I've spent the better part of the day editing web pages as I prepare to teach two courses this spring. Given that I've more-or-less wasted the day with necessary but not especially intellectually rewarding tasks, I thought that I would take a moment to post something really important and scientifically interesting. Jennifer Burney, of Stanford's Program in Food Security and the Environment, gave a talk entitled "Food's Footprint: Agriculture and Climate Change" at Oregon State's Food for Thought Series. We've known Jen for a long time now. If memory serves me correctly, she was in my wife Libra's section of the American Civil War at Harvard in Fall of 1995. Later she was a student in Mather House, where we were resident tutors from 1997-2001. She went on to do a Ph.D. in physics at Stanford and then moved into a post-doctoral fellowship at FSE.
Jen and all the folks at FSE are doing great and fundamental work. In this talk, she presents results that may seem somewhat counter-intuitive. Namely, she shows that the agricultural intensification attendant to the Green Revolution has been good for global carbon budgets -- and feeding hungry people. It's all about counterfactuals. I am looking forward to reading this work since some of these counterfactuals depend critically on demographic assumptions.
As she says in the talk, just because the results suggest that intensive agriculture is good from a global warming perspective, doesn't take Big Agriculture off the hook. There are items that their models don't incorporate (but could in principle) and they don't consider anything other than carbon budgets. It would be nice to think of a way of uniting all the costs and benefits of intensification in a single framework.
This is very important stuff and the work highlights the complexities of population, environment, and food production. I look forward to seeing more work from Jen and her collaborators at FSE.