In this post Associate Editor Peter Bridgewater discusses the Perspective article ‘Social–ecological experiments to foster agroecological transition‘ by Sabrina Gaba and Vincent Bretagnolle out today.

The IPBES Global Assessment talks of the increasing need for transformative approaches to planetary management, and a new paper in People and Nature, Social-ecological experiments to foster agroecological transition, by Sabrina Gaba of INRAE and Vincent Bretagnolle of the CNRS, tackles an interesting aspect of that need.  This paper takes the interesting approach of pleading for an increased need for socio-ecological experiments in agroecological environments to help this transformation process. Agroecological systems are a key area of people-nature interaction, so the authors focus on developing transformative governance processes through experiments.  Given the inherent uncertainty and complexity of socio-ecological experiments the authors suggest seeing such experiments as mixtures of adaptive management, scenario planning, and Participatory Action Research (PAR) – describing the plus and minuses of each in the body of the paper.

The food-environment-water nexus is regarded as an important nexus to understand as we try to implement the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and this paper is a good contribution to that debate.  They also touch on a key issue – understanding the need for better and more adaptive governance and recognise the need for a paradigm shift to make agriculture sustainable and offer various substitutes for intensive agriculture.  In particular, the authors show that key to their approach is linking the variety of possible adaptive pathways to sustainability with the diversity of human behaviour, and multiple ecological uncertainties.  In doing that, they tease out how stakeholders can adapt and respond to the challenges we are all facing.

While it may appear obvious, the authors show how agroecosystems are socio-ecological systems (SES) in which social (and I would say also cultural) and ecological dynamics have multiple links and feedbacks.  Those links and feedbacks are part of continuously changing human and non-human ecological components –with cross-scale interactions.  Scale is of critical importance in understanding the intensity and direction of change generally, perhaps especially so for agroecological ecosystems.

People, then, in farming practices and broader landscape management, are a significant driver of biosphere change.  as the authors note, people “create new systems in which external inputs and mechanical interventions improve (e.g. by soil enrichment and irrigation) or replace (e.g. by pesticide use) ecological processes, while land use changes disturb the natural flows of biodiversity and matter”. And they make the important, but often overlooked, point that every farmer is different, and so the individual human actions will have different results, both long and short-term. As they say, “no two farmers cultivate their fields in exactly the same way”.

To understand more detail about these generally held views and experience the authors are advocating new kinds of research that allows the full gamut of viewpoints to be accommodated.  To achieve this, they are advocating the (not very novel, yet still little employed) direct involvement of policymakers and decision-takers in knowledge co-construction and problem-solving – in other words effective cooperation between science and society. They have a really nice phrase to capture this ideal – a novel approach that remains “constantly in the fuzziness of the science in the making”.  This is of course not easy at all, yet it absolutely is the way forward for so many issues that currently confront us as the global human population.

To illustrate their points, they give an example of  a social-ecological experiment, investigating how actions for weed control in winter cereal fields was planned with farmers in the LTSER (Long Term Social-Ecological Research) “Zone Atelier Plaine & Val de Sèvre” over two years.  They use three very colourful figures to explain the general principles they are advocating, and the specific experiment on weed control reduction – not necessarily a first, but a very commendable way to summarise some of the complexity! 

In conclusion, these “social-ecological experiments” represent a novel methodology that has:  

  • metrics and experimental units reflecting a combination of social and ecological processes;
  • an aim to promote agroecological transition, and
  • a fully transdisciplinary approach.

This paper is a good read, and, besides its intrinsic importance,  shows the continued rapid development of the Journal into ever more interesting avenues, where people and the rest of nature collide to produce new perspectives, ways of thinking, and, ultimately, contributing to the transformative changes we need as we enter the third decade of this somewhat crazy century!