Making global challenges tractable through use of geospatially constrained domain-specific analyses


Many of the major challenges that the world faces are associated with human land-use. Examples include:

  • anthropogenic climate change, where ca. 40% of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and deforestation
  • imbalances in the global nitrogen cycle which is associated with the use of nitrogenous fertilisers in agriculture
  • global water scarcity, where ca. 70% of global water usage is for irrigation in agriculture and horticulture
  • hunger and food security, where farming is directly responsible for food production, but where many of those most vulnerable to starvation are living as smallholders in rural communities

These problems manifest themselves globally. They are in each case, however, the result of particular land usage which results from complex interactions between human decision-makers, natural processes, and governance systems. The following brief exposition sets out an approach to modelling such problems.

Partitioning the problem

The core hypothesis is that these problems can be usefully partitioned into the interactions between four distinct levels:

  1. macro – global and systemic e.g. global climate systems, global economic markets, global nitrogen cycles.
  2. meso – political, economic, social, and environmental governance systems. These vary by jurisdiction. For example, the policy environment for farmers in the UK is partly regulated by the EU, partly by Westminster, partly by the devolved nations of the UK (England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland), and partly by other entities (planning authorities etc.)
  3. micro – firms, families, individuals. This is the level of agency where people and organisations make decisions and implement them
  4. nano – animals, plants, soils, water, atmosphere. This is the level of natural capital and ecosystem services. With farming it is closely linked to plant and animal production and the positive and negative externalities that such production creates.

The Logic of the Levels

Each of these levels has its own appropriate mode of analysis or “logic”. These are used by the associated academic disciplines and technological approaches. The logics are:

  1. logic of global systems
    • climate change models, general equilibrium economic models, etc.
  2. logic of collective action
    • political science, governance, international relations, anthropology, group psychology, sociology, macroeconomics
  3. logic of the situation
    • microeconomics, rational choice theory, psychology, organisational and management studies
  4. logic of the natural sciences

    • physics, chemistry, biology

Creating Tractability through Geospatial Constraints

Divisions into these logical levels may make general sense but does not help to create solutions for these global challenges unless they can be made usable. Land-use related problems have the advantage that they can make use of the additional structure that geospatial dimensionality provides. This helps to make these complex problems tractable, as the specific boundaries of the “four logics” are associated with the geographic reach of the entities at the meso and micro levels. The example of climate change may help to make this argument clearer.


Greenhouse gases are both emitted and sequestered at a nano level. Soil organic matter may be reduced (carbon emissions) or increased (carbon sequestration). Trees may be cut down and burnt (carbon emissions), or planted and left growing (carbon sequestration). Reducing agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions requires land-use changes that reduce carbon emissions and increase carbon sequestration.


Such changes in processes at the nano level result from decisions that are made by farmers and foresters at the micro level (I will simplify to farmers and agriculture for the rest of this exposition). It is the farmer who decides what will happen in the future for the specific piece of land that he or she stewards. The polygon defining the boundary of the land operated by a farmer defines the natural unit for the understanding of changes at the nano level within that farm. If a pastoral dairy farmer changes the stocking density of dairy cows, then that will have an impact across all the grassland of that dairy farm and will be disconnected from the changes in stocking densities on the farm next door.


Most farmers attempt to maximise their long-term financial performance subject to the incentives and constraints of the multiple governance systems that affect them. If they securely own their land and can pass it to their children they tend to think inter-generationally, as stewards for the land for future generations. Farmers make decisions subject to the governance arrangements made at the meso level. These include state support (such as CAP payments in Europe), taxation, environmental compliance, etc.

Each of the entities responsible for the different areas of governance has a precisely defined jurisdiction. The polygon defining the extent of this meso-level governance structure defines the unit for the understanding of changes at the micro level within each farm in that jurisdiction. If the meso-level incentives are changed (e.g. farmers are paid to increase soil carbon), then some farmers can be expected change their behaviour at a micro level, which will lead in turn to observable changes in natural systems at a nano level. Increases in soil carbon for these farmers would be observed and, ceteris paribus, reductions in net carbon emissions from agriculture.


The aggregation of all the changes in greenhouse gas emissions and sequestration at the nano level from agriculture, together with changes from other sources, gives rise to the net change in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. This then leads at a global level to temperature increases and other phenomena of climate change.

Some of these macro-level developments will impact in turn on agricultural systems at a nano level. Increases in CO2 tends to increase the productivity of many crops. On the other hand, many of the predicted negative impacts of climate change will be on agricultural sector and rural communities.

Summary and potential implications

This paper briefly sets out a potential approach to some of our global challenges by partitioning the problems into four “logical levels” relating to land-use.

From the perspective of this author the key blockages to solutions are not at the nano or the macro levels, where in general there is firm understanding of the processes involved in the natural sciences. The challenges are instead with respect to the farm businesses and the governance institutions at the micro and meso levels:

  • what is actually happening on each specific farm e.g. to carbon emissions and sequestration?
  • what will lead the behaviour of farmers to change from the status quo?
  • what changes in the myriad of governance instruments available at the meso level will lead to widespread changes in farmer behaviour in the desired directions?

We are very interested in these and related questions at the Map of Agriculture. Our general data and analysis frameworks support the modelling of the impacts that developments at the micro and meso levels have on the nano and macro levels.

Dr. Charles Elworthy [Contact Charles using: Charles.Elworthy@MapOf.Ag]