Reconciling food security and biodiversity conservation: an integrative modelling approach

Supervisors: Justin Travis, Peter Alexander

Project Description:

Perhaps the single greatest societal challenge of the coming decades will be to develop approaches that enable us to sustainably feed the World’s growing human population. However, delivering food security will inevitably pose major challenges and one key issue is how can a substantially increased global food production be delivered without major negative impacts on biodiversity1? In this project, the student will work with World-leading groups in ecological modelling (at Aberdeen) and in land-use modelling (at Edinburgh) to develop an integrated modelling approach that enables alternative land-use futures to be assessed in terms of their likely impacts on biodiversity at a range of spatial scales.  Importantly, the project will allow the student to focus on two key groups of organisms, pollinators and crop pests, to explore how changing land-use may impact their spatial dynamics, with likely feedbacks on crop productivity and subsequent land-use decisions.

Improving the forecast for biodiversity under climate change is a major challenge for ecologists2. We need to predict how climate change will alter biodiversity to assess the impacts of alternative land-use and climate change scenarios and guide plans for preventing serious damage to the biosphere. Many ecological models have been developed to understand climate change impacts, but these have a number of failings. A major omission in current models is that they ignore the changing spatial patterns of land-use and the impact that these will have, at different spatial scales, on biodiversity responses. The Travis group at Aberdeen are field leaders in developing mechanistic approaches for forecasting biodiversity responses to changing land-use and climate scenarios, recently publishing the software, RangeShifter.  The group at Edinburgh have complementary expertise, being internationally recognised for land use and food security research and modelling3, with published models operating from local to national and global scales (e.g. Aporia, CRAFTY and PLUM). Integrating land-use and ecological models will provide a novel means for exploring the potentially complex and dynamic interplay between ecological responses and land-use patterns. The Lancaster group (Aberdeen) studies the effects of climate change on biotic interactions, and will provide guidance on analysing large-scale datasets on insect distributions to understand interactive effects between land use change and insect biodiversity.

In this PhD, the student will be provided with training in the development and application of individual and agent based models in order that they gain the skills to make joint use of the approaches to address some key questions related to the interactions between agricultural intensification or expansion, and biodiversity dynamics. The student will be provided with considerable scope to steer the exact direction of the project within the broad remit but we anticipate the following sets of questions being likely priorities:

  1. To what degree will future land-use change, driven largely by agricultural intensification and expansion, reduce the ability of species’ to track changing climate?
  2. What are the likely impacts of changing agricultural practice on the prevalence and impact of different crop pests?
  3. How will changing patterns of agricultural practice influence the regional persistence of pollinators?


1Butsic V, Kuemmerle T. 2015. Using optimization methods to align food production and biodiversity conservation beyond land sharing and land sparing. Ecological Applications 25: 589-595.

2Urban MC, 20 authors, Travis JMJ. 2016. Improving the forecast for biodiversity under climate change. Science, in press.(to be published 9th September)

3Alexander P, et al. 2016. Assessing uncertainties in landcover projections. Global Change Biology, online early (DOI: 10.1111/gcb.13447).