Aerial photo of farmland with wind turbines

Five Reasons to Follow Along with FEWscapes

2020 was a shock to many a system. I probably don’t need to expound on why.

It also set an interesting stage for FEWscapes.

One of the themes of this project is abrupt change – like floods, droughts, trade wars, pandemics. These are changes no one expects, with much out of our control.

Yet at least some of the outcomes of system shocks are predictable, even if unintended. And there are ways we can prepare, adapt or transform because of it.

FEWscapes will be an exploration of the ways we can prepare, adapt, or transform to help our food, energy, water, and ecological (FEWE) systems weather the unexpected with fewer risks and hardships for both people and nature. With a “system of systems” lens, the project team will be examining not just the landscapes and natural processes that support FEWE systems, but also the related economic forces and governance structures.

By combining multidisciplinary research and sector-crossing dialogue, we hope FEWscapes will expand the horizons of knowledge about what it could really take to achieve goals set for food, energy, water, and ecosystem security in the upper Midwest – particularly, the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals.

We’re excited about the journey this project has in store, and we hope you will be too. Here are some reasons we hope you’ll get curious with us over the next few years.

1. We are thinking big about what’s possible for the future.

Sudden change has a way of jolting us out of the status quo, and we think one of the more empowering ways to navigate the uncertainty of how to move forward is futures thinking.

In FEWscapes, this thinking will be manifest as a set of scenarios about possible policy and environmental changes and projections for what these pathways would mean for FEWE security in the Upper Mississippi River Basin by the year 2050. We will develop the scenarios with input from practitioners and policy professionals who play active and influential decision-making roles, and our models will generate their projected outcomes.

Fundamentally, this will be an exercise in understanding what it’s going to take to get the resilient future we want – to be able to feed and fuel 9 billion people, to reduce carbon emissions and the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico, and to restore habitat and biodiversity. Many of us want to know how far society will have to go, and while FEWscapes cannot provide definitive answers, it may help open our minds to what is possible or necessary.

2. We are offering a balanced perspective.

Sudden change also has a way of affecting people and systems inequitably. That is why good science and inclusive dialogue are core values underlying FEWscapes.

The FEWscapes team wants to think big, but we don’t have a preconceived idea of what the future should look like. Only by weaving together the perspectives of many, and doing good science, can we find our way towards a future that will benefit nature and all people equitably.

Through FEWscapes, we seek to provide an opportunity for science to help clarify what is possible in terms of both the actions we might take and the future outcomes that might result from them. And we strive to create space for thoughtful exchange about the diverse needs and priorities that must be accounted for in decisions that will affect future generations.

3. We are providing an opportunity to talk about multi-functional landscapes.

Sudden change can reveal the ways in which our systems are inherently interconnected and where the failure of one can have ripple effects for the rest.

Landscapes are multi-functional systems that people rely on for so many of our basic needs. Yet, many of our landscapes, particularly private lands, are not currently managed to serve multiple needs, leaving all systems vulnerable. The tension between food production and clean freshwater in the upper Midwest is a case in point.

But must people really choose between food, water, energy, or biodiversity? Like many others, our team would like to believe we can have it all, even if it will mean tradeoffs and shifts in how we invest funds and effort.

As such, FEWscapes seeks to foster discussion about how we can manage our landscapes differently to serve our food, energy, water, and ecological needs holistically.

4. We are connecting ecosystems and economics.

In our globalized world, it’s impossible to overlook the shocks and consequences of economic change. Yet, ecosystem modeling efforts typically don’t account for how economic changes might help or hinder the capacity of our landscapes to provide food, energy, water, or biodiversity.

A unique aspect of FEWscapes is its integration of ecological systems and economic changes. We are integrating an economic and land use model called SIMPLE (a Simplified International Model of agricultural Prices, Land use and the Environment), developed by collaborators at Purdue University, with our suite of biophysical models.

This combination will help us understand how shifts in economics, policies and supply and demand might impact food and bioenergy production, water quality and quantity, and biodiversity on upper Midwestern landscapes. Learn more about our modeling framework here.

5. We are digging into how to bridge modeling with decision-making.

Strong connections can reinforce a system against the repercussions of sudden change.

FEWscapes sits on the border between scientific modeling and policy-based solutions. Among our goals is strengthening connections between the differing processes and expectations of models and policy, to reinforce the capacity of each to serve society.

Models can be great at telling us what outcomes we might expect from certain decisions or changes, but they do not dictate what we must do. Solutions arise from the dialogue around model results, based on what actions and outcomes are deemed desirable or undesirable.

By digging into how FEWscapes can bridge models and solutions, we hope to help hone best practices and buttress the bridge between science and policy.

We hope you will follow along with FEWscapes’ journey. One way to do so is to subscribe to our mailing list to received periodic updates and insights about what we’re learning along the way, including what we post on this blog. Subscribe now >>