Jennifer Burney

Environmental Scientist

Emerging Explorer, National Geographic Blackstone Innovation Challenge Grantee

Photo: Jennifer Burney

Photograph by Zacharie SERO TAMOU B

Jennifer Burney has done the math and she doesn’t like how it adds up. “We are a world of plenty, yet almost a billion people don’t have enough to eat,” she notes. “At the same time, the way we produce, distribute, and cook food contributes tremendously to climate change. Finding a way to lift the world out of perpetual hunger without creating an even worse climate crisis is an intricate, interwoven problem.” To explore it she analyzes an intricate web of considerations: weather, crop prices, smog, nutrition, fuel costs, lung infections, roads, family income, melting glaciers, and more.

The dynamics are particularly complicated when it comes to small farmers, who represent the vast majority of the world’s poorest people. “As soon as you take their complex situation into consideration,” she stresses, “it becomes hard to find big, sweeping policy solutions.” Bountiful harvests glut the local market and drive crop prices down; but when prices stay high, farmers can’t afford food for their own tables. Crop yields are painfully low, but improving production of staples demands emissions-heavy fertilizer and irrigation technologies. Few roads and soaring gas prices cripple ability to bring crops to market, but sophisticated distribution channels would come at a big energy cost. So even when farmers win, the planet could lose.

This is the difficult balancing act Burney performs as she compares the climate trade-offs of different approaches to agricultural production. She observes, for example, that “as great as local organic food may be in my own kitchen, we’ll never feed the whole world that way. Like it or not, ‘Big Agriculture’ is why we’ve been able to sustain a hungry planet; and thanks to investments in technology, significant climate impact has been mitigated. Or consider large-scale livestock production. It requires huge amounts of energy and acreage, but before calling for a vegetarian world, you have to think about the smallest, poorest farmers. To them, a cow, goat, or sheep is a rare and valuable source of income, protein, and investment in the future.”

Not surprisingly, fieldwork takes her to parched sub-Saharan farmland where farmers grow rain-fed crops on small plots of land and struggle to live on about a dollar a day. Not only crops, but also family income and nutrition are at the mercy of rain clouds. Dry seasons are hungry seasons, lasting half the year or more. There, Burney’s number-crunching is transforming lives.

In a land baked by sun, she makes sunshine the answer. Solar irrigation systems can enable Africa’s farmers to grow more fruits and vegetable, boosting nutrition and income. Unlike motorized systems powered by fuel that’s too costly and unreliable, the systems Burney studies require no batteries, gas, or kerosene. Implemented through the NGO Solar Electric Light Fund, the system links the efficiency of drip irrigation to the reliability of solar-powered water pumps. Solar panels speed pumping on sunny days and slow it on cloudy days, so crops always get the water they need. Easy to learn and use, the systems liberate women and girls from the backbreaking, time-consuming burden of hauling water from far-away sources.

Solar-powered water has flowed at Burney’s test-site in Benin for more than three years, and by all measures food and income security have improved. Farmers now grow fruits and vegetables on a much larger scale, allowing families to invest in food, safe drinking water, schools, and small businesses. The pilot project also examines the best way to finance start-up costs and ongoing maintenance, with initial results indicating that the system can pay for itself within two to three years. “Everyone wants to get involved,” she reports. “It’s almost become a tourist attraction.”

Improving food production solves only part of the climate equation. Cooking uses about 8 percent of global energies. “The biggest footprint comes from developing nations,” Burney notes. To study this often forgotten impact and how to reduce it, she works on a project in India created by her postdoctoral professor at UCSD Scripps. The team replaces highly inefficient, traditional cook stoves with new eco-friendly stoves and measures the difference in emissions.

“Traditional cook stoves rely on biomass fuels such as wood and dung,” she explains. “Combustion is incomplete, so a lot of black carbon (soot) is emitted. Inside homes, the sooty air causes terrible respiratory infections. Outside, it can alter monsoon cycles, speed glacial melting, and almost equal the impact of longer-term greenhouse gasses. In contrast, the improved ventilation and efficiency of fully-combusting eco stoves significantly limit emissions and cut fuel use by up to one-half. Initial results show traditional stoves have even higher soot levels than anticipated, while new stoves appear to dramatically reduce emissions. Burney hopes these findings will encourage countries and development groups to invest in the green technology.

“Since soot only stays in the atmosphere a short time, when you cut the emission source, you instantly drive down the global warming force. That’s why I think replacing stoves is the single most effective thing we can do to immediately affect climate change.” She’s out to re-invent the way the world grows, shares, and cooks food. A hungry child—and the planet—may both feel the difference.


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In Thier Words

The way we, as a global community, respond to the intertwined problems of hunger and climate change will define the legacy of our generation.

—Jennifer Burney

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