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Belmont Forum Collaborative Research: Farmer-led Agroecological Research in Malawi using Scenarios for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services


Innovative research on the complex interaction of socio-economic and global environmental trends on biodiversity and ecosystem services is needed to help develop more informative scenarios for addressing environmental and human development challenges. To overcome these challenges coupled natural-human systems approaches and analyses are needed. These provide improved scenarios of biodiversity and ecosystem services that couple the outputs of direct and indirect drivers such as land use, invasive species, overexploitation, biodiversity, environmental change, and pollution. The resulting models provide a methodological state-of-the art that results in more accurate quantitative assessments, better land use, and more effective ecosystem services. Employing this methodology, this research, which involves an international collaboration of scientists, develops a community-based, co-development approach to altering farming practices in sub -Saharan Africa that are often linked to high rates of soil erosion, decreasing soil quality, and increasing use of agrochemicals, all of which have negative impacts on humans and the environment through increased pollution and decreased biodiversity and water quality, using farming in Malawi as a test case. Previous research has shown that, when combined with participatory education, agroecological farming methods result in improved food security, nutrition, soil, and human health. Such practices include legume intercropping, composting, and mulching. However, little is known how these practices influence biodiversity and ecosystem services in Africa and if the practices simultaneously enhance agroecosystem and community resilience. This research addresses knowledge gaps in this topic area and engages decision-makers in participatory research that has the potential to shape agricultural policies at various scales. In this project, teams of farmer-researchers and research scientists explore how agroecological and different land use practices impact biodiversity (bees, birds, and natural enemies), ecosystem services, and farmer livelihoods. Resulting empirical data are used to parameterize scenarios of potential land use and gauge whether agroecological practices buffer loss of biodiversity. Broader impacts of the work include international collaboration between US scientists and those in 5 other countries, two of which are in sub-Saharan Africa (Malawi, Kenya, Germany, Norway, and Canada). For this project, each country funds the scientific component carried out by its own scientists. Impacts also include significant public outreach on the results of this research to stakeholders from sectors such as government, industry, and farmer cooperatives. In addition, there is student and postdoc training in international transdisciplinary research and support of an investigator whose gender is underrepresented in the sciences. Other impacts include societal impacts such as increasing and improving food security and ecosystems services in countries with large and growing, low-income, agrarian, populations experiencing serious environmental changes due to global warming and problematic agricultural and cultural land-use practices, each of which can result in political instability. The work also promotes a more sustainable environment via improved agricultural practices and awareness.<br/><br/>This award supports US researchers participating in a project competitively selected by a coalition of 26 funding agencies from 23 countries through the Belmont Forum call for proposals on "Scenarios of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services". The call was a multilateral initiative designed to support research projects that contribute to the development of scenarios, models, and decision-support tools for understanding and solving critical issues facing our planet. The goal of the competition was to improve and apply participatory scenario methods to enhance research relevance and its acceptance and to address gaps in methods for modelling impact drivers and policy interventions. It was also to develop and communicate levels of uncertainty associated with the models, to improve data accessibility and fill gaps in knowledge. Using this methodology, the research addresses biodiversity conservation, ecosystem services, and improvements in food security under scenarios of land-use change in the Global South, using farming in Malawi as a case study. Research questions include: (1) can agroecological practices at multiple spatial scales buffer the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services under current and future land use scenarios in Malawi; (2) are there breakpoints of landscape-level agroecological adoption above which biodiversity and ecosystem services are maximally retained; (3) do social roles (e.g., class, gender, health status) and/or key macro social forces (e.g., agricultural policies, extension services, international agreements) influence agroecological use and related measures of household and community resilience under low-income smallholder farmer conditions; (4) can participatory scenario planning approaches enhance long-term community resilience and biodiversity under different land use scenarios and anticipated climate change impacts; and (5) do new institutional and policy frameworks enable the use of agroecological practices to reduce biodiversity loss, sustain ecosystem services and improve climate change adaptation. These issues are addressed by coupling socio-economic and biodiversity dynamics via engaging farmer-researchers who directly measure biodiversity and ecosystem services. Work is done in close collaboration with an interdisciplinary team of research scientists including ecologists, sociologists, public health professionals, geographers, entomologists, and economists. Resulting empirical findings are used to craft and model multiple scenarios of future land use and land use changes to determine impacts on biodiversity, ecosystem services, food security and farmer livelihoods. These finding are then used to determine how impacts vary, based on the degree of agroecological practices used, across the region. Components of the work include participatory geographic information system (GIS) and scenario planning to determine future ecological behavior and projected and desired outcomes of land use. Project goals are to minimize the need for fossil-fuel based agricultural inputs; mimic, as much as possible, natural systems and their resilience; and integrate social priorities into behavior practices to address income, human nutrition, food security and human health.<br/><br/>This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Rachel Bezner Kerr
Cornell University
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