Intensive agriculture interacting with global change raise wicked problems that have complex causes and consequences, such as food security, water quality, health or biodiversity conservation. These problems are difficult to understand and tackle, and impose a paradigm shift in agricultural models. Many alternative approaches to current agricultural models (e.g. organic farming, eco-agriculture, agro-ecology, or ecological intensification) assume that ecological regulation processes such as pest control or organic matter recycling, can replace part of, or all chemical inputs. Whilst this new paradigm relating to agroecological transitions has stimulated the framing of several conceptual frameworks and theoretical propositions, operational solutions are missing. There is a need to identify how to foster agroecological transition, especially in a context of climate change, natural resource depletion and worldwide economic and social disorder.
In this paper, we present an innovative experimental approach for identifying management practices that optimize multiple objectives, deliver a portfolio of ecosystem services and satisfy the social demands of key stakeholders while improving the socio-economic welfare of farmers. Social-ecological experiments are a form or an extension of co-adaptive management and participatory action research. They are original by the explicit use of gradients of social (e.g. range of management intensity) and ecological processes (e.g. competition, predation) to investigate how management actions affect the interaction of ecological and social processes, and ultimately the delivery of a bundle of ecosystem services. We use a social-ecological experiment for reducing weed control intensity as a case study to illustrate how farmers can be involved throughout the experimental process (i.e. testing how reducing weed control pressure in their fields affects weed diversity, yield and farmers’ revenue), and how both social and ecological processes can be manipulated under real field conditions to identify sustainable management practices.
Our innovative experimental approach recognises the links between the biophysical and social systems, the complexity of these systems, and the diversity of knowledge and values. An important outcome of our case study was the identification of cognitive and organizational barriers to agroecological transition. By undertaking the experiment in their own fields, the farmers could easily compare the effect of the experimental treatment on their production. Socio-ecological experiments are therefore also useful for supporting collaborative knowledge and facilitating learning because the decision makers (farmers) are directly involved in the process. We suggest that in order to foster food production transformation while accounting for the characteristics of each agricultural systems, our approach should be used within a network of long-term social-ecological research sites.