Participatory Strategies for Monitoring Agrobiodiversity and Food Security

Collaboration is key to choosing agrobiodiversity and food security metrics that matter to local people and decision makers. Community participation can make making research and monitoring more rigorous, more cost-effective, and more relevant.   

Biodiversity is the diversity of life on earth, and agrobiodiversity is the portion of biodiversity most intimately connected to human livelihoods.  It's the diversity of crops on farms, but also the diversity of wild organisms inhabiting farms, and the less visible life, like the soil microorganisms, that make farming possible.  

Any good farmer can tell you that diversity matters. Diverse mixtures of crops are far less attractive to pests than monocultures, and diversity insures that some crops will yield even if one or a few fail.  And, there is a growing body of scienific research showing that high levels of diversity on farms and in agricultural landscapes helps to regulate pest populations, increase farm productivity, provide habitat for wild animals, and provide farmers with more reliable and more nutritious diets.  But globally, we're in a period of rapid agrobiodiversity loss. Our global food supply is dependent on fewer and fewer species and varieties of crops and livestock. In the same way that mass extinctions of wild species is making ecosystems more fragile, agrobiodiversity loss is making food systems more fragile, just when unprecedented global challenges like climate change mean we'll need stronger and more resilient food systems.  I believe that working closely with farmers to preserve and increase agrobiodiversity on their farms and in farming communities is a promising and underutilized strategy for reducing rural hunger and malnutrition.  

Measuring and monitoring agrobiodiversity presents some difficult methodological choices.  Should we measure crop diversity, or do non-crop organisms matter as well? Should we measure at the species level, or should we also pay attention to varieties and land races? Can we simply ask farmers what they grow in a survey, or supplement surveys with direct observations in the field? The answers to these and other questions depend on the context and the overarching questions behind the measurements.  I'm currently working on a practical guide to choosing metrics and designing agrobiodiversity and food security monitoring protocols.  I can help your organization design rigorous protocols that provide data relevant to the most pressing question you have. 

In my experience, working closely with famers and their institutions is the most accurate, cost-effective, and relevant way to monitor agrobiodiversity.  First, through consultations with farmers, you can identify questions that matter to them, and choose appropriate metrics that speak to those questions. Second, local people are much more qualified to identify local plants and animals than are outside researchers-- I learned this over and over as I struggled to identify the many hundreds of useful plants in Yucatan, Mexico, and instead relied on my collaborators who grew up with those plants.  Third, having community members participate in the research process makes it much easier to communicate the results to the community when the project is finished.  Fourth, employing local people - especially young people - as researchers can provide much-needed jobs and advanced learning opportunities in rural places.