Faculty Feature: Graham MacDonald

The Sandbox

By Monica Allaby, Communications Intern

Dr. Graham MacDonald is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography interested in regional to global scale agricultural land use and management.

Dr. Graham MacDonald is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography at McGill University. In his research, Dr. MacDonald studies regional to global scale dimensions of agricultural land use and management. His most recent research projects include examining international agricultural commodities trade and tracking changes in national food supplies over time. In the Department of Geography, Dr. MacDonald oversees research in the Land & Food Lab and teaches a number of courses on sustainability and global environmental change, including Global Change: Past, Present, and Future and Analyzing Sustainability. He is also a core faculty member within the Sustainability, Science, and Society program. The Office of Sustainability spoke to Dr. MacDonald about his research interests and experience at the World Economic Forum in January 2017.

Your research investigates regional and global agricultural land use and management. What inspired this interest?

I grew up in a rural area in Nova Scotia and was always surrounded by farming—that gave me first-hand knowledge of agriculture. But, my interest in more large-scale issues related to agriculture really grew out of my training as a geographer and the perspective that gave me. The skills and interests that I developed an undergraduate student at McGill, such as working with geospatial data, really equipped me to start working with regional and global scale data when the opportunity arose in graduate school. Increasingly, I became more and more curious about the sorts of ‘emergent properties’ that arise when you study agriculture across scales—and that’s especially true when it comes to food systems. In regional and global scale data, we’re seeing the outcomes of millions of actors involved not just in food production, but also in food demand and consumption. These are incredibly complex systems. That has captured my attention and has created a lot of new questions for me about food systems sustainability and how we can link those production and demand questions using large-scale data.

You conducted your PhD at Macdonald Campus on phosphorus sustainability. What is phosphorus and why is it important for agriculture?

Phosphorus is really interesting unit of analysis—or maybe even a ‘currency’ to think about food system issues. On the one hand, phosphorus is crucial to agricultural productivity because it is a key plant nutrient. It is also a non-renewable resource that is derived from highly concentrated deposits of phosphate rock located mostly in a few key countries around the world. There have been growing concerns about declining reserves of high-grade phosphorus rock and what that could mean for global food security in the long run. On the other hand, phosphorus is also a key driver of degraded water quality. It is a resource that we have not used very efficiently in some regions, so when phosphorus is applied in excess of crop requirements, it can build-up in soils and move downhill into surface waters over time where it causes eutrophication. In short, there is a trade-off between phosphorus being a scarce resource that we need for agriculture on the one side, and its role as a pollutant and driver of water quality degradation on the other.

What issues surrounding phosphorus and other nutrients have you investigated in your research?

Human activity has massively altered the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, which has had huge impacts on many ecosystem services that are vital to society. One of the most fundamental questions is to understand the global patterns of nutrient use—how are farmers managing fertilizer and manure and what are the implications for either crop production or environmental quality. I have had the opportunity to work with a variety of colleagues using different types of data to examine these sorts of questions. One area of research where I have been involved with different projects examine the effects of globalization and trade on agricultural nutrient use and nutrient flows across countries—this is particularly important in the case of phosphorus, since it lacks a really large atmospheric component. More recently, we have been interested in flows of nutrients into cities in food and what happens to those nutrients in food waste and sewage. A recent project led by a McGill Geography student (Aidan Goertzen) involved calculating the ‘nitrogen footprint’ of McGill—which includes nitrogen losses to the environment involved in things like producing the food that is eating on campus and transportation-related emissions. This is really interesting because of McGill’s setting in the middle of a large city.

In January, you were invited to give a talk at the World Economic Forum alongside your colleagues Elena Bennett and Andy Gonzalez. Can you tell me about your experience at the World Economic Forum?

We attended World Economic Forum meetings in Beijing, China, in summer 2016 and then in Davos, Switzerland. It was really exciting to have the opportunity to attend these meetings and to represent McGill. We gave talks in the Forum’s IdeasLab sessions on our sustainability science research—dealing with envisioning positive futures for society in the Anthropocene (Elena Bennett), ecological networks to enhance urban resilience (Andy Gonzalez), and the role of international trade in sustainable food systems (that was my talk). As an academic, one of the really unique things about being at the WEF meetings was having the chance to interact with decision-makers that included business leaders and heads of different organizations from around the world—in addition to other academics from a diversity of disciplines. There was a big emphasis on sustainability, agriculture, and food systems at the meetings, and so we had exposure to a lot of different ideas—in fact, you can go and check out many of the talks from these meetings on YouTube. The WEF is taking a global perspective on some of the biggest challenges facing humanity and bringing people together to discuss solutions.

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