Skip to main content

Impacts of Deglobalization on the
Sustainability of Regional Food, Energy, Water Systems

RAC Meeting Notes May 2021

The DRFEWS research team met online with 23 members of our Regional Advisory Council (RAC) on May 5, 6, and 7, 2021. The team presented an overview of progress and solicited feedback from the group, including specific questions on procedures, decisions, and future activities. Below are brief highlights of the excellent feedback and questions received from RAC members. 

Jump to Day 2: Land Use and Economic Modeling  | Day 3: Sustainability Assessment


2021 RAC Meeting Day 1: Project Update and Scenarios

Scenario Development and Impact (using Energy exercise)

Jeff Bielicki reminded everyone of how these were built from scenario science and RAC member feedback. Team members had been asked to think about various energy-related conditions (higher electricity prices, more renewable fuels, etc.) and decide which of our 5 scenarios might produce those conditions. Jeff shared these results.

Economic Scenarios Defined

slowbalizationIan Sheldon talked about our approach to high and low trade scenarios, introducing the group to hyperglobalization – the fast-paced globalization of the 90s, “slowbalization” – the slower-paced globalization we currently have, as our high trade and business-as-usual scenarios. We talked about what might cause less globalization (risky policy choices, trade wars), and what might cause more globalization (blockchain and other technologies, automation, digital business platforms, etc.). Ian noted that the pandemic really didn't affect global agricultural trade.

Will climate change lead to more offshoring? Will zero carbon goals reduce trade and shipping? Ian says all will depend on the persistence and scale of these impacts on business.

Environmental Scenarios: Agricultural BMPs

Doug Jackson-Smith presented current thinking on Land Management conservation practices and how those would be part of our scenarios. We plan to focus on subsurface fertilizer placement, filter strips, and conservation tillage. RAC member feedback suggested the following changes and considerations:

  • Will adoption ever really reached 100%? Probably not. Doug will adapt to an S-curve.
  • Also will adoption turn into long-term use? Group felt new generation and early adopters sharing success will boost new practices. Also CRP payment rates are already increasing.

Group feedback on Scenarios

  • The group found Jeff’s energy exercise helpful but was hard to keep all the scenarios straight.
  • Some RAC members asked for a “cheat sheet,” keywords for each scenario, or some kind of visualization to help keep them straight. More time with the slides would also be helpful.
  • The graphs helped to visualize actual scenario differences.
  • RAC members were confused on how policy, scenarios, and model outcomes are related;  how scenarios would play out in the real world; and how trade and sustainability influence each other.  
  • Should we focus on factors that we have control over in our region versus those that are out of our control?
  • What does low sustainability look like? Aren't we there now?


2021 RAC Meeting Day 2: Land Use and Economic Modeling

Land Use Change Model

Elena and Mackenzie reviewed the Land Use Change model, including the model approach and results. She then solicited RAC member feedback on land use transition drivers, scale (field versus county level), assumptions about farmer choices and specialty crop land allocation.

How will extreme climate change influence regional land use transitions in the future? 

Some thoughts from RAC members:

  • Change will be driven by economics, not directly by climate change.
  • The speed of climate or policy change will drive these changes and their longevity.
  • Expect more focus on soil health, source identity, and conservation practice adoptions.
  • Carbon sequestration markets and other remediation tactics (driven by climate change) could become drivers of Land Management decision, rent prices, etc.
  • Can we separate policy changes vs natural adaptions to climate change?
  • Effects of climate change may be masked by new varieties and technologies, as well as value-added products and new farming techniques.
  • Climate change won’t make people quit farming but will change the way people farm: different crops (in response to markets and incentive programs) possibly bigger equipment.
  • Downstream remediations will increase – urban bioswales, rain gardens, urban gardens, etc.
  • Farmers worry that mandated buffers, set aside acres, or cover crops may be part of this.
  • Increased flooding will impact farm and urban land equally.

Economic Models

Graduate student Ying Xue presented world trade model. and Ziqian presented an overview of the world trade model and showed preliminary results for different scenarios for agricultural commodities and energy. Ziqian also shared details of the Dynamic Economic Model and Spatial Economic Model with examples of the types of data these would model.

How might “slowbalization” impact regional land use transitions? 

Some thoughts from RAC members:

  • Depends on how fast the change happens and how long it lasts.
  • Some think it will slow down land use change – less volatile markets.
  • Global demand for food will keep growing and 20-25% of US ag products are sold outside the US. Most trade affected by pandemic, but not agricultural.
  • Question: does diversification of world food sources lead to more globalization?
  • What about carbon intensity of moving food around the world? Environmental concerns, consumer tastes, cost, product protection policies, and economic policies will impact food trade.

What aspects of the land use and economic models do you find most attractive/confusing? 

Do the models resonate with most audiences? How can they be made more relevant? 

  • Questions about how to measure and treat pasture acreage resonated and need resolved.
  • Is ethanol high or low sustainability?
  • Some confusion over land transition maps. Gains and losses need to be clarified.
  • Net gain language was confusing since sometimes it was a net loss. Net change might be more clear, but approach made sense
  • Needs to be packaged in a way that people can see how the parts fit together
  • Showing that the models work historically will give more confidence in their predictions.
  • The group discussed likely changes in renewable energy use: for transportation, for domestic use, for industrial use. Incentives would be the way to drive adoption in the scenarios.


2021 RAC Meeting Day 3: Sustainability Assesssment

Carbon Model and Assessment

  • The group had several questions and suggestions about the data presentation which included each state’s actual Carbon emissions, real sink, and each state’s portion of the planetary boundary for Carbon emissions. Bhavik noted there were different ways to downscale planetary boundaries (or limits) for carbon emissions (by GDP, by population, by historic emissions, etc.).

Soil and Water Assessment Tool (SWAT) and Water Quality

  • RAC members were curious how climate change is dealt with in the SWAT models. Our scenarios will introduce different future climate factors. The SWAT model will then incorporate  factors such as rainfall intensity, seasonal changes, and other impacts of varying climate conditions
  • Jay asked how important it was to ensure we capture urban runoff/water quality impacts, noting that SWAT was not really developed for urban areas. RAC members felt that urban sources are important to gain a full picture and to avoid focusing unfairly on farms only. There was much discussion on how urban assessment has been approached and might be improved, including developing a different model for urban areas if needed.
  • The way we handle urban vs. rural assessment might be an important element of the model to communicate to avoid sensitivities from agricultural leaders.
  • How accurate can a regional SWAT be? Jeffrey acknowledged it will be coarse, but we’re looking at results in aggregate, not at specific counties. Combining areas will reduce uncertainty.
  • Jay noted that we are still looking for additional watershed-specific SWAT models to help calibrate and test our regional model.  

Inclusive Wealth Index (IWI)

  • Although some found IWI somewhat confusing, other RAC members noted the value in framing county/regional wealth in a way that is more spatially equitable and acknowledges local values.
  • RAC members felt the information on IWI would be of interest to decision makers but may also spark controversy over how different types of capital (natural, economic, human, etc.) were weighed.
  • Ian and Elena discussed whether there were tipping points in IWI or if everything was substitutable? Elena pointed out there were some natural measures built in. For examples, scarcity would make the value of something increase and provide a natural safeguard for preserving some things.

Final Thoughts

  • Most felt the model was very complex, but understood what the model was trying to do—at least in part.
  • It will be important to look at the model in both directions—at input and output. Will the outputs make sense, and if not, they hope to be able to examine things that don’t make sense. What variables might be missing from the model?
  • Bring farmers back into the conversation.

Presentation Notes

  • Will be difficult to present enough information to foster understanding and credibility. (in a short period of time)
  • Modeling in itself is difficult for people to understand. Stress the limitations of modeling and explain the pieces and how they tie together. Need to reiterate that we are not predicting the future, just projecting plausible future possibilities.
  • Be sure you talk about the real world value of this project: coming up with solutions that are robust to the uncertainties of the future; modeling the (directional) impact of specific policies; providing a setting for conversations about the future.
  • What stories does the end data tells us and how can you communicate those in an accessible way.
  • Use case studies or real examples. Start simple and get more complex.
  • Keep presentation at a 5th grade level (maybe even 3rd grade if possible)
  • The attitude of new audiences will be a huge factor: sensitivity from past blaming of agriculture, short attention spans, distrust of science, black and white thinking, and discomfort with the results may lead to increased criticism of the methods.
  • Stress the involvement of our participatory groups, grounded in reality.
  • County commissioners may be an important audience to focus on.

Thank you to all who participated!