Experimental sweet potato garden in Ohu, Papua New Guinea

By Mirjam Hazenbosch, Shen Sui, Brus Isua, Emilie Beauchamp, Alfred Kik, Grace Luke, Petr Matouš, Rebecca Morris, Jason Paliau, and E. J. Milner-Gulland.

This Plain Language Summary is published ahead of the article discussed; check back soon for a link to the full paper.

Increasing food prices, more mouths to feed, growing environmental impacts of agriculture – people around the world need to produce food more sustainably, and quickly. We researched how farmers in Papua New Guinea could increase their sweet potato yields sustainably by setting up experimental plots on farmers’ fields, and testing whether fertilisers (compost, chicken manure or chemical fertiliser) helped. We thought we could do our work, and afterwards advise farmers. However, while we were busy experimenting, farmers were observing us and already changing their practices themselves. This gave us food for thought.

We found that farmers started to apply compost, the most accessible fertiliser type, even though we weren’t sure yet if this would be useful. However, practices that required additional information, expenditure and materials, such as chemical fertiliser, were not adopted. So farmers were most likely to adopt practices that were similar to their existing practices – our first piece of food for thought.

Farmers also started to cover up their soils with a layer of plant material (mulching), and to plant the variety of sweet potato that we used. However, we did not aim to test the effect of mulching nor to promote a particular crop variety. This shows that people created meaning in unexpected ways from observing our experiments – our second piece of food for thought.

The project had another unintentional effect: it changed social relations in the community. Our hired local research assistants became more sought-after for advice, although knowledge about the research didn’t flow much beyond them. This shows the importance of being mindful about who gets involved in the research: they may achieve more influence, but may not necessarily share the insights they gain. The choice of who to involve has implications for who benefits – our final piece of food for thought.

Overall, our work illustrates that you can’t do your research in a vacuum. What and how you do it has many intended and unintended consequences. Researchers need to be aware of this so that they can do the best research in the best possible way – for academia and the people they work with.