Post image for NSF grant to study food insecurity, climate variability

NSF grant to study food insecurity, climate variability

September 29, 2014

IU Bloomington faculty members have been awarded nearly $2.6 million for studies focused on one of the world’s most urgent problems: ensuring adequate supplies of water in the face of growing human needs and increasing climate variability.

A team headed by Tom Evans, professor of geography in the College of Arts and Sciences, is splitting a $3.69 million award with a Princeton-based group for a five-year study of how farmers in Zambia and Kenya make decisions in response to the availability of water.

Other IU members of the group are Beth Plale, professor in the School of Informatics and Computing, and Shahzeen Attari, assistant professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, both at IU Bloomington.

Also, Adam Ward, an assistant professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, is leading a three-year study of decisions by agricultural land managers in the U.S. Midwest. The project is funded with a $599,000 grant awarded when Ward was on the faculty at the University of Iowa.

The grants are among 26 awards totaling $25 million announced recently by the Water Sustainability and Climate program, a joint initiative of the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture.

The work by Evans, Plale, and Attari is a collaboration with Kelly Caylor, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Princeton University. It is designed to improve data collection, analysis, and modeling related to dry-land food production in Africa. At IU, it is a project of the Vincent and Elinor Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis and the Center for the Study of Institutions, Population and Environmental Change, both research centers supported by the Office of the Vice Provost for Research.

“People have been aware of food insecurity as a problem in Africa for decades,” Evans says. “And yet we still have massive numbers of people there who are food insecure.”

The project will use novel, low-cost sensors to collect climate-related data, such as temperature, precipitation, and soil moisture. It will marry that information to information on farmers’ decisions collected through brief but frequent surveys by mobile phone text messaging.

A few years ago, a lack of telecommunications technology would have made such a project impossible. But it’s now estimated that 80 percent of households in Zambia and Kenya have mobile phones.

The surveys will examine farmers’ decisions and attitudes in response to climate variability — for example, when farmers take steps to improve crop production and when they decide their harvest may fail and they will need to rely on food aid. While the research takes place in Africa, its findings should have implications for dry-land farming in other parts of the world.

Plale brings to the project expertise in large-scale data analysis and modeling, while Attari investigates behavior and decision-making related to resource use and sustainability. Evans has spent the past five years working on agricultural decision-making and water governance in Africa, including spatial modeling of food security.

The project led by Adam Ward at SPEA seeks to develop new models for examining the interaction of climate change and variability, agricultural trends, and land management decisions, along with their impact on water quality. Nutrient runoff from farms causes problems such as freshwater algae blooms that can poison drinking water and a “dead zone” the size of Connecticut in the Gulf of Mexico.

The study will include an examination of the impact of Watershed Management Authorities, which include governmental agencies and voluntary organizations created to protect watersheds. For example, Ward said, researchers will try to determine whether agricultural land managers make different decisions when they take part in face-to-face discussions about the impact of their behavior.

“Our goal is to gain a better understanding of the feedbacks between humans and their watersheds. Human decisions have a dominant impact on water quality and quantity issues in the Midwest, and those responses, in turn, shape our future decisions,” Ward says. “Adding the uncertainty of future climate into the decision process is only going to accentuate these feedbacks.”

Also part of the project are University of Iowa faculty members Kajsa Dalrymple, an assistant professor of journalism and mass communications who focuses on science communication, and Scott Spak, an assistant professor of urban and regional planning who focuses on land use and environmental issues.

The project will use focus groups and web-based feedback to collect data. Researchers will develop models for projecting the outcomes of future scenarios regarding climate change and variability, land use, land management decisions, and watershed governance.