David Lobell is an agricultural ecologist and a 2013 MacArthur Fellow. He uses advanced satellite, remote sensing, and geographic information systems (GIS) technologies to research ways to sustainably feed the world’s growing population. His latest work helps measure the direct impact of climate change on global food systems.
David had an innate curiosity about food from a young age, despite his urban upbringing.
“Everybody has some sort of interest in food at some level, even if it’s just eating. I grew up very removed from any sort of agriculture, and that probably had some sort of perverse impact on me becoming really fascinated by it because I just was not exposed to it as a kid.”
David’s first experiences doing field work cemented his desire to continue to work with food and agriculture. As a graduate student, he began working with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico (Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maiz y Trigo, or CIMMYT). CIMMYT works to reduce worldwide poverty and hunger by increasing the productivity of maize (corn) and wheat, both important food staples.
MOST EXCITING PART OF YOUR WORK
Much of David’s time is spent trying to make sense of raw data on agricultural productivity.
“I like to do puzzles and work with numbers. For me, the most rewarding thing day in [and] day out is figuring out what the data is saying and what patterns there are in these large, noisy data sets that we work with. Sometimes it feels like we’re completing a jigsaw puzzle.”
More importantly, David and his team are excited to see when their analysis influences the decisions of farmers, plant breeders, and agronomists. These everyday decisions change the way our food is grown.
“The most rewarding for me is when somebody who’s working in agriculture tells me that my work helped them change what they were doing or think about something differently. That’s when I get to feeling like I’m making an impact.”
David’s recent findings, for example, helped farmers adapt their techniques to cope with higher overall temperatures due to climate change. This allows them to maintain productivity and continue feeding large populations despite the changing environmental context.
MOST DEMANDING PART OF YOUR WORK
Over the course of his career, the challenges David faces have shifted considerably.
“When I was getting into this work about ten years ago, the biggest challenge was that nobody really cared about agriculture, but that didn’t really bother me. Still, it was very hard to find an audience and raise money in academia . . . Over time, agriculture and food have both become much more popular [fields of study] as we’ve seen food prices go up. So that’s less of a challenge now.”
David attributes the increased interest in agriculture and food security to the overall rise in attention to climate change in recent years.
HOW DO YOU DEFINE GEOGRAPHY?
“I’ve always heard varying definitions. One time I interviewed in a geography department and they told me that their definition of geography is whatever a geographer is doing! To me, geography is anything that has place or space as its central element.
“A lot of what we do in agriculture is getting information about spatial variation. Anytime you have spatial information associated with your analysis, that is inherently place-based.”
The geographic notion of variation across space is central to David and his team’s research strategy.
“For us, looking at different locations is a great way of testing theories or calibrating models. There’s a lot of information to be found by comparing different places. In our studies, we have thousands of different places, each with slightly different attributes. We use that variation to understand things.”
Furthermore, “the importance of place and local context” plays a large role in seeking solutions to the various problems David and his team help address.
Geographic tools like GIS, remote sensing, and satellite imagery also have an important place in the data-collection process, and allow David and his team to look deeper into spatial patterns. In fact, David estimates that roughly half of his work involves satellite data.
SO, YOU WANT TO BE AN . . . AGRICULTURAL ECOLOGIST
David encourages anyone interested in agriculture to take advantage of opportunities to explore agricultural regions using online tools like Google Earth, something he does regularly in his classes at Stanford University.
“Go into Google Earth and tour around the agricultural areas of the world. You can learn a lot by looking at the landscapes there.”
For students in particular, David emphasizes the importance of thinking creatively, especially in the sciences.
“There’s a notion that all science is done by certain robots out there who know exactly what they’re doing and it’s a very linear path. But there’s a real creative element of science, as well. Once you become an expert at something, you can really think creatively and [about] what else you can do. It’s hard to see the light at the end of that tunnel when you’re in middle school or high school, to think that you could one day be the person creating things no one thought was possible, but it’s really a lot of fun in the end.”
Organizations like the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Agriculture Association (FAO) release periodic updates on the state of food security or agricultural production in different regions of the world, making it easy to follow the latest developments in the field.