From the plate to the planet: Speaker series addresses food and science

The adage “you are what you eat” is true on societal, cultural and global levels, as well as the individual level. Our diets may be contributing to the rapid rise of food allergies in America. Meanwhile, worldwide farming and dietary trends alter the landscape, contribute to environmental degradation and exacerbate climate change.

These and other topics were discussed during “Food and Science,” a joint speaker event by faculty from the University of Chicago and researchers from Argonne National Laboratory and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. The June 2 event was held at The Promontory.

Mitigating threats to global food supply

Joshua Elliott│Global Change and Food Security, One Crisis at a Time

Such improvements would come none too soon, according to Joshua Elliott, research scientist and fellow at the University and Argonne’s Computation Institute.

“We study global change and food security, one crisis at a time,” he said. “We’re on the worst possible emissions pathway…and likely to stay there until at least 2020.” The resultant global warming “is already baked into the system such that global surface temperatures won’t stop rising for thirty years which could cause an 8 percent to 45 percent reduction in productivity on presently harvested agricultural land.”

But climate change is only one type of global change that’s threatening food security. Others include population growth, urbanization, habitat degradation, depletion of fresh water and demand for resource-intensive meat.

“These changes could lead to a dramatic acceleration in the frequency and severity of disruptions in the supply and availability of food,” which could lead to civil unrest, famine and warfare, Elliott said.

To mitigate such threats, scientists are developing tools that measure and assimilate climate, soil and other environmental data in real time to improve crop management, increase agricultural efficiency, reduce fertilizer usage, monitor droughts and improve irrigation practices.

“We’re translating all the data into large scale maps to identify hotspots of potential food insecurity before they emerge,” Elliott said. “The next step is to apply these tools at farm and subfarm levels using precision agricultural applications.”

“Food and Science” was the 12th in this joint speaker series, which has run under the leadership of Donald H. Levy, Vice President for Research and for National Laboratories at the University. Levy took the occasion to announce his forthcoming retirement.

Throughout the evening, moderator Timothy Meyer, Chief Operating Officer at Fermilab, regaled the “hungry-to-learn” audience with food-related puns. Some were delectable, others hard to swallow.

Full video below.

FOOD AND SCIENCE │ 2016 UChicago Joint Speaker Series Program

This article was originally published on UChicago News, and was written by Greg Borzo.