My short bio: Canada research chair in global food security and geography professor.

My Proof:

Comments: 52 • Responses: 15  • Date: 

TreasureCoasting20 karma

What are your thoughts on the depletion of fossil aquifers?

feedingninebillion19 karma

One major global problem, is that many of our groundwater sources are being depleted quite quickly. The key example of this in North America is the Great Plains aquifer also known as the Ogallala aquifer. This is an immense reservoir of water that was deposited during the last major glacial melt about 10,000 years ago. In many parts of the US, and in particular in areas around Oklahoma and Texas, this body of water is dropping quite quickly and recent data that I looked at suggests that the water table has dropped well over 100 feet in the last decade. But it’s not all bad news, the north end of the aquifer around Nebraska is actually recharging quite well. So from a water perspective, agriculture seems to be fairly unsustainable in the southern parts of the aquifer but doing okay in the northern parts. I believe that the aquifer is under the North China planes are in pretty bad shape, but this is not an area that I have a lot of personal expertise in.

suaveitguy14 karma

What modern technologies exist that could prevent a dust bowl? Do you think we are too confident after baby step technical innovations when it comes to the immensity of what nature can do?

feedingninebillion16 karma

Great question!! Thanks for asking.
The primary way that farmers can protect themselves against drought is by building up soil organic matter. Soil organic matter is important because it allows the soil to act like a sponge, trapping water when it’s abundant and saving it for when it’s needed. Low tillage methods such as seed drilling are pretty good at doing this, as is spreading organic fertilizer. Crop rotation is another really important way of building up so organic matter and protecting crops against drought. Then of course there’s also higher tech methods such as using bio technology to create more drought hardy cultivars.

feedingninebillion14 karma

But of course we have to be careful to avoid “techno-hubris”. Humanity proves itself again and again able to develop useful technologies to overcome the problems of nature. But nature also has a habit of putting us in our place. Often, the really bad things happen when there is a confluence of bad economic conditions and bad environmental conditions at the same time. This is the scenario that really worries me.

feedingninebillion10 karma

To start this off, here is the text from an recent op-ed that I helped write for Canada's parliamentary magazine:

Is Another Dust Bowl Coming?
Evan Fraser, Canada Research Chair, Department of Geography and the Food Institute, University of Guelph and Malcolm Campbell, Vice-president Research, University of Guelph.
In the 1930s, a bad drought and an economic malaise upended farming systems around North America causing the Dust Bowl. Could climate change and the persistent post-2008 economic doldrums do the same? On one hand, the environmental signals are sobering. The drought in California seems to be long-lasting and even this year’s record El Niño, which many had hoped would bring rainfall to the Southwest, seems to have done little. In Africa and India, hundreds of millions are facing food insecurity due to a combination of drought and armed conflict. Meanwhile in Canada, the Prairie Climate Centre has recently published an atlas suggesting the wildfires in Fort McMurray are a taste of things to come. This year’s hot dry weather is consistent with climate change models that project the number of days reaching above 30°C each year will increase by 3-4 times in the prairies over the century. But it’s not all bad news. We also have cases where people were able to adapt to even very severe droughts. For instance, the 2012 drought in the American Midwest was extraordinary from a meteorological perspective yet didn’t have the effect on harvests that the US Department of Agriculture had predicted. It also only had a modest impact on food prices. Partly, this was because in the years prior to the drought many farmers had switched from conventional plowing to “seed drilling” in order to plant their crops. Such practices do not disturb the soil much and allow organic matter, which acts like a sponge, to build up and buffer crops against hot dry conditions.
Or take the 1992 drought in southern Africa that put tens of millions at risk of starvation. One UN official described it as “apocalyptic” when it caused rivers to run dry and slashed harvests by 50%. Amazingly, this crisis too passed without significant hardship. A combination of scientific innovation, which created drought tolerant crops, forward thinking policies that kept food prices level, and humanitarian programs helped keep people from fleeing their homes. The key lesson is that a combination of innovation and policy can improve our ability to adapt to environmental problems. There is more good news. The opportunity to develop both the technologies and the policies to create climate resilient food systems is an area where Canada, and Canada’s agri-food sector, can lead the world. To realize this opportunity we need to foster the same sort of culture of innovation and entrepreneurialism in the agri-food industry as created the internet and is transforming medicine. This means that we must bring academic, private and not-for-profit players together with government to catalyze a new digital agricultural revolution that will allow us to produce more food, on less land, and with fewer inputs. This sort of collaboration is what the new University of Guelph Food Institute is trying to achieve ( For instance, we can link satellite navigations systems with soil maps to create “smart tractors” that sense their environment and can automatically plant drought tolerant seeds in drier parts of a field. Big data analytics can ensure irrigation systems only give plants the amount of water they need, when they need it. And we can create incentives for farmers to collect and upload data so that we can develop policies to foster climate resilient innovation. In short, the emerging digital agricultural revolution will be as significant for future generations as the Green Revolution was in the 20th century. If Canada acts now and becomes the Global Leader in this area, the rewards will be great. Our farm sector will prosper and we will be better able to export our commodities to international markets. Humanity is on the cusp of a major transformation as we come to grips with the necessity of feeding 9-11 billion people on an increasingly hot and crowded planet. Thanks to climate change, meeting this challenge requires that we be far more thrifty with our resources and create not only productive but also resilient systems. The tools of the digital agricultural revolution are only just now emerging, but they will come to define how humanity feeds itself in the future. Canada, and the Canadian industry, should be at the forefront of this revolution.

suaveitguy8 karma

Has anyone done a survey of agricultural technologies to see if we really do improve over nature in a big picture sense? One invented strain of corn might be better than another in isolation - but then when that one strain is used exclusively all over - what's the impact on the soil and our health? Do we know if we can really do better than 'Mother Nature' at the end of the day?

feedingninebillion11 karma

Wow Suaveitguy, great dialogue, thank you! My sense is that you are hitting on one of the biggest philosophical debates facing agriculture today. To what extent can we use technology that emerges out of a reductionist scientific approach that seeks to improve productivity through incremental experimentation versus to what extent should we adopt a holistic nature based approach that tries to emulate mother nature and coax out the ecosystem services we need. This is the subject of entire books and entire courses. My own sense-but I only advanced this notion with a little bit of caution-is that using the tools of reductionist science to increase those components of ecosystems we depend on is necessary in the hot crowded world of the 21st-century. But this is not an argument for uncritically accepting hyper specialization and hyper industrialization by which I mean the exclusive production of a very small number of commodities over vast land areas.

suaveitguy7 karma

Why so many antibiotics? Why are farmers' profits allowed to be put ahead of the greater good?

feedingninebillion10 karma

It’s an amazing fact but approximately three quarters of all antibiotics used in North America are used in livestock production. This is caused by a number of things including: the fact that our animals have been bred for extreme productivity and this is probably come at the expense of healthy immune systems; the fact that our animals are raised in very tight quarters and therefore disease transfer is a major problem; and because antibiotics used therapeutically help enhance or boost productivity. As a consequence, one of the major public health concerns associated with agriculture is the way that the overuse of antibiotics contributes to the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria. In short, in many situations it seems that we are overusing our primary tool in the fight against infectious diseases thereby undermining our own health. But this is changing, and in the province that I live-Ontario, Canada-new regulations are coming into place this year that will reduce antibiotic use significantly in livestock production. Other jurisdictions are similarly moving on this important issue and increasingly consumers and the industry are asking for antibiotic free meat products There are a number of ways forward that include breeding animals that are more disease resistant, decision support tools to help farmers target the use of antibiotics were effectively, and management tools that help reduce the burden of disease in our barns.

suaveitguy7 karma

How important is diversity in our diets? Could some kind of vitamin enriched pablum feed the world?

feedingninebillion11 karma

Thanks for another good question Suaveitguy - diversity is extremely important in our diets. In fact if you compare what nutritionists recommend we eat, with what the world is actually producing, you discover quite quickly that we horribly overproduce oils, sugars, and starches while under producing fruit and vegetables. Despite the fact that we all know we should be eating about eight servings of fruit or vegetables each day, there are only about three servings of fruit and vegetable available on the planet each day. This represents a major problem that we need to address. So no I don't really think that "enriched pablum" is the way to go ;)

suaveitguy6 karma

Does the new climate mean that with warmer temps and more moisture in the air, rain patterns are different than they used to be? If they are, do we know what they are changing to? Do clouds that would ordinarily empty over the prairies go to the Pacific ocean now or anything that dramatic?

feedingninebillion8 karma

Another great question! Broadly speaking, the global circulation models all paint a fairly consistent picture that over the central part of North America conditions are likely to become significantly hotter and drier over the next century. However, the models are not precise enough to make more specific predictions. But we also have to remember that central North America-historically speaking-goes through prolonged periods of wet and dry and has generally been above average in terms of precipitation for the last half-century. As a result, I think we have to conclude that both the climate models and the historic record suggest we should be prepared for hotter drier conditions though anything more specific than that is probably beyond what our science can tell us.

StormCrow17706 karma

What's the worst case scenario?

feedingninebillion7 karma

I love thinking about worst-case scenarios, although I truly hope we don’t ever and up living through one. I think we can look to history for a series of worst-case scenarios that includes the dust bowl, the Irish potato famine, a massive drought induced famine that affected India in the late 19th century. Do this we can probably add the French Revolution, the Rwandan genocide and arguably the Syrian Civil War. What each of these nightmarish cases has in common is that unsustainable farming practices that eroded the earth’s natural capital, rampant social and economic inequality, and relatively rapid climate change all coalesced to create that proverbial “perfect storm” that upended food and farming systems. So history gives us lots of examples of how high the stakes are when things go wrong with our food systems. Another point: in each of these cases, climate change is not a cause but a trigger that exposes underlying problems that affect both the environment and the socioeconomic system. But there is good news! These historic examples are relatively rare, and one of the main lessons of history is that the years and decades of growth and prosperity far outnumber the years and decades of crisis and collapse. Time and again history shows us to be an ingenious species and my very sincere hope is that conversations like the one we are having right now is illustrative of us as a society trying to marshal the resources to become more adaptive.

feedingninebillion5 karma

Thanks everyone for a nice discussion. Check out for more information. Evan

suaveitguy5 karma

Vertical farms seem like a wonderful idea. What's wrong with them?

feedingninebillion11 karma

The idea of vertical farms, which conjures up the image of downtown skyscrapers devoted to producing veggies and fish is a wonderfully evocative notion. The problem is that at the moment food is quite cheap whereas urban land is extremely expensive so this implies that you would be using significant amounts of the urban land in order to produce a relatively inexpensive commodity that can come off of our fields relatively cheaply. Remember, soil fertility, rainfall and sunlight are all ecosystem services that we get “for free” in a rural setting whereas each of these ecosystem services would have to be engineered and costed into a vertical farm. So I am a little skeptical that this will ever be a viable large-scale food security strategy for the Globe. There are, however, areas where I think the sort of technologies may play a role. In particular, I think that producing algae based proteins or aquaculture facilities nearby industrial manufacturing facilities holds a lot of potential. For instance, algae needs heat and carbon dioxide to grow both of which are waste products of a lot of manufacturing. So I can imagine a sort of space-age future where food scientists use algae as the feedstock for creating protein supplements and where algae is produced near manufacturing facilities.

but_then_it_got_odd3 karma

How long have you worked for Monsanto?

jk heh

feedingninebillion10 karma

I'm just a geography prof. I work with everyone - both industry and NGOs and want to try to help inform the global debate about this issue.

but_then_it_got_odd4 karma

what indicators make you think there will be another dust bowl incident?

feedingninebillion9 karma

There are a number of worrying signals that another dust bowl may be in our future. The first is that both the historic rainfall record and climate change models suggest that the central part of North America is likely to become quite dry over the 21st-century. For instance, the historic rainfall record shows us that central North America goes through periods of drought and above average precipitation that can last in upwards of 100 years. But things have been quite wet since about 1970. So this suggests we are due for a bad drought. Climate change seems to amplify the risk. At the same time, we have drawn down the Ogallala aquifer that is the groundwater that lies underneath North America’s breadbasket. This is analogous to spending your savings account In a period of time when you've got a decent income. So taken together, I think there are a number of worrying signals that we should be paying attention to.

But it’s not all bad news, and better farming techniques that build up soil organic matter in combination with drought resistant seeds can make a big difference. More efficient irrigation systems are also critical.

But no question, this is a big issue.

but_then_it_got_odd5 karma

frightening stuff, man

feedingninebillion9 karma

Yes, it is frightening stuff and needs to be paid attention to but no need for panic. Here’s a story that comes either from the Old Testament or Andrew Lloyd Webber. The Pharaoh of Egypt once had a dream that seven skinny cows emerged out of the Nile River and 87 fat happy cows. The Pharaoh needed an interpretation for the stream and luckily there was a guy named Joseph who had a brightly coloured jumpers in his prison. Luckily for Pharaoh, Joseph knew how to interpret dreams and told Pharaoh that this was a weather report from God: the seven fat cows were the next seven years when things would be good, but they would be followed by seven bad years. So we can imagine the scene: the Pharaoh, Joseph dead of night-maybe the Pharaoh’s even wearing fuzzy slippers. Joseph then thinks I can get out of jail and so gives the Pharaoh and public policy advice-“Pharaoh,” he says “you can prepare for this by storing some food and then the famine will ruin the land.” The lesson of the story is pretty obvious I think. We have a pretty good sense that we’re coming to the end of our good years and are staring at the potential of a famine that might ruin our land. But just like the Pharaoh took Joseph’s advice, we can take the advice of our climate scientists and agricultural experts and put the policies in place today that will mean that our story, too, has a happy ending. ;-)

kingtonyh1 karma

Kind of an unrelated question...but why do you write in all caps?

feedingninebillion3 karma

Um, I'm not...sorry, must be something at your end.