A team of researchers from Purdue University is embarking on a mission to explore agricultural sustainability as it pertains to a growing global population. The National Science Foundation awarded $2.5 million to an interdisciplinary team of Purdue researchers to examine how global stresses can affect local communities and vice-versa. The U.S. Department of Agriculture also awarded an additional $500,000 to the program.

The team headed up by Thomas Hertel, a Purdue professor of agricultural economics, will include political scientists, hydrologists, climatologists and others. 

“Agriculture is experiencing sustainability stresses related to land, water quality and water availability, and those will intensify in the future. Most of the drivers of those stresses will be global, and we need to understand how those affect local communities,” Hertel said. “As we look at potential solutions, we need to know what is most feasible, the side effects and how those will feed back to the global economy.”

The team grew out of Purdue’s Big Idea Challenge, which funds interdisciplinary research on global challenges and life-changing innovations.

“Local policies must be evaluated at a global scale to truly understand their impacts,” said David Johnson, Purdue assistant professor of industrial engineering.  As an example, Johnson says restricting the use of the Ogallala Aquifer for crop irrigation in the Great Plains would help reduce the depletion of water levels of the underground aquifer, but it could also increase food prices and lead to deforestation elsewhere in the world. “Wherever regulation makes crop production less efficient, we have to think carefully about where production might shift to meet global demand.” The Ogallala is one of the world’s largest aquifers and it underlies about 175,000 square miles beneath eight states.

The researchers are searching for win-win policies that could lead to more sustainable agricultural practices without sacrificing the ability to feed rapidly growing global populations.