Climate Change

Mapping the Way to a World That Can Feed 10 Billion People

September 21, 2016

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Good maps and models show us how things are shifting – and are likely to shift in the future -- under climate change © Benjamin Drummond

Meet the NatureNet Science Fellows: Shannan Sweet (Cornell)

Conservancy NatureNet Science Fellow Shannan Sweet spends most of her time these days thinking about climate change, agriculture and, well, maps. But the maps that interest her most are not about road trips, or hiking adventures. They’re not even as much about a place as they are about a destination.

Her destination of choice? A world that can feed 10 billion people without exhausting its resources or exacerbating climate change.

“My focus,” she says, “is on how to effectively plan for, implement and incentivize agricultural practices that help farmers not only adapt to, but also mitigate climate change. To even begin to do that, we really need up-to-date, highly detailed maps.”

And by “up-to-date, highly detailed,” Sweet means the kind of high-resolution maps she creates from remote imagery (usually from satellites or aircraft). These are maps so precise they can show what’s growing on agricultural plots as small as one quarter of an acre, made from imagery, Sweet says, detailed enough to allow her “to ‘train’ specialized remote sensing computer programs to recognize specific types of land cover – like apple orchards and corn fields, vineyards, farms and subdivisions.”

In many cases, this is also imagery that wasn’t available to most people as little as five years ago – either because it was too costly, too classified, or because remotely sensed imagery at that resolution just didn’t exist.

“At the end of the day, it’s not about the maps themselves,” says Sweet. “It’s what they enable us to do. Good maps and models show us how things are shifting – and are likely to shift in the future — under climate change, and guide us as we try to figure out how to intensify agriculture in specific landscapes without, for example, spoiling our water supplies, or exacerbating climate change.”

Getting a Clear Picture of the Whole Landscape

“We can do so much now with remote sensing technologies, spectral imaging and climate models,” says Sweet. “These new tools enable us to get a clear picture of the whole landscape, and how things are connected – where agriculture is on the land, what’s growing where under current climate conditions, and what lakes, rivers or streams are nearby. Seeing the whole canvas of a landscape is important because what’s growing on your land has an effect on what’s flowing in your water. It’s always about context.”

Once the current land use maps are up to date, Sweet and her colleagues at the Conservancy and Cornell University where she’s working on her fellowship, will combine them with climate models to get a sense of how changes in measures like temperature, storm severity, rainfall, or drought could affect agriculture in specific areas in the future.

It’s that ability to get the whole picture – the context — of a landscape that is so important for enabling people to plan for agriculture under a future of climate change.

Field Testing Technology

Right now, Sweet’s work is focused on field testing these technologies and tools in Upstate New York. She’s also collaborating with colleagues who are developing related maps, as well as guidelines and recommendations for climate-smart agricultural practices – like no-till ag, that has been shown to keep more carbon in the soil, require less fertilizer, and result in less erosion.

NatureNet Science Fellow Shannan Sweet in the field.
NatureNet Science Fellow Shannan Sweet

Sweet grew up in a family of farmers who still run a greenhouse near Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes region of New York. From there, her career has taken her to California’s Santa Cruz Island to help save endangered foxes and the Alaskan Arctic to document the ways climate change (specifically warming) alters vegetation and carbon exchange.

“The Arctic work was my first extensive experience with a large science project,” she says. “It was really satisfying to work collaboratively with so many others with expertise in different fields on the biggest challenge facing the world: climate change.”

But it was not just her personal connection to her home state, or her commitment to applied science for climate change adaptation and mitigation that brought her to Ithaca as a NatureNet Science Fellow. She primarily came to New York because it’s an excellent place to field test new technologies for guiding land use planning and climate-smart ag practices.

It Always Comes Back to Climate Change

“It always comes back to climate change,” says Sweet. “Because the impacts of changing climate on ag are already proving to be more severe in the western U.S. than in the east, pressure to expand and consolidate the agricultural industry in other places – like New York State – is expected to increase rapidly. We need to do everything we can to get ahead of the change so we can make decisions with as much information as possible.”

Maps can tell the story of a place through time – you can see snapshots of the past, a clear view of the present, and with enough data and strong models, you can conjure the different futures that may one day be written across the landscape. The key is seeing those futures while there’s still time to enhance or change them.

As anyone who has ever been lost knows, there is nothing better than an accurate, up-to-date, highly detailed map. Of course, for that map to be useful, you have to know where you are at the moment and have a pretty good idea of where you want to end up in the future. Shannan Sweet has a clear view of the future she’d like to help create – now it’s a matter of getting a clear sense of how far a distance she has to go, and how rough the terrain will be.

Shannan Sweet is a NatureNet Science Fellow at Cornell University and The Nature Conservancy. She uses technologies, including geospatial analysis and spectral image processing, to help farmers adapt to climate change. 

Cara Byington

Cara Byington is a science writer for The Nature Conservancy covering the work of Conservancy scientists and partners, including the NatureNet Fellows for Cool Green Science. A misplaced Floridian living in Maryland, she is especially fond of any story assignment involving boats and islands, and when not working, can be found hiking, kayaking or traveling with her family and friends. More from Cara

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  1. Entomophagy: A new dimension towards Food Security
    The planet Earth is sustaining an enormous mass of human population which is exponentially exceeding the carrying capacity of the planet. It is expected, that by 2050, the world will host 9 billion populations for which there will be a demand of enormous protein bank. The overexploitation of land and ocean resources has created a big gap between the protein demand by human population and protein supply from these conventional sources. This gap can be filled up by insect protein. Edible insects have always been a part of human diet since time immemorial. Till date most of the insect are supplied through wild collection from the forests. Very few countries have initiated research on the standardization of insect rearing system. Globally the most commonly edible insects are: beetles (coleoptera), caterpillar (lepidoptera), bees, wasp and ants (hymenoptera). In addition to this, the species under orthoptera like grasshoppers, crickets, locusts, etc. are also consumed by human beings. Fig. 1 represents the spectrum of edible insects under various categories.

    Fig. 1. Spectrum of edible insects under various categories

    The present paper is a first order analysis of rearing the edible insect species at Techno India University (TIU) West Bengal, Salt Lake, Sector-V Campus, Kolkata – 700091, India for the purpose of using the species as food ingredients.
    Insect: A non-conventional nutrition bank
    Edible insects are highly nutritious and healthy food source with high fat, proteins, vitamins, fiber and mineral content. The level of biochemical ingredients in insects is a function of their life-cycle stage, the diet they consume and the habitat in which they thrive. It has been documented that certain species of insects have unsaturated omega-3 fatty acids which is comparable with that in the fish.
    Many insects are often consumed entirely as a whole, but certain insects are processed into granular paste or powder form.
    In tropical countries, insects are consumed whole but for grasshoppers and locusts it is essential to remove the wings and legs. Fresh insects are also processed by roasting, frying or boiling. Sometimes they are served with lime leaves to increase the taste and appetite.
    Many insects are consumed in granular or paste form. An easy way to obtain powder is by drying and grinding the insects.
    Role of Insects in Climate Change
    The planet Earth is under the appalling shadow of climate change (Mitra, 2013; Mitra and Zaman, 2014; Mitra and Zaman, 2016; Pal et al., 2016). The rise of temperature due to emission of Green House Gases (GHGs’) has become a universal phenomenon throughout the world. In this context it is important to reduce the emission of GHGs. Insects play a vital role in this process through the following ways:
    a) Carbon sequestered in the green vegetation is not returned back to the nature by decomposition rather they are consumed converted to body mass of the insects.
    b) Insects produce less ammonia to the atmosphere as compared to livestock waste.

    Looking Forward
    The insect protein has been identified as one of the alternative source of protein and has the possibility of replacing mutton, chicken and beef in future. However, a long term research is still to be conducted in the domain of insect consumption safety involving a wide range of stake holders.
    The process of entomophagy has several ecosystem benefits like reduction of GHG emission, providing alternative source of nutrition as well as alternative livelihood leading to employment generation. For achieving this target, there is a need to develop technological innovation, change in consumer preferences, amendment of food related legislations, etc. Considering the huge quantum of insect biomass needed to fill-up the protein deficiency (which is presently obtained from soya beans, fish, meat etc.), automated rearing facilities, standardization of species specific rearing technologies for insects and safety measures for insect diet are extremely essential.
    The target will be achieved through Public-Private Partnership (PPP) model and close collaboration of Government, industries and researchers.
    1. Mitra, A. 2013. In: Sensitivity of Mangrove ecosystem to changing Climate. Springer DOI: 10.1007/978-; 81-322-1509-7, 323 pp.
    2. Mitra, A. and Zaman, S. 2015. Blue carbon reservoir of the blue planet, published by Springer, ISBN 978-81-322-2106-7 (Springer DOI 10.1007/978-81-322-2107-4).
    3. Mitra, A. and Zaman, S. 2016. Basics of Marine and Estuarine Ecology, Springer, ISBN 978-81-322-2705-2.
    4. Pal, N., Saha, A., Biswas, P., Zaman, S. and Mitra, A. 2016. Loss of carbon sinks with the gradual vanishing of Heritiera fomes from Iindian Sundarbans. Research Article 4. In: Environmental Coastguards – Understanding Mangrove Ecosystem and Carbon Sequestration (Climate Change Series 3). Edited by Abhijit Mitra, J. Sundaresan, Kakoli Banerjee and Suresh Kumar Agarwal. Published by CSIR-National Institute of Science Communication And Information Resources (NISCAIR), New Delhi, ISBN: 978-81-7236-352-9, 2017, 202 –206.