GLI develops solutions for meeting current and future global food needs while sustaining our planet by doing research, collaborating with leaders in agriculture and the environment, and training future leaders. The program’s research focuses on the following areas:

Agriculture and Food Systems

Suitable climate and soil conditions, along with direct human management, are critical to agricultural production. While new irrigation and fertilizer technologies have expanded the limits of cultivation, several large regions of the world are still unsuitable for crops.

GLI experts are assessing how agricultural systems are distributed worldwide and how they might change in the future. Through land use data sets and ecological modeling tools, the team is examining the links among land use practices, agricultural production and the underlying patterns of climate and soil quality.

Initial results show a disturbing trend: The regions of the world with the least suitable agricultural lands are likely to be those hit hardest by increasing population and climate change.

Land Use, Carbon Cycling and Climate Change

As concerns about the greenhouse effect continue to escalate, so does the discussion over the use of vegetation and soils to combat climate change. By planting trees, restoring degraded soils and practicing alternative farming techniques, we may be able to sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere — temporarily removing it from the pool of greenhouse gases. Carbon sequestration could help ease our transition toward cleaner, more efficient energy technologies.

GLI experts are examining the role of land use and land cover change in the carbon cycle. Using historical land use data and global ecosystem models, the researchers can measure current patterns of carbon uptake and release from ecosystems, along with the potential for carbon sequestration worldwide.

Land Use Impacts on Ecosystems

Land use and agriculture play a vital role in sustaining the health, nourishment and economy of the world’s population. At the same time, some land use practices can degrade the quality of our soils, waterways, air and other natural resources.

GLI researchers are working to understand how human land use activities alter the planet’s biological and physical systems. This research concentrates on the changing nature of global ecosystems and watersheds and how they interact with the atmosphere and oceans.

The research team is also building and testing computer models of the world’s ecosystems, watersheds and climate patterns and their connections to land use. Such innovative models will reveal how ecological, climatic and hydrological processes interact to support the rich diversity of life on Earth.

Mapping Global Land Use and Land Cover

Land use is an important driver of global environmental change, but we still don’t know exactly how the land has been changing — or why. As a first step, we need to document the world’s current land use practices and estimate how these patterns have changed throughout history.

While landscapes are now routinely monitored from space, satellite images can tell us only so much. To describe the on-the-ground practices of agriculture, forestry and urban expansion, we must also use ground-based data on fertilizer use, irrigation, crop selection and more. University of Minnesota scientists are partnering with colleagues at McGill University to develop pioneering techniques for combining satellite- and ground-based information on land use at the global scale.

Ultimately, the GLI researchers aim to build new data sets of croplands, pastures, forests and urban lands — including new data on productivity, land use practices and land degradation — around the world. The research team is paying particular attention to the Amazon Basin and the United States due to the regions’ global relevance.

Note: The current GLI data sets were developed in collaboration with McGill University and the University of Wisconsin.

Environment Reports

Food Matters provides multimedia primers on the sustainability of our global food system. It features striking visuals built by teams of leading scientists and designers to communicate key ideas ranging from the scale of global food waste to the impacts of agriculture on climate change. The result is a powerful means for policy-makers, business leaders, educators and engaged citizens to understand and communicate environmental problems and solutions.

Food Matters is the first in a series of Environment Reports that will address the most pressing environmental challenges facing the world and the changes we can make to solve them. IonE is producing the reports in collaboration with an international group of scientists, writers and designers.

EarthStat serves geographic data sets with the purpose of solving the grand challenge of feeding a growing global population while reducing agriculture’s impact on the environment. The data sets on EarthStat allow users to map the distribution of crops globally, analyze the impact of climate change on crop yields, understand the impacts of fertilizer and manure use and much more.

The site also showcases examples of EarthStat data in action on maps created for National Geographic, ESRI, CGIAR, the Inter-American Development Bank, the American Museum of Natural History and others.

EarthStat is a collaboration between IonE’s Global Landscapes Initiative and the Ramankutty Lab at The University of British Columbia, Vancouver.