Addressing research bias in agroecology

By Natalia Zielonka and Dr Lynn Dicks 

In a recent publication, Van der Meer and colleagues (2020) compared the countries that grew the most fruit with the countries that put out the most scientific studies on the impacts of fruit farming on biodiversity.

What they found was truly eye opening.

Most of the research about sustainable and nature-friendly fruit farming comes from continents that grow the least amount of fruit and have the lowest agricultural growth potential.

  • North America, Oceania and Europe are leaders in research with 30, 13.5 and 11 published studies per megaton of fruit produced, respectively.
  • Asia, the key fruit exporter, produces 0.5 studies per megaton, followed by South America, publishing 0.33 studies per megaton.

Research is concentrated in Europe and North America, yet many of the major global food crops are primarily produced in low or middle-income countries, where research capacity and funding are limited. These include South America and Africa, which are under the strongest pressure for agriculture growth. They are also some of the most biodiverse regions of the world.

Our Newton-funded project Sustainable Fruit Farming in the Caatinga (SUFICA) directly addresses this issue. The project has established an international partnership of agro-ecological researchers across Brazil and Chile, to design and test techniques that improve wildlife and ecosystem management on farms in north-east Brazil, one of the country’s poorest regions.

Caatinga is a highly biodiverse biome unique to Brazil, located in the north-east of the country, a region undergoing rapid growth of fruit agriculture (known locally as ‘fruticulture’). In the São Francisco valley, in the Caatinga, the annual area of harvested grapes increased by 90 times between 1985-1995. The stable and hot climate of the semi-arid Caatinga region allows for not one but two grape harvests a year, doubling productive capacity relative to other regions further south.

But by 2010, 40% of Caatinga was lost to deforestation, and degradation of the remaining Caatinga is widespread.

As environmental awareness increases, farmers are under pressure from consumers and international markets to reduce agrochemical use and promote nature-based solutions instead. This creates a demand for tried-and-tested ‘ecological intensification’ practices that support beneficial species on farms without compromising production.

Such practices can’t be imposed uniformly. Their design and likely effectiveness are specific to each region and socio-economic context. Research to develop them must be in partnership with farmers and must be carried out locally.

Our research team from the UK, Chile and Brazil has been working with the whole supply chain - from farmers in Brazil - to international fruit supply companies - to a UK supermarket (Waitrose). The project is testing biodiversity-based solutions, which were co-developed with farmers and aim to enhance sustainability.

The project also involves the Cool Farm Alliance, a global partnership of agri-food companies developing software to enable farmers globally to measure and reduce their environmental impacts.

As well as outreach activities with farmers, educators and the public to promote biodiversity-friendly farming, the SUFICA team have surveyed local birds, mammals, reptiles, plants and invertebrates, collected soil samples and performed pollination experiments. Key species that live on farms have been identified and we found diverse communities in the surrounding Caatinga. This is promising because all these species contribute to the functioning of the ecosystem and some could directly support fruit production.

The human population is still increasing and so demand for agricultural products is unlikely to decrease in the foreseeable future. Intensification doesn’t have to be bad for the environment and can be achieved in ways that spare and protect natural habitats. But to deliver the progress we need on sustainable agriculture, rich countries must work in closer partnership with the world’s most productive countries, to build biodiversity and agroecological research capacity.

The field elements of the project are on-hold during COVID lockdown, but we hope to continue with our experiments in 2021 and our study findings will be published in international journals.

To keep up to date with SUFICA activities, visit https://sufica.org/ and follow the project on Twitter @SUFICA_Caatinga

The full version of this blog can be found on the SUFICA website.

Natalia Zielonka @Nat_B_Zielonka is a PhD student at the University of East Anglia and she is funded by the UKRI Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council Norwich Research Park Biosciences Doctoral Training Partnership (Grant code: DICKS_U19DTP). Dr Lynn Dicks @LynnDicks is an Ecology Lecturer at the University of Cambridge and University of East Anglia and is funded by NERC (Grant number: NE/N014472/1 & 2).