Our researchers improve food security, protect wildlife, ensure a clean water supply, develop climate change solutions, and bolster the health and sustainability of natural and managed systems. Public and private investments, legislator support, institutional partnerships, and the dedication of our faculty and students make this work possible. 

Below, we showcase recent examples of our most impactful research in the area of agriculture and the environment. You can view and download a pdf version and also subscribe to one of our ACES e-newsletters to stay abreast of new developments in ACES research.

Discover Our Agriculture & Environment Research

Climate Change Making Weed Control Even Harder

graphic of weeds sticking up through ag fields

When climate change projections are applied to cropping systems, the outlook isn't good. Scientists predict significant yield losses due to heat, drought, or early-season flooding. But these predictions fail to account for weed competition, which could make yield loss even worse. ACES weed scientists recently calculated the compound effects of climate change and weed pressure, leveraging decades of herbicide evaluation trials. They found corn and soybean farmers will need to achieve near-perfect weed control, especially during seed and grain fill, to avoid additional yield losses. Unfortunately, that level of weed control is difficult to achieve in practice, and with more weeds becoming resistant to existing herbicides, farmers will need to incorporate alternative weed control strategies to avoid the worst outcomes.

Funding: USDA Agricultural Research Service

ACES researchers:
Martin Williams, Crop Sciences and USDA Agricultural Research Service
Aaron Hager, Crop Sciences
Christopher Landau, Crop Sciences

Related news stories:

Climate change demands near perfect weed control in soybean

Think climate change is bad for corn? Add weeds to the equation

Tropical Birds Declining Dramatically in One Protected Area

graphic of tropical birds in a jungle

Tropical birds aren't just beautiful; they perform essential ecosystem services affecting entire forests, including pollination, seed dispersal, and insect control. But between 1977 and 2020, 70% of bird species declined in a protected Panamanian forest, most losing half or more of their initial numbers. ACES researchers found the concerning trend among even the most common bird species, those that should be more robust to changing conditions than sensitive or rare species. The study is the longest of its kind in the Neotropics, providing a unique perspective on bird population dynamics in the region. More work is needed to determine the underlying causes and whether the pattern is common throughout the area, but researchers say aggressive conservation tactics may be needed.

Funding: National Science Foundation; U.S. Department of Defense; Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute; USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture

ACES researchers:
Jeff Brawn, Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences
Henry Pollock, Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences

Related news story:

Protected tropical forest sees major bird declines over 40 years

Tracking the Global Flow of Plastic Waste

graphic of plastic waste floating in the ocean

Plastic packaging waste is a major problem for the global environment. Our plastic bottles, food wrappings, and grocery bags litter the landscape and pollute the oceans. Research from an ACES economist and a team of international collaborators track the movement of plastic waste in the global supply chain. They found the U.S., Brazil, and China are the top producers of plastic packaging waste. Looking at consumer waste, the Americas generate about one third of the world’s plastic packaging consumption, followed by Asia and Europe. The researchers conclude producers and consumers must share the responsibility for reducing plastic waste. Examples of policy initiatives include restrictions and fees on production, as well as consumer measures such as banning single straw use and imposing fees on grocery bags.

ACES Researcher:
Sandy Dall’erba, Agricultural and Consumer Economics

Related news story:

Producers and consumers must share burden of global plastic packaging waste

Proposed Nitrogen Fertilizer Policies Protect Planet, Pocketbook

Graphic of a stream with dollar signs

Nitrogen fertilizer has major implications for crop yields and environmental health, specifically water quality in the Gulf of Mexico. Federal and state governments have shied away from regulating nitrogen fertilizer use, but voluntary and incentives-based programs have not been successful. ACES researchers simulated a 20% reduction in nitrogen loss under four policy scenarios, including taxing farmers for fertilizer relative to the corn price; charging a nitrogen leaching fee when above baseline levels in local soils; charging a nitrogen balance fee calculated after grain nitrogen is subtracted from applied fertilizer; and a voluntary reduction program. The leaching fee showed the greatest cost-efficiency, hot-spot control, and internalization. Moreover, the simulated leaching fee led to only a modest yield reduction of 3.3%, but reduced environmental externalities by $524 million per year and provided a return on investment of 260%.

Funding: USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture

ACES researchers: 
Nicolas Martin, Crop Sciences
German Mandrini, Crop Sciences

Related news story:

Study: Proposed nitrogen fertilizer policies could protect farmer profits, environment