The Missing Dots

At one time the Earth seemed to be an easy place to understand. But this was because we really did not need to understand it. The human civilization rubric demonstrating our naïve relationship to the planet was pretty straightforward. The human timeline could be found outlined in any anthropology text: move from hunting and gathering to planting and harvesting; establish farming; increase scale; mine and refine metals; create better tools for farming and building; increase human specialization; differentiate the population into subgroups for tasks that move increasingly away from the soil; become affluent under an umbrella of infrastructure that delivers food, water and other commodities of urbanized life.

Progressing forward, many have believed—and still do—that this simple history would advance along the same lines until everyone could enjoy the benefits of the electrical, technological, affordable, safe and calorie-fulfilled life enjoyed today primarily in the Western world. Until the 1970s when our capacity to sustain the feed-stocks of this infrastructure—topsoil, climate, fresh water and energy—began to be questioned, we tended to leave the idea of natural capital and what was happening to Earth’s natural systems out of the equation. While enjoying the benefits, we failed to account for the natural costs. And the costs were not only the direct detrimental effects of pollutants on humans, but an ecological web of interdependences.

Over the last 40 years, we have grown in our understanding of the earth as a system of interacting parts with each feeding back into the others. The presence of ozone in the stratosphere, phosphorus in the soil, ice in Antarctica, and plankton in the sea were once disconnected factoids. Today, even little children understand that the separation between air, rock, water and life is made only for human convenience: they are categories created for ease of study which do not reflect the reality of reciprocal connections. Formulating a more accurate cost-benefit tally based on this reality of connections has become the primary goal of what has become known as the Earth Systems Science. The formula I=PAT (Human Impact is a factor of Population, Affluence and Technology) is one way to quantify our influence on the world at large.

Understanding the interconnections of the natural world, its functioning and our increasing impacts upon this complex mechanism was the topic of a recent symposium at Stanford University sponsored by a wide variety of Stanford research groups, including The TomKat Center, Precourt Institute, Program on Food Security and the Environment, Freeman Spogli Institute, Woods Institute and the School of Earth Sciences. Called “Connecting the Dots: The Food, Energy, Water and Climate Nexus,” the program was organized to present information to the university community relevant to the future of the global food supply.

The one-day event gave a dozen scientists a platform to discuss their research pertaining to how we will provide for a world population of 9 billion in the decades ahead. According to the organizers, 325 students and staff attended the five faculty presentations and a variety of breakout sessions that followed. A panel Q&A rounded out the program.

More People, More Demands

The conference was certainly timely. Not only was it held on the 41st anniversary of Earth Day, it is becoming clearer that humankind does stand at a crossroads of sorts. Human population continues to step upward from the current 7–9 billion (or beyond, depending on fertility rates that have not yet stabilized for much of the world). As economic wealth also increases for hundreds of millions around the globe, the demand for more material goods and services will only grow as well. Growing food, and not just staple nutrients but more meat-based fare (a dietary shift that comes with increasing affluence), will have a wide impact on environmental resources. Even if population was to suddenly hold steady, the fertilizers, pesticides, acreage and water that are needed today are substantial, though all but invisible to most consumers. Meanwhile, freshwater scarcity in some places retards needed production, while in other places irrigation creates oceanic dead zones of algal blooms stimulated by fertilizer runoff.

These are “dots” that need connecting; we’re at a crossroads because we haven’t yet come to terms in a holistic way with how our demands impact the planet. Although we tend to simplify any occurrence as the product of a sequential chain of events, Earth Systems Science reveals a much more complicated reality. Trying to unravel the factors that pull a certain phenomenon in one direction or another is a difficult task. And the more we know about the Earth, the more tangled the lines between the dots become.

As noted at the Stanford conference, food production is tied closely to climate. If we are to anticipate the future of the global food supply, we must also anticipate climate change. For the past 10,000 years or so this has been relatively easy; civilization has developed with a climate regime that has been unusually stable. And so we have built a human world that depends on stability: regular rainfall and temperature patterns; only so much snow and a certain rate of snow melt; predictable glacial runoff; groundwater in infinite supply. These are a few examples of climate-based factors that we rely upon.

So the concept of climate change is highly disruptive and, not surprisingly, controversial to some. But climate certainly is a system of interactions, a many faceted phenomena. To say that global warming is due solely to human fossil fuel use is overly simplistic and misses the point. Climate is a measure of trends, and trends are shifting. Because climate is the effect of many interacting causes or drivers (carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere is, of course, one of those drivers), even the best computer models of these trends arrive at widely differing conclusions. Even computers have trouble connecting the dots.

For instance, the two models used in the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) report “Climate Change: Impact on Agriculture and Costs of Adaptation” arrive at very different scenarios regarding future temperature and rainfall patterns. The authors write that the differences between them “qualitatively illustrate the range of potential climate outcomes using current modeling capabilities and provide an indication of the uncertainty in climate-change impacts.”

But does that mean that these data dots should be ignored? Not necessarily; they merely show our level of ignorance in programming the models. We don’t understand all the feedbacks that link sun, atmosphere, clouds and topography. Nevertheless, if current trends continue, the authors conclude, “by 2050, the decline in calorie availability will increase child malnutrition by 20 percent relative to a world with no climate change. Climate change will eliminate much of the improvement in child malnourishment levels that would occur with no climate change.”

The IFPRI report notes that food calorie availability would indeed increase approximately 5–14 percent in various parts of the world if climate remained constant. “With climate change, however, calorie availability in 2050 is not only lower than the no-climate-change scenario in 2050—it actually declines relative to 2000 levels throughout the world. For the average consumer in a developing country, the decline is 10 percent relative to 2000. With CO2 fertilization, the declines are 3 percent to 7 percent less severe, but are still large relative to the no-climate-change scenario. There is almost no difference in calorie outcome between the two climate scenarios. . . . Continuing with a ‘business-as-usual’ approach will almost certainly guarantee disastrous consequences.”

Food and Biofuel

These are all for the most part rather obvious connections, and the “Connecting the Dots” speakers did not overlook them. “We're focusing on agriculture, because the global population is moving toward 9 billion people, and we have to figure out how to feed everyone without wrecking our natural resources,” said Rosamond (“Roz”) Naylor, professor of environmental Earth System Science and director of the Program Food Security and the Environment, in the opening presentation.

Let’s put our innovative minds to work,” Naylor declared. Using a Powerpoint image of two overloaded Mercedes trucks stacked high with men and bulging sacks, she said that at least in all the chaos, we were driving a Mercedes! The meaning of the image: “The human enterprise isn’t a junk heap,” Naylor elaborated to Vision, “it’s actually a high quality machine, and we can solve some of the problems I laid out if we put our minds to it.”

In her initial overview of the food security issue, Naylor began a theme that would percolate through the day: the growing of corn to create ethanol/biofuel rather than food. Biofuels, according to Naylor, are a “rural renewal” project, more political than practical. It is a common pattern, she noted, that as countries develop it is the political economy that trumps science. Lobbyists create leverage that push policies toward specific benefits rather than holistic homeostasis.

The problem is not one of will but of way. The political status quo is well established and is often viewed as an international bugaboo to better environmental practice because change upsets the stasis of established economic systems. “Global environmental problems have gone from bad to worse,” writes conservationist James Speth, because “powerful underlying forces drive deterioration.” Speth would like to see greater international cooperation and is bolder—some might say less politically savvy or diplomatic than the Stanford speakers—in calling for action. “Complex and far-reaching multilateral action is required, yet the political base, the constituency is inherently weak. It can be easily overrun by economic opposition and claims of sovereignty, and typically is.”

In the second presentation, “The Food-Energy Nexus,” Chris Field discussed the efficiency of converting biomass into fuel. Taking smaller steps than Speth would envision, the professor of biology and of environmental earth system science laid out a convincing argument that converting biomass such as corn to electricity is a much better option than converting it to liquid fuel. One fill-up (80 liters or 20 gallons) requires 250 kilograms of corn, enough to feed a person for one year, he said. Such academic logic is clear—to the academic. The logic of his presentation is not what is commonly reported regarding biofuels. As a senior fellow at the Woods Institute and at the Precourt Institute for Energy, Field and his colleagues must find a way to speak to the citizen and not just to each other.

The conference ended with a panel discussion with the promising title “The Way Forward.” It was, however, a disappointment: many looming problems were rehashed, but few specific solutions were tendered. Wally Falcon, emeritus professor of international agricultural policy, added that biofuel mandates and agricultural subsidies including food stamps are “distorters” and “nonsense in a market, supply-demand world.” But how to move away from this situation? Unfortunately, many loose dots remained at the end of the day.

Missing Connections

Presenters consistently referred to a report produced by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). Titled “Climate, agriculture and food security: A strategy for change,” its succinct message brings the dots together in a way the conference seemed to overlook: We are at a crossroads in the development of our planet. The decisions we make now, for agriculture and natural resources as well as for other sectors, may prove to be the most important decisions humankind ever collectively makes. . . . We know what to do to raise our chances of a better future. . . . We know how to make agricultural and other natural resource-based systems more productive and more sustainable. Even without climate change, we have a moral imperative to turn this knowledge into action.

Outside the perimeter road of the university, the parallel needs of food, water and energy remain obscure beyond the cash register: we know that we pay for each, but their real-world interconnections are not so intuitive. Academic understanding is growing; the Stanford professors emphasized how our scientific understanding has increased. Most importantly, however, these connections are lost on consumers.

The issue of consumer choice is an important dot, a driver of supply and demand. An informed consumer, one who understands that his supposed ethanol-based savings at the pump are simply extracted at the supermarket (as well as paid for in human suffering in other parts of the world), has some impetus to get involved in affecting the situation. It is unfortunate that this core reality was a topic that went missing throughout the day. A plan for informing the consumer beyond Palo Alto was sorely needed.

The consumer, especially the consumer in the developed world whose appetite is large, must be the nexus of change if academic understanding is to bear real fruit, or to bring about any change in the world. Unfortunately, we all share the propensity to avoid change and to believe that everything will remain as it has always been. It was telling that at this conference where speakers consistently referenced technological solutions—especially new food stocks genetically modified to withstand new water and temperature patterns—the greatest enthusiasm was shown for the promise of an end-of-the-day buffet of local, organically grown food.