May 7, 2014

UW student briefs lawmakers on global land use, touts undergrad research

News and Information

Working in your office might not feel like a global experience, but everything around you – the wood of your desk or the piece of fruit you brought for lunch – likely came from far away.

A geographer and a biologist at the University of Washington have teamed up to examine the connections between consumers and goods that come from agriculture and forest production. They’ve created maps illustrating these connections and revealing how some regions of the world benefit more than others.

maps showing the researchers' results

Luke Bergmann and Mollie Holmberg

These maps illustrate where fields and forests had been globalized in the early 21st century through having had their harvests swept up into global supply chains. ‘Consumption’ maps illuminate fields that feed into the private consumption of households (directly through foodstuffs or indirectly through manufactured goods or services). ‘Capital accumulation’ maps take a slightly different perspective, highlighting whether the same harvests eventually contribute to infrastructure, fixed capital accumulation, and economic investment domestically or abroad.

“We’re looking at how people fit into ecosystems through their use of crop and forest lands,” said Mollie Holmberg, a UW senior in biology. “We’re actually bound to landscapes that are far from us.”

Holmberg is working with Luke Bergmann, a UW assistant professor of geography. She used a technique devised by Bergmann to study how agricultural lands are globalized when their products are swept up into the circuits of a global economy. The technique takes into account products created by lands designated for agriculture, forestry and pasture, and documents how each product is used and supports other industries. Holmberg factored in personal consumption based on land product, and put it into a geographic information system, or GIS.

She presented the project to lawmakers last week during the Council on Undergraduate Research’s annual Posters on the Hill. Holmberg was one of 60 undergraduates – the only one from Washington state – to participate. The event is intended to give members of Congress a better understanding of the research and education programs funded by the U.S. government.

To Holmberg, that meant making her study of globalized connections between people and land relevant to the interests of congressional staffers who asked her about her work. For instance, she fielded one question about whether the same methods could be used to look at coal production in West Virginia (answer: “yes.”).

Others wanted to know how the United States fit into the global picture. “We tend to reap the ultimate benefits of our bioproduction – it starts here and the benefits end up here,” Holmberg said. “The U.S. is really striking in that it is consistent in using its land to support growth domestically.”

Other regions of the world show different patterns, according to the study.

“We’re seeing how some countries benefit more than others in the products they produce,” Holmberg said. The maps reveal that many of the benefactors live in North America and Western Europe.

Besides the poster presentation, Holmberg visited the offices of the senators from Washington state, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, as well as Washington Rep. Suzan DelBene, who represents the district where Holmberg grew up. Staff members in the UW Office of Federal Relations helped her with the meetings.

Mollie Holmberg stands next to her poster

Mollie Holmberg, UW biology student, presents her research at the 2014 Council for Undergraduate Research’s Posters on the Hill.

Holmberg encouraged the lawmakers to support undergraduate research by providing funds for paid research positions.

“I explained how undergraduates do a lot of high-level work that gets published in high-impact journals,” Holmberg said. “Students who do research graduate with skills that far exceed the level of training they received inside the classroom.”

Added Bergmann, “Supporting undergraduate research benefits not only the student but society, as well. We all benefit in many ways from the resulting knowledge.”

Read more about Holmberg’s project, “Understanding Patterns of Human Dependence on Agriculture and Forest Production in the Anthropocene,” on the UW Department of Geography website.

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