Line Gordon introduces her research area and interests.

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Water for food, food for thought

Line Gordon wants to visualize the invisible part of the water cycle and find tasty pathways to more sustainable and healthy food systems

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Water is often called the bloodstream of the biosphere. It flows through rivers and streams, rests in lakes and oceans, and falls as rain. But just like small and almost invincible capillaries help bring blood cells to our vital organs there are aspects of our water system that go unnoticed for most of us.

“I call it ‘invisible water’,” says Line Gordon, when we sit down to talk about her research. Line is deputy director and deputy science director at the centre, and much of her research has focused on water.

“In hydrology we talk about ‘blue’ and ‘green’ water,” she explains. “The blue water is what gathers in rivers, lakes and oceans. Green water is the water that infiltrates and is stored in soil, becoming accessible to plants, as well as the water that is evaporated from vegetation and falls as precipitation on land upwind. This part of the hydrological cycle is often less accounted for in water assessments but it is fundamental for ecosystem services and food production, and therefore also for human well-being.”

The precipitationshed

The terminology of green and blue water was coined by Line’s mentor and former co-supervisor Malin Falkenmark in 1996. Together with her PhD students Lan Wang-Erlandsson and Patrick Keys (graduated in 2016), Line has continued working to increase the visibility of this invisible but ever so important water. In recent years they introduced a new concept in the field – the precipitationshed:

Conceptual image of a precipitationshed, with precipitation originating from both terrestrial and oceanic evaporation sources. Source: Keys et al 2012

“The precipitationshed answers the question of where rain comes from. You can think of it as the watershed of the atmosphere,” Line says. “It consists of the area from which evaporation flows to form rainfall in a specific location – a city, a basin, a nation, whichever scale you are looking at.”

“As land use changes, rainfall is affected, but not always where we expected it to. A forested area produces a lot of evaporation that will turn into rain somewhere else. If the forest is logged, e.g. for timber or to make space for agriculture, the evaporation will change and the rainfall pattern with it. These changes can be devastating for the people who depend on that rainfall.”

Most of Line’s fieldwork has been based in sub-saharan Africa, in places where agriculture and food production to a large part is dependent on rainfall. She recently finished up a project in the Sahel, a region where some of its rainfall comes from as far away as the Congo river basin.

“In the Sahel project, we primarily studied how people used the landscape in terms of ecosystem services, and how important this was for their livelihood”. It is clear that rainfall patterns in the region have huge implications for livelihoods, but also that people there manage their landscapes in ways that makes it possible to cope with the high rainfall variabilitiy”.

Farmers weeding on a field with rainfed sorghum, a staple crop, in northern Burkina Faso. Photo: H. Sinare

From green water to food

From seeing the challenges of food security in connection to environmental issues, Line also began to look at the big picture of the food system puzzle.

“Food is central to our wellbeing – regardless of where you are on the planet. At the same time food production is currently the single largest driver behind global environmental change and food consumption is the largest determinant of our health. As the global food system is becoming more and more interconnected we’re seeing increasing risks for food insecurity, food price shocks and volatility, in parallel to new trends in food-related non-communicable diseases such as diabetes,” she says.

“There is a cruel irony in that food is still in short supply, with starvation and mal-nutrition in some places of the world, while food waste is record high in others. Add to that the fact that even people who eat more than they need increasingly are suffering from malnutrition and you realise that there is a dire need for a shift in the food system.”

From a sustainability perspective this shift is most often discussed in terms of challenges related to food production – resource use efficiency and new types of production methods, with both high and low tech solutions. While these challenges are big and real, Line believes that many of the future solutions in the food system will have to address what we eat and not only how it is produced:

“There is definitely a need to change the way we think about and consume food. Sustainability is not just about planetary health, but also about people’s health, and getting there will require a shift the current dietary patterns to more resource efficient and healthy diets. Including increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables and reducing animal products,” she says.

A good shift for the future of food

“I think that in all of this, there are a lot of exciting opportunities and chances to find new ways of thinking and doing things. Doing food differently isn’t just about constraints and restrictions, it’s about innovation and imagination, and about finding pathways that can simultaneously lead to a healthier planet and healthier people on it.”

These ideas have sparked collaborations between Line’s research group and some of Sweden’s most well renowned chefs. During the spring of 2017 the team looks forward to taking part in the forum “Gastronomiska samtal” (Gastronomic Dialogues) where they have set this year’s theme to be “The Good Shift”. The participants will represent a diversity of actors from the food system, and discussions will centre around protein sources, quality of food, knowledge and food, and urban-rural connections.

“Food is such an important part, not only of our lives and health but also of our culture, and there is a lot of knowledge embedded in food. So finding ways that food can enrich our lives, while also solving global health and environmental problems just seem like such a great and positive way forward.”

What the future of food will look like is a big question, and the answers will likely be as big and many. For now though, Line believes it will have to be tasty, spiritually fulfilling, healthy and produced in ways that enhance rather than reduce ecosystem services. And the fact that she can see it coming keeps her motivated in the hard work ahead.

“I want to be part of the big sustainability transition that I think we have seen the start of, to reinvent better ways of living that enables us and future generations to have a good life on this planet.”

Stockholm Resilience Centre is a collaboration between Stockholm University and the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

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