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WSU’s Green Times: Beetles, bees, beef & bread

Posted by | October 15, 2014

October 2014

NEW! sustainable ag online graduate certificate

LynneCarpenterWashington State University will launch an online graduate certificate in sustainable agriculture in the spring.

The nine-credit certificate provides expertise in researching, assessing and improving sustainable agriculture, said Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, the professor directing the program. It is designed for researchers already enrolled in graduate-level agriculture programs and for working professionals such as producers, organic certifying agents and corporate sustainability officers. Read more.

 

Nature’s pooper scoopers: Can dung beetles aid food safety?

For farmers, especially organic farmers, who are increasingly challenged by food safety guidelines, dung beetles could provide an elegant solution to a vexing problem. Entomologists at Washington State University are investigating whether dung beetles could suppress harmful foodborne pathogens in the soil before they can spread to humans.

Dung beetle on pig manure bait. (Photo by Kyle E. Jones.)
Dung beetle on pig manure bait.
(Photo by Kyle E. Jones.)

The research will take place on 45 farms in Washington, Oregon and California, thanks to a $500,000 grant recently awarded by the USDA NIFA Organic Research and Extension Initiative.

“Every vegetable grower struggles with this issue regardless of management practices,” said Bill Snyder, WSU professor of entomology. “It’s a wide-open area where there is a hunger for more information and not a lot of good information out there.”

Attacking E. coli

Dung beetles play an important role in removing feces above ground and in killing pathogens in the feces that they feed on.

“We’re trying to pay attention to the ecology of the pathogen,” said Matt Jones, a doctoral student who will lead the three-year investigation of the feces-feeding insects. “You can think of dung beetles as an ecologically based cleanup crew.”

Droppings left by wildlife, domestic animals, and birds that carry harmful E. coli bacteria can contaminate farm produce, putting consumers and farmers at risk for illness and lawsuits.

Some farmers have pulled out windbreaks, drained ponds, and installed extensive fencing in order to decrease the risk of contamination from rodents, deer, and birds. These measures are expensive and not necessarily backed by scientific research to reduce risk, Snyder said. Simplifying the landscape in this way runs counter to the organic approach of increasing diversity on a farm in order to take advantage of natural ecosystem processes like pollination and pest control.

“We could be making the problem worse,” Snyder said. “By simplifying the environment, do you reduce the population of dung beetles?”

Different types of dung beetles have evolved diverse ways of eating, living in, and laying their eggs in animal feces. Together these approaches provide a “blanket attack” on animal feces.

Farm-based research

Doctoral student Matt Jones checks a dung beetle trap. (Photo by Kyle E. Jones.)
Doctoral student Matt Jones checks a dung beetle trap.
(Photo by Kyle E. Jones.)

Jones wants to understand the relationships between the beetles’ activities, farm management practices, and the natural suppression of human-pathogenic E. coli.

He will collect data at organic, conventional and integrated livestock/produce farms about the number of dung beetle species, how they are spread across different types of farms, and how quickly they consume animal feces.

In the lab using soils collected from the farms, he’ll run experiments to see if the survival rate of the particularly harmful O157:H7 E. coli bacteria varies among different dung beetle species.

Food safety begins on the farm

Most food safety guidelines, known as Good Agricultural Practices or GAPs, focus on improving post-harvest handling practices.

The ultimate goal of this project is to provide new and long-time growers with tools to effectively improve the natural suppression of human pathogens on the farm, and to inform the debate on farm-based food safety practices with scientific research.

Jones said it’s too soon to know just what the potential management strategies might be, but the project includes extension components to make sure growers are informed. A series of farm-walk field days called “Dirty jobs: Nature’s pooper scoopers and how they can help save your farm” will be offered to teach growers how to monitor dung beetles on their farms.

Meanwhile, Jones has his work cut out for him.

“It’s a glamorous project,” Snyder jokes. “Matt drives around to all these farms with a freezer full of pig poop for baiting dung beetle monitoring traps.”

In addition to Snyder and Jones, the project team includes Thomas Besser, WSU College of Veterinary Medicine; John Reganold, WSU Crop and Soil Sciences; Daisy Fu, WSU Entomology; and David Headrick, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

Learn more about the Snyder laboratory at http://entomology.wsu.edu/bill-snyder/

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– Sylvia Kantor

Leaning on native bees amid the honey bee decline

As the decline of honey bee populations garners international attention, David Crowder and Eli Bloom are turning to a different breed of bees for pollination services.

Bumble bee on sunflower. (Photo by David Crowder, WSU).
Bumble bee on sunflower.
(Photo by David Crowder, WSU).

Their three-year research project will help farmers and scientists understand native bee communities on small-scale farms in western Washington with support from a nearly half-million dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

“Scientists really don’t know what an optimal native bee community on a farm in western Washington looks like, so that’s going to be exciting to find out,” said Crowder, an entomologist who studies insect ecology at Washington State University.

Bloom, a Ph.D. student who began studies with Crowder a year ago, has been working closely with farmers in rural and urban areas of King and Thurston counties. He has collected about 2,000 bee specimens from two dozen farms – a kind of “bug census” to look at the ecology of bee communities in diversified farming systems: farms and gardens producing a variety of crops year-round.

“Honey bees are an unusual species in that they form these huge colonies, whereas the majority of bees are solitary – building nests in twigs or in the ground, provisioning just enough food and care to support a few offspring,” Crowder said.

The more than 20,000 bee species in the world have a wide range of characteristics, just like other groups of animals. Although some native bees produce honey, the ones Crowder and Bloom work with don’t produce enough honey to collect.

The costs of rearing honey bees to pollinate crops, or even as a hobby, can add up for a small-scale farmer, so many farmers are interested in using native bees as an alternative. Although native bees are often less abundant, Crowder said it is possible for several species of native bees to come together and provide all the pollination services needed during a growing season.

Working directly with farmers, Crower and Bloom will use what they learn about the native bee populations to focus on practical techniques to promote native bee health and communities, including flowering strips with native Pacific Northwest plants, bare ground and other habitats.

“What excites me the most is in the very short term we are going to get a lot of really interesting information about these bee communities,” Crowder said. He’s also hopeful that in five to 10 years the research will have built a foundation that can drive changes in diversified farming systems for both organic growers and growers who are transitioning to organic systems.

For more information about the project, visit http://1.usa.gov/1qK26lX. Learn more about the Crowder laboratory at http://entomology.wsu.edu/david-crowder/.

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 – Rachel Webber

Food labels can reduce environmental impacts of livestock production

With global food demand expected to outpace the availability of water by the year 2050, consumers can make a big difference in reducing the water used in livestock production.

© istock.com/fanch
© istock.com/fanch

“It’s important to know that small changes on the consumer side can help, and in fact may be necessary, to achieve big results in a production system,” said  Robin White, lead researcher of a Washington State University study appearing in the journal Food Policy.

White and WSU economist Mike Brady demonstrated that the willingness of consumers to pay a little more for meat products with labels that reflect a single, environmentally friendly production practice, such as water conservation, can add up to real change.

But such single-focus labels don’t yet exist and labels that are currently available can be confusing and misleading.

Saving billions of gallons of water

The study shows that meat packers and retailers can play a key role in creating incentives for water-saving livestock production with labels that appeal to consumer values, White said.

White and Brady found that by paying 10 percent more for environmentally labelled meat products, consumers could bring about huge water savings in livestock production. In 2013, the U.S. produced 26 billion pounds of beef.  Based on this number, White estimated that 76 to 129 billion gallons of water could be saved annually.

On the upper end, this adds up to the equivalent amount of water used annually by 3.5 million people, roughly the population of the greater Seattle metropolitan area.

White, now a postdoctoral scholar at the National Animal Nutrition Program, conducted the research as part of her doctoral studies in the Department of Animal Sciences at WSU.

Single vs multiple label claims

“It is difficult to tease out a product’s true environmental impact from currently available labels,” said White. “Consumers may believe a label represents an environmental, health, or animal welfare benefit but it’s difficult for them to really know.”

White and Brady were able to distinguish and compare consumers’ willingness to pay for meat products with labels that reflect a single attribute of reducing environmental impact with labels that represent a suite of attributes. Among the purely environmental labels, they evaluated different price premiums to find the sweet spot — where the lowest premium that consumers found palatable would also cover the costs to the producer of reducing water use.

The study also demonstrated that moderate price premiums for all cuts of meat that are acceptable to the average consumer will have a greater impact on water conservation than high premiums for a few niche products.

Growing greener grass

White explained that cow/calf operations represent an opportunity to significantly reduce water use in beef production. Feeding pregnant cows and suckling calves typically requires pasture or rangeland, and represents a substantial maintenance cost. Yet, in the U.S., intensive, more efficient pasture management is not yet what it could be, White said.

Growing grass more efficiently through strategic irrigation, fertilization and grazing strategies can significantly improve yield and save water, but adds to the costs for the producer. However, the price premiums associated with environmental labels can offset those costs.

The livestock industry wants to demonstrate improvements in sustainability, White said.  To do so, they need consumer cooperation and willingness to pay a little more for products produced with a reduced environmental impact.

“This study demonstrated that consumers are willing,” White said. “Now we just need to connect the dots to accurately represent a product’s environmental impact in a way that is meaningful, understandable and attractive to consumers.”

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– Sylvia Kantor

Redefining bread

Loaves ready for baking at the WSU Bread Lab. (Photo by Sylvia Kantor, WSU).
Loaves ready for baking at the WSU Bread Lab.
(Photo by Sylvia Kantor, WSU).

The past few years of upheaval in how people grow, cook, think about, and eat food has left no corner of the supermarket untouched. Even bread, that most ancient, simple, beloved staple of diets around the world, has been the subject of both crisis and passionate revitalization. But behind every machine-sliced sandwich bread or carefully crafted artisan loaf is a simple question of language.

What do we actually mean when we say “bread”?

Read more of this Huffington Post blog entry by WSU researchers Bethany Econopouly and Stephen Jones.