Our Five-Year Mission… to Boldly Go Where No Integrated Model Has Gone Before

This article is part of a series, Climate Friendly Fruit & Veggies, highlighting work from the Fruit & Vegetable Supply Chains: Climate Adaptation & Mitigation Opportunities (F&V CAMO) project, a collaborative research study that was co-led by investigators at the University of Florida and the Agriculture & Food Systems Institute. Other collaborators included researchers at the University of Arkansas, University of Illinois, the International Food Policy Research Institute, the World Agricultural Economic and Environmental Services, and Washington State University. This project identified and tested climate adaptation and mitigation strategies in fruit and vegetable supply chains.

As a child of the sixties, I can still remember our family sitting together to watch the coolest show on television, Star Trek (Figure 1). Every episode began with these poetic words: “Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no man has gone before!”

USS Enterprise orbiting a planet.
Figure 1. Still image from the original Star Trek TV series. Source: Maurice Mitchell.

These words came to mind as I reflect on the conclusion of our five-year project to develop and apply the powerful tools of integrated modeling for a unique purpose: to identify climate adaptation and mitigation opportunities in U.S. fruit and vegetable (F&V) supply chains. Just like the crew of the Enterprise, we explored strange new worlds, but ones that we created in silico (with computer models) as a way to glimpse what the future may bring for these important foods.

What did we accomplish? First, we developed a unique integrated modeling methodology, for the first time linking life cycle assessment (LCA) modeling with the other forms of modeling that had previously been integrated by the AgMIP community: climate, crop, and economic modeling. Much of this work was done by team member Ranjan Parajuli during his tenure at the University of Arkansas. John Kruse, at the World Agricultural Economics & Environmental Service (WAEES), developed a particularly innovative approach for combining observed yield data with crop modeling results to tease out two components of future growth in yield: one due to more favorable climate conditions (including the yield benefit of increasing CO2 in the atmosphere), and a second component due to improvements in technology (such as better seed varieties, etc.). This novel approach has broad applicability to other crops.

Second, we applied our unique modeling approach to derive new and important insights about these supply chains. Many of our particularly impactful research findings have been discussed extensively in earlier articles in this series. We found that these supply chains can be remarkably resilient if growers can change their planting strategies to avoid higher temperatures. We projected that land and water footprints will decline over time due to higher yields and the positive impacts of increasing levels of CO2 on plant growth and anticipated improvements in water use efficiency. There is also large potential to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions by waste reduction and process modification (e.g., avoiding the second frying step with frozen fries). Our integrated economic modeling results show that grower margins will continue to be squeezed, despite increases in demand. While all of these findings were generated with a focus on the U.S., this type of analysis can now be applied elsewhere using a global integrated framework tool like IMPACT, developed by one of our team partners, IFPRI, thereby making important contributions to global health and sustainability goals.

Our results can also help fruit and vegetable growers pursue market opportunities for ecosystem services that are now available for those who are interested in reducing their crop production systems’ carbon footprint. Net emissions can be reduced through climate-smart practices, such as cover crops, reduced tillage, and advanced nutrient management. Our integrated assessment methodology can be applied to other crops, health-based consumer scenarios (fresh vs. processed), and geographies, thereby informing decision-making throughout supply chains. Employing such methods for all important fruit and vegetable crops will be essential as food systems are forced to adapt and transform to pursue carbon neutrality due to the imperatives of climate change.

As explained in last month’s article, we have now released new digital tools to support fruit and vegetable growers and the supply chain players who purchase their crops. The first tool can be used by growers, food companies and others to more accurately project future yield and determine where these crops might become more profitable or environmentally advantageous to produce, both in the near term (by the end of this decade) and also in the longer term (by mid-century). The second tool is based on the climate analog concept, which enables the exchange of actionable information among current fruit and vegetable growers in two different regions identified by answering the following question: “Is there another county growing these crops whose current conditions resemble my future?”

We also helped create a new community of multidisciplinary scientists and stakeholders with a shared interest in our topic. We did this by forming and engaging our advisory committee, giving many presentations, writing this blog series (to find all the articles, search “Climate Friendly Fruit & Veggies” on CSANR), and by the multiple in-person workshops we hosted: two at the annual Sustainable Ag Summit (in 2017 and 2019), at the Keystone Policy Center (2018), and alongside the 2018 Global Climate Action Summit (in San Francisco). Although the pandemic put a stop to such in-person events, we attracted a broad audience to our online webinar series (in March 2022), as well as our newly-launched facilitated dialogs based on the climate analog concept. Lastly, our project has included a focus on training the next generation of scientists by producing a new education module that explains the development and application of our novel methodology. It also includes a summary of our key findings and should help ensure that these supply chains remain sustainable, through mid-century and beyond.

Group of people standing in front of a barn.
Figure 2. F&V CAMO team members pictured during the final in-person workshop, held in July 2019 at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

As our team (Figure 2) bids farewell, I can’t help wondering whether we (like the crew of the Enterprise) might once again find ourselves reprising some of our roles on a follow-up mission. These supply chains are incredibly complex and undergoing other forms of innovation that we were unable to capture in our initial modeling, including the challenge of water scarcity, the increasing role of automation (e.g., drones, etc.), and protected production systems. Stay tuned…

David I Gustafson, Ph.D., is an independent scientist who uses modeling to help food systems meet human nutrition needs in more sustainable ways. He recently joined WSU in an Adjunct Research role and now resides in Bellingham. This #NIFAImpacts research was supported by USDA NIFA Award: 2017-68002-26789.