April 20, 2014

New Harvests for Research on Agricultural Intensification

CN Mbola 17-01-12091 compress

Photo by Chris Neill

Agricultural activities are changing globally in response to increased demand for foods and other goods, but how are these changes occurring and affecting people and ecosystems differently across the planet?

From 14-16 January 2013, postdoc Rebecca Ryals of the Marine Biological Lab (MBL) and the Brown Environmental Change Initiative (ECI) convened a workshop at MBL for faculty, researchers and graduate students working in Brazil, Africa, China and North America to share recent findings from research on agricultural change, spanning natural and social science fields.  Participants hailed from numerous ECI-affiliated departments at Brown, including Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Geological Sciences, and Sociology, the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), the Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC) and institutions across the country, including The Earth Institute at Columbia University and the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in New York, and the University of Virginia.

Researchers presented projects on facets of agricultural intensification from Brazil, East Africa, North America and China.  For Brazil, presented research showed surprising dynamics of the fate and transport of fertilizer-added nitrogen and phosphorus through soils, differing seasonal variations in soil moisture across land use areas, impacts of riparian forest buffers on stream water quality, innovative satellite remote sensing techniques for studying extents and patterns of double-cropping, and relationships between national currency valuation, markets, social dynamics and agricultural production.  For East Africa, preliminary results demonstrated relationships between seasonal patterns in nitrogen transport dynamics through soils , new multi-satellite-based approaches for mapping land cover in complex, small land-holder dominated landscapes, and impacts of fertilizer use on soil microbial diversity.  Research in North America focused on range and livestock management impacts for watershed biogeochemistry, and web tools for increasing public awareness of how personal food choices connect to ecosystem nitrogen losses.  Research in North America and China highlighted relationships between fertilizer rates, and CO2 and N2O losses from soils to the atmosphere.

Together, presentations highlighted that agricultural intensification, the increased use of technology (e.g. fertilizers, mechanization, new cultivars) to improve crop yields per unit area, has progressed in starkly contrasting patterns between places such as Brazil and East Africa.  Environmental and social consequences such as fertilizer-applied nitrogen losses and local food security were shown to matter differently across continents. Discussions stressed that factors from a region’s economic development status before intensification occurs, to soil texture, must be considered integrally for scientists across disciplines to pursue appropriate future research.  The workshop produced outlines for interdisciplinary research papers, watershed-scale research projects, conference proposals, and new senses of camaraderie among participants.