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Sustainable food systems: can polycultural systems increase both productivity (energy-nutrients-income) & biodiversity?

About This PhD Project

Project Description

This multidisciplinary PhD will explore if complex, intercropped, food production systems can increase both biodiversity & productivity compared to both conventional-intensive & conventional-organic systems.
Project background

Food production systems are failing biodiversity: agriculture dominates global biodiversity loss in existing farmed areas (45% of the ice-free land area) & through the conversion of high-biodiverse areas (farming drives >80% of topical forest clearance). Simultaneously, malnutrition impacts >33% of global population & food demand is increasing; exacerbating the pressures on biodiversity protection & food security.

Ecological theory predicts that polycultural systems will be more productive, more resilient & support higher biodiversity than monocultures, but there little empirical work to support these claims(1-3). In part this dearth of data is due to methodological difficulties: existing agro-ecological survey methods are inadequate for the temporal & spatial heterogeneity in polycultures, & recent socio-economic research identified barriers to systematic yield recording in small-scale production systems(4).

This PhD will forefront a new agricultural revolution: developing new methods to understand polcyculture’s role in sustainability, and understanding the socio-ecological barriers and opportunities to its implementation.
Research questions

1. How do different groups (polyculture growers, conventional farmers, consumers, conservationists, nutritionists, political economists etc) conceive agricultural productivity?
2. What is(are) the optimised assessment approach(es) for biodiversity and productivity in polycultural systems?
3. Which taxa are best supported under different production regimes?
4. Do productivity & biodiversity trade-off or act synergistically in polycultures.
5. What are the wider impacts of polycultural systems, and how socially acceptable are these?


Initial work will generate an understanding of existing methods for data collection from high heterogeneous to simple monoculture sites through a comprehensive review, identifying strengths and weaknesses of present methods. This applies to both biodiversity and production data. The student will engage with how productivity can be defined, including different metrics (from calories to micro-nutrients to economic measures) and how these fit in with wider socio-economic food system frameworks (are there clashes between how consumers/producers/processors understandings of productivity? When might this matter?). Once existing methods are identified, the student will engage closely with growers and through an iterative process, determine an optimal set of data collection methods. It is likely that novel data collection methods, such as eDNA analysis, will allow radically improved methods of data collection.

From the outset the student will build their network of growers, using supervisor contacts, and the project’s non-academic partners including: the CSA (community supported agriculture association), Land-workers Alliance, and the Permaculture Association. These networks will be critical for empirical data collection. It will be important to have at least two seasons of data collection from the field.

One possible route the student may choose to develop is the modelling of the potential nutritional and socio-economic impacts of upscaled polycultural systems. Validating the modelling results, with the public, processors and policy makers, would substantially increase the power of this research

The student will be joining a growing cohort of students researching sustainable nutrition from both supervisors.

M1-M8 Lit review methodologies; identify farms, make contacts

M8- M14 Test and refining sampling strategies (including power analysis); stakeholder engagement with farmers to discuss what’s realistic for monitoring productivity

M12–M30 Major data collection period, including biodiversity and production data from participant farmers

M24 – end. Data analysis, refining methodological tool box, and writing up

Year 1. Review paper on the potential for polycultures to provide sustainable nutrition. Nature Sustainability

Year 2. Methods paper on how to effectively measure biodiversity in polycultural systems. Journal of Applied Ecology

Year 3. Experiment results based paper comparing polycultures and conventional agricultural with respect to biodiversity and productivity: Lancet Planetary Health

Training: A comprehensive training programme will be provided comprising both specialist scientific training & generic transferable & professional skills. Further training details are available https://www.ed.ac.uk/e4-dtp/how-to-apply/our-projects?item=861

Candidates would hold an excellent first degree in ecological sciences, followed by a social/economic masters (or equivalent experience). Candidates should be confident: conducting prolonged independent field research (staying in basic accommodation) & engaging closely with growers/farmers. A driving licence will be essential.

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