Wednesday, January 2, 2019

January 2019 science journal article summary: best of 2018

Christmas cookie decorating party

Happy new year!

Resolved to try harder to keep with science? Why not start with some of the best papers from last year that you may have missed? This month I picked my favorite 15 articles that I reviewed in 2018, plus a few other resources. A few were published earlier, but I read them all last year. I picked some because of importance, others because they were interesting, and two plug my own work.

There is one new article I couldn't resist mentioning, which is about the Camboriú water fund that I worked on. Kroeger et al. 2019 talks about how the water fund was designed, including estimating the impact it would have on land use change and water quality. We were able to show that it provided a positive financial return on investment after 44 years (if you include some modest societal co-benefits like flood control and biodiversity). PDF available here until ~Feb 10 after which an unformatted PDF is available here.

I also wanted to once again plug a cool resource  to help you figure out which journal to submit a paper to:  You enter the title and abstract of your paper and it gives you a list of appropriate journals. You may also want these tips on how to write an abstract to get found easily in Google and Google Scholar: and my blog on how to ensure all of your own research is viewable by others:

Finally, my wife's comment on my book chapter on global agriculture land use trends (that there was no clear key take-away point) has stuck with me as a reminder of how important it is to get input from non-scientists on science writing. Here's a short blog where I tried to supplement the chapter:

Carvin et al 2018 is a study I've been eagerly awaiting for years. It is a rigorous paired watershed study looking at the impact of a carefully targeted set of agricultural interventions, and is one of the first papers in the US to show we CAN improve water quality at a watershed scale (50 km2) through shifting ag. Initial work had found 9% of the area was contributing 40% of the phosphorous load, so the authors really targeted those heavy contributors. They found a 55% reduction in phosphorus runoff loads and suspended sediment event loads decreased by 52% for events during unfrozen soil conditions  into the Pecatonica River tributary during storm events. This is big news as these outcomes have been elusive. However, this watershed was picked as one of the most likely to respond well, and those seeking to replicate these results should also carefully select their watersheds. Contact Steve Richter at TNC for more info.

Cui et al 2018 reports on the results of an ambitious study that worked with 21 million farmers (!) of maize, rice, and wheat over 10 years. China currently has some of the least efficient farms in the world, presenting a huge need to improve. This study used a soil & crop management framework that resulted in ~11% improved yield while reducing N application by ~16% (and reactive N losses by ~25%), and GHGs by 14-22% depending on crop. The scale is impressive: altogether they influenced 37.7 million ha. Interestingly, extension staff impacted over 10 times the area per staff person (471 ha / person) compared to agribusiness partners (see Fig 2). Regardless, this is good news in showing that it's possible to achieve "win-win" outcomes at scale even with smallholders. On the other hand, nitrogen efficiency is so poor in China, that much larger changes are needed to bring them in line with world averages, let alone truly sustainable targets (highlighting that policy changes are likely needed as well). Fig 1 has a great breakdown of impacts by crop and region.

Almost everyone who works for or closely with The Nature Conservancy heard about the 2017 "Natural Climate Solutions" paper (Griscom et al. 2017, I reviewed it in November 2017). If you've been waiting for the sequel - good news! Fargione et al. 2018 just provided a similar analysis specifically for the United States. It's short, excellent, and worth reading, but if you're impatient skip to Figure 1. That summarizes the potential of each pathway and splits out how much is achievable at different carbon prices. They found a maximum potential of 1.2 Pg (aka 1200 million metric tons) CO2e / yr (21% of current US emissions and ~27% of 2005 emissions), and ~300 Tg (million metric tons) achievable at $10 / t CO2e (~5% of US emissions). The biggest low cost opportunities are in planting cover crops followed by forest management, avoided habitat conversion, and improved farm nutrient management. You can read more about it on TNC's web site at or at

Fisher et al. 2018 ("Knowledge diffusion within a large conservation organization and beyond") looks at how people find information about innovations and share them, specifically the spread of Conservation by Design 2.0 (CbD 2.0). We review how earlier versions of CbD spread from TNC (looking at published science articles and expert interviews), then use tons of varied data to look at CbD 2.0. I wrote a blog about the paper here:
and the full paper is at:
but here's a summary of what we learned:
  1.  Sending repeated broadly-targeted communications (e.g. all-staff email / newsletters / etc.) that make it easy for recipients to find out more worked better than more narrowly focused communications (e.g. plenary talks, emails from executives).
  2. Expert interviews revealed several factors to promote diffusion: bringing in partners early to develop and test methods, committing up front to sustain support for the planning methods, having in-person workshops, using peer-review and shared learning, providing financial support, explaining how the methods address existing needs planners already have, and the existence of a support and learning network like the conservation coaches network (CCNET). 
  3. Organizations may wish to use internal data to identify staff likely to play a key role in diffusing so that they can encourage that process (the paper has details on how, with more forthcoming in an upcoming paper)
  4. Working with academics on publications represents a potential way to get the word out with relatively low effort for organizations (academics I have worked with in other contexts are often very interested in data no one else has access to, and have published cool papers from those data). 
  5. For scientists interested in this topic, we learned a lot about how to study knowledge diffusion, and share tips for researchers (e.g. thinking about image-blocking, legal and privacy constraints, distinguishing internal and external website visits, etc.).

Fisher & Kareiva 2019 (still in press) is a book chapter about sustainable agriculture that I write a few years ago. The first half is OK but is out of date and was written when I knew far less about agriculture. I'd skip to the 2nd half (start with the "Can Corporate Sustainability reporting be a force for improved agricultural practices?" section). There's some interesting content I haven't seen anywhere else on corporate sustainabiltiy and food labels. The chapter is available from:

Garnett et al. 2017 ("Grazed and Confused") is a very thoughtful review of the climate change / GHG impact of ruminants (largely cattle). Their first key findings is that even with good grazing ruminants still have high net GHG emissions. They also note sequestering soil carbon often has trade-offs with methane and nitrous oxide. Finally, as demand for animal protein rises sharply there is likely to be both land conversion and increasing GHGs as a result. These have all been reported widely in other studies, but it's a nice summary. On the one hand, it's hard to pull out quantitative results from this paper. On the other, it does a great job of covering the various arguments and counterpoints around cattle and carbon, and presenting the data in a value-neutral tone. Anyone interested in this topic should at least skim the 8-page summary.

Given how much research there is on trying to get crops to fix their own nitrogen, the finding by Griesmann et al. 2018 that many plants have lost the ability to fix N blew my mind. By comparing genomes of N-fixing plants to those that don't, they were able to find that ~3/4 of the species in their sample that didn't fix N had an ancestor that could! They suggest that the fact this ability has been lost multiple times reflects that plants spend a lot of energy to support N fixation, and that when N levels are adequate in the soil they eventually can lose the ability to fix it. In other words, as we try to engineer plants to fix their own N, it's worth reflecting on the costs that may have led plants in the past to reject this evolutionary path.
There's a blog on this one at

Hansen et al 2018 is a cool paper using empirical data to test how effective wetlands in the Minnesota River basin are at reducing nitrates in an ag landscape compared to cover crops and land retirement. They compared river water quality at ~200 sites under different flow conditions to high-resolution data on wetlands and land use to map correlations (they didn't get at true causation). They found wetlands were 5 times more effective per unit area at removing nitrates compared to cover crops and land retirement (although it's much harder to make a business case to a farmer around wetland creation). They also found wetlands strategically placed to intercept as much flow as possible were much more effective (see Fig 4 - the concept is obvious but the numbers are interesting). All these findings align well with prior work emphasizing the critical role of well-placed wetlands to improve water quality. If you read this paper watch out for the term "crop cover" (% of a given site area used to grow crops) as opposed to "cover crops" (presence of an additional crop on farmland that would otherwise be fallow for part of the year), as they're not super clear how they use the two terms.

Klein et al. 2007 is a fantastic reference examining dependence on animal pollination across 115 major crop species (ignoring crops like corn which are entirely wind-pollinated). I mainly use Appendix 2, which for each crop lists how much it benefits from animal pollination (from entirely dependent on animal pollinators like cocoa or squash, to receiving almost no benefit) as well as listing the type of pollinator, pointing to references, etc. While the appendix is my favorite part, they also note in the main paper that a) non-insect pollinators (e.g. birds and bats) are less well studied and b) as agriculture intensifies wild pollinators are likely to decline. This means thinking about pollinator habitat in and around farms can be important for some crops, and the appendix can identify which ones are most likely to see more benefit.

Nevle & Bird 2008 is grim but fascinating. They find a connection between seemingly unrelated factors: global CO2 levels and pandemics among indigenous people in the Americas brought on by European contact. They link the population crash to a reduction in burning of forests for swidden agriculture, subsequent forest regrowth storing ~5-10 Gt carbon, and argue this is a likely contributor to a small measured reduction in global atmospheric CO2 at the same time. It's more of an interesting hypothesis with data which is consistent than real 'proof' but it's still a fascinating (if depressing) read.

Rasmussen et al. 2018 is a global review of whether or not agricultural intensification is good for both people and the environment. While they find income and food production generally go up, ecosystem services go down in most cases. The figures have great summaries of results by geography, by metric of ecosystem services or human well being, and by separating 'win-win' cases from 'lose-lose' and mixed results in different contexts. The specific case studies are very interesting and thought provoking. Surprisingly, increased inputs were more likely to lead to win-win outcomes, with crop changes as reduced fallow more likely to lead to lose-lose. This is a relatively understudied area (this paper summarizes 53 studies) given the importance of intensification strategies; the lack of evidence for consistent positive outcomes doesn't mean intensification CAN'T work, but shows more work (design and monitoring) is needed to ensure we succeed in our goals. See for a blog on the subject.

Springmann 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:

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:

VanZanten et al. 2018 is a really thoughtful paper that takes a refreshing approach to looking at the environmental impact of animal foods in our diet. They note that while using arable land to feed livestock (rather than directly feeding humans) is inherently inefficient, there are some grasslands, food waste, and food by-products like distillers grains that humans can't eat. So to minimize land used to feed the world, ~10% of calories (& ~1/3 of protein needed) could come from animal foods. Fig 4 shows how animal consumption in different regions compares to the protein goal, and Fig 5 shows a similar breakdown for calories and other nutrients. They cover how different animals fit in (e.g. ruminants for grasslands, pigs for food waste, etc.), noted that GHGs are still higher in their scenario than an all-vegan diet, and cover several interesting caveats and twists. One thing they didn't mention - some of the underlying studies have a large role for milk, which people have trouble digesting in many places around the world. But is is a really well done paper and I highly recommend it.

Woodard & Verteramo-Chiu look at how much better the Federal Crop Insurance Program (FCIP) could perform if it used soil data to establish rates and coverage. In other words, how could FCIP incentivize soil health practices that would reduce risks and costs of the program, while avoiding perverse incentives (e.g. in the past crop insurance was not available to farmers using cover crops). It's a fairly wonky economics paper, but they make a good case for much errors and bias exist in the current program. The key finding is that farms with high-quality soils are generally overpaying, and low-quality farms are underpaying. See Fig 3 for an example of how strong the pricing erors are (up to a factor of 6). By accounting for soils data (and perhaps current practices), this program could be an important driver to get farmers to start rebuilding healthier soils to keep premiums low. They focus on top corn producing states where soil quality is relatively homogeneous; benefits of accounting for soil should be higher in regions with more varied soil. With predicted volatility from climate change, improving crop insurance will be increasingly important.

Carvin, R., Good, L. W., Fitzpatrick, F., Diehl, C., Songer, K., Meyer, K. J., … Richter, S. (2018). Testing a two-scale focused conservation strategy for reducing phosphorus and sediment loads from agricultural watersheds. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, 73(3), 298–309.

Cui, Z., Zhang, H., Chen, X., Zhang, C., Ma, W., Huang, C., … Dou, Z. (2018). Pursuing sustainable productivity with millions of smallholder farmers. Nature, 555, 363–366.

Fargione, J. E., Bassett, S., Boucher, T., Bridgham, S. D., Conant, R. T., Cook-patton, S. C., … Griscom, B. W. (2018). Natural climate solutions for the United States. Science Advances, 4(November).

Fisher, J. R. B. and Kareiva, P. (In Press, 2019). Using environmental metrics to promote sustainability and resilience in agriculture. In Gardner et al. (Eds), Agricultural Resilience: Perspectives from Ecology and Economics. Cambridge University Press. Manuscript accepted for publication.

Fisher, J. R. B., Montambault, J., Burford, K. P., Gopalakrishna, T., Masuda, Y. J., Reddy, S. M. W., … Salcedo, A. I. (2018). Knowledge diffusion within a large conservation organization and beyond. PLoS ONE, 13(3), 1–24.

Garnett T., Godde C., Muller A., Röös E., Smith P., de Boer I.J.M., Ermgassen E., Herrero M., van Middelaar C., Schader C. and van Zanten H. (2017). Grazed and confused? Ruminating on cattle, grazing systems, methane, nitrous oxide, the soil carbon sequestration question. Food Climate Research Network, University of Oxford

Griesmann, M., Chang, Y., Liu, X., Song, Y., Haberer, G., Crook, M. B., … Cheng, S. (2018). Phylogenomics reveals multiple losses of nitrogen-fixing root nodule symbiosis. Science, 361(6398).

Hansen, A. T., Dolph, C. L., Foufoula-Georgiou, E., & Finlay, J. C. (2018). Contribution of wetlands to nitrate removal at the watershed scale. Nature Geoscience.

Klein, A.-M., Vaissière, B. E., Cane, J. H., Steffan-Dewenter, I., Cunningham, S. a, Kremen, C., & Tscharntke, T. (2007). Importance of pollinators in changing landscapes for world crops. Proceedings. Biological Sciences / The Royal Society, 274(1608), 303–313.

Kroeger, T., Klemz, C., Boucher, T., Fisher, J. R. B., Acosta, E., Cavassani, A. T., … Dacol, K. (2019). Returns on investment in watershed conservation: Application of a best practices analytical framework to the Rio Camboriú Water Producer program, Santa Catarina, Brazil. Science of The Total Environment, 657, 1368–1381.

Nevle, R. J., & Bird, D. K. (2008). Effects of syn-pandemic fire reduction and reforestation in the tropical Americas on atmospheric CO2 during European conquest. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 264(1–2), 25–38.

Rasmussen, L. V., Coolsaet, B., Martin, A., Mertz, O., Pascual, U., Corbera, E., … Ryan, C. M. (2018). Social-ecological outcomes of agricultural intensification. Nature Sustainability, 1(6), 275–282.

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.

Van Zanten, H. H. E., Herrero, M., Hal, O. Van, Röös, E., Muller, A., Garnett, T., … De Boer, I. J. M. (2018). Defining a land boundary for sustainable livestock consumption. Global Change Biology, (April).

Woodard, J. D., & Verteramo-Chiu, L. J. (2017). Efficiency impacts of utilizing soil data in the pricing of the federal crop insurance program. American Journal of Agricultural Economics, 99(3), 757–772.

1 comment:

  1. Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana is the abbreviated as PMFBY. It is the scheme which aims to give the insurance to the crops to help the farmers to cope up with the condition. It will help in the uplifting of the farmers of India who are under the burden of the Loans. Scheme PMFBY was launched by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi in January, 2016.


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