Wednesday, November 9, 2016

reThink Soil: A Roadmap to U.S. Soil Health

We just released a new report on the potential benefits of adoption soil health practices in the U.S., and the conclusions are pretty exciting! You can read a brief overview, the executive summary, and the full paper at Much of the analysis was done by consultants we worked with, but I provided lots of scientific guidance and review throughout the process.

The web page has a good summary of some of the key points, but to put it even more succinctly, we argue that the adoption of three soil health practices (no-till, cover crops, and crop rotations) on U.S. row crops could have massive benefits both to society (e.g. improved water quality, reduced GHGs) and to the farmers implementing them (reduced soil erosion, improved soil quality and resilience).

For instance, if half of the farmland used to grow corn, soy, and wheat were to adopt all three practices, it could generate $7.4 billion in total benefits, and if all the farmland for those three crops adopted them it could be $19.6 billion (note that it's not double because some farms already use some of these practices). If you take the more optimistic upper range of our estimates, total societal benefit for 100% adoption of all three practices could be $49.8 billion. A lot of the science is uncertain, so these estimates are rough but we drew on the best available data to come up with them, and we are confident that the magnitude of the opportunity is valid even if the exact numbers are off.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

U.S. Beef Supply Chain - Impacts and Opportunities

Surprisingly, there are very few assessments of the overall environmental impact of beef across the supply chain (looking at all phases of their life). The only ones we've found have a clear bias either favoring industrial systems or grass-finished systems. So, The Nature Conservancy decided to fill that gap with a rapid assessment.
Longhorn in Southwest Missouri from Flickr user Jeff Weese. Used under Creative Commons license (
We looked at major impacts and opportunities to improve for each of the different production phases: ranch and farm grazing (cow-calf ranches, stockers, backgrounders, etc., when they're roaming about and grazing), feed production (growing hay / silage and row crops to be fed to cattle), feedlots (operation of the feedlot where they're fattened not including growing the feed), and harvest facilities (slaughterhouses).

You can read a bit about the report and our major findings here:

The report can be directly downloaded here:

The most interesting / surprising finding to me was that the grazing phase actually had the biggest impact. The key is that while it's fairly low impact per acre, it's by far both the largest footprint and where cattle spend the most time. So put together we actually see more greenhouse gas emissions, water quality impacts, and wildlife habitat impacts from that grazing phase.

A couple of key notes: Walmart provided funding for this report but had no editorial control or input into the content of the paper. Also, this was a rapid assessment (it took place over 6 months in between other work) by a small team of four scientists, so we do not have all the answers. Some critical issues we didn't have time to assess include impacts of dairy cattle, a comparison of the impact of beef to other protein sources (vegetable and animal), animal welfare and social issues, and the return on investment of different sustainability options (e.g. what would provide the most benefit per dollar spent). That's all important but was too much for us to tackle.

Finally, I occasionally have people ask me "Why should I trust you (as a vegan, or as an environmentalist) to give me accurate information about livestock and agriculture?" My answer is usually the same, which is that I encourage people not to simply trust me: instead look at the work, check my assumptions / calculations / sources, and come to your own decision about whether or not the analysis has merit. My job is to be as honest, accurate, and transparent as possible to make that process easy. Along those lines, I'm happy to take questions / critiques here.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Sneak preview of (hopefully) upcoming publications

From August 2016 through the end of this year, I hope to have submitted 10 peer-reviewed articles / chapters for publication! In the meantime I'm hard at work writing as much as I can.
Science writing outside at briar patch b&b

They are as follows (let me know if you want any abstracts):
1. A remote sensing paper where we detected agricultural ditches and ridge-tillage, and show how important those practices are for erosion control in our study area in Kenya (submitted, second author). UPDATE: published at
2. A book chapter for a Oxford University Press book about scientific findings that go against expectations. It's about the analysis I did for another book chapter (Cambridge University Press, not published yet) which I reported on here: (Reviewed / Accepted, sole author). UPDATE: scheduled for publication October 12

3. A paper outlining how we tied traditional detailed household surveys to spatial data by having farmers outline their actual plots on tablets with high resolution imagery (should be submitted in a few weeks, second author)

4. A paper that was part of a water fund project in Brazil; a water treatment company is going to pay for conservation to reduce the costs of treating the water. So the paper asks how much of a difference it makes if we use high resolution data (expensive and time consuming) vs low resolution (free and faster) on our water quality estimates (hopefully submitted in a month or two, first author). UPDATEpublished at

5.-8. There is a series of four papers on knowledge diffusion (spread and uptake of new ideas); I'm leading one and I believe I'll be on the other three as an author since we've been working together on the research as a team for 2 years. The one I'm leading uses a rich array of data to examine both internal and external diffusion at The Nature Conservancy (TNC) from a few different angles, one uses an experiment to show how "boundary spanners" (people with social networks that connect to a variety of other groups) play a critical role in spreading knowledge, one looks at how people actually change what they do in response to new methods becoming available, and one compares two groups within TNC and examines how their response to and alignment with the new methods differs. Read more about the overall project here: (will all be submitted by end of October, one as first author and the rest as a minor author)

9. We are working on a remote sensing analysis in high altitude grasslands of Peru, seeking to remotely estimate the amount of forage (grass etc) available for grazers, as part of a model that will support another water fund. I did much of the research design, but colleagues collected the field data and my intern Trisha is now beginning the remote sensing analysis. (should be submitted by end of December, maybe 3rd/4th author).

10. A peer-reviewed version of a report we wrote on the U.S. beef supply chain (impacts across different phases of production like grazing and feed production and feedlots) should also be submitted. The report was just released to stay tuned for a post about that.

Also I have a completed / reviewed / accepted CUP book chapter that has been in limbo for a few years (the one mentioned in #2 above) and should come out next year, and there are 1-2 more articles that may happen probably submitted early next year (led by others but on which I'd be a co-author). Stay tuned! Unless they're all rejected outright 2017 should be a good year for my publications...

Friday, September 9, 2016

New journal article: "Examining the relationship between environmental factors and conflict in pastoralist areas of East Africa"

A research fellow of mine (Essayas Ayana) recently published an analysis (which I'm also an author on) of the degree to which environmental factors like drought drive conflict between pastoralists. The idea was that as the lands where they graze their animals dry up, they may be forced to graze in areas used by others, which could drive conflict. However, we found that environmental variables had very little predictive power for where conflict occurred. The paper is officially hosted here:

You can read the full text of the paper here:

Here's the citation:
Ayana, Essayas K., Pietro Ceccato, Jonathan RB Fisher, and Ruth DeFries. "Examining the relationship between environmental factors and conflict in pastoralist areas of East Africa." Science of The Total Environment 557 (2016): 601-611.


New journal article: "Advancing Conservation by Understanding and Influencing Human Behavior"

Interested in what works when it comes to getting people to change their behavior and start acting in support of conservation? This paper (which I'm a minor author on) outlines different approaches to behavior change, and includes some relevant questions to determine which approach will be most successful:

Here's the citation:
Reddy, Sheila MW, Jensen Montambault, Yuta J. Masuda, Ayelet Gneezy, Elizabeth Keenan, William Butler, Jonathan RB Fisher, and Stanley T. Asah. "Advancing Conservation by Understanding and Influencing Human Behavior." Conservation Letters (2016).

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

New massive database of peer-reviewed science publications from The Nature Conservancy

I forgot to link to a post I put up in February about a new resource I worked on pulling together. We now have over 2,000 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters written by staff at The Nature Conservancy in a fully searchable database!

You can read more about it on Cool Green Science:
The Nature Conservancy’s Massive New Science Article Database (blog post)

or jump right in and start searching here:

Reading Room, Jefferson Building, Library of Congress. Photo © Matthew and Heather/Flickr through a Creative Commons licens

Growing local tomatoes

This is part two of the videoI worked with some colleagues from the Nature Works Everywhere program about the sustainability of growing tomatoes. You can read more about it and grab a lesson plan if you like.

The Local Tomato from The Nature Conservancy on Vimeo.