New institute to help address complex food-energy-water-land challenges

May 20, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The seed for Penn State’s Institute for Sustainable Agricultural, Food, and Environmental Science was planted well before the COVID-19 outbreak. The concept had been growing in the College of Agricultural Sciences for about two years when the pandemic emerged.

The aim of the institute — referred to as SAFES — is to convene expertise at Penn State to address complex, interconnected food-energy-water-land challenges, such as food security, supply chain disruptions, bioenergy production, biodiversity, changing land uses, environmental degradation and climate volatility. With the havoc wrought by the pandemic, these issues have emerged as urgently critical.

“We have conducted research on food and agricultural systems, water quantity and quality, environmental systems, and nutrient management in the college for years, and the institute will unify and coordinate these efforts, while increasing collaboration among our researchers,” said Gary Thompson, associate dean for research and graduate education.

But the establishment of this institute and its vision could not have come at a more appropriate and necessary time, Thompson added.

“Now that COVID-19 has revealed serious weaknesses in our agricultural systems — such as supply chain disruptions, processing facility closures, interrupted production practices and threats to food security in vulnerable communities — the institute will be critical in our efforts to ramp up the effectiveness of our science to deal with these unexpected and unprecedented challenges.”

The interdisciplinary institute will integrate research, education and outreach to address complex, landscape-level challenges by channeling scientific research into solution-oriented policy, business and practical innovations, Thompson explained. It will provide a synthesizing science-to-practice platform for a collaborative community of researchers, students and stakeholders in discovering responsible and sustainable policy options, business management solutions and best practices.

And while the Institute for Sustainable Agricultural, Food, and Environmental Science was not originally envisioned as an organization dedicated to responding to problems caused by a pandemic, that will be job one for a while, Thompson noted. The organization has awarded nine seed grants to researchers to address the impacts of COVID-19 on agricultural, food and environmental systems.

“The institute has assumed the mantle as an organizing force to facilitate the rapid deployment of the College of Agricultural Sciences’ expertise to deal with the current crisis,” Thompson said. “Initially, at least, we will focus on the research that needs to be done to address the complicated, landscape-level, interconnected challenges presented by the pandemic.”

SAFES, which is affiliated with the Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment, will provide a coordinated program infrastructure to accelerate and advance current efforts to promote successful collaborations and amplify impact. By integrating these efforts across the college and university, researchers will be able to collect large sets of empirical data at the scale of landscape experiments more effectively.

From those large data sets, researchers can create and analyze predictive models to discover and share solutions that impact food security, environmental protection and the prosperity and amenities of communities, Thompson pointed out.

Because this science-to-practice framework requires dynamic coordination of research, education and outreach, the Institute for Sustainable Agricultural, Food, and Environmental Science is organized into three integrated program areas: research programs, educational programs, and partnerships and engagement.

The interdisciplinary undergraduate program for Environmental Resource Management, with a 50-year-long record of achievement, underpins the future growth of the educational component. And a unique method of stakeholder engagement developed in the affiliated Agriculture and Environment Center will continue and grow.

The director of the institute is Karen Fisher-Vanden, professor of environmental and resource economics. Associate directors are Christina Grozinger, Distinguished Professor of Entomology; Rob Shannon, associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering; and Matt Royer, associate research professor and director of the college's Agriculture and Environment Center.

Achieving agricultural, food, economic and ecosystem sustainability amid changing health, political, economic and environmental climates is inherently a multisystem problem that can be a moving target. The institute will provide the science needed to address landscape-level challenges and will require a multidisciplinary and multiscale approach involving innovations in integrated modeling, data science and visualization, Fisher-Vanden said.

“SAFES will serve as the unifying umbrella for college researchers and their colleagues under which they can holistically and comprehensively understand these complex interconnected systems to address critical issues at the landscape level.”

Last Updated June 15, 2020