Friday, May 24, 2019

New book chapter (from CUP) available on agricultural metrics & corporate sustainability

Once upon a time (late 2013 or early 2014) I was asked to co-write a chapter on sustainable agriculture metrics with Peter Kareiva. I learned a lot writing it, and when I realized it would take a while to get published I wrote a blog post about the most surprising thing I learned (that global agricultural land had been decreasing since 1998, not rapidly expanding):

That surprise, and the blowback I got after publishing it, inspired me to write another book chapter which came out in late 2017:
and a follow-up blog since my writing wasn't clear enough:

But now, 5+ years later, the actual original book is finally published!

Those interested can read the final chapter at

The first half is OK but is out of date and was written when I knew far less about agriculture.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.

I haven't read the rest of the book yet but am looking forward to it! You can get the whole book here:  Agricultural Resilience: Perspectives from Ecology and Economics (Cambridge University Press)

Friday, May 3, 2019

May 2019 science journal article summary

Pretty flower

Merry May!

This month's summary is a bit of a grab bag as I settle into my new job and am reading a wide variety of topics.

I'm very happy to report that after about 5 years, a book I contributed a chapter to is finally published! The chapter is "Using environmental metrics to promote sustainability and resilience in agriculture" (co-authored by Peter Kareiva) and it's in "Agricultural Resilience: Perspectives from Ecology and Economics" from Cambridge University Press:

Unfortunately I wrote it when I knew far less about agriculture (and how to write well), so I can't entirely recommend it (especially all the specific metrics). But it has some useful content. The section "Food labels and sustainability" is still unique as far as I know in providing a concise (2 page) summary of research around food labels and consumer preferences around sustainability (although there are more comprehensive resources, e.g. "The Green Bundle" by Magali Delmas and David Colgan). The corporate sustainability information is badly dated but a decent primer for folks new to the field. Anyway, you can read my chapter here if interested: or buy the book from the link above. I haven't seen any of the other chapters yet but hopefully given the long wait they're all fantastic!

Also, normally when I find a paper not as useful as I hoped I don't review it. This month I'm including a couple that I'd normally skip since it may also be useful to see limitations flagged for papers which may be used to overstate a case.

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Anderson et al. 2019 argues that while investing in natural climate solutions (aka NCS, e.g. trees) is important to mitigate climate change, cuts to emissions from energy and industry are also urgent and imperative. As they put it, it's not "either/or" but "yes, and." Their key point is that while NCS offer many benefits, delaying emissions reductions from energy and industry by even a few years can add up to more than offset the reductions from NCS. They close by calling for conservationists to ensure that NCS mitigation is optimized, while also amplifying the need to work on complementary solutions to reduce anthropogenic emissions at their source.

Dinerstein et al. 2019 is a new spin on an older 'half earth' idea. They outline a "global deal for nature:" an ambitious plan for new protected areas and "other effective area-based conservation measures" (OECMs) which could include indigenous reserves and well-managed grazing areas. By 2030 they seek 30% of earth to be formally protected (currently we're at 15%) plus 20% more as 'climate stabilization areas.' The goal would be to minimize climate change and species extinctions via a companion to the Paris agreement, since preventing habitat loss and maintaining connectivity is much easier and cheaper than restoration after the fact. The paper is useful in identifying key areas for protection and potential policy mechanisms to consider. But Table 3 makes it clear that this is a wish list of several big policies that the environmental movement has been unable to achieve, without a plausible path to galvanize new support and/or come up with creative solutions beyond keeping humans out of most of the planet.

Searchinger et al. 2018 is an attempt to calculate the "carbon opportunity cost" of different ag land uses and habitats. Unfortunately, the assumptions taken together make this paper not very useful. For example, the idea that if food is not produced somewhere it simply will be produced elsewhere with global average values is a big stretch, but it's even more of a stretch to assume that intensifying production in one place will lead to land sparing elsewhere.

Dickson  et al. 2019 is an overview of how electrical "circuit theory" has been incorporated into the science of wildlife connectivity (mostly through an open source tool called circuitscape). Some key advances: recognizing that wildlife don't typically know and use a single optimal path, identifying pinch points that limit flow, and better explaining genetic patterns across a landscape. However, for animals with better knowledge of their landscape (e.g. seasonally migrating ungulates), circuit theory does not perform as well. They close with a quick summary of other applications in groundwater and fire. Check out figure 3 for a great example of how to make a basic bar chart fun and accessible.

Armitage and Fourqurean 2016 looked at how nutrient availability (both historic and manipulated) impacted seagrass biomass and soil organic carbon (SOC). Sites with a history of lower nutrient availability had lower soil SOC and much lower biomass (both above-ground and below-ground). Adding nutrients boosted above-ground biomass (especially P in nutrient-poor sites, with a smaller effect of N in moderate-nutrient sites), but below-ground biomass didn't respond as consistently. In fact, more sites lost below-ground biomass with extra P than gained it (the abstract misstates the findings). While it would have taken a longer study to accurately detect SOC changes due to biomass inputs, it actually went down with P addition. The authors hypothesize that the extra above-ground biomass from fertilization could trap more sediment and lead to higher SOC, which is plausible, but would have to be tested by a future study (as well as checking for impacts on N2O that could offset the C gains).

Kovacs et al. 2018 mapped seagrass in Australia (in clear shallow waters, ideal conditions) using four satellite sensors with pixel size from 30m to 2m. The results are surprising - overall all sensors had similar overall accuracy for both species ID and % cover. As expected, higher resolution  made it possible to see more detail (Figure 2 is great to compare sensors), but since it wasn't more accurate that would only be relevant if fine-scale distribution patterns were of special interest. Otherwise sticking with the coarser data would save time and money for mapping.

Two new lidar satellites were launched recently: ICESat-2 launched in Sep 2018 and GEDI in Dec (initial GEDI data should be released in June, ICESat-2 hasn't announced a date yet). While GEDI is more focused on measuring forest canopy height, ICESat-2 is also mapping vegetation (in addition to ice sheets, clouds, land surface, and more). GEDI will focus on middle latitudes, and ICESat-2 on the poles. Having these data available globally will be a big deal, especially for estimating forest carbon. For more on ICESat-2, Neuenschwander and Pitts 2019 has details on one of the planned data products (ATL08) which maps both ground surface and tree canopies. It's a dense paper, but Figures 4 & 8 are useful to get a sense of the output (they used simulated data), and the discussion has several useful details. The raw data is grouped into 100m cells to have enough photons per cell, but another data product (ATL03) maps each photon individually and can be used to investigate patterns within each 100m cell. Note that tree canopy height is consistently underestimated by ATL08.

Sun et al. 2018 argues that countries that import crops may also create local pollution problems, contrary to the usual thought that importing food shifts the environmental burden to the exporting country. Their case study shows that as China started importing more soy and growing other crops domestically, their nitrogen overuse increased. However, that doesn't make a strong general case for their assertion, and while China could certainly benefit from more soy rotation, fertilizer overuse there is driven by a series of political and cultural factors that again make it hard to generalize.

Anderson, C. M., DeFries, R. S., Litterman, R., Matson, P. A., Nepstad, D. C., Pacala, S., … Field, C. B. (2019). Natural climate solutions are not enough. Science, 363(6430), 933–934.  

Armitage, A. R., & Fourqurean, J. W. (2016). Carbon storage in seagrass soils: long-term nutrient history exceeds the effects of near-term nutrient enrichment. Biogeosciences, 13(1), 313–321.

Dickson, B. G., Albano, C. M., Anantharaman, R., Beier, P., Fargione, J., Graves, T. A., … Theobald, D. M. (2018). Circuit-theory applications to connectivity science and conservation. Conservation Biology, 33(2), 239–249.

Dinerstein, E., Vynne, C., Sala, E., Joshi, A. R., Fernando, S., Lovejoy, T. E., … Wikramanayake, E. (2019). A Global Deal For Nature: Guiding principles, milestones, and targets. Science Advances, 5(4).

Fisher, J.R.B. and Kareiva, P. 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

Kovacs, E., Roelfsema, C., Lyons, M., Zhao, S., & Phinn, S. (2018). Seagrass habitat mapping: how do Landsat 8 OLI, Sentinel-2, ZY-3A, and Worldview-3 perform? Remote Sensing Letters, 9(7), 686–695.

Neuenschwander, A., & Pitts, K. (2019). The ATL08 land and vegetation product for the ICESat-2 Mission. Remote Sensing of Environment, 221 (April 2018), 247–259.

Searchinger, T. D., Wirsenius, S., Beringer, T., & Dumas, P. (2018). Assessing the efficiency of changes in land use for mitigating climate change. Nature, 564(7735), 249–253.

Sun, J., Mooney, H., Wu, W., Tang, H., Tong, Y., Xu, Z., … Liu, J. (2018). Importing food damages domestic environment: Evidence from global soybean trade. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(21), 5415–5419.



p.s. 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