Why not to analyse food and biodiversity in the same way as carbon

By Joern Fischer

As we know, global maps are the definite go when it comes to getting published where it matters, getting attention of policy makers, and getting attention of the media. Making global maps has also become much easier in the last couple of decades, and so now we have global maps of just about everything. Of the things that interest me, this includes, for example carbon sequestration, biodiversity loss, land cover, land clearing, food production, yield gaps.

My point today is very simple: we can map all of these things globally, but for some it’s meaningful and for others far less so.

Let’s say we create a global map of carbon sequestration, which tells us about the spatial distribution of opportunities for better climate regulation. This seems to make sense, in that the carbon thus sequestered automatically benefits everyone in the world — basically, no matter where it happens.

But more common maps these days are about resolving food-conservation dilemmas, e.g. by highlighting yield gaps or opportunities to share or spare land, and so on. For everything related to food production, things are different than with carbon. The food generated in one place does not automatically benefit the whole world! So, unlike for carbon, the “produce first, distribution will look after itself” principle, is fundamentally flawed when it comes to food.

For biodiversity it’s also a bit tricky, because it’s not as easily commensurable globally as carbon is. The carbon sequestered in South America, for example, does much the same thing for climate regulation as that sequestered in Northern Europe. But how does a culturally valued bird in an indigenous community of Northern Australia (for example) rank relative to a yet undiscovered epiphyte in the Amazon basin?

So we have at least two things to keep in mind when mapping things: (1) Do the benefits of the things mapped distribute themselves automatically? And (2) how commensurable are they across the globe? Where the answer is shaky on both of these things, we may need to be a bit more careful about getting too excited about global maps.

Visualising global patterns is nice, but it would be good if we didn’t lose touch with smaller scales quite as much. Many real-world problems about conservation and about food security, for example, play out at regional or landscape scales. Global analyses are nice for an overview, but actual problems can rarely be solved very well on the basis of global analyses.

[Incidentally, even if the desired effect of something is the same worldwide (as for carbon sequestration, say), the extent of undesired side-effects may differ from place to place… and again, those side-effects would not be apparent by just looking at the global pattern…]

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8 thoughts on “Why not to analyse food and biodiversity in the same way as carbon

  1. Scale is certainly important, and global maps are going to miss events/phenomena at finer scales – no doubt. But I want to suggest there is a bit more to this than simply comparing carbon distribution to food or diversity distribution.

    The level of our appreciation for a particular resource seems to matter as I reflect on this. For instance, food security can actually be influenced by macro issues. Starvation resulting from drought or serious pest infestation can be alleviated by moving food. This may not be the most desirable solution, but living to fight another day does have its benefits. Being able to assist someone in need has its benefits as well. Thus, unless I’m misunderstanding your comment:
    So, unlike for carbon, the “produce first, distribution will look after itself” principle, is fundamentally flawed when it comes to food.

    I fail to see the ‘fundamental’ flaw. I agree there is more to consider, we shouldn’t sit back with smug and satisfied faces because we have produced something. But if you want to set some priorities, it seems you do need to produce first – all the distribution infrastructure imaginable will be useless if there isn’t anything to distribute.

    As for levels of appreciation influencing how we regard resource distribution… carbon in the form of carbon dioxide will have wide ranges in concentration on micro scales. For instance, inside a vigorously growing plant canopy CO2 levels can dip to the point where the balance between photosynthesis and photorespiration (for C3 species at least) can be affected. With sufficient winds for mixing this particular phenomenon can be alleviated (just like moving food to a droughted region). The wind in the example serving as a sort of infrastructure for distribution. And just as you’ve pointed out, global maps will miss this issue.

    • Thanks Clem, I appreciate your thoughts — and of course, you are right with some of your criticism. That said, it’s worth pointing out that lack of production has in fact not been the primary cause of food insecurity in the past, and global production per capita has steadily increased in the last two decades (while the number of malnourished has stagnated). So, of course there needs to be enough food for it to be distributed — but globally speaking, there has been, so this has not been the constraint. Given that it has not been the primary constraint, I am skeptical that primary attention should be directed at this. Re: your carbon example, fair enough, I’m sure I over-simplified things — though you clearly still understood where I was coming from, and in a “toned down version”, perhaps you might agree that the basic assumption holds (that carbon sequestration self-distributes more readily than food). Anyway — comment much appreciated, these are good things to discuss! — J.

      • I absolutely agree there is currently sufficient production, and with careful management we should continue to have enough food in the near term. And with this in mind I agree we can (and should) take some time and effort to explore and understand cultural and local phenomena.

        I hear so much from the doom and gloom crowd about how we’ll not be able to feed the 9 billion, and so on. I personally do plant breeding research and so the food production angle is always in front of me. If at some point production comes back to center stage for failing to provide enough for everyone then my colleagues and I will seem to have come up short. That said, I do value the notion that there is more to concern ourselves with than simply production. And we won’t get on making progress if we don’t talk about these things. So in that regard, thanks for bringing up the topic.

  2. OK my two pennys worth…
    I would add a further concern related to the narrative created by (global) maps (essentially like the power of describing states of the world with numbers). Maps create as certain sense of scientific legitimacy/authority. “This is an empirical evidence to be respected and valued for its objective, disinterested description of the world”, maps are seen as useful scientific tool for decision making.

    Yet the map is not the territory it is simply a model of reality based on simplifications and abstractions. The most obvious abstraction being that what are almost always complex, dynamic, context dependent processes are homogenised and made static outcomes (as true for carbon sequestration maps as it is for yield gap maps). The second abstraction is that maps are largely “one dimensional” in that they show only a single description of the state of the world.

    Maps often hide or obscure complex reality, telling stories (a picture paints a thousand words) that are compelling and viewed as being less subjective/normative than an passionate pleas proposed in prose (sorry of the alliteration). I would argue that the choices of what to map and how to present the information is every bit as subjective and normative as the choice of words in an opinion piece addressing the same issue.
    In short maps (like dollar values on ecosystem services) create powerful, legitimizing simple narratives of how to see the world and considerable care is needed when creating such simple stories from complex reality. One simple example would be global “yield gaps” maps. These tell a very different story than global maps of “appropriation of primary productivity”, or local maps of food security. Thinking about the story you seek to tell and the perspective from which the tale is told should be a vital point in map making and at present I feel this is too often not the case.

    I hope some of that makes sense… it is Friday afternoon and my mind is apt to wander on the day of the wife of Woden, in ways that may not be wonderful for the woe begotten readers of my wibblings (that is an alliteration I will not apologise for!).

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