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Life in a deglobalized world: What would trade wars mean for food, energy and water systems?

Ohio State experts building model to simulate impacts on Great Lakes region


Imagine the United States gets ensnared in a lengthy trade war. What would happen to farmers who rely on exporting their products? How might farmers respond, and how would consumers be impacted? How might different land use and management choices by farmers change the energy and water impacts of food production? These questions are becoming more and more relevant as growing social and political movements increase the chances of restrictions on global trade and cause a potential shift to more regional production of food and energy. It’s a process increasingly known as deglobalization.

The potential ramifications for all Americans — both farmers and consumers — are substantial and could easily change the way food, water and energy resources are used. This is especially true in the Great Lakes region, which contains one-fifth of the world’s surface fresh water and contributes one-tenth of all U.S. agricultural exports. This region is an economic powerhouse: a hub of manufacturing, agriculture and shipping that includes 51 million jobs and a total value of $6 trillion in gross domestic product, according to the Council of the Great Lakes Region.

To tackle this interconnected set of challenges, researchers at The Ohio State University are taking an interdisciplinary approach that involves the collaboration of multiple academic units from across three colleges and two university-wide programs: the Sustainable and Resilient Economy (SRE) program and the Initiative for Food and Agricultural Transformation (InFACT). Both programs are tied to the university’s Discovery Themes initiative, which tackles complex societal challenges, including those related to sustainability, by integrating knowledge and people from across disciplines and developing innovative solutions in partnership with community stakeholders.

The Ohio State team consists of sustainability science scholars from economics, public policy, energy, agricultural and environmental sciences, and engineering. They’re developing dynamic, multi-scale models of the Great Lakes region to simulate the effects of various deglobalization scenarios on producers, consumers and the environment. While they’ll start by examining the Great Lakes region, Ohio State researchers say the model could be used to examine potential food, water and energy issues around the world.

Ohio State research team members at a recent workshop. 
Left to right: Robyn Wilson, decision making under risk and uncertainty; 
Ian Sheldon, agricultural marketing, trade and policy; Elena Irwin, 
environmental economics and human-natural systems; Alan Randall, environmental economics
and policy.
Ohio State research team members at a recent workshop. Left to right: Robyn Wilson, decision making under risk and uncertainty; Ian Sheldon, agricultural marketing, trade and policy; Elena Irwin, environmental economics and human-natural systems; Alan Randall, environmental economics and policy.

The team’s diverse expertise will simulate scenarios in which food, energy, water and the economy could be jointly and profoundly impacted.

The team approach to tackling these challenges secured Ohio State a grant from the Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy and Water Systems (INFEWS), a research partnership between the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The grant is expected to exceed $2.4 million over the next three years.

Douglas Jackson-Smith, a professor of water security in the School of Environment and Natural Resources, is one of the new Ohio State faculty hired through the Initiative for Food and AgriCultural Transformation.

“This project includes an unprecedented commitment to participatory methods that will ground our science team in the lived experiences and constraints faced by stakeholders,” he said. “The results will be useful to local and state governments and other regional organizations as they respond to future changes in globalization trends.”

Another novel aspect of the approach is an integrated dynamic model of the economy that will be applied to the Great Lakes region and will account for how uncertainty over future conditions, such as climate change, influences the decision making of farmers and policy makers.

“By investigating various future scenarios, the model will identify types of policies that could help bolster the regional economy and environment in the face of these uncertainties,” said Yongyang Cai, associate professor in Ohio State’s Department of Agricultural, Environmental and Development Economics and another new faculty hire through the Sustainable and Resilient Economy program.

Research and predictive modeling are only part of the solution. A critical piece involves educating graduate students in interdisciplinary team science and working with stakeholders. The goal: to train graduate students in working across disciplines and engaging decision makers to usefully apply the research to policies that influence the food, energy and water nexus.

Sustainable solutions require that researchers and policymakers work together to understand the interdependencies among people, the economy and the environment.

Students engaged with the project are learning the importance of this interdisciplinary-systems perspective.

“A student might be studying economics, but it’s extremely valuable to understand how a person with knowledge of hydrology, for example, would model a watershed. This is essential for integrating an economics model of land use with a watershed model that captures the impacts of land use on water quality,” Irwin said.

The challenges are substantial. But with this multifaceted approach that brings together ideas across disciplines, Ohio State is perfectly poised both to understand these ideas now and establish a forward-looking system that results in a more sustainable society in the future.

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