Richard Joongu Lee is a Research Data Analyst at the Center on Food Security and the Environment working with David Lobell. His current focus is exploring the combination of geospatial and other data streams to measure outcomes related to sustainable development goals and food security. He received his BA in Earth & Environmental Sciences and MS in Remote Sensing & Geospatial Sciences at Boston University.
Usually, increasing agricultural productivity depends on adding something, such as fertilizer or water. A new Stanford University-led study reveals that removing one thing in particular – a common air pollutant – could lead to dramatic gains in crop yields. The analysis, published June 1 in Science Advances, uses satellite images to reveal for the first time how nitrogen oxides – gases found in car exhaust and industrial emissions – affect crop productivity. Its findings have important implications for increasing agricultural output and analyzing climate change mitigation costs and benefits around the world.
“Nitrogen oxides are invisible to humans, but new satellites have been able to map them with incredibly high precision. Since we can also measure crop production from space, this opened up the chance to rapidly improve our knowledge of how these gases affect agriculture in different regions,” said study lead author David Lobell, the Gloria and Richard Kushel Director of Stanford’s Center on Food Security and the Environment.
A NOx-ious problem
Nitrogen oxides, or NOx, are among the most widely emitted pollutants in the world. These gases can directly damage crop cells and indirectly affect them through their role as precursors to formation of ozone, an airborne toxin known to reduce crop yields, and particulate matter aerosols that can absorb and scatter sunlight away from crops.
While scientists have long had a general understanding of nitrogen oxides’ potential for damage, little is known about their actual impacts on agricultural productivity. Past research has been limited by a lack of overlap between air monitoring stations and agricultural areas, and confounding effects of different pollutants, among other challenges to ground-based analysis.
To avoid these limitations, Lobell and his colleagues combined satellite measures of crop greenness and nitrogen dioxide levels for 2018-2020. Nitrogen dioxide is the primary form of NOx and a good measure of total NOx. Although NOx is invisible to humans, nitrogen dioxide has a distinct interaction with ultraviolet light that has enabled satellite measurements of the gas at a much higher spatial and temporal resolution than for any other air pollutant.
“In addition to being more easily measured than other pollutants, nitrogen dioxide has the nice feature of being a primary pollutant, meaning it is directly emitted rather than formed in the atmosphere,” said study co-author Jennifer Burney, an associate professor of environmental science at the University of California, San Diego. “That means relating emissions to impacts is much more straightforward than for other pollutants.”
Calculating crop impacts
Based on their observations, the researchers estimated that reducing NOx emissions by about half in each region would improve yields by about 25% for winter crops and 15% for summer crops in China, nearly 10% for both winter and summer crops in Western Europe, and roughly 8% for summer crops and 6% for winter crops in India. North and South America generally had the lowest NOx exposures. Overall, the effects seemed most negative in seasons and locations where NOx likely drives ozone formation.
“The actions you would take to reduce NOx, such as vehicle electrification, overlap closely with the types of energy transformations needed to slow climate change and improve local air quality for human health,” said Burney. “The main take-home from this study is that the agricultural benefits of these actions could be really substantial, enough to help ease the challenge of feeding a growing population.”
Previous research by Lobell and Burney estimated reductions in ozone, particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide between 1999 and 2019 contributed to about 20% of the increase in U.S. corn and soybean yield gains during that period – an amount worth about $5 billion per year.
Future analysis could incorporate other satellite observations, including photosynthetic activity measured through solar-induced fluorescence, to better understand nitrogen dioxide’s effects on crops’ varying degrees of sensitivity to the gas throughout the growing season, according to the researchers. Similarly, more detailed examination of other pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide and ammonia, as well as meteorological variables, such as drought and heat, could help to explain why nitrogen dioxide affects crops differently across different regions, years, and seasons.
“It’s really exciting how many different things can be measured from satellites now, much of it coming from new European satellites,” said study coauthor Stefania Di Tommaso, a research data analyst at Stanford’s Center on Food Security and the Environment. “As the data keep improving, it really drives us to be more ambitious and creative as scientists in the types of questions we ask.”
This paper presents one of the rst randomized evaluations of collective pay-for-performance payments for ecosystem services. We test whether community-level scal incentives can curtail the use of land-clearing re, a major source of emissions and negative health externalities. The program was implemented over the 2018 re season in Indonesia with three parts: (a) awareness raising and training on re prevention, (b) a small capital grant to mobilize re ghting resources, and (c) the promise of a large conditional cash transfer at the end of the year if the village does not have re, which we monitor by satellite. While program villages increase re prevention eorts, we nd no evidence of any large or statistically signicant dierences in re outcomes. Our results appear to be driven by a combination of the payment not being large enough and a failure of collective action, and oer a cautionary tale on the importance of measuring additionality when evaluating payments for environmental services and other conservation programs.
As part of a Center on Food Security and the Environment event, World Bank Country Director for India Junaid Ahmad discussed the political economy of water and managing service delivery in the world’s second most populous country.
Ahmad began his talk with a story about how he first began to understand how people receive water in India. The year was 2000, and he was in Delhi with his friend, the city manager of Johannesburg. His friend noticed that water was being stored in tanks on top of houses and buildings, and was appalled.
Water was stored in tanks because cities in India typically only receive five to seven hours of intermittent water, rather than 24/7 water from constantly supplied pipes. So, to mimic 24/7 water, many Indians store water in tanks. Water storage tanks, however, are often problematic.
“What's wrong with intermittent water? First, intermittent supply has the worst health effects, number one. Number two, intermittent supply acts like a water hammer. And when that happens, pipes break,” Ahmad said.
Ahmad discovered that the reason for this intermittent water supply was so that the Delhi Water Agency could give out more contracts to fix broken pipes.
“Very simply [the problem is] that the water agency is run by the chief minister of a state who is the policymaker, the provider and the regulator. Judge and jury are the same,” Ahmad said. “This creates the type of incentives that no one really cares about whether water gets delivered or not.”
Ahmad concluded that the issue of intermittent water supply was far more about politics and economics than it is about water. “This has nothing to do with water. It's got everything to do with the political economy of how service delivery happens … How do you create the separation of powers?” he asked.
Ahmad’s solution comes in three parts, oriented around creating markets for water delivery. Those who are both policymakers and providers must choose between their two positions. The state and the water company must be distanced. “Let the water company be run as a commercial entity. Don't run it as a department of government,” he said.
Finally, Ahmad said, water must be priced. “I often say that the most expensive water for poor people is free water. Because whenever you're delivering free water, it's the middle class that gets the water not the poor.”
Ahmad also spoke briefly about the issues of groundwater depletion and water pollution in both India and China. To him, the solution to each of these problems, as with the solution to intermittent water supply, is capitalist markets and competition between the states of India. “You allow the natural resource endowment of these states to drive the economics of those states, that … may well create competition towards more, better service delivery,” he said.
“Ultimately, if I were to define the water crisis of India, it is a political economic crisis of institutions. Unless India begins to truly create a separation of powers between who's the policymaker, who's the regulator and who's the provider, it will continue to face these problems that I'm talking about,” Ahmad said.
The economic costs of Indonesia’s 2015 forest fires are estimated to exceed US $16 billion, with more than 100,000 premature deaths. On several days the fires emitted more carbon dioxide than the entire United States economy. Here, we combine detailed geospatial data on fire and local climatic conditions with rich administrative data to assess the underlying causes of Indonesia’s forest fires at district and village scales. We find that El Niño events explain most of the year-on-year variation in fire. The creation of new districts increases fire and exacerbates the El Niño impacts on fire. We also find that regional economic growth has gone hand-in-hand with the use of fire in rural districts. We proceed with a 30,000-village case study of the 2015 fire season on Sumatra and Kalimantan and ask which villages, for a given level of spatial fire risk, are more likely to have fire. Villages more likely to burn tend to be more remote, to be considerably less developed, and to have a history of using fire for agriculture. Although central and district level policies and regional economic development have generally contributed to voracious environmental degradation, the close link between poverty and fire at the village level suggests that the current policy push for village development might offer opportunities to reverse this trend.
Please join us for a conversation with United Nations World Food Programme Executive Director David Beasley, who will discuss "Challenges of 21st Century Humanitarian Response." The conversation will be moderated by his predecessor at the agency, Ertharin Cousin, a visiting fellow at the Center on Food Security and the Environment.
As Executive Director of the World Foods Programme (WFP), Mr. Beasley serves at the level of Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and is a member of the organization's Senior Management Group under the leadership of Secretary-General António Guterres. At WFP, he is putting to use four decades of leadership and communications skills to mobilize more financial support and public awareness for the global fight against hunger. Under his leadership, WFP kept four countries from slipping into famine in 2017 and is moving beyond emergency food assistance, to advance longer term development that brings peace and stability to troubled regions. Before coming to WFP in April 2017, Beasley spent a decade working with high-profile leaders and on-the-ground programme managers in more than 100 countries, directing projects designed to foster peace, reconciliation and economic progress.
David Beasley was elected at the age of 21 to the South Carolina House of Representatives (1979-1992) and as Governor of South Carolina (1995-1999), one of the youngest in the state’s history. He received a Profile in Courage Award in 2003 from the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation and is a 1999 Fellow of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Born in 1957, he attended Clemson University and holds a B.A. from the University of South Carolina, as well as a J.D. from the University of South Carolina School of Law.
The Conversation with David Beasley is co-sponsored by Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies; the Center on Food Security and the Environment and the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands.
The lecture will be held at the David and Joan Traitel Building, 435 Lasuen Mall, Stanford University. For more information about the event, contact Sonal Singh at email@example.com.
About the Wesson Lecture
The Wesson Lectureship was established at Stanford by the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies in 1988. It provides support for a public address at the university by a prominent scholar or practicing professional in the field of international relations. The series is made possible by a gift from the late Robert G. Wesson, a scholar of international affairs, prolific author, and senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution.
Not many people go into farming to get rich. Low commodity prices, high operational costs and limited profit opportunities cloud the outlook. William Wrigley Professor and FSE Founding Director ROSAMOND NAYLOR gave a keynote presentation on the path toward a more profitable future at an agricultural symposium hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. See slides from Naylor’s presentation here.
Rob Jordan, Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment
Widespread cultivation of oil palm trees has been both an economic boon and an environmental disaster for tropical developing-world countries. New research points to a more sustainable path forward through engagement with small-scale producers.
Nearly ubiquitous in products ranging from cookies to cosmetics, palm oil represents a bedeviling double-edged sword. Widespread cultivation of oil palm trees has been both an economic boon and an environmental disaster for tropical developing-world countries, contributing to large-scale habitat loss, among other impacts. New Stanford-led research points the way to a middle ground of sustainable development through engagement with an often overlooked segment of the supply chain (read related overview and research brief).
"The oil palm sector is working to achieve zero-deforestation supply chains in response to consumer-driven and regulatory pressures, but they won’t be successful until we find effective ways to include small-scale producers in sustainability strategies,” said Elsa Ordway, lead author of a Jan. 10 Nature Communications paper that examines the role of proliferating informal oil palm mills in African deforestation. Ordway, a postdoctoral fellow at The Harvard University Center for the Environment, did the research while a graduate student in Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences.
An oil palm plantation in Cameroon (Image credit: Elsa Ordway)
Using remote sensing tools, Ordway and her colleagues mapped deforestation due to oil palm expansion in Southwest Cameroon, a top producing region in Africa’s third largest palm oil producing country (read about related Stanford research). Contrary to a widely publicized narrative of deforestation driven by industrial-scale expansion, the researchers found most oil palm expansion and associated deforestation occurred outside large, company-owned concessions, and that expansion and forest clearing by small-scale, non-industrial producers was more likely near low-yielding informal mills, scattered throughout the region. This is strong evidence that oil palm production gains in Cameroon are coming from extensification instead of intensification.
Possible solutions for reversing the extensification trend include improving crop and processing yields by using more high-yielding seed types, replanting old plantations, and upgrading and mechanizing milling technologies, among other approaches. To prevent intensification efforts from inciting further deforestation, they will need to be accompanied by complementary natural resource policies that include sustainability incentives for smallholders.
In Indonesia, where a large percentage of the world’s oil palm-related forest clearing has occurred, a similar focus on independent, smallholder producers could yield major benefits for both poverty alleviation and environmental conservation, according to a Jan. 4 Ambio study led by Rosamond Naylor, the William Wrigley Professor in the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies(Naylor coauthored the Cameroon study led by Ordway).
Using field surveys and government data, Naylor and her colleagues analyzed the role of small producers in economic development and environmental damage through land clearing. Their research focused on how changes in legal instruments and government policies during the past two decades, including the abandonment of revenue-sharing agreements between district and central governments and conflicting land title authority among local, regional and central authorities, have fueled rapid oil palm growth and forest clearing in Indonesia.
They found that Indonesia’s shift toward decentralized governance since the end of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998 has simultaneously encouraged economic development through the expansion of smallholder oil palm producers (by far the fastest growing subsector of the industry since decentralization began), reduced rural poverty, and driven ecologically destructive practices such as oil palm encroachment into more than 80 percent of the country’s Tesso Nilo National Park.
A worker in East Kalimantan, Indonesia, loads palm fruit for transport to a factory that will process it into palm oil (Image credit: Joann de Zegher)
Among other potential solutions, Naylor and her coauthors suggest Indonesia’s Village Law of 2014, which devolves authority over economic development to the local level, be re-drafted to enforce existing environmental laws explicitly. Widespread use of external facilitators could help local leaders design sustainable development strategies and allocate village funds more efficiently, according to the research. Also, economic incentives for sustainable development, such as an India program in which residents are paid to leave forests standing, could make a significant impact.
There is reason for hope in recent moves by Indonesia’s government, including support for initiatives that involve large oil palm companies working with smallholders to reduce fires and increase productivity; and the mapping of a national fire prevention plan that relies on financial incentives.
“In all of these efforts, smallholder producers operating within a decentralized form of governance provide both the greatest challenges and the largest opportunities for enhancing rural development while minimizing environmental degradation,” the researchers write.
Coauthors of “Decentralization and the environment: Assessing smallholder oil palm development in Indonesia” include Matthew Higgins, a research assistant at Stanford’s Center on Food Security and the Environment; Ryan Edwards of Dartmouth College, and Walter Falcon, the Helen C. Farnsworth Professor of International Agricultural Policy, Emeritus, at Stanford.
Coauthors of “Oil palm expansion at the expense of forests in Southwest Cameroon associated with proliferation of informal mills” include Raymond Nkongho, a former fellow at Stanford’s Center for Food Security and the Environment; and Eric Lambin, the George and Setsuko Ishiyama Provostial Professor in the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.
Indonesia’s oil palm expansion during the last two decades has resulted in widespread environmental and health damages through land clearing by fire and peat conversion, but it has also contributed to rural poverty alleviation. In this paper, we examine the role that decentralization has played in the process of Indonesia’s oil palm development, particularly among independent smallholder producers. We use primary survey information, along with government documents and statistics, to analyze the institutional dynamics underpinning the sector’s impacts on economic development and the environment. Our analysis focuses on revenue-sharing agreements between district and central governments, district splitting, land title authority, and accountability at individual levels of government. We then assess the role of Indonesia’s Village Law of 2014 in promoting rural development and land clearing by fire. We conclude that both environmental conditionality and positive financial incentives are needed within the Village Law to enhance rural development while minimizing environmental damages.