Kyle Davis

Kyle Davis:

Helping Developing Countries Improve Their Food Supplies and Environmental Practices

As a boy, Kyle Davis spent his summers in Vermont, an oasis of natural beauty. He liked to swim in open water, go for long hikes with his family and play in the woods behind his house. From this boyhood immersion, he developed a deep respect for nature.  

“Nature reminds us time and time again that the best way for humanity to prosper in the long term is to align our thinking, goals and ambitions in a way that complements natural systems,” says Davis, an environmental scientist who begins his postdoctoral fellowship in September.

Davis is an idealist who is “deeply passionate about providing others with the opportunity to achieve their dreams and their full potential.” For his postdoctoral project, he’ll call upon his idealism and love of nature to help people in developing countries improve their food supplies while enhancing the sustainability of their agricultural practices.

He’ll combine field work with data-driven techniques to understand patterns in the global food system, which includes all stages of the international food-supply chain; from the farm where a crop is produced; to the market where it is sold; to the methods of transportation used to ship it to another country; to the supermarkets and shops where consumers ultimately buy and eat the food.

The area he specializes in – food-system sustainability – has a number of objectives, including how to calculate a country or region’s future food demand and how to best produce the food to meet that demand. People who work in this area also try to minimize the effects of food production on the environment and work with local residents and experts to adapt agricultural systems to protect the environment and mitigate climate change.

Specifically, Davis will study how to improve patterns of food trade in developing countries in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and South and Southeast Asia. Food trade patterns are essentially the import and export links that connect the production of food in one country to the consumption of it in another. If for instance an exporting country experiences a shortage in food production, it may be unable to provide the usual amount of exports to its trade partners. Davis will assess how vulnerable these exporting countries are to production shortfalls, and how importing countries may buffer themselves against these possible shortfalls so they aren’t adversely affected.

Davis’ interest in developing nations began when, after earning a bachelor’s in biochemistry from the University of Delaware, he did a yearlong internship in Nigeria, sponsored by the Nigerian branch of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network. During his internship, he helped establish the University of Ibadan's Centre for Sustainable Development. The Centre promotes sustainable development in Nigeria and partners with Columbia University to run a master's in Development Practice, the premier program of its kind in Nigeria, Davis says proudly.

While working in Nigeria, he witnessed the ill effects of malnutrition. Either people didn’t have enough to eat or the foods available to them were of low nutritional value. Moved by what he saw, Davis dedicated his efforts to improve the supply of nutritious food to local populations in developing nations while improving their environment and sustainability practices.

“The time I spent in Nigeria put a human face on the substantial challenges that communities face on a daily basis,” says Davis, who later earned his Ph.D. in environmental sciences from the University of Virginia. “These challenges are especially obvious when it comes to nutrition, where you see many families unable to afford to eat daily or to buy nutritious food. To the extent that I can alleviate some of their hardship, that’s what drives me. My primary motivation is to help people living in vulnerable communities in developing countries.”

Davis is currently an Earth Institute (EI) Postdoctoral Fellow and NatureNet Science Fellow at Columbia University and The Nature Conservancy. Those fellowships will conclude when he starts his DSI fellowship, but he hopes to continue work on project he’s already started.

His postdoctoral fellowship is funded jointly by DSI and Columbia World Projects and his postdoctoral advisers are Ruth DeFries, Denning University Professor of Sustainable Development at Columbia University; Walter Baethgen, senior research scientist at the Earth Institute’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society; and Michael Puma, director of the Center for Climate Systems Research at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

Davis is currently refining his research plans and he has several interesting ideas. For one, he’s considering working with experts in developing countries to examine the risk to the food supplies of economic or environmental shocks. Examples of shocks include food-price volatility, export bans, and droughts or floods that lead to crop failure and environmental harm. He’s also considering studying large-scale land acquisitions and how land-based investments by foreign investors in developing countries might accelerate forest loss as well as climate change.

For another possible project, he’d study the relationship between human migration and climate change. He’d like to be able to predict the likelihood that people experiencing the effects of climate change – say rising sea levels or crop failure due to drought – will leave their lands. He’d also like to predict where the displaced populations might move to – migratory data that could be used to inform government planning and disaster-preparedness efforts.

“Ideally, an individual nation’s goals and the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions would be similar,” says Davis. “But the goal of all my projects is to work with government officials in these countries to achieve their specific sustainability goals and priorities.”

In his research, Davis strives to optimize beneficial features of food supply systems–increasing the nutritional value of a farmer’s crops – while decreasing natural-resource consumption. He has done calculations, for example, showing the extent to which it’s possible to relocate certain crops globally while minimizing the amount of water used on them yet still maintaining  production levels and farmers’ incomes. Countries can use such calculations to develop economic incentives that encourage production of water-efficient crops in areas predicted to be dry. In one recent study, Davis explored the benefits to farmers in India of substituting millet, a grain with high nutritional value that consumes relatively little water, for white rice, a grain with lower nutritional value that consumes more water.

“I use optimizations to help me identify a solution, such as replacing rice with millet, that either minimizes or maximizes a variable of interest within a set of constraints,” he says. “The optimization techniques can help eliminate tradeoffs between multiple goals that a government may be interested in achieving for its people. These goals can be related to nutrition, to rural livelihoods, or to the responsible and judicious use of natural resources.”

Davis is excited to begin his DSI postdoc, especially since his advisers – DeFries, Baethgen and Puma – have a “passion for and dedication to doing science that is actionable and has real-world applications.”

“I believe that the perspectives, collaborations and interactions I’ll develop during my postdoc at DSI will enable me to apply data-science techniques and methods in novel ways to questions related to food security and the environment,” he says. “I also hope that my projects culminate in useful insights that help make the work at DSI more successful and to the benefit of humanity.”

By Robert Florida


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