Functional traits in agroecology: advancing description and prediction in agroecosystems

Our series of posts on the Special Feature, Functional traits in agroecology rounds up with a post from one of the series’ editors, Adam Martin.

JPE-Agroecology-200x200We’ve always thought “commentary” articles – particularly those that outline a vision for a future field of research – to be an interesting enigma in science. On one hand, many commentary-type articles have been undoubtedly influential and can be pointed to as major blocks in the foundations of entire scientific (sub-) disciplines. But at the same time, many comment/ perspective-type articles can be limited – if not entirely devoid of – detailed observational, experimental, or empirical examples that indicate certain ideas are in fact good or useful. In 2015, we published a commentary article in the Journal of Applied Ecology that predominately fell into this latter category.

In a paper entitled Plant functional traits in agroecology: a blueprint for research, we devised arguments on how and why agroecologists could employ themes and techniques (primarily) from the field of community ecology, to evaluate a major question surrounding agroecology and sustainable food production: does increased crop- and non-crop diversity in alternative agroecosystems, result in greater rates of ecosystem service provisioning, as compared to conventional monocultures?

But in putting our ideas on paper it became clear that, at the time, there were virtually no studies that took a functional trait-based approach to test aspects of this major question in the science of agroecology. There were (and are) thousands of studies focusing on linkages between crop traits and yield (i.e. think about essentially all crop yield simulator models). However our goal was broader, in that we were interested in finding evidence that trait-based agroecology could be used as a means to understand the mechanistic linkages behind agricultural diversity, and ecosystem services other than yield alone.

Support for our ideas at the time was limited to a very small handful of studies (albeit excellent ones) that employed trait-based approaches. Generally, we were forced to support our arguments with multi-step logical linkages, instead of direct empirical evidence.

The same year (nearly in the same month), two other commentary-type papers (Milla et al. 2015 and Wood et al. 2015) were published espousing more or less some of the same ideas as ours surrounding the benefits of taking a trait-based approach to agroecology (one of which was authored by S.A. Wood, a contributor of an empirical study within this Special Feature) . Yet the major point remained outstanding: if trait-based agroecology was such a good idea, we better start proving it.

Flash-forward a couple of years to this Special Feature on Functional traits in agroecology, published in Journal of Applied Ecology. The papers published in this Special Feature, which are summarised in our Editorial, mark the largest and only consolidated collection of research showing how a functional trait approach reveals opportunities and challenges when evaluating agroecological performance and diversification.

Papers in this Special Feature report results from some of the first studies to show that increased functional trait diversity in agroecosystems, has major implications for key environmental dimensions of agroecosystems including belowground nutrient dynamics, plant-soil-microbial interactions, and restoration of agricultural lands. These papers also touch on major applied questions surrounding how centuries of artificial selection have impacted the functional traits of crops in agricultural environments.

As interdisciplinary researchers, it is inspiring to also have contributions in this Special Feature that address socio-economic dimensions of trait-based agroecology. This includes one paper evaluating linkages between on-farm diversity and human nutrition, and another that evaluates how farmers understand and employ functional traits in management decision-making.

From our perspective, it is deeply satisfying to now be able to point to specific papers and research that supports the ideas, applications, and benefits of trait-based agroecology. We hope there are many more contributions to come, and think the multitude of novel ideas and research roadmaps presented within this Special Feature, pave a clear path forward.

More broadly, as our editorial paper discusses in greater detail, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) currently outline a global vision for ensuring the long-term sustainability of the world’s environmental and socio-economic resources. As the diversity of titles in this Special Feature indicates, functional trait-based agroecology is absolutely suited towards making major contributions to advancing the SDGs. As compared to three short years ago, thanks to the authors in this Special Feature and the editors at Journal of Applied Ecology, we now have firm evidence to indicate that functional trait-based agroecology is key in describing and prescribing successful agricultural management in biological complex agroecosystems, as a means to meet some of the most major environmental and socio-economic issues facing humankind.

It is also our hope that the empirical basis for trait-based agroecology brought forth by the papers in this Special Feature, spark novel and thought-provoking discussions on how to generate and test new hypotheses in agroecological systems. While such discussions hopefully contribute to a new wave of interest in the science of agroecology, we also hope they represent paths forward in managing current environmental challenges, as well as future challenges may have yet to encounter.

Functional traits in agroecology features in Journal of Applied Ecology.

Read more posts from the blog series here:


6 thoughts on “Functional traits in agroecology: advancing description and prediction in agroecosystems

  1. This is smashing. I was looking for a theoretical base to underlie my introduction of native plants (especially native legumes) into our small market garden, and came across the concept of functional traits, first in Diaz et al (2004), and then, mining the references, the daisy chain of papers and articles. But… this publication, “Functional traits in agroecology: advancing description and prediction in agroecosystems,” does the real heavy-lifting. I was wondering – has thought been put into the C-S-R plant functional types (Hodgson, et al., 1999)?


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