David Lobell.
David Lobell.

The most interesting of this year’s MacArthur “geniuses” is, for my money, the 34-year-old agricultural ecologist David Lobell. Lobell’s trying to figure out how we should be feeding ourselves in an environmentally friendly way.

“There are a million theories about how to do that,” he says in his MacArthur video clip, “and what we’re really interested in is trying to figure out what really works.”

Yep, him and me both.

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The debate over what comprises sustainable agriculture is intense, and plagued by complexity. If I hold up a picturesque biodynamic farm as an example of sustainability, you should probably ask me a series of tough questions: Is it the biodynamic standards that keep a farm green? Is it the inherent blessings of weather and topography? Is it the number of times a farmer stirs his homeopathic plant treatments? Or, does the farm, though it looks pretty, actually require totally unsustainable practices?

Lobell’s strategy is to rise above the debate and the minutiae — literally. Instead of looking at agriculture through a microscope, he leaves Earth to peer down at farms from space.

I should be clear, Lobell himself doesn’t go into orbit to get his data. On the contrary, he doesn’t have to work very hard to get the information he uses. And this is one thing that makes his work so innovative: Instead of launching new satellites, he managed to find and connect the already existing data. The data sets on weather, soils, and farming practices were already out there; Lobell just figured out how to get them to talk to each other.

So, for example, Lobell and his collaborators have been able to show how global warming is stunting major food crops. Depressing findings like this have a practical side: They show plant breeders and farmers the kind adaptations they need to be working on. Lobell uses a sports metaphor to talk about this: “I think of it often as, I’m sort of playing catcher in a baseball game, where I can give them a good target. They can hit that target if they know where that target is.”

There’s a reason Lobell turns first to the baseball diamond, rather than the garden, as a source of metaphors: He’s a city kid, not an aggie.

“The biggest field I ever saw growing up was going to a Mets game at Shea Stadium,” he says.

In any case, I’m glad Lobell is doing this work and I’m grateful to the MacArthur Foundation for bringing him to the world’s attention. It’s always exciting to see people quietly making progress on real solutions.