Interview: Pamela Matson

Stanford's Dean of the School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences explains her visions for sustainable agriculture


Pamela Matson is a global thought leader and interdisciplinary earth scientist whose research aims to reduce environmental impacts of agriculture. She is Dean of the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences at Stanford University where she leads a research laboratory and participates in many programs that connect research to policy. She has edited and co-written books including Seeds of Sustainability and Pursuing Sustainability to communicate her research. Cherwell spoke to her about her work and how we can pursue sustainability ourselves.

In ‘Seeds of Sustainability’ you talk about the green revolution. What is this?

We’ve worked hard to meet the needs of humans, and populations have grown very quickly and have been consuming more. In meeting the energy needs of people, one inadvertent consequence is a lot of greenhouse gases that are driving climate change. The same in agriculture—back in the 50s and 60s we began to realise the human population was growing incredibly quickly and we didn’t know where the food was going to come from. The international community started investing in keeping food production at pace with population growth through green revolution technologies: the use of improved genetic material, higher yielding cereal crops, new fertilisers and irrigation systems. They were incredibly successful in speeding up food production but there were some unintended negative consequences. Air and water pollution, greenhouse gases, indigenous communities losing land resources, and on and on. The challenge as we go forward is to continue to meet the people’s needs without those consequences.

Your research lab at Stanford uses the Yaqui valley, Mexico to develop sustainable practices. Why the Yaqui valley?

You can wave your hands and talk about things but in order to actually understand and test new ideas you have to pick a place to work. The Yaqui valley is an important place agriculturally; it’s where the green revolution for wheat got started and it’s just off the home base for CIMMYT, the International Maize and Wheat Research Institute. Most importantly we had colleagues there, and you can’t do research unless you have strong partners.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned from your research in the Yaqui Valley?

One of the biggest lessons for me (there’s a chapter in our book called ‘Lessons Learned’) was that all the best science in the world is not necessarily going to be used by decision makers if you don’t work with them. I learned how challenging it was to link knowledge with action, and as a result I began some other projects with other colleagues around the world trying to define best practices in terms of linking the knowledge that we create in research communities with decision making. There’s an idea that we in academia discover things, put them into a pipe, and they come out the other end and the decision makers will start using them. It doesn’t work that way.

Have difficulties arisen in your work connecting science to policy makers?

Often when we use the term ‘policy makers’ we’re thinking of people in government who make changes in laws, but there are different kinds of decision makers are operating at many different scales. The first thing we need to do is understand who our decision makers are. In the Yaqui project we needed to be working with farmers and started out assuming they were the decision makers. We realised after some trial and error that in fact the credit unions were playing an important role in determining what decisions farmers make. Thinking at multiple scales is hard but forces us to think about who to partner with to create workable solutions in the real world.

Lastly, what can we do as students to help pursue sustainability?

Regardless of the area that one works in, regardless of the major the student takes, there’s a role in sustainability. We have to be open minded about the challenges we’re facing in a systematic way, not a piecemeal way. Policies must be thought of in the context of humans, the health of the people and the place, the technology you have available, and the environmental issues related to it—a coupled system. It’s a mind-set and the willingness to be empathetic, to care. We don’t need top down leaders as much as people who work together. Something we also explore at the end of ‘Pursuing Sustainability’ is what it takes for people to promote change. It’s nothing fancy, just open-mindedness.

I have a lot of optimism and hope that if we all work together we’re going to make great progress.

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