Interview with Jonathan Seaquist on recent research and LUCID collaboration

As the first in a series of interviews with LUCID researchers, I spoke recently with steering committee member, from the Physical Geography department, Senior Lecturer Jonathan Seaquist. The topic of our conversation: the recent or ongoing research within the LUCID centre that he found most interesting at that moment. He readily informed me about a paper that had coincidentally just been accepted to Environmental Research Letters entitled: Architecture of the global land acquisition system: Applying the tools of network science to identify key vulnerabilities. The paper presents a complex network analysis of international land acquisition deals, commonly referred to as land grabs, to assess areas of potential vulnerability within the system of exchange. This publication is the culmination of a LUCID collaboration between Jonathan and LUCID PhD candidate Emma Li Johansson, from the Physical Geography department, and Associate Professor Kim Nicholas from LUCSUS (the centre for Sustainability Studies).

Jonathan explained how, they took deals between countries as the units of analysis, building a model of the network that showed which countries had “imported”, or acquired, land from which. They could see which countries participated in the most deals, who were the biggest exporters, the biggest importers etc. The data revealed that there are 126 countries participating in this system with importers concentrated in the global North, emerging Asian economies and the Middle-East, whereas exporters are predominantly in the global South and Eastern Europe, which also happen to be countries where yield gaps in agriculture are highest. The majority of acquisitions are accounted for by just three countries the US, UK and China.

The study goes beyond decribing the current situation in terms of actors and deals. Bringing the tools of network science to bear, the structural characteristics, or architecture, of the network itself could be evaluated. This analysis suggested a highly integrated globalized system, which would be prone to the efficient spread of crisis. An example of such could occur if, as the paper suggests, “importing countries become dependent on crops exported from their land trading partners”. The study also makes contributions to the theoretical advancement of research in this and similar areas, for example, by showing the potential value of using network science to analyze other global systems, to help us better understand our globalizing world.

It was clear from talking to Jonathan that this research, in developing the first such representation of the network of land acquisitions, like all good research, threw up more questions than it answered (or at least as many). The answers to some of these, he and colleagues at LUCID have already started to pursue. In terms of the construction of data, there is a lot of scope for examining alternative relationships or going deeper. Deals could alternatively be looked at in terms of, for example, area of land or money exchanged, or the types of organisations and corporations involved in the deals. Furthermore, particular relationships between countries and their roots in language, geography or history, could also be of interest. But, the direction that Jonathan is interested in taking further investigation is of a different nature and it is moving forward through interaction with another of the LUCID partner departments: Political Science.

This analysis has inspired Jonathan and his colleague at political science Prof. Annica Kronsell, also a member of the LUCID steering committee, to investigate another such system, namely the global trade in biomass, for which they were recently awarded funding. Biomass can be an important import for countries seeking to support dense populations but with limited access to natural resources. However, the limited amount of natural resources globally combined with a growing world population could imply that issues of equity and security will become important in relation to the global system. Therefore, they intend to analyze how various scientific approaches have already tried to understand this system. Because previous studies have tended to be highly technical and often lack the social science perspectives necessary to interpret data in terms of equity and security, they are interested to investigate which disciplines, and moreover paradigms have been involved in describing the system, and how they theorise and articulate the problem. These are the questions that they are just starting to pursue but we can expect interesting results.

The story of these studies, their relationship, and development of one idea to the next, presents an example of how research within a particular area or department can inspire research in other departments and disciplines; how questions raised within one discipline might be best answered with approaches from other disciplines, or especially in cooperation with them. Nevertheless, Jonathan is clear that such transfer of problems has been made much more feasible by the formalised interaction between the departments. We are often reminded how much disciplinary research happens in isolation these days, with interaction between disciplines, though encouraged, slow to develop, often due to a lack of institutional support. Even rarer is the interaction of scientists on different sides of the natural science/social science divide. The necessity of a centre like LUCID in facilitating this kind of interdisciplinarity for dealing with sustainability challenges is clearly evident in Jonathan’s account of the experience.

Watch out here for the publication of Architecture of the global land acquisition system: Applying the tools of network science to identify key vulnerabilities in Environmental Research Letters, and other LUCID publications.

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