Category Archives: Environmental Science

Thought Matters Publishes Excerpt of Hot, Hungry Planet

Thought Matters, an idea exchange for the highly opinionated, published an excerpt of Hot, Hungry Planet yesterday.

Here’s how the chapter on California and Syria: A Tale of Two Droughts begins:

In the late spring of 2014, while covering food sustainability at the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sustainable Foods Institute, I took a trip to the Carmel Valley farm stand run by Earth-bound Farm. Earthbound Farm is the largest organic farming operation in the United States. It cultivates about 50,000 acres of produce, and I spent the morning walking in a small demonstration garden that was nothing short of paradise. Everything was a verdant green. Yet just beyond the farm, where the Carmel Mountains meet the horizon, was dry scrub and pale brown grass, a truer reflection of this parched land. The Golden State, which got its name from the grasses that turn a shade of palomino blond in summer, then green up again during the fall and spring rains, was looking more like the Brown State.

As California’s drought dragged into the next year, I couldn’t shake the sense of a crisis brewing in Carmel Valley. I was also hearing reports of conflict over water in war-torn Syria. I wondered, could water conflict on that scale ever occur here? I couldn’t blame Earthbound’s owners for choosing this idyllic spot, or other farmers for choosing any other location along California’s central coast, where morning fog moistens the otherwise dry landscape. When the founders of the farm first started growing raspberries on two and a half acres, they didn’t imagine it would expand to become America’s largest organic producer of salad greens and vegetables. But Earthbound’s growth was only one among the more recent in decades of farming expansion all across California, and especially the nearby Central Valley, since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Through the magic of irrigation, these farmers had made a desert bloom.

While Earthbound’s leafy expanse appeared intact, agriculture is in jeopardy throughout California and other western states. A 2015 investigation in ProPublica reported that California’s drought is part of a much bigger water crisis that is killing the Colorado River, “the victim of legally sanctioned overuse, the relentless forces of urban growth, willful ignorance among policymakers, and a misplaced confidence in human ingenuity.” Climate change will only exacerbate the problem.

Continue reading on Thought Matters and to buy your copy of Hot, Hungry Planet, please go here.

The Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting Covers Book Launch at The Wilson Center

Lisa Palmer Book Launch Last month I gave a presentation at The Wilson Center about the publication of my new book, Hot, Hungry Planet: The Fight to Stop a Global Food Crisis in the Face of Climate Change (St. Martin’s Press). I write about how global agriculture is ready for sustainable solutions. The Pulitzer Center provided support for my reporting in India, where I found that climate change is altering agriculture across a variety of societies. I observed how people are working together to develop climate smart villages and asked: What does this mean for their food security, especially for the world’s most vulnerable people?

The Pulitzer Center covered my book launch at the Wilson Center, and this is how their report begins:

A confluence of environmental, social, and economic factors are leading to major food shortages around the world, especially in poorer countries. By drawing upon her reporting and research on the environment, sustainability, and agriculture, Pulitzer Center grantee Lisa Palmer looks at the factors threatening global food security in her new book Hot, Hungry Planet: The Fight to Stop a Global Food Crisis in the Face of Climate Change.

Palmer launched her book at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., where she was previously a public policy scholar. The Wilson Center, a U.S. Presidential Memorial, serves as a policy forum on global issues and supports researchers and discourse. At the launch, the Wilson Center invited Palmer and a group of experts to comment on Hot, Hungry Planet and what challenges and opportunities are currently available to stem food shortages. Panelists included: Channing Arndt, senior research fellow at International Food Policy Research Institute; Roger-Mark DeSouza, Director of Population, Environmental Security, and Resilience at the Wilson Center; and Nabeeha Kazi, president and CEO of Humanitas Global.

In Hot, Hungry Planet, Palmer explores the future of food security through seven case studies located in six regions around the world: India, sub-Saharan Africa, the United States, Latin America, the Middle East, and Indonesia. Through these examples, Palmer looks at how the global population boom (expected to reach 9.7 billion people by 2050), climate change, and the widening socioeconomic divide will make feeding the world challenging.

To read the complete story on the Pulitzer Center website, please follow this link.

Book Launch for Hot, Hungry Planet at The Wilson Center

The Wilson Center recently published a story in the New Security Beat about my book launch event last month. “There is a real need for breakthroughs about how these complex social and environmental problems can be tackled, and I believe they can be tackled together,” I said at the Wilson Center on May 3. “Part of the challenge of this book is to challenge people across the world to start thinking outside of the box.” It’s a time for businesses, academia, governments, NGOs and ordinary people to work toward solutions to a more sustainable food system.

At the book launch, Nabeeha Kazi of Humanitas Global Development said, “We are in an unprecedented time, and I mean that in a very positive way…At all levels, we have tremendous knowledge that we need to reconstruct our food system, that it needs to adapt to climate change, and it also needs to reduce the harm that it’s already caused through our existing practices.”

Channing Arndt, a senior fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), provided further context. He said, “The good news is that there is quite a lot of scope to sustainably increase food production,” especially in developing countries. But solutions will not be easy – or fast. Smarter agriculture that is both higher in productivity and more environmentally sound requires higher levels of education, he said, and efforts to improve these systems take time to implement and see the results of.

I recently learned that several university professors plan to use my book in their classes. Please let me know if you are planning to do the same.

To read about the book launch and find a link to the video archive of the event, please continue reading on the New Security Beat.

My New Commentary in Scientific American

Here is my latest commentary for Scientific American. I write that creating sustainable food systems in the face of a changing climate isn’t easy—but innovators around the world are making real progress.

sustainable food systemsI argue that “[w]e need to move beyond thinking about the environment—our land, water and air—only as a source of inputs for the food system,” I write. “Instead we need to recognize that global environmental changes can diminish yields, reduce the amount of food we produce, and affect how nutritious it is and where we produce it.”

But change is not easy. How can leverage points in food systems and in institutions help us work toward solutions? I cover some solutions in my new book, Hot, Hungry Planet.

In my commentary, I write:

“Weather extremes and environmental shocks, for instance, will likely occur more frequently in the future. In California, the multi-year drought and recent lifting of the drought emergency after a heavy rain and snow year has had a cascade of lingering effects, calling for greater management of both extremes and making water conservation “a way of life” by executive order. The four objectives of California’s new management plan include educational and policy nudges such as using water more wisely, eliminating water waste, strengthening local drought resilience and water holding capacity, and improving agricultural water use efficiency and drought planning.

Any successful answer to feeding a hot, hungry planet will result from continual changes, shifts, and adaptation to an uncertain future. Figuring out where society can sustainably grow more food and how people might try to do that under climate change will be inextricably linked to national security, public health, and economic goals. Food system challenges in a changing climate have already led to political instability in some places, and migrations and tensions over changing amount and location of natural resources are likely to grow.

Creating sustainable food systems that deliver nutritious food while also satisfying long term food security is a complex undertaking, as I learned over the past few years while writing and researching my new book Hot, Hungry Planet: The Fight to Stop a Global Food Crisis in the Face of Climate Change. I met with the people who are working at the issue from every angle. The farmers, agronomists, and researchers I talked with are trying to fulfill economic, social and environmental objectives while not compromising prospects for future generations.”

To continue reading, please go to my piece in the Observatory blog in Scientific American.

New article in Nature Energy: Adding power to the value of trees

The thick, mature trees that line the neighbourhoods of Gainesville, valueoftreesFlorida, cast cool shade onto the residences below. Like many cities, Gainesville has policies that restrict the cutting down of trees, on the basis that the 50-to 100-year-old large, healthy trees with unique value (sometimes called ‘heritage trees’) make the city prettier and clean the air and water. Studies also show that leafy streets help sell houses1, benefit mental health2, and reduce asthma3 and crime4.

While municipalities in the southern and western United States are creating ordinances and programmes that restrict clear cutting for development projects and encourage tree planting for aesthetic reasons, they may now have further reason to discourage residential tree removals and encourage extending the life of mature trees: the shade they provide offers significant energy benefits, too. In warmer climates, trees keep houses cool and reduce the electricity needed for air conditioning, which accounts for a large proportion of energy consumption in sunny states like Florida. Despite compelling scientific support for the benefits of urban and suburban greenery, mature trees are at risk due to the lack of valuation for their energy services to homeowners and communities, and due to lack of public information about their energy benefits.

Read the full article:

HOT, HUNGRY PLANET: The Fight to Stop a Global Food Crisis in the Face of Climate Change

The world is on the cusp of a global food crisis. In only a couple decades, an additional 2.6 to 4 billion people will be sitting down at the global table wondering what’s for dinner. That’s the equivalent of adding another New York City each month to the world’s grocery lines for the next 35 years. In HOT, HUNGRY PLANET: The Fight to Stop a Global Food Crisis in the Face of Climate Change (St. Martin’s Press; On-sale: May 9, 2017; 9781250084200; $26.99) I address what needs to happen to reconcile two extreme global threats: climate change and global hunger. Christiana Figueres, diplomat and former executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, says Hot Hungry Planet is, “A deep dive into the realities of some of the Sustainable Development Goals. Through moving personal stories Palmer shows how increased food security and addressing climate change are mutually reinforcing. We can and we must do both at the same time.”

Hot, Hungry Planet focuses on three key concepts that support food security and resilience in a changing world: social, educational, and agricultural advances; land use and technical actions by farmers; and policy nudges that have the greatest potential for reducing adverse environmental impacts of agriculture while providing more food. Palmer breaks down this difficult subject though seven concise and easily-digestible case studies over the globe and presents the stories of individuals in six key regions—India, sub-Saharan Africa, the United States, Latin America, the Middle East, and Indonesia—painting a hopeful picture of both the world we want to live in and the great leaps it will take to get there.

Early reviews:

“This lively, concise book is packed with practical and often surprising ideas for meeting the profound challenges of global food scarcity. Lisa Palmer is a clear-eyed realist, but her fascinating tour of our Hot Hungry Planet will leave you more optimistic than you may have thought possible.”―Dan Fagin, Pulitzer-prize-winning author of Toms River:A Story of Science and Salvation

“A penetrating and sensitive analysis of the urgent need for a sustainable global food system despite widespread socioeconomic inequality, swelling population, and ominous climate change.”― Richard C. J. Somerville, Ph.D., climate scientist

“The global food crisis is a critical issue. Producing more food is key but insufficient by itself. Palmer speaks in no uncertain terms about the peril we find ourselves in. But she also manages to find the bright spots―areas of hope that those of us in the environmental, business, and policy communities can address to cope with and even reverse some of the most alarming trends.”―Jason Clay, Senior Vice President, Food & Markets, World Wildlife Fund

“The time to talk about diet for the health of people without addressing the health of the planet is past. With inspiring examples of sustainable agriculture, thoughtful attention to matters as disparate as biodiversity and family planning, and precautionary tales from around the globe, Hot, Hungry Planet gives us a clear-eyed view of the perils we face, and the promise of overcoming them by truly understanding them.”―David Katz, M.D. President of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine and author of Disease-Proof, The Way to Eat,  and The Flavor Point Diet

“A deep dive into the realities of some of the Sustainable Development Goals. Through moving personal stories Palmer shows how increased food security and addressing climate change are mutually reinforcing. We can and we must do both at the same time.”―Christiana Figueres, diplomat and executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), 2010-2016

Hot, Hungry Planet is a sober analysis of the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead in feeding a changing and growing world. Palmer takes her readers on a journey from Vermont through Colombia, India, and the shores of Lake Victoria, examining innovations for sustainable and climate-resilient agriculture all along the way. Her work trumpets the benefits of smaller, more varied systems of food production that increase yields without the ecological harms of monoculture. Above all else, Palmer pens a passionate plea for the inclusion of women in all levels of food production through education and smart investments that forge a path toward a planet that can feed itself in a hotter, more crowded future.”―Shenggen Fan, Director General of the International Food Policy Research Institute

How Rising CO2 Levels May Contribute to Die-Off of Bees

Specimens of goldenrod sewn into archival paper folders are stacked floor to ceiling inside metal cabinets at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. The collection, housed in the herbarium, dates back to 1842 and is among five million historical records of plants from around the world cataloged there. Researchers turned to this collection of goldenrod — a widely distributed perennial plant that blooms across North America from summer to late fall — to study concentrations of protein in goldenrod pollen because it is a key late-season food source for bees.

SteveBurt/Flickr Honeybees feed on goldenrod flowers.

The newer samples look much like the older generations. But scientists testing the pollen content from goldenrod collected between 1842 and 2014, when atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide rose from about 280 parts per million to 398 ppm, found the most recent pollen samples contained 30 percent less protein. The greatest drop in protein occurred from 1960 to 2014, when the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rose dramatically. A field experiment in the same study that exposed goldenrod to CO2 levels ranging from 280 to 500 ppm showed similar protein decreases.

Read the full article originally posted in Yale Environment 360

A River Runs Again: Reporting on India’s Natural Crisis

  • November 17, 2015 By
    Broken Landscape River
    The world’s second most populous country – projected to be first by 2022 – is developing faster than ever before, roiling the social, political, and environmental landscape. [Video Below]


    In her new book, A River Runs Again: India’s Natural World in Crisis, From the Barren Cliffs of Rajasthan to the Farmlands of Karnataka, environmental journalist Meera Subramanian chronicles India’s efforts to balance economic development and environmental protection, including innovative programs to educate youth about sexual and reproductive health.

    Subramanian was inspired by the five elements – earth, fire, water, air, and ether – to investigate five aspects of sustainable development: organic farming, clean cookstoves, freshwater, endangered species, and population and family planning. Traveling throughout the subcontinent, she found stories of “ordinary people and microenterprises determined to revive India’s ravaged natural world.”

    At  the Wilson Center book launch on October 13, Subramanian was joined by freelance journalists Priyali Sur and Lisa Palmer, who offered comments on the book based on their own reporting from India on the interconnections between climate change, food security, and gender.

    Sur, a former television reporter for CNN-IBN, has covered the spike in human trafficking spurred by extreme flooding in the northeastern state of Assam. “Vulnerability that arises from looking for livelihood options, wanting to get work, wanting to sustain the family and wanting to provide for the family, which I think is a [bigger] responsibility for the woman than the man, makes them more vulnerable, and traffickers recognize this,” she said.

    Palmer, a former Wilson Center fellow and current fellow at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center in Annapolis, Maryland, discussed the technological revolution taking root in Indian agriculture. Some organizations, like the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research, are supporting “climate-smart villages” in India, which use solar energy pumps and sensors to measure crop health and reduce water consumption. The organization aims to create 1,000 climate smart villages across six states including the grain baskets of Haryana and Punjab, said Palmer.

    Read the full article originally published in The New Security Beat by the Wilson Center

Can Ecologists and Engineers Work Together to Harness Water For The Future?

1024px-Pangani_River1The Pangani River in Tanzania is important for many reasons: its three major dams provide 17 percent of the country’s electricity; it sustains thousands of farmers and herders living in the basin; and its flow of fresh water supports humans, industry, and ecosystems. But most interesting might be the innovative water policies that govern withdrawals, infrastructure projects, and ecosystems along its banks.

Climate change and population dynamics could cause trouble for the Pangani Basin and many others like it. More people are expected to depend on the flow of fresh water while at the same time rainfall and glacial meltwater from Mt. Meru, Mt. Pare, and Mt. Kilimanjaro are diminishing.


Around the world, water managers are adjusting to a similar quandary. Precipitation patterns and river flows are becoming more uncertain as the past is no longer a reliable guide for the future. Planners are adjusting to changes in the water cycle by integrating policies with flexible structures and ecosystems.

Flexibility Over Scale

In the November 2014 issue of Nature Climate Change, I wrote about how leaders in sustainable water management are finding common ground with two historically antagonistic approaches: engineering and ecology.

I talked with Mark Fletcher, a water engineer and the water business leader at UK-based Arup, a global company of consulting engineers with 14,000 employees. Modular is one way to describe his brand of sustainable water work.

“We had assumed that the world was static,” Fletcher told me. “We knew that the climate was predictable. Due to climate change or due to a changing climate, it is harder to predict things. So rather than build overly conservative monolithic solutions, we now design systems that can be tweaked and twiddled.”

A good example is osmosis desalination. “You literally stack desalination units, much like you would batteries, until you solve your problem,” he said.

From Fletcher’s perspective, the world has no need for more Hoover Dams, given the uncertainty around the global water cycle of the future. I write:

Fletcher favors natural solutions. In New York City, for example, new plans for city orchards and 9,000 grassed bio-swales, which resemble marshy depressions in the land, will slow the flow of storm water from sidewalks to water catchment basins. “Think of them as green sponges all over the city. The water gets soaked up and you avoid pumping every time it rains,” he says. “It’s the gift that keeps on giving.” Furthermore, rather than design water treatment plants that can accommodate extreme rainfall, he prefers multiple local responses that can be changed and adapted, much in the way that a Lego building block is removed and added.

Fletcher suggests that the solution to water management under climate change is beyond engineering. That’s why ecologists John Matthews, coordinator of the Alliance for Global Water Adaptation, and LeRoy Poff, a professor at Colorado State University, have been leading a team of 27 researchers at the U.S. National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center in Maryland. The team includes economists, hydrologists, policymakers, and engineers. Climate change, they say, has prompted the researchers to work together on an integrated approach to freshwater adaptation. Rather than isolating water management issues within a single field, such as engineering or hydrology, the team’s multifaceted work is developing solutions for decision-makers. Think of their combined work as a chemical reaction. Instead of one element, such as engineering, working in seclusion on a freshwater adaptation project, their form of synthesis science means suddenly more ingredients are added to the beaker.

The research team that Matthews and Poff lead identifies markers of resilience of both infrastructure and ecosystems in basins. They are using the analysis so that ecological principles are incorporated into future water management projects from the very beginning.

Resilience markers include variation of flow, seasonal and temperature changes, and connections to flood plains, for instance. The specific indicators vary from river to river, but the principles remain the same.

Matthews says that the Dujiangyan system in China’s Sichuan Province is a model for integrating policies with engineering and ecology in a sustainable way. Built in 256 BC, the water diversion system still operates today.

According to Kathleen Dominique, an environmental economist at OECD, flexible approaches are necessary to adjust to changing conditions at low cost.

For the Pangani Basin, leaders have established ecosystems as a priority, keeping river flow available to wetlands, riparian forests, and mangroves, and the plan is to adjust water policies with the changing needs of communities. Similarly, the European Union’s water directive is now adjusted every six years to examine all changes and uses of rivers, not only those related to climate change.

For a deeper look at how people are working to become more resilient, improve water security, and preserve ecosystems by incorporating ecological principles into water management, read the complete article in Nature Climate Change.


Hot, Hungry Planet will be a book!

I’m happy to report that my book, Hot, Hungry Planet, will be published by Palgrave Macmillan. Look for it in Fall 2016. The contract is signed. Let the writing commence!


Hot, Hungry Planet is a narrative about the people attempting to reconcile the threat of climate change with the need to feed a growing world population. In Hot, Hungry Planet, I take readers on a global journey that explores the human story behind complex, hot-button issues of food security, social justice, climate change, and the environment. I started to post some of my food/ag/environment-related stories on this blog,, and you will find more original reporting here in the weeks and months to come.