated and severe spring precipitation events, scarred the landscape with mile after mile of tiling.  This is my visual.  This is my climate change feeling.  These open wounds on the landscape are my motivation– this is why I am passionate about the agricultural system, the environment, and the climate. Climate change is causing more severe, though less frequent, precipitation events, and these events are causing highly problematic land use decisions (e.g., tiling land), especially on marginal lands.  But just small-scale changes can be made to begin to engage the rural community to mitigate climate change, just as our urban neighbors above have done.   Shrinking the change to practices such as no-till, which may increase carbon sequestration and reduce fossil fuel use, are small steps forward that can be shared among farmers, effectively growing the people. 

Finally, the last piece of the framework, shaping the path forward, involves a final three components: (1) tweak the environment, (2) build habits, and (3) rally the heard.  Tweaking the environment to foster change is a critical step forward.  In the urban example above, the city governments and several green organizations tweaked the infrastructure and policies of the cities to allow for the development of more efficient and climate-friendly practices.  On the agricultural landscape, engaging with landowners, providing education, and increasing the ease of adoption of practices aimed at decreasing the carbon footprint of food production through incentives and policies may improve the likelihood of positive behavioral change.  By targeting repetitive activities, such as driving, using electricity, or plowing the field, behavioral changes can be made through the formation of positive habits.  As the habits garner the notice of others and become bright spots, the herd grows and gathers strength – and change begins to happen. 

Though Switch provides just one possible framework to encourage large-scale behavioral change, its accessibility and practicality makes it an ideal place to begin considering this important step in the scientific process.  Effectively communicating the results of the science, particularly climate science, to motivate public action is a challenge that each one of us needs to rise to – as I noted in the previous post, this is truly the challenge of our time. 


This is why we blog

October 17, 2013 12:00 AM

LESM at Lake LaVerne Hello world!  Collectively, the Landscape Ecology and Sustainable Ecosystem Management Lab has decided to start a lab blog.  In this, our first post, we outline a few reasons why we have elected to embark on this new adventure and form of communication.

Our primary reason is that we’d like to take our totally awesome science beyond scientists.  We realize that the traditional mechanisms for communicating science – academic journal papers – in all their wonder and glory, can be a touch limited in this regard.  Even though we think journal papers are important, beautiful, and fun to read, it’s telling when even our parents and spouses can’t make it through the first paragraph of the papers we write.  Simply, we want to write things they (and other non-scientists) want to read and can understand.  Some related reasons follow:

  • To communicate the process of doing science rather than just the results.  We don’t get it: why do so many media portrayals suggest science to be boring and nerdy?  Not so!  Well, at least the boring part.  Nerdy?  Maybe, but we’ve totally embraced our inner nerd.  Why?  Because the process of discovery is fun and exhilarating!  Like sports, science offers opportunities for adventure, meeting new people, individual success, and coming together as a team.  Like art, science offers the opportunity for creative expression, intellectual stimulation, and lasting impact.  Like business, we create and sell products.  Like philanthropy, the work we do helps improve the lives of people and the state of our planet.  Given the diverse and positive nature of our work, who wouldn’t want to be a scientist?

  • To give science a face and a voice.  When reading stats and looking at graphs in journals, textbooks, and even in the popular media, we admit that even we sometimes forget that there are people – with real needs, wants, and desires – behind all those numbers.  We hope, in making our science more personal, others will be able to connect and identify with us – the scientists – and thus also our product – science.

  • To share pictures and videos from our scientific adventure.  Journals generally don’t publish these.  And we’ve got some cool ones.  It’s cliché but: “a picture is worth a thousand words”. 

  • To share insights from our lab discussions more broadly.  To be honest, we talk a lot about science communication.  And we’re smart.  It would be something of a waste not to share what we think and talk about on this front with others.  Maybe we can improve our network with reporters?  Maybe we can help other scientists hone their communication skills?  Maybe we can convince funders of our broader impacts?  Maybe we can take the field of science communication one step further? 

  • To practice and get feedback.  Most of us are budding scientists, aka students.  A blog offers us opportunity to practice and hone our scientific communication skills in a fairly low-stakes way.  We’re hoping to improve these developing skills and that you’ll help us do it.  Constructive responses are more than welcome!

In the future, look for us to share general audience summaries of our papers, random thoughts and insights on what we’re doing and why, interesting pictures or videos from our work along with some explanation, reviews of papers and/or books that inspire or irk (a different kind of inspiration) us, etc. in this spot.  

We hope you enjoy and learn something.  Let us know.  Who knows? You might just spark a new idea for a blog post, research project, or even major scientific discovery!  The world is our oyster…

Comment 1

So glad to see the LESM blog 
Submitted by Maeraj on Wed, 10/23/2013 - 12:32

So glad to see the LESEM blog up and running!

Comment 2 

Thanks for reading Mareraj!
Submitted by Rayma on Thu, 10/24/2013 - 16:42

Thanks for reading Maeraj! More posts on the way :)

Comment 3 

This is really cool and I'm 
Submitted by Kevn Shi on Fri, 01/17/2014 - 16:50

This is really cool and I'm glad you have such a desire to improve your science communication skills! I recently began working with a website that focuses on just that and is dedicated to furthering science communication. They're trying to start up a science communication community and I think you guys would fit in perfectly! If you have some spare time, you should check it out at

Comment 4 

Plain Language Science 
Submitted by lschulte on Mon, 01/20/2014 - 06:58

Thanks for your kudos and the heads up, Kevin!  Really happy to learn of the Plain Language Science effort.  Count us in your community! Lisa

Comment 5 

This is really cool 
Submitted by Optimus on Sun, 02/15/2015 - 12:51

Anyway, thanks for the thoughts! Enjoyed thinking about some of these things a bit more. I hope you'll check out the next blog post in this series. seo available at I'd like to keep up the conversations on here!

Comment 6 

Employments News & Education Updates India
Submitted by indgurujobs2015 on Sat, 01/02/2016 - 00:17

An awesome information and thanks..


When policy hits our plates: the impacts and opportunities of an expired Farm Bill

November 7, 2013 12:00 AM

HarvestingDuring the past month, millions of Americans disappointedly watched as our government failed to pass a spending plan for our Nation.  As a result, over 800,000 Americans were placed on immediate and indefinite furlough without pay.  Critical departments such as the Department of Energy and the Department of Health and Human Services furloughed over half of their employees.  Other departments, such as the Department of the Interior, and programs, such as the National Science Foundation, were slashed more severely and rendered fundamentally ineffective.  Thankfully, after 16 days, a spending plan was approved and the government re-opened. 

However, not all important legislative bills were as lucky as the government spending plan.  Largely out-shadowed by the government shutdown, another important piece of legislation quietly expired on September 30th: the Farm Bill.  The Farm Bill, properly known as the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008, is the primary piece of legislation that guides our Nation with respect to our agriculture and food system.  Composed of 13 different Titles, each of which pertains to a major issue in the agriculture and food system, the Farm Bill governs many of the fundamental economic, ecological, and social programs that are vital to our agriculture and food system.  For example, Title II refers to conservation such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which encourages and incentivizes practices that maintain the ecological integrity of our agriculture and food system.  Passed approximately every five years, the Farm Bill has critical implications with respect to how and what ends up on the plates and in the stomachs of Americans. 

But now, the Farm Bill has expired, and the effects of its expiration will likely begin to be felt on our plates.  According to the Farm Service Agency, here are just a few impacts that Americans can expect within the coming months if a new Farm Bill is not passed:

  • Due to legislative technicalities, the legislation governing our agriculture and food system now reverts to a permanent law passed in 1949; a period with markedly different economics, natural resources, and social constructs than 2013.  The 1949 Farm Bill provides little accounting for the few commodities that dominate our markets today, and could result in highly unstable, unsupported markets.  These unstable markets could have deep financial impacts for consumers. 
  • In addition to the increased instability in commodity markets, such as corn, caused by the reliance on 1949 legislation, critical conservation programs are no longer able to enroll new fields.  According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), the loss of these important conservation programs couldn’t come at a more critical time; with increasing crop prices over 23 million acres of land have been plowed by between 2007 and 2011 alone.  As a result, markets will likely become increasingly unpredictable – a scenario only exacerbated by the permanent 1949 legislation. 
  • According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the Milk Income Loss Contract (MILC) is designed to compensate dairy producers when milk prices fall below a given amount, traditionally the cost of production.  Without a Farm Bill, the government will return to providing price supports based on the cost of milk production in the 1940s.  As a result, the consumer will be required to pay for the difference between the costs, meaning milk prices may nearly double.

While the expiration of the Farm Bill is a picture often painted in gloomy tones and angry hues, there are unique opportunities to make substantial changes and to approach the creation of a new Farm Bill with innovative and progressive policies – policies that could truly begin to bring economic, ecological, and social sustainability to the plates and stomachs of Americans. So what can we do to ensure that the next Farm Bill is not only passed quickly, but also with a greater emphasis on economic, ecological, and social sustainability in our agriculture and food system?  Here are a few simple things:

  • Write or call your legislators.  As author Wendell Berry said, “Eating is an agricultural act.”  As a consumer in in the agriculture and food system, your voice deserves to be heard. Contact your legislator, and express your concern over the delay in passing a farm bill.  In addition, remind your legislator of the increasing need to approach our agriculture and food system in a way that is economically, ecologically, and socially sustainable in a long-term, meaningful way.
  • Support a diverse food system.  Use your purchasing power to signal your expectations for the future of our agriculture and food system.  By purchasing a diverse suite of fruits and vegetables, produced by farmers that you have confidence in, you are signaling your desire for a more balanced agricultural system that places high value not only on economic sustainability, but also on ecological and social sustainability. 

Together, we can choose a future an agriculture and food system that not only provides healthful foods, but does so in a way that facilitates economic, ecological, and social sustainability.  


The differences I found between Ames, Iowa and Fuzhou, Fujian

November 12, 2013 12:00 AM

Can and LisaAs a Chinese person who came to USA the first time, I am impressed by so many differences between the two cultures and environments. Here are a few of them:

1 - People are so sweet. Almost every person I meet in the lanes in downtown Ames or the campus will say "Hello, how are you doing?" to me with big smiles. I am flattered, but am not used to it because I do not get the sweet greetings from people walking in my hometown. This is maybe because there are so many people you can meet in streets that it is impossible for us to greet each other in China. However, the kind atmosphere really makes me feel warm in my heart, especially after I just arrived.

I realize that greeting to a stranger, even a foreigner, is a culture and politeness. If it is a few people or social elites, it is not strange. But it is a common phenomenon that shows high moral quality and well education of the people in the state. It should be learned by all the countries in the world; not only the politeness but also the kindness and peace.

2 – It is so quiet on weekends. Unlike noisy weekends on the streets of China, it is so quiet at Ames. There are hardly people walking except some runners and dog-walkers on sidewalks. People share their weekends with their family members. Weekends are rest time for most people but not working time. Even most stores are not open or open only for short time during weekends. In China weekends are the busiest time for stores because they can earn much money from so many crowds of people flocking to the stores for shopping. However, I like the quiet and the peaceful sceneries on a beautiful weekend. Not only can I take a rest but also can find peace in the heart by myself.

3 - There is no break at noon. The work time usually lasts from 8am to 4pm or 5:30pm, and there is no break at noon. In China, we often take one or two hours to break or have lunch during the mid-working time so that some workers could take a small nap or obtain some services, especially from the government. Here obtaining services is not a problem. I think it is the customs differ between countries, although the total working hours they spend are the same.

4 - Food is cheap. The food is cheap, especially in the super market. People can get a lot food with very little money in comparison with their income. People don't worry about the cost of food. Iowa is a state famous for agriculture. One day when I visited a farm I found that a farmer could feed 800 cattle by only himself, and also raised corn and soybean. I was really shocked and I know why the food is so inexpensive. In fact, food is the basic of people's life. Safe and enough food provided for the people, with a rational price, shows the greatness of a country. In this respect, it is certain that America is a great country.

5 - The sky is so beautiful. The first surprise Ames gave to me, indeed, is the amazing sky with no or little clouds floating there leisurely. I grew up in a city where it is a basin and often rains, and the environment is not as well as in Ames. So I have never seen so clean a sky before. The pure, blue, big and deep sky of course is part of the result of the big flat land of Iowa. But the good and not polluted environment is the key reason.

6 - The air is so clean and the water could be drunk directly from a fountain or tap. Like the clean sky, the air is so clean that I don't need to polish my leather shoes every day as often; which is what I usually do in China for there is dust everywhere. The clean air combined with clean drinking water is a benefit for people's health. There are also so many public drinking fountains, which is really convenient. One thing I am not used to is that all the default water is so cold, because I’m used to drinking warm water for many years in China.

7 - The winter is really cold outside but warm inside. Winter in Ames was a little hard for me at the beginning because I come from a subtropical city, where it almost never snows. Here it is cold outside and the winter lasts too long for me. However, it is really warm inside because there are heaters everywhere. In fact, the winter impressed me very much once I got used to the cold and the big differences of temperatures between inside and outside. After adapting to the temperature, I found that winter may be a good season for thinking.

8 - The management of a lab. Here the management of a lab is usually specialized and effective. Special people are responsible for their own things and all things run on their own ways. All the managements are worth learning by other countries. I am very lucky to have an opportunity to attend the weekly meetings of the LESEM Lab. I really appreciate Lisa and other lab member’s help. I will bring some of what I learned about lab management to China, such as implementing more meetings almost every week to discuss more with co-workers and students and so on.

A new environment is often full of curiosities and differences for a newcomer. However I don't know if I’ve gotten so used to my new environment in Ames that when I go back to China I will need to re-adapt. Ha ha!

Dr. Can Chen was a visiting scholar in the Department Natural Resource Ecology and Management at Iowa State University between November 2012 and 2013.  He is a lecturer in Forestry at Fujian A&F University in China. He focuses on urban green-belt landscapes and coastal protection through forests in Fujian province in China.

Comment 1 

Great article Can Chen! 
Submitted by Maeraj on Wed, 11/13/2013 - 23:11

Your observations reminded me of all the small things I developed an appreciation for when I first moved to Pakistan. Every place in the world is uniquely beautiful.

Isn't it amazing that there are so many little things we fail to notice in surroundings familiar to us--until we get the opportunity to experience life in a new place?

Comment 2 

Can, I love your writing 
Submitted by Rayma on Thu, 11/14/2013 - 09:22

Can, I love your writing. You really bring to life your experiences. You made me feel as if I was the one visiting from another country, looking through your eyes! We all miss you, but are happy you are home with your family.


It all started with a hotdog...

November 18, 2013 12:00 AM

PeachesHi, my name is Rayma Cooley and I am fiercely passionate about where my food comes from.  I have been an on-again, off-again vegan for the last ten years.  I wish I could say that my initial decision to eat this way came from some kind of virtuous awakening I had over schmoozing with a cute cow, but in all honesty, I had a fervent hot dog addiction.  I was, what I will call, a monochromatic food addict.  In my mind, the only way to get off this slippery slope was to give up all meat and everything associated with it.  That’s just how my crazy mind works sometimes- go all in.

I’ve had the common experience where the radical animal cruelty protesters assault me with their blown-up photos of dead, tortured animals.  For me, nothing is more of a turn-off, or counter-productive to a cause than preachy, pretentious pressure which comes across as assaulting and aggressive.   But this hot-dog detox was creating a curiosity within me to take a closer look at where my food comes from.

I’ve read book after book about the inhumane treatment of animals associated with our mainstream meat, dairy, and egg producers.  Yes, it’s horrific, but really they all kinda say the same thing and it’s easy to become desensitized to it all.  I’m sorry to say that if I were to rely solely on these books, or the gruesome videos of confined, sick animals to keep me straight, I would probably be knee-deep in hot dogs by now.  The reality is that it is easy to go on believing that in our grocery-store world of attractively packaged meats and eggs depicted in mom and pop illustrations of happy little farms, that this world exists.  And I’ll be the first to admit, meat is DELICIOUS!  Don’t even get me started on cheese.  I can become as disconnected and disillusioned as everyone else, just so that I can go on enjoying these scrumptious indulgences guilt-free.  Yes, I know I’m capable of that.

This is what has kept me mostly straight all these years- sustainability (more about the “mostly” later).  Giving up animal products is the single most impactful thing you can do for the sustainability of our planet’s resources.[1] It is virtually impossible to keep up with animal-product demand without having adverse effects on our environment.  Think about all the energy and resources it takes to sustain an animal, and that’s just the input. 

Here’s the reality about mainstream animal production:

  • Animal products create more greenhouse gas emissions than transportation and industry combined.[2] Emitted in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, and nitrous oxide, we are doing more for global warming progression eating a half-pound hamburger than driving a 3,000-pound car nearly ten miles.[3]
  • Mainstream animal production contributes to a dead ocean[4] and the erosion of our soils[5] via the methods of corn production for feed.   Nutrient loads from corn and soybean production is the greatest contributor to the gulf hypoxic zone, and conventionally plowed agriculture is eroding our soils faster than they can be produced.

  • Animals eat the food that we should be eating.  More than a third of the calories we produce as crops are used directly for animal feed, with an output of only 12% that is transferred as energy to our bodies as food from animal products.[6]  With the growing concern of how we will be able to feed an exponentially growing population, we can nourish populations much more effectively if calories were being directly received from plant to mouth.

  • We’re killing the rainforest, and in turn, biodiversity and our oxygen supply.  The rainforest is home to millions of unique plants and animals and supplies 20% of the oxygen we breathe,[7] but the demand for cheap meat is responsible for over 60% of Amazon deforestation.[8]

  • No, we’re not in the clear with fish and seafood.  Our wild-caught harvesting practices have depleted many of our fisheries stocks,[9][10][11][12][13] and aquaculture, the farming of fish and other seafood, has its own lengthy list of problems.[14][15][16][17]

So it seems as if the easy solution would to just give up all animal products, right?  This is where my endless internal struggle comes in.  Over the years I have learned that giving up meat is not enough.  Now I also have to be a locavore.  Now I also have to grow my own food.  Now I also have to get more political.  Now I also have to eliminate all processed food, even the ones at the health food store.  You try being a gardening locavore-vegan-politician.  I will literally have time for nothing else!  Not only is it hard to do, but with all these experts telling us that it’s not enough to vote with your fork, or it’s not enough to eat within a fifty-mile radius, or it’s not enough to just give up meat, what is a girl to do?  And if it’s confusing and seemingly hopeless for me, a graduate student affiliated with a lab dedicated to finding sustainable agricultural solutions, then what is it like for the average American?  It’s no wonder we turn a blind eye to it all.

Here’s the bottom line:  we are creating a system where it seems impossible to do anything right as a food consumer, and so the alternative is to do nothing at all.  This growing wedge between the goal of a sustainable tomorrow and the habits of our population is partially of our own doing.  We need to tell the people that it does matter when they shop at their local co-op and farmer’s market.  It does matter when they eat less meat.  It does matter when they grow their own tomatoes.  It does matter to sign a petition or write to your congressman.  Collectively we can make a difference much more impactful than if a few people are trying to do everything all on their own.


[1] Emily Cassidy,

[2] 2006 report from United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)


[4] Bryan Walsh,

[5] David Montgomery,

[6] Emily Cassidy,

[7] WWF,




[11] Worm et al.,

[12] Pinsky et al.,






Comment 1 

Good food for thought! 
Submitted by Anna Mac on Tue, 12/03/2013 - 22:22

Great job summarizing a very complex topic. Your writing was compelling without being over-pressuring. You've (re)inspired me to think more about where my food comes from!

I love your last line: "Collectively we can make a difference much more impactful than if a few people are trying to do everything all on their own." Amen!

Comment 2 

Thank you Anna! I'm glad it 
Submitted by Rayma on Wed, 12/04/2013 - 11:06

Thank you Anna! I'm glad it re-inspired you to think about food. We all need to be inspired and reminded in gentle ways about how we can be better stewards of our planet.


Congrats, Eddie!

August 22, 2018

Congrats to lab graduate Eddie Shea for his new position as a Wildlife Biologist with Wisconsin DNR. Eddie completed his M.S. in Wildlife Biologist in the lab in 2013. He then worked for the Teton Regional Land Trust and then the Wisconsin DNR. He says about his new position, "I manage much of the public land along the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway. It's a beautiful landscape and I'm enjoying the challenge of learning about all the properties." Read more about Congrats, Eddie!

Congrats, Emily!

January 13, 2019

Congrats to Dr. Emily Zimmerman on the successful defense of her PhD dissertation! Emily's dissertation is titled "Identifying opportunities for co-production of commodities and water quality improvements in agricultural landscapes in the US Cornbelt." She is continuing on as a full-time Lecturer within ISU's Global Resource Systems program. Read more about Congrats, Emily!