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Network thinking can revolutionise global agriculture

Network thinking can revolutionise global agriculture

13 May 2022

New perspectives show how advances in complexity science can change the way we think about and manage farm and global food systems for good.

The global challenge of feeding two billion more people by 2050, using more sustainable agricultural practices whilst dealing with uncertainties associated with environmental change, requires a transformation of the way food is currently produced and sold. Never has this been more apparent than now, with global geopolitical and climatological threats to food production and trade. 

As part of a Royal Society Resilient Futures Challenge-led grant “Developing network ecology to understand and secure resilient food systems”, which brings together researchers from a diverse range of disciplines across the UK and South America, a consortium of UK and South American scientists, led by Newcastle University consortium has been tackling a range of outstanding questions in agriculture and food security. The overarching aim of the research is to develop tools and understanding that stem from advances in complexity science that can generate progress towards a truly sustainable global agricultural system.

Specifically, the team led by Professor Darren Evans, of Newcastle University's School of Natural and Environmental Sciences, have developed concepts and analyses from the interdisciplinary field of network science to understand and investigate complex agricultural systems – comprised of social, economic and ecological actors. They are looking to understand processes at a range of scales from individual farms to global supply networks.

 

Using network science in agro-ecosystems

The paper, published in Perspectives in Ecology and Conservation, summarises how network science has been used in agro-ecosystems to understand their structure and function.

Lead author, Dr Fred Windsor from the School of Natural and Environmental Sciences said: “It was clear that to date the vast number of studies has been completed on ecological networks (mainly interactions between species, for example pollinators and plants) at site and landscape scales. But fewer studies had focused on larger scales, and even less attention had been paid to other forms of networks in agriculture – such as social and economic networks – or their combination.”

In the same paper the team, including co-investigators Profs. Paulo Guimarães Jr from University of São Paulo and Mariano Devoto from University of Buenos Aires, suggested a range of different ways to drive the field forward. This included developing novel methods for collecting a greater volume and diversity of data, expanding our focus to include other systems and processes (for example, belowground communities in soils, knowledge-exchange between farmers and connecting processes across multiple scales), and assessing the movement of goods and the off-shoring of environmental degradation resulting from food consumption.

 

Supporting farmers and land managers

Dr Windsor explained, “We have already started working on developing novel ways of analysing networks in agro-ecosystems to have benefits and applications to wider society. Using the concept of ecosystem services and disservices – the benefits and costs to humans provided by the environment – we have been investigating how to manage agricultural environments in a way that is beneficial for both humans and the environment.”

In a separate paper, published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, the team showed the utility of network approaches by developing a tool for selecting plant species for seed mixes that are able to provide multiple ecosystem services (the human benefits derived from the environment) whilst preventing ecosystem disservices (e.g., increases in the species richness of pest herbivores). Such methods are crucial in providing an evidence base to support farmers and land managers when making decisions regarding the management of agro-ecosystems.

Another study by the team also applied more fundamental network-based analyses towards understanding agro-ecosystems. The work, published in in Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, showed how structures within ecological networks, called motifs, can be used to identify and quantify the levels of ecosystem service provision within an agricultural landscape. This work highlights the importance of understanding ecological networks in agricultural environments so they can then be managed in a more sustainable way.

Professor Darren Evans said, “Understanding the structure and function of agricultural systems at a range of scales is a challenge, but absolutely crucial if we are going to manage them in a more sustainable way. Through creating and applying new network-based analyses and ways of thinking to tackle global challenges, we aim to contribute towards the establishment of secure food systems for future generations.”

Reference:

Windsor, F., Armenteras, D., Assis, A., Astegiano, J., Santana, P., & Cagnolo, L. et al. (2022). Network science: Applications for sustainable agroecosystems and food security. Perspectives In Ecology And Conservation. doi: 10.1016/j.pecon.2022.03.001