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K-State Today

September 13, 2021

Nelson published in Nature Food

Submitted by Malorie Sougey

Geographer Kate Nelson, assistant professor of nature-society interactions in the geography and geospatial sciences department, has been published in Nature Food — a Nature journal focusing on the theme of food, crossing the disciplines of food-related research in the natural, applied and social sciences.

The article "Landscape Complexity and US Crop Production" was also highlighted in a U.S. Department of Agriculture newsletter.

Previous work has examined how the diversity of nearby lands impacts the agricultural productivity of individual fields. While many studies show positive impacts of diversity, some also suggest that what benefits one field has the potential to harm another.

Nelson's study, conducted in collaboration with Emily Burchfield at Emory University, examines how average yields of major crops in U.S. counties are related to broad-scale diversity of land uses. The results suggest that overall, increasing diversity has a positive impact on crop yields. Counties with high diversity are associated with yields of corn and wheat that are 10% higher than the national average. In counties that also have moderate spatial complexity, yields of corn and wheat are up to 20% higher. The strength of the relationship between crop yields and land use diversity is similar in strength to the effects of factors that receive a great deal of farmer attention: temperature, precipitation and soil suitability.

"From a food security perspective, our study suggests that even if increasing diversity does not boost production for every farmer, the benefits to crop production outweigh the losses," Nelson said, "and increasing or maintaining diversity should be a national priority for a sustainable agricultural system."

The study was funded in part by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Nelson's research interests include landscape diversity, agricultural adaptation, strategic retreat, vulnerability assessment and scaling relationships. She leads the Sustainability of Communities and Agricultural Landscapes, or SCALes, research group, which examines aspects of community and agricultural landscape sustainability ranging from equity of strategic retreat policy implementation to the relationship between crop diversity and crop yields, to rural sustainability assessment.