Insect-pollinated pumpkins drying on the roof of a smallholder farming homestead in Jumla District, Nepal. Pumpkins are one of the many micronutrient-rich crops grown in this region that rely on ecosystem services such as pollination. Credit: Naomi Savil.

By Thomas Timberlake, Alyssa Cirtwill, Sushil Baral, Daya Bhusal, Kedar Devkota, Helen Harris-Fry, Susanne Kortsch, Samuel Myers, Tomas Roslin, Naomi Saville, Matthew Smith, Giovanni Strona and Jane Memmott

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Smallholder farms support over two billion people, but the families that run these farms are some of the poorest and most food insecure people on Earth. Their high reliance on home-grown produce makes them particularly vulnerable to environmental stressors such as pollinator loss or climate change which threaten their production. Improving smallholder agriculture in a way that is environmentally sustainable and resilient to climate change is a key challenge of the 21st century.

One solution is to actively manage the services provided by local ecosystems – such as pollination, nutrient cycling and natural pest control – to sustainably increase agricultural production. However, predicting the most effective management options is difficult as smallholder farms are complex systems with a range of social, ecological, and environmental factors all interacting to influence the supply of ecosystem services. To truly understand the functioning of smallholder farms and identify the most effective management options to increase food and nutrition security, a more holistic perspective is required.

In this study, we propose a new view of smallholder farms – one which links together the people, crops, livestock and wild species in a single inter-connected network. This approach can be used to identify wild plant or animal species with a key role in the functioning of a farm and quantify their role in supporting human nutrition. It can also be used to understand how the social dynamics operating within and between farming households may contribute to their sustainability and productivity. Using data from rural Nepal, we show how this approach can be used to connect wild plants, pollinators and crops to key nutrients consumed by humans, demonstrating the role that wild species can play in supporting human health and highlighting the risk of losing these crucial ecosystem services.

Viewing smallholder farms in this inter-connected way may help us find new solutions to one of the greatest challenges of our time – how to sustainably improve the food and nutrition security of smallholder farmers.