Everything Is Connected

Expedition: Global Interdependence
Project Name: COUPLED

In a globalised economy, in which the consumption and production of goods are largely disconnected, there is nevertheless interdependence between distant places, in a similar way as can be seen with weather patterns. What, for instance, does the increasing demand for pork on the global market have to do with soy bean crops in South America? These correlations, their causes and effects, but also their ability to be directed politically, are being researched by doctoral candidates in the education and research network 'COUPLED'.

Photo: Falk Weiß

When the ocean surface off the west coast of South America warms and the trade winds weaken, we are dealing with "El Niño". This global weather phenomenon affects the entire southern hemisphere: floods in Central and South America; long droughts in South East Asia, Australia and parts of Africa. It highlights the fact that changes in the temperature and air pressure in one location affect the weather in distant regions. Meteorologists have coined the term 'Teleconnection' to describe such correlations. However, this concept, used in climate research, also lends itself to other scientific fields. Geographers apply it to examine land use in a globalised world. "We are trying to understand how changes in one place on the planet have consequences for land use in another place," says Jonas Østergaard Nielsen of the Institute of Geography at the Humboldt University Berlin.

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'Telecoupling' as a Scientific Concept

One example of 'telecouplings', or interdependencies over great distances, is the production of soy beans in South America. Propelled by the growing demand for pork, particularly in China, animal feeding operations in Europe are increasingly using soy as feed. To satiate the craving for meat, millions of hectares of farmland, grassland and rainforest are being transformed into huge soy-growing areas in Argentina and Brazil. This has consequences, local and global: farmers lose their livelihoods, less foodstuffs are produced locally, biodiversity is adversely affected by monoculture and the use of pesticides. Furthermore, the destruction of forested areas releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and fuels global warming.

Palm Oil, Corn, Coffee and Soy Beans – The Most Important Goods at a Glance

So how does one identify such interdependencies in a globalised economy, in which the consumption and production of goods is largely disconnected? Which stakeholders propel them, and are there ways to guide them politically? Fourteen doctoral candidates are using case studies to investigate these questions in the education and research network COUPLED, which was established in 2018. Jonas Østergaard Nielsen launched the programme together with his colleague Tobias Kümmerle, who is also a professor at the Institute of Geography at the Humboldt University. "We concentrate on the most important goods produced through land use, such as palm oil, corn, coffee and soy beans," says Nielson about the choice of case studies.

Anthropologist Anna Frohn Pedersen investigates the question of how workers in small gold mines in Tanzania might earn a living in a sustainable way. Just like mining, conservation areas are also a form of land use. However, decisions about conservation areas are not always made locally, but often in the far-off countries of the benefactors. Environmental researcher Seyu Qin examines possible conflicts of interest which might arise between them and the residents and users at a site itself. In another case study, agricultural expert Pin Pravalprukskul is looking at the growing demand for poultry meat in Europe and Asia, and its consequences for land use in South East Asia. She is analysing the expansion of corn cultivation, which is spreading rapidly from Thailand into neighbouring countries. Several other PhD students are researching the delivery and value chains of commodities such as palm oil, and goods such as coffee and soy beans, as well as the local impact of their cultivation. Tiago Reis, for example, is analysing the risks and potential present in the networks and sourcing strategies of the Brazilian soy trade.

Infografik: Pia Bublies

Initiating Change in Economics and Politics

Besides the HU and seven other universities in Europe, partners of the 'COUPLED' network include multinational foodstuff producers such as Unilever, citizens' initiatives such as Fairtrade International, as well as national and international authorities. "We're involving non-academic organisations in the production of knowledge," stresses Nielson. "Because we want to educate academics who will later use their knowledge to promote changes in large companies or political institutions."

Photo: Falk Weiß

Soy and Palm Oil Imports Increase – Rainforest Disappears

The urgent need for action can be readily seen in the numbers. According to data from the Federal Ministry of Development, land cultivated for soy crops has more than quadrupled worldwide in the last five years – from 28 to 127 million hectares. For the quantity imported by the European Union alone 13 million hectares of land are used, most of it in Brazil and Argentina – that's more than three times the size of North Rhine-Westphalia. The harvesting of palm oil also decimates land area. Crop acreage in the rainforests of Indonesia and Malaysia has more than tripled in the last 20 years, currently sitting at 17 million hectares. The British-Dutch company Unilever, the owner of well-known brands such as Langnese and Dove, also has its share in this. Ten to 15 percent of the world's production of palm oil is processed by Unilever.

Photo: Falk Weiß

(© Photo: Falk Weiß)

"With 'COUPLED' we will find out if the concept of 'telecoupling' helps us to understand how the detachment of production and consumption affects global land use, and if we can regulate this," says Nielson. "And even if only Unilever is prepared to change its business strategy just a little, then this will be a great benefit for sustainability."

(© Photo: Falk Weiß)

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