Sunday, February 25, 2024

MTSU Geosciences professors conduct environmental research despite governmental deprioritization of ecological issues


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Graphic by Abigail Potter / MTSU Sidelines

Story by Connor Burnard 

President Donald J. Trump’s proposed budget for 2018 included budget cuts of 30 percent for the EPA and 22 percent for the USDA, as well as shrinkages of 16 percent for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 15 percent for the US Geological Survey and 11 percent for the National Science Foundation.

“So far, the administration hasn’t done anything specific and blatant about trying to shut down climate change research, although it’s been heavily implied in a lot of ways and is clearly coming in the sense that the priorities of the administration have very little to do with understanding or mitigating climate change,” said Assistant Professor Jeremy Aber. “Organizations like the EPA and USDA (and) other federal agencies that are more concerned with environmental things are quite likely to see their budgets slashed significantly.”

Aber, along with assistant professors Henrique Momm and Racha El Kadiri of the Middle Tennessee State University Department of Geosciences, received a grant from the United States Department of Agriculture to research and investigate the movement of sustainable corn and soybean farmland out of regions of the country that have traditionally always produced the two crops and into regions that had previously never been thought suitable to grow them.

The project consists of observing two watersheds, one in North Dakota and one in Mississippi, to understand existing conditions of water quantity and quality. Momm says that this will help determine how corn and soybeans have migrated both to the north and the south of where they are usually grown, and what this means for the future of the crops.

“The corn belt has grown corn and soybeans for a long time, but further north into the Dakotas and further south is relatively recent,” said Momm. “We’re using USDA-developed models to try to quantify the effect of this anthropogenic phenomenon on water quality and water quantity… Once we understand existing conditions, then we’re going to look at future climate estimates, and what would be the impact of future climate estimates on water quality and water quantity in both watersheds.”

Momm says that although the project is focused on the significant shift of agricultural land usage, climate change comes into play in the study, the urgency of which, in part, adds to the importance of the research.

“In our project, (climate change) has a smaller role, but we can see that based on the literature that has been published, there is a lot of interest from the scientific community in this type of research,” Momm said.

However, despite not being the main focus of this study, Aber says that the migration of corn and soybeans shown in the study is a strong indicator on the effects of climate change on agriculture in the United States.

“Corn can only grow in certain climates, like any other crop,” said Aber. “But as climate change has happened over the years, as the temperature has slowly crept up, corn has been grown further and further north than ever before, because it’s more realistic to grow corn in certain places that, 50 years ago, no one would ever think to grow corn there.”

Aber says that some in the scientific community may be afraid that significant research like this may be seen as less important in the near future due to the areas of focus of the Trump administration.

This fear of a growing apathy to critical research can be explained by actions taken by the president this year, including his June announcement to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement and the proposed cuts to many of the government’s science-related agencies, which the American Association for the Advancement of Science estimates will reduce overall federal research funding by over 16 percent, or $12.6 billion.

President Trump’s extensive budget cuts include a proposed $360 million cut to the in-house research agency of the USDA, the Agricultural Research Service, which conducts the research that Aber, Momm and El Kadiri received the grant for. This decrease would likely result in the closing of 17 of the ARS’s research centers.

The professors in the MTSU Department of Geosciences continue their research of corn and soybean land usage, nearing the completion of the study of existing conditions for the two watersheds and will soon begin the study of future climate estimates and their potential impact on the watersheds and agricultural land usage.

This story originally ran in MTSU Sidelines’ October 2017 print edition. For more information, contact Editor-in-Chief Brinley Hineman at

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