Riva Denny


Riva Denny


I am a sociologist with interdisciplinary research interests in the environment, development, human-environment systems, natural resources, agriculture, food systems, and water policy. I use both qualitative and quantitative methods at multiple scales, and specialize in using multi-equation regression techniques like multilevel modeling, structural equation modeling with latent variables (SEMLV), and longitudinal analysis. I work extensively with large secondary datasets, frequently drawing from multiple sources to create my own datasets. I also use in-depth interview data. 

My primary research area investigates the social aspects of agricultural soil and water conservation efforts in the US, both to help mitigate agriculture’s environmental impact and reduce its contribution to climate change, and to help agriculture adapt to climate change. In my dissertation I examine the relationship between tillage and nutrient management strategies using qualitative and quantitative methods at both the individual and aggregate scale. I use farmer interview (n=150) and survey data (n=2200) to examine the direct and indirect effects of knowledge and attitudes on the use of tillage and conservation practices. While farmers’ environmental attitudes have been a popular topic of investigation, farmers’ forms of knowledge, environmental or otherwise, have been virtually unstudied. I then use multilevel SEM to analyze social and biophysical county-level data (n=1000) to assess drivers of fertilizer use and if three conservation practices measurably reduce fertilizer rates (a popular but little tested assumption). This third analysis scales up from individual actions to consider the cumulative effects of multiple individual decisions on society and the environment. My research has been supported financially by the C.S. Mott Predoctoral Fellowship in Sustainable Agriculture, the MSU Environmental Science and Policy Program, and the MSU Kellogg Biological Station Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) site. I look forward to continuing this line of research through existing collaborations.

My second area of research is on food security, and development, focusing on cross-national comparisons of development and food security indicators. A forthcoming paper at Sociology of Development examines drivers of the Ecological Footprint measure and its subcomponents in Africa, and considers regional footprint differences over time. A paper recently published in Environment Systems and Decisions uses structural equation modeling with latent variables to determine the primary drivers of food security in Africa, going beyond commonly used measures to include access, health, income and equality among others. I am also working on an invited book chapter on the drivers of greenhouse gas production efficiency of beef, pork and chicken using twenty years of data for 118 countries. This analysis has implications for meat production methods between countries and across regions, as well as for environmental justice in the face of global climate change. I have also studied US food systems, especially alternative food networks and red meat processing.

I have extensive interdisciplinary research experience, having worked on two major projects both funded by the National Science Foundation. One is a Coupled Human and Natural Systems (CNH) project examining nitrogen use in corn agriculture in the Midwest, and the other is an Interdisciplinary Behavioral and Social Science Research (IBSS) project examining food security in West Africa using model ensembles. I have also co-first authored a paper with an aquatic biogeochemist on the role of policy as a feedback mechanism in social-ecological systems.

Research Areas: Environment, Agriculture, Food Systems, Human-Environment Systems, Natural Resources, Water Policy
Selected Publications:

Denny, R. C. H., and S. T. Marquart-Pyatt. Forthcoming. “Environmental Sustainability in Africa: What Drives the Ecological Footprint Over Time?” Sociology of Development.

Denny, R. C. H., S. T. Marquart-Pyatt, A. Ligmann-Zielinska, L. Schmitt Olabisi, L. Rivers, J. Du, and S. Liverpool-Tasie. 2017. “Food Security in Africa: A Cross-scale, Empirical Investigation using Structural Equation
Modeling.” Environment Systems and Decisions (online). DOI: 10.1007/s10669-017-9652-7

Denny, R. C. H., M. R. Worosz, and N. L. W. Wilson. 2016. “The Importance of Governance Levels in Alternative Food Networks: The Case of Red Meat Inspection Rules.” Rural Sociology 81(4):601–34. 
• 2017 Rural Sociology Best Paper Award winner

Selected Grants: "Perceptions of Water Quality, Quantity and Access in Michigan." 2017 Michigan Applied Public Policy Research (MAPPR) grant from MSU's Institute for Public Policy and Social Research (IPPSR), with S. T. Marquart-Pyatt.
Curriculum Vitae: Download
Associated Programs: Environmental Science and Policy Program (ESPP); ESPP Environmental Systems Modeling Certificate; Ecological Food and Farming Systems (EFFS)