Why crop diversity and efficient stakeholder communication matters
Good field research starts with a challenging question, continues with a bulletproof methodology and flawless execution and ends triumphantly with the publication of novel scientific findings, such as highlighting the role of large-scale crop diversity for pest regulation in winter wheat. However, behind the scientific curtain dramas occur, and researchers - especially young ones - learn some lessons for life that no science class could have taught them. For example, how to deal with farmers speaking a most peculiar dialect...
Humans are creative minds, resourceful and innovative. Take agriculture. We have reshaped the face of the earth first with bare hands and animal-drawn ploughs, then with high-tech, remote-controlled machines cultivating expansive monocultures. However, this intensification and homogenization of farming is one of the main drivers of global biodiversity loss, the degradation of agricultural ecosystem services such as biological pest control, and reductions in yield.
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Chapter I - The research
We set out to answer these questions in a German farming system based on winter wheat, the aphid pest Sitobion avenae and its natural enemies (predatory arthropods but also insectivorous birds). We used natural enemy exclusion experiments to assess biological control on fields situated in landscapes with different levels of crop diversity at multiple spatial scales.
Natural enemies observed in our winter wheat fields (from left to right): web-building spiders, ladybirds, lacewing and syrphid larvae and their prey, the cereal grain aphid Sitobion avenae. Photos © Sarah Redlich
And indeed, we found that - independent of bird presence - aphid regulation was improved by up to 33% in landscapes with high crop diversity, especially on the farm scale. From an ecological and policy perspective, this is great news. Our study suggests that both farmers and policy makers can contribute to fostering biodiversity and ecosystem services in farming systems by increasing the number of crops grown within a landscape or putting relevant policies in place. This may even allow for the reduction of insecticide application, a major improvement for ecosystem health.
Increased crop diversity enhanced abundances of natural enemies and biological control. Graphic © Sarah Redlich
Chapter II - Behind the research
Selecting study sites for field experiments is never easy, but when I started this project I soon realized it would be even harder this time. Why? Because we conducted our research on real-life working farms. There were a thousand things to consider, for instance the joint design common to the Liberation project, the available infrastructure and an almost insane number of prerequisites that disqualified most winter wheat fields in the region right from the start. There were initial methodological issues we had to overcome (e.g. how to increase success rates of aphid inoculations or standardize aphid populations in exclusion cages?). And of course, stochasticity. Farmers accidentally fertilized or sprayed plots that ought to be exempted from regular field management, exclusion tents were blown away during storms or destroyed by wild boars, fields were inaccessible
due to flooding or farming activities on the field. In the best case, these unexpected problems required additional work, in the worst case, it meant loss of replication.
To standardize the natural enemy exclusion experiment as much as possible, a lab-reared Sitobion avenae clone was used, acclimatized to local conditions in outdoor cages (left) and reared on winter wheat (middle). On-field winter wheat patches used for the exclusion experiment were covered with permeable fleece prior to aphid inoculation and all natural enemies removed. Natural enemies were then able to resettle after successful establishment of aphid populations once final exclusion cages were set up. Photos © Sarah Redlich
However, there was one essential aspect to conducting this study that I completely underestimated at the start. In fact, this was the very first obstacle I encountered even before I had the chance to find out whether the field I had in mind would fit the long list of criteria: communication with farmers.
Being a native German speaker, in theory language should not have been an issue. Well, I was wrong. I had done all my previous under- and postgrad studies in New Zealand. As a young researcher, I had just mastered the impressive task of writing scientific publications in a foreign, highly academic language. Now I had to start from scratch, because talking to farmers required a whole new vocabulary and a lot of patience. The dialect of Lower Franconian farmers is very peculiar, reduced to the bare minimum of words, syllables and consonants. And to complicate matters, they are known to be taciturn, grouchy, pessimistic and suspicious. Using scientific jargon only increased their distrust - which meant that any requests for allowing our study to be conducted on their farm were likely to be refused straight away.
It took me a while (and numerous fruitless calls and conversations) to learn my lessons. And obviously these do not only apply to farmers, but can be extended to communication with other stakeholders within different research areas. Communication with policy makers, politicians or the general public, especially children, is yet another fun challenge that some, but not all, natural scientists will encounter in their research.
So here are my top 4 things to consider when dealing with stakeholders:
- Language: Forget all the fancy scientific jargon and go back to the basics. Fully immerse yourself in the language or regional dialect and learn how to understand and adapt to it. Active listening and aiming to understand stakeholder perspectives is often more important for convincing them than eloquent statements about the importance of biodiversity and insects, sustainability, science and what not
- Demeanour: Get used to being eyed suspiciously and stand your ground. Don't give up too fast, some people will try to test you before getting down to business. Grumpy characters? Learn to make them smile! Sometimes it's enough to comment on their beautiful sandstone farmhouse or the ostrich farm next door
- Timing: Most people are extremely busy, so keep it short and simple. Make sure you choose the right timing to approach/call people you want to convince
- Being human: Ask for advice and admit your weaknesses or knowledge gaps – it shows them you value their opinion and are only human after all. More importantly, it will make it easier to convince them if the final objective of applied research is the implementation of scientific findings by stakeholders.
Of course, this is still not the end of it, because apart from dealing with methodological and communication issues, this and other field studies also taught me a lot about trying to balance a passion for science with my aspiration towards being the best-possible mother for my two young children... but this is yet another story.
So here is what it all boils down to:
Crop diversity matters. And it does not only matter for biological control, but in the wider context also for the resilience and resistance of ecosystems to global change, for food security and human well-being.
Knowledge matters. And not just knowledge about scientific methodologies or having contingency plans in case stochasticity calls, but also about non-scientific aspects of doing science, such as dealing with stakeholders and overcoming communication challenges. This is nothing we learn in "Being a researcher 101". Instead, this is learning-by-doing, and next to gaining new scientific insights certainly the most rewarding aspect of research.