Professor Navin Ramankutty Awarded the Wihuri International Prize

UBC Professor Navin Ramankutty — of the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability and the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs — has been awarded the prestigious Wihuri International Prize in recognition of his long-standing work on sustainable global food systems.


As Canada Research Chair in Global Environmental Change and Food Security, Ramankutty is a leading researcher in global sustainable land use and food systems. His research uses global data and models to understand how humans use and modify the Earth’s land surface for agriculture, to evaluate resulting global environmental consequences, and to explore solutions to the problem of improving food security with minimal environmental footprint.

In the last decade, Ramankutty’s research focused on the challenge of feeding a growing global population in ways that are more environmentally sustainable and climate resilient. He was part of the team that published a study in 2011 proposing four major solutions to achieving a doubling of available food calories while reducing agriculture’s environmental footprint. 

Speaking to his process, Ramankutty said that “science is always iterative.” 

“You work on what is the weakest link at that point. Ten years or twenty years ago, the weakest link was the dataset itself, so I started building global datasets of agricultural land use. While doing that, I became interested in this whole problem of food. The reason that we’re using all this land is for agriculture but that fact has all these huge environmental implications. So [my work is in] trying to understand the trade-offs: on the one hand we need food, on the other hand we have these environmental problems.” 

Assessing trade-offs is also a component of Ramankutty’s work in examining the balance between biodiversity conservation and food production. In other research, he and colleagues estimated the potential impacts of climate change and extreme weather events on crop production. Along with his students, Ramankutty explores the sustainability outcomes associated with organic agriculture, urban agriculture, and small farms.

For his aforementioned contributions, Ramankutty has been awarded the 20th Wihuri International Prize by The Wihuri Foundation for International Prizes, a private institution based in Helsinki, Finland. Founded in 1953 by Finnish industrialist and sea captain Antti Wihuri, its purpose is to promote and sustain the cultural and economic development of mankind by awarding international prizes. During the past decade, the prize was awarded, for example, to researchers in the fields of atmospheric science, peace research and bioeconomics.

“The prize is really a testimony to the importance of sustainable global food systems,” said Ramankutty. “It honors all the people who work in the same field.”

The awarding process involved an eight-membered Board of Trustees selecting a topic in 2020, they chose the global food system. It then appointed an expert committee that suggested three proposals for the recipient of the prize. The board made a unanimous decision of choosing Ramankutty as the recipient of the 2020 Wihuri International Prize.

“The Wihuri International Prize was awarded to Navin Ramankutty as a recognition of his outstanding scientific track record. In addition, we at the Wihuri Foundation for International Prizes want to highlight the urgency for sustainable solutions to the ways we produce food for the growing number of people on our planet,” said Erkki KM Leppävuori, the chairman of the Board of trustees.

The Wihuri Sibelius Prize, awarded to composers, and the Wihuri International Prize, awarded to scientists, are both worth 150 000 euros (about 235 000 Canadian dollars) and are given out, as a rule, at least every three years. This year, the Wihuri Sibelius Prize was awarded to Finnish composer Jukka Tiensuu. The Prizes were awarded in a small awarding ceremony in Helsinki, Finland on October 9th, 2020. Ramankutty attended the awarding dinner virtually and held a presentation on his research topics. In normal circumstances, the Foundation would have organized an awarding ceremony with over 800 guests. The Foundation and Ramankutty are planning his potential visit to Helsinki in 2021, bearing in mind the Covid-19 situation.


Original post written by Lindsay Marsh, SPPGA