About This Project
Wheat is a staple food and the world's 4th largest crop. In USA, it is mostly grown in the Midwest. Here, wheat farmers encounter significant social, economic and environmental challenges. My research aims to understand these farmers' ability to sustain in light of such challenges. To do this, I will visit wheat farms in the Midwest and assess their sustainability performance. The importance of this research is captured by Harald Lemke: “Food means to constitute the world--to shape the world."
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What is the context of this research?
Wheat production in the USA constitutes 20 million hectares (ha) and an average yield of 3.5 tons/ha in 2016. Worldwide, they are the fourth largest producer of wheat. At the forefront of USA's production are the farmers in the Midwest. In this region, policy, technology and land converge in a resource demanding feat that produces 54% of the nation’s wheat. In doing so, significant trade-offs occur across and within social, economic and environmental dimensions and at varying spatial and temporal scales. I will use a sustainability assessment at the farm level to identify and articulate these relationships. In their careful observance, implications can be drawn for the future of an enterprise, stakeholders, the nation’s security and beyond.
What is the significance of this project?
Wheat production in the Midwest USA is linked to a number of problems. Croplands compete with species’ habitats. Applications of fertilizers and chemicals contaminate surface, ground and coastal waters. Climate change, simplified agrobiodiversity and aquifer overdrafts challenge the stability of yields. Policy favors fewer and larger farms, placing pressure on rural communities’ social and economic welfare.
Too often, these issues are analyzed independently from one another. This may lead to an incomplete understanding. A sustainability assessment addresses this problem by offering a comprehensive look at the farm's performance in light of its challenges. Results have direct implications for our present and future well-being. As such, my reports will be made public (see Additional Info).
What are the goals of the project?
The project aims to determine the sustainability performance of typical wheat producing farms in the Midwest USA. By doing so, it will contribute to a common understanding of measuring sustainability in food and agricultural systems.
To achieve this, I will first conduct a literature review to identify, collect and summarize known and relevant issues surrounding present-day wheat production in the Midwest. Next, I will select and visit 20-25 farms in North and South Dakota, Kansas, Minnesota and Nebraska. At each farm I will assess their sustainability using a comprehensive framework (SAFA) and application tool (SMART). This tool considers 327 indicators across governance, environmental, economic and social dimensions. I will also tour the farm and interview the farmer.
The budget is categorized into three working phases:
(1) The first phase involves my training in administering sustainability assessments on farm enterprises. Training costs are covered by the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL). Six days of training will take place in Austria. I am responsible for costs of travel and accommodation.
(2) The second phase is the heart of my research and comprises the majority of costs. Here, I will visit 20-25 farms in the Midwest USA and assess their sustainability. Each assessment takes one to two days. Factoring in travel times between farms, I estimate the research to last 60 days. Costs include airfare between USA and Germany, travel insurance, a rental car, fuel, accommodation and food. When possible, I will use a tent; this explains my low accommodation costs.
(3) In the last working phase, I will present my final work to my associated research institute, FiBL, in Switzerland. Again, costs are travel and accommodation.
Meet the Team
Michael John Thompson
I am pursuing a MSc in Sustainable Resource Management at TU Munich (TUM) and a Certificate of Environmental Studies at Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich (LMU). I focus on agricultural and forestry land-use systems with special attention to socioecological factors. Alongside my studies, I work as a laboratory assistant at the German state research center for agriculture (LfL).
In 2011, I completed a BSc in mathematics and moved to Egypt, where I came into contact with community gardening. My collaboration led me to view agriculture as a tool to find common ground between individuals and across cultural landscapes. In 2012, I began a vocational farming program at a 'living-community' in Germany. I finished my apprenticeship in 2015, specializing in dairy, cattle breeding, cereals and potato production.
Both my research and personal endeavors are motivated by the potential that agriculture has to bring people together. I believe that this same potential can help us to rediscover our shared destiny with the natural environment. My long-term aim is to integrate social and ecological components into smallholder farm enterprises.
To read more about my experiences leading me to this specific research project, I have written a short autobiography here.
My CV, here.
(1) Research Accountability, Accessibility and Transparency
Reports including research materials, methods and results will be openly shared upon request. In doing so, the identities, locations, and sensitive information of farms, their members and others involved in this research will be strictly protected.
(2) About the Researcher
For those who do not know me well and would like to read more about my experiences leading me to this specific project, I have written a short autobiography here.
(3) About the Research Topic
If this project theme is interesting for you, then the following items might also be. They are organized into three groups, videos, articles and books. If you are new to the topic, I recommend items with a plus symbol (+) :
(+) Was wir morgen essen werden : "What We Will Eat Tomorrow" (27 min) (German) (2016) A documentary with multiple disciplines discussing the origins of our food.
A Place at the Table : (1 hr 25 min) (English) (2012) A documentary exploring food insecurity in America.
Country and the Gift, by Deborah Rose : (31 min) (English) (2014) Deborah Rose is an ethnographer who focuses on species extinction. Here she gives a stern position on what it might mean for us to be stewards of our land.
Wild Plants (Trailer) : (3 min) (English) (2016) An ethnographic film by Nicolas Humbert. He follows a number of alternative lifestyles that revolve around plants, and reveals clues for what motivates their commitments. Valuable for those who prefer less verbal information and like to make their own interpretations!
Civilizations, The Gardens of Babel : (52 min) (English) (2001) A documentary for those who are interested in one of the first known uses of wheat.
A Year in the Life of Earth's CO2 : (3 min) (English) (2014) NASA Goddard's supercomputer simulates 2006 CO2 emissions.
Landsat: A Space Age Water Gauge : (5 min) (English) (2009) NASA Goddard's technology for water use and policy development. Filmed in Idaho (also in Boise).
(+) Climate Lecture 2012: "Green Growth" in the Global Crisis -- Fariytale or Strategy? : (40 min ea.) (English) (2012) Technical University Berlin offers a series of lectures from guests about prospects of our future.
(+) TED: Bjorn Lomborg: Global Priorities Bigger Than Climate Change : (17 min) (English) (2005) Lomborg discusses putting prices on the priceless.
TED: Esther Duflo: Social Experiments to Fight Poverty : (17 min) (English) (2010) Duflo looks to three simple solutions for alleviating poverty. My question: Are there simple solutions for food and agriculture?
TED: Hans Rosling: The Best Statistics You've Ever Seen : (21 min) (English) (2006) A crash-course on geopolitical developments communicated through visual statistics. For those who hate mathematics.
The Dizzying Grandeur of 21st-Century Agriculture : (English) (2016) A visually rich article from the New York Times highlighting large-scale agricultural productions in the USA.
(+) Do You See What I See? Examining the Epistemic Barriers to Sustainable Agriculture : (Michael S. Carolan) (English) (2006) Mr. Carolan is a professor of sociology at Colorado State University. In this scientific article, he explores what we see and what we do not see in today's conventional and sustainable agriculture. My question: Why is it this way?
Toward an economy for common welfare and good living : (Harald Lemke) (English) (2013) Mr. Lemke is a social philosopher at the Center for Transcendental Gastronomie of University Salzburg, Austria. His article discusses the push, potential and challenges for an economy that suites everyone's interests. This discussion includes Christian Felber's pioneering model, Economy for the Common Good (ECG), which mirrors the US's B-Lab movement.
The Farm as Natural Habitat: Reconnecting Food Systems with Ecosystems : (Editors: Dana and Laura Jackson) (English) (2002) A collection of essays reflecting the status quo, directions and potentials of our agricultural systems--focuses on the Midwest US.
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