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Cambridge Global Food Security

An Interdisciplinary Research Centre at the University of Cambridge

This Latin American researcher is not afraid to tackle big issues head-on. He wants to make the world more resilient to climate change, and he’s doing it by pulling together global expertise and using it to help policy-makers and the public make fully informed decisions.

Q: Where are you from?

A: I’m from Santiago, Chile.

Q: Tell me something about the food there.

A: Chile has a long coastline, and we eat a lot of fantastic seafood. Fish was the third largest export in 2017; Chile is among the biggest producers of salmon in the world. And in Latin America generally we eat a lot of meat. Trying to influence people’s diet through policy-making is essentially a no-go area. It’s hard to be a vegetarian there, particularly if you are poor. The options are very limited compared to Europe, and alternatives to animal products are seen as luxury goods. Making the Chilean food production system more sustainable will be a big challenge.

Q: Why are you here?

A: My wife was offered a PhD studentship in Cambridge, so I found a position here too.

Q: What’s your research purpose?

A: I’m one of the founders of a project called BRIDGE, which stands for ‘Building Resilience In a Dynamic Global Economy.’ We’re looking at the Food-Water-Energy nexus in Brazil, and working to improve its resilience to global change. There’s been a lot of research on policy-making in these three economic sectors separately, but more recently it has been recognised that we need to address them together when considering issues of sustainability and climate change.


Brazil is a textbook example of the Food-Water-Energy nexus. The climate is changing, and the resulting changes in water availability will affect the energy sector, because Brazil produces most of its energy from hydropower. Changes in the energy sector can impact Brazil’s commitments on greenhouse gas emissions. Changes in water availability will also affect the agricultural sector, because grain produced in Brazil is sold around the world. We have a complex modelling platform to help us understand potential future scenarios in Brazil, by looking at the interaction of climatic and economic forces. We need to look at the interconnections, and how policies in one sector affect the others. Then with our legal team we can think about policies to address those scenarios to make Brazil more resilient to these two forces.

Q: How is this related to global food security?

A: The global food system presents a great example of how complex the nexus can be. Brazilian cattle rangers are cutting down trees in the rainforest for their herds. Meanwhile in China, the demand for pork is soaring. Asia can’t produce enough grain to feed the pigs and Brazil is a great place to produce grain. So Brazilian grain producers are buying land from the cattle rangers, and Brazil is becoming a major producer of pig feed for China. Dietary changes in China are indirectly affecting deforestation in Brazil. There are strong international market forces driving land use changes, and also the changing prices of agricultural products cause economic fluctuations in Brazil.

Tackling deforestation – a major contributor to climate change - is impossible if you think of the food, water and energy sectors separately. Brazil has done terrific work in terms of controlling deforestation in the Amazon, but the success has started declining in certain regions. What policies are needed in future to maintain the success?

Q: Where are you going?

A: We’re focused on Brazil, but we’re always looking at the global picture because the same problem is occurring in India, China, the US and Europe. We’re trying to create a new methodology to address the Food-Water-Energy nexus, and to see it from a multi-disciplinary perspective, and then to apply that expertise to different world regions. We think places like India and China are critical to address the issues of the nexus, particularly as they become richer and peoples’ diets change.

Q: Do you feel part of something bigger than yourself?

A: Definitely. This issue is so large that the only way to tackle it is to have multidisciplinary teams and pull lots of expertise together. BRIDGE is a consortium of several universities, led by C-EENRG (Cambridge Centre for Environment, Energy and Natural Resource Governance) in the Department of Land Economy. We work with Cambridge Econometrics Ltd, the Open University, Radboud University in the Netherlands, and several partners in Brazil led by UNISUL. The team includes scientific experts in the carbon cycle, climate models, and land-use changes; economists looking at market forces; engineers looking at changes in the energy sector; and lawyers looking at how we can address policy issues effectively.


Pablo (front row, second from left) with collaborators in the BRIDGE team.

It’s very important for us to collaborate with people in Brazil in order to create relevant research. They have a different vision of the world and we can learn so much from them. We started the project in 2014 by talking to policy-makers there for their views on the most pressing issues in the food, water and energy sectors. This month we’re going back to discuss specific policies. The aim is for us to become long-term partners, so they can come to us for scientific guidance when they’re ready to implement new policies in Brazil.

Q: What’s the one piece of advice you’d give others who want to follow in your footsteps?

A: When I started my PhD many people told me that the work of a researcher is very lonely. But I’ve always thought that the way to do research is to collaborate with people who complement your abilities. The only way to tackle issues like climate change, sustainability, and food security is to work with others. I think most research should be focused on collaborations.

Q: What would make the world a better place?

A: From my perspective as an academic, it’s by taking our findings outside academia and showing people the importance of what we’re trying to investigate. A lot of people aren’t aware that their diet has not only a local but a global impact. How the things they choose to buy in their supermarket have an impact on the farmers living far away from them, and on land use changes in very different parts of the world. The only way for people to know is if we tell them. There’s nothing more rewarding than seeing your research having an impact on policy-making and changing people’s lives. That’s the way researchers can change the world.


More information

The BRIDGE project is a UK-BRAZIL collaboration funded by the Newton Fund, comprising of the ESRC and FAPESC. It supports researchers in the modelling, understanding and governance of the Food-Water-Energy Nexus.