By Donna Hesterman

On Earth Day 2011, an interdisciplinary panel of Stanford University researchers hosted a symposium, "Connecting the Dots: The Food, Energy, Water and Climate Nexus," to discuss the complex relationships among agriculture, the environment and global politics.

Stacey Bent, professor of chemical engineering and director of Stanford's TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy, opened the April 22 event at Bishop Auditorium before an audience of about 400 students, faculty, visiting business leaders and scientists. Bent was followed by five Stanford faculty, who discussed challenges in building environmentally sustainable food systems in a world where half of the population survives on less than two dollars per day.

"We're focusing on agriculture, because the global population is moving toward 9 billion people, and we have to figure out how to feed everyone without wrecking our natural resources," said Roz Naylor, professor of environmental Earth system science and director of the Program Food Security and the Environment.

"Food is a security issue," said Mariano-Florentino Cuellar, professor of law and faculty member at the Center for International Security and Cooperation. War can disrupt food supplies, and when people do not have access to food, the result can be political instability and conflict, warned Cuellar. Chris Field, professor of biology and of environmental Earth system science, discussed how the West's recent push for biofuels is causing food security crises in developing countries. Field is also a senior fellow at the Woods Institute and at the Precourt Institute for Energy.

Growing food for a growing global population is also straining the Earth's capacity to provide clean freshwater, according to Buzz Thompson, professor law and co-director of the Woods Institute of the Environment. "Agriculture sucks up 60 percent of the water that is used world wide," said Thompson. That causes environmental damage in the form of desertification, land subsidence and loss of biodiversity. New arrangements for recycling wastewater and water system transfers could help stretch our water supplies further, he said.

All of the panelists emphasized that there is no one-size-fits all solution to the growing global food shortage. "We can't stop growing food just because farming contributes to greenhouse gasses," said David Lobell, assistant professor of environmental Earth system science and researcher at the Program on Food Security and the Environment. Lobell said that it is time to start concentrating on smart intensification - techniques for growing more food on less land without excessive use of fertilizers, pesticides or water.

"None of these problems are intractable," said Lobell, a center fellow at the Woods Institute and at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. "There are good solutions, but for each good solution, there are 20 bad ones. We just have to be thoughtful in our approaches."

The faculty talks were followed by a one-hour breakout session focusing on specific topics, such as aquaculture and how to lower the carbon footprint of food.

Participants then returned for a panel discussion, "The Way Forward," moderated by Pamela Matson, dean of theSchool of Earth Sciences and senior fellow at the Woods Institute. Panelists Roz Naylor, Wally Falcon, David Lobell and Jennifer Burney of the Program on Food Security and the Environment answered questions about sustainable food systems and offered suggestions for the future. The event concluded with a reception and poster session.

Naylor said that she expects to see similar events in the future. "It's a good opportunity to showcase this research to the public, but it's also a chance for our own students to see the kind of interdisciplinary work that the professors do here," said Naylor, a senior fellow at the Woods Institute.

The TomKat Center, Precourt Institute, Program on Food Security and the Environment, Freeman Spogli Institute, Woods Institute and the School of Earth Sciences provided funding for the event

Donna Hesterman is a science-writer intern at the Woods Institute for the Environment.