A recent study published in Frontiers in Ecology encourages researchers to produce findings in collaboration with local communities. The authors conclude that this approach can meet local needs while helping to advance progress around the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
“In a rapidly changing world, new ways to do ecological research are urgently needed that support local agencies and generate ecological management practices to specific conditions,” Sieglinde Snapp, a co-author of the paper, tells Food Tank. Snapp serves as the Sustainable Agrifood Systems Program Director at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center.
Participatory action research (PAR) is a framework that centers communities most affected by that research and engages them in the process of knowledge generation. The process, the authors state, “enhances a holistic understanding to derive systems solutions.”
As part of the study, the researchers examined two decades of PAR focused on rural agricultural communities in northern and central Malawi. Collectively, the work engaged hundreds of communities and farmer networks.
Engaging in participatory research, communities in Malawi examined the lack of biodiversity on farms, which resulted in poor soil health, a dependence on fertilizers, and “insufficient dietary diversity.”
In the initial years, researchers helped farmers diversify their crops and introduce trees to boost soil fertility and provide wood for fuel. On an annual basis, the farmers and researchers evaluated the performance of their fields.
Through trial and error, farmers were able to identify new crops that can boost soil health but have rarely been used in sustainable agriculture development. “The new options sparked innovations in management practice so as to enhance perennial features of these crops while maintaining food production,” the authors write.
By receiving feedback in real time, researchers were also able to adapt to ensure that agricultural techniques worked for local farmers. Farmers explained that some of the agroforestry techniques required too much labor, created food deficits for farmers, and failed to yield sufficient income for farmers. Learning from this feedback, the projects largely discontinued the use of farming systems mixed with tree crops about five years in.
Experimentation with novel crop varieties and farming techniques also resulted in large quantities of products that can be easily stored and marketed. The outcomes, the authors state, are promising for local food and nutrition security and farmers’ livelihoods.
“Ecologists, in collaboration with social scientists, are searching for socially sound as well as biologically sound options for sustainable farming systems. This is key to meeting SDGs,” the authors state. Through PAR, they argue that it is possible to respond to the needs of communities and the planet.
“When farmers and researchers co-learn, they can optimize multipurpose nutritional enriched options, enhance climate resilience, and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions,” Snapp tells Food Tank.
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Photo Courtesy of Maria Zardoya, Unsplash