Thursday, November 1, 2018

November 2018 science journal article summary

Hi there,

Here are some mixed articles focused on general conservation, global agriculture, no-till farming, and remote sensing. Let me know if you need a copy of any of them. If you know someone who wants to sign up to receive these summaries, they can do so at

Also for anyone attending TNC's Global Science Gathering in Houston - let me know if you'd like to join for a side meeting for scientists working on sustainable agriculture.

For over a year now, TNC staff have been hearing about a science analysis asking whether it's possible for both people and nature to thrive (in a shared conservation vision). Tallis et al 2018 is the newly available science paper behind that analysis. It compares two 2050 global scenarios: business as usual (BAU), and one designed to improve human and environmental outcomes (Sustainability). The latter would result in 577 million ha more habitat than BAU, while limiting climate change, improving air quality, and more. It doesn't assume we can drastically change diets, and sticks with biophysical constraints, but it does recognize that there are major social, economic, and political barriers to making the sustainability scenario a reality. The discussion has several thoughtful limits and caveats, but it's still exciting to see what is at least possible, if not easy to achieve. You will have to read the supplemental material to get a good sense of the work, but the main paper is conveniently short. One final note is that they assume climate change won't impact ag much in either scenario, which is optimistic. You can read all about the paper and its findings here:

The Nature Conservancy has recently shifted priorities away from land protection in general, to focusing on larger areas (to reduce fragmentation and improve resilience). Armsworth et al. 2018 asks how that focus affects the ecological return on investment (ROI). They found that larger areas are the most efficient way to improve connectivity and reduce fragmentation, offering 2-3 times the ecological return compared to small sites (TNC can buy properties that are 10x the size for just 5x the cost). However, smaller areas offer 5-8 times the ecological ROI for the number of species protected. Optimizing for species persistence rather than simply presence again favors larger areas (although the authors caution that this finding may be an artefact). These findings aren't surprising, but they are an important reminder that protecting some small areas will likely be important to protect endemic species.

Springman et al. 2018 asks what it would take to sharply reduce the impact of global food production by 2050 (and stay within resource constraints) without simply offsetting impacts like GHGs through reforestation or other mitigation. They look at 3 options (diet change, tech and management, and  reducing food waste) across 5 aspects: GHGs, fresh water use, land use, nitrogen, and phosphorous. They key finding is that no one category of solution is enough, and that for GHGs in particular major diet change (towards mostly plant based foods) would have to be part of the solution. Figure 3 summarizes this set of scenarios nicely. With their medium ambition scenario, they find halving food loss and waste improves impact 6-16% (relative to 2050), improving tech and management reduces impact 3-30%, and modest diet change improves 5-29% (see Figure 2), or they could all be combined for a 25-45% reduction. Note that their findings are global averages, and some places will deviate considerably (e.g. they find nuts and seeds don't account for much overall water use, but in places like California they have a big water footprint). Check the methods for country-level data. You can read two articles about this study here: and here:

Pretty et al. 2018 has good news - they show improvements in global implementation of several forms of sustainable agricultural practices. They focus on practices that they see as representing "redesign" of agriculture as part of sustainable intensification or "SI" (offering yield and environmental benefits). This includes integrated pest management (IPM), conservation agriculture / soil health practices, and several others. They find some form of "SI" practices on 29% of global farms covering 9% of global agricultural land (crop and pasture). This shows progress is being made (although much remains to do). However, one caveat is not apparent in the paper: they define these practices as inherently intensifying or yield-promoting, but do NOT filter on farms where actual increases in yield have been measured. That's important as each of these practices has the potential to boost or reduce yield depending on how it's implemented, so it's unlikely that all of these farms actually represent true sustainable intensification. The lead author told me in a message that in developing nations would always be "win-win," and in more industrialized countries environmental benefits improved but yields could go up or down or stay the same.

Williams et al. 2018 is another paper on the land sparing vs. land sharing debate, focusing on carbon stocks. They use a mix of interviews and field data to model relationships between agricultural yield and above ground carbon, and then do a bit of modeling. They found that as crop yields go up, above ground carbon goes down (as expected). Nonetheless, across the landscapes they looked at, land sparing led to the most C stocks compared to land sharing or intermediate strategies. There are a few caveats which they helpfully admit to. First, results could vary for other environmental outcomes like water quality. They didn't look at social impacts (from either farms or ecosystem services from habitat). They don't look at methane or nitrous oxide, so for intense systems with inefficient fertilizer use the C benefit would be reduced. Finally, land sparing will not happen on its own - making farms more profitable gives them incentive to clear more habitat unless there are countervailing factors (e.g. zoning, taxes or penalties for clearing, incentives, etc.). You can read a blog about this one at

Two recent papers (both Daryanto et al. 2017) find that no-till (NT) farming can increase the loss of nutrients under some conditions. They found that NT often increases loss of nitrate (NO3-) - generally there is similar or less runoff, but more leaching. But results vary across soil textures, climate, and crop management.

For phosphorous (P), overall NT led to lower nutrients ending up in aquatic ecosystems, and less  particulate P export (except during wet years). But it increased dissolved P loss. There are lots of caveats and conditions on the results (e.g. no-till most effectively reduced particulate P from 0-3% slope, but on 4-9% slopes it actually increased P load), so it's worth reading the papers in full. A key finding of both papers is that NT has to be combined with other practices to be effective in reducing nutrient loss, that it doesn't work as well in dryland regions, and that NT benefits decrease over time so they  recommend occasional tillage (once every ~10 years) despite likely tradeoffs in soil carbon. TNC’s Carrie Vollmer-Sanders has seen similar results for P. She recommends a focus on fertilizer placement (subsurface when possible), periodic tillage (every ~10 years), and strip tillage when it’s dry enough. There's a paper about the P results here:

Seifert et al. 2018 has two parts: a remote sensing method to detect cover crops, and an analysis of their impact on crop yields. For remote sensing, "accuracy" is complicated but their method correctly identified whether or not cover crops were present 92% of the time, which is 68% better than expected by chance alone. They relied on readily available data, so this method should be applicable elsewhere. The second piece is that they found cover crops are grown on poor performing field (presumably in an effort to improve soils as they tended to be on poor soils). After a year of cover cropping corn yields went up on average by 0.65%, and soy by 0.35%, but read the results on p6 as there's a lot of variation (from long term cover crops reducing yields, or only improving after several years, etc., varying by state and crop). Hopefully making it easier to detect cover crops will improve our ability to understand their impacts.

If you've ever done remote sensing work in the tropics, you've noticed that you often want imagery when plants are growing, aka the rainy season when clouds limit available imagery. Pedraza et al. 2018 (from several TNC colleagues and their partners) uses radar data (ALOS PALSAR, which can see through clouds) to look for farm-level deforestation in Colombia. It worked reasonably well, mostly between 62% and 100% accurate: see table 4, focusing on user and producer accuracy as overally accuracy is skewed by the high proportion of nonforest. They found that accuracy was lower in dry forests and mountainous terrain, although they improved it by integrating some optical data. It's a useful paper for anyone looking at integrating radar data for tropical remote sensing.

Armsworth, P. R., Jackson, H. B., Cho, S. H., Clark, M., Fargione, J. E., Iacona, G. D., … Sutton, N. A. (2018). Is conservation right to go big? Protected area size and conservation return-on-investment. Biological Conservation, 225(November 2017), 229–236.

Daryanto, S., Wang, L., & Jacinthe, P.-A. (2017). Impacts of no-tillage management on nitrate loss from corn, soybean and wheat cultivation: A meta-analysis. Scientific Reports, 7(1), 12117.

Daryanto, S., Wang, L., & Jacinthe, P. A. (2017). Meta-analysis of phosphorus loss from no-till soils. Journal of Environmental Quality, 46(5), 1028–1037.

Pedraza, C., Clerici, N., Forero, C., Melo, A., Navarrete, D., Lizcano, D., … Galindo, G. (2018). Zero Deforestation Agreement Assessment at Farm Level in Colombia Using ALOS PALSAR. Remote Sensing, 10(9), 1464.

Pretty, J., Benton, T. G., Bharucha, Z. P., Dicks, L. V, Flora, C. B., Godfray, H. C. J., … Wratten, S. (2018). Global assessment of agricultural system redesign for sustainable intensification. Nature Sustainability, 1(8), 441–446.

Seifert, C. A., Azzari, G., & Lobell, D. B. (2018). Satellite detection of cover crops and their effects on crop yield in the Midwestern United States. Environmental Research Letters, 13(6).

Springmann, M., Clark, M., Mason-D’Croz, D., Wiebe, K., Bodirsky, B. L., Lassaletta, L., … Willett, W. (2018). Options for keeping the food system within environmental limits. Nature.

Tallis, H. M., Hawthorne, P. L., Polasky, S., Reid, J., Beck, M. W., Brauman, K., … McPeek, B. (2018). An attainable global vision for conservation and human well-being. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 1–8.

Williams, D. R., Phalan, B., Feniuk, C., Green, R. E., Williams, D. R., Phalan, B., … Balmford, A. (2018). Carbon Storage and Land-Use Strategies in Agricultural Landscapes across Three Continents. Current Biology, 28(15), 2500–2505.



p.s. as a reminder, you can search all of the science articles written by TNC staff (that we know of) here
(as you publish please email to help keep this resource current).
If you'd like to keep track of what I write as well as what I read, I always link to both my informal blog posts and my formal publications (plus these summaries) at

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