MSU teaming with world's best minds for global food security, sustainability

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A year and a half after entering into a declared partnership with a powerful Brazilian research organization, Michigan State University (MSU) is launching into an ambitious global initiative on food security and land use.

Top-tier scientists at MSU are joining some of the best minds in agricultural and sustainability research in Brazil, the United Kingdom and China to better understand the finer realities of global food security and its effect on land use as the world struggles to feed its increasing population and protect the environment.

They’ve been granted $1.5 million Euro – about $1.64 million U.S. -- over five years by The Belmont Forum, a high level group of the world’s major and emerging funders of global environmental change research and international science councils.

“Food Security and Land Use: The Telecoupling Challenge”, will scrutinize the production, consumption and international trade of major commodities central to food security: rice, corn, wheat, soybeans, potato, biofuel crops - mainly sugarcane and corn - and livestock. Economies, societies, ecologies and landscapes change in a relentless shift of supply, demand and need back and forth over distances. And nations in between these four countries in the four continents, like Africa, also receive spillover impacts.

Applying the telecoupling framework to make sense of complexity

This is where the telecoupling framework comes in. It’s a new scientific tool with deep roots in MSU. Telecoupling is socioeconomic and environmental interactions over distances. The award-winning framework is more comprehensive than traditional approaches that usually address environmental or socioeconomic issues separately, or focus on what’s happening within an area.

“Telecoupling is an integrated umbrella concept that captures all different kinds of connections among coupled human and natural systems in different areas. It enables researchers and stakeholders to systematically understand socioeconomic and environmental interactions among distant places, and develop effective policies to help protect the environment and benefit people,”said Jianguo “Jack” Liu, director of the MSU Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability, who first introduced the telecoupling concept in 2008.

The grant is a positive result of an umbrella agreement signed a year ago between the Brazilian Corporation for Agricultural Research (Embrapa) and MSU, led by Luiz Martinelli from the University of São Paulo.

MSU’s principal investigator is Emilio Moran, the Hannah Distinguished Professor of Global Change Science, a renowned social scientist and member of the National Academy of Sciences. Moran was MSU’s driving force earlier this year to bring Brazilian scientific organizations into a formal relationship with MSU. That declared partnership, he said, helped pave the way this proposal.

“The Belmont Forum is the future’s mechanism for funding global change,” Moran said. “For the last 20 years, each country has had good programs, but there has never been an obvious mechanism to do globally scaled research. Nobody gets to first base with this mechanism unless they have their in-country portfolio of ongoing research to show credibility and ability.”

The Telecoupling Consortium, as the research group is called, brings extensive experience to the table, said Mateus Batistella, director of Embrapa Satellite Monitoring in Campinas, Brazil. His unit is one of 46 comprising the national Embrapa network, the state-owned research arm of Brazil’s Ministry of Agriculture, a world leading organization in tropical agriculture research . He was a key player in establishing the formal relationship with MSU and a firm proponent that understanding where food is produced, where it is consumed, and what happens at every step of the day is critical to solving problems and advising good policy.

“The beauty of our proposal is that it is done on a multiscale basis,” Batistella said. “We all have deep local, regional and international connections.”

“Michigan State University is a perfect partner to help address the complex and ever important question of how humans and nature will sustainably coexist,” said MSU AgBioResearch Director Doug Buhler. “We have natural and social scientists across various disciplines collaborating daily to find solutions to various problems and telecoupling is no exception. This issue has enormous implications for managing and governing global land use and we’re committed to finding viable solutions for a better tomorrow.”

Bringing international expertise to a global problem

Moran said the Belmont Forum’s grant is more than financial resources – it also promises to be powerful validation of the international research group’s effectiveness, and enhances each partner’s ability to attract more funding.

Along with Moran, Liu, and Buhler, MSU’s team also includes Jiaguo Qi, director the Center for Global Change and Earth Observations.

The entire team consists of 24 leading scientists and stakeholders on four continents. Besides those in Brazil and the U.S. Other lead investigators include Daniel Victoria, Edson Bofle and Claudio Bragantini from ESM; Fabiana Barbi, University of Campinas, Brazil; James Millington, King’s College; Charles Godfrey and Tara Garnett, Oxford University; Steve Yearley, University of Edinburgh; Jeremy Woods, Centre for Environmental Policy; Fusuo Zhang, China Agricultural University; Zhiyun Ouyang, Chinese Academy of Sciences; Huajun Tang, Ninghui Li and Lubiao Zhang of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences; Kevin Chen, International Food Policy Research Institute; An Liu, FAO-China; and Andrew Jarvis, Center for International Agriculture, Cali, Colombia.

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