The U.S. Corn Belt produces about a third of the world’s corn and soybeans. But with further intensification and a changing climate it’s unclear whether the Corn Belt can remain environmentally sustainable.

“Currently the Corn Belt is the largest food basket on the planet, but will that be the case in 100 years?” asks Kaiyu Guan, an assistant professor in natural resources and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois. “My project looks at how we can maintain the productivity of this landscape while continuing to be environmentally sustainable.”

Guan will monitor individual fields through satellite remote sensing to build agroecosystem simulations in future climate and management scenarios. He’ll simulate crop growth, water movement and nutrient flow at field scale as well as the scale of the entire Midwest region he’s studying.

“In the Midwest crop growth, hydrology and nutrient cycles are closely intertwined across scales – from the field-headwater scale to the entire river network and continental scales,” Guan said. “Human activities and practices don’t affect just one component but rather the complete set of interconnections. A new systems analysis of complex feedbacks and interactions is required to assess potential adaptations.”

Guan is using a supercomputer at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, located on the University of Illinois campus. He will use it to simulate crop growth and field-management practices such as cover cropping, fertilizer application and drainage management. He will be able to assess the collective impact of those practices across the landscape. Results can be used to inform policymakers and farmers about practices that best address the need for co-sustainability of food production and environmental quality, Guan said.

Guan’s research proposal has earned him $510,000 through the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development Program.