Dr Alfred Gathorne-Hardy

Dr. Alfred Gathorne-Hardy

I joined SIAS in October 2011, where I was a researcher on the ESRC/DfID funded project: ‘The Materiality of Rice’, led by Professor Barbara Harriss-White.  I am now a Junior Research Fellow at Somerville College, and convene and lecture the geography MSc elective, Global Environmental Change and Food Security.

Both food and a healthy environment are essential for human existence.  Food production at the scale required to feed the present population inevitably damages the environment.   This damage is at such a scale to seriously threaten human existence.

My present work involves trying to square this circle – can the food system be modified to feed humanity without causing undue socio-environmental destruction?  To answer this we must first understand the food system and its inherent social, economic and ecological complexity, before working with policy makers, businesses and NGOs to find ways to enhance the beneficial attributes and mitigate damage.

I started my career using ecology to judge sustainability – surveying sites for species and habitats of interest and then working with farmers/landowners to protect them.  While this sometimes worked well, it was often frustrating as the right action from the sustainability perspective commonly didn’t match the desired action of the farmers.

This conflict led me to apply for an interdisciplinary PhD at Imperial College, funded by the UK Energy Research Centre.  My PhD developed from ideas I had gained while working with farmers but with two key changes.  Firstly I looked at landscapes from a multi-functional perspective – still investigating biodiversity but also the potential for the landscape to mitigate climate change and provide an economic return.  The second change was to look at the interaction between local and global – if we enhance local biodiversity through extensification, how does this impact global biodiversity?

To answer these questions I carried out a mixture of ‘proper’ science (pot trials, field trials, biodiversity surveys) and desk-based science (to model the interaction between the different sustainability criteria).

During my PhD I was twice seconded to the civil service, firstly to DECC, and then for a High-Level Policy Placement Fellowship at DEFRA.  Working in policy has had a considerable impact on my academic work, encouraging me to approach subjects from a wider perspective and specifically look at unintended consequences and trade-offs.

The SIAS project on which I worked was entitled ‘The Materiality of Rice’.  Other members of the team were Professor Barbara Harriss-White, (PI, Oxford) and Deepak Mishra, Hema, DN Reddy, Asseem Prakesh, Guatum Mody, Mohan Mani (India).  I was responsible for developing a model that allows us to accurately understand the trade-offs and synergies that occur between different criteria along the rice production/distribution/supply chain in SE India.  The criteria we used were GHG emissions, water use, energy, quality and quantity of labour, costs and value addition.  More information is available from the Materiality of Rice website.