Berkeley awarded $1.3 million NSF grant to study diversified farming systems

September 27, 2018
Headshots of Tim Bowles, Carl Boettiger, Alastair Iles, and Claire Kremen.

Faculty members Tim Bowles, Carl Boettiger, Alastair Iles, and Claire Kremen.

Increasing food production to meet the world's food needs while ensuring long-term economic and ecological sustainability is one of the 21st century’s biggest challenges. Researchers at UC Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management (ESPM) are investigating how farming methods that focus on supporting biodiversity may play an important role in addressing this challenge, while lessening the harmful effects of intensive farming methods.

UC Berkeley has been awarded a $1.3 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to conduct ecological research and socio-economic analyses on lettuce farms that vary in their use of practices that support biodiversity. The project will take place along the central coast of California, one of the nation's most productive agricultural regions—yet also an area in which the negative effects of intensive farming are readily apparent.

Tim Bowles, an ESPM assistant professor, will lead the project along with an interdisciplinary team in ESPM composed of professors Carl Boettiger, Alastair Iles, and Claire Kremen, as well as Danny Karp at UC Davis, who is also a former ESPM postdoctoral fellow. The NSF program that will fund the project, Dynamics of Coupled Natural Human Systems, focuses on research that improves understanding of human-environment interactions.

One major goal of the project is to understand an important cycle of interactions between farmers and their land: how potentially conflicting policies and market pressures affect farmers’ ability to adopt management practices that support biodiversity, how these practices affect birds and soil microbes that underpin ecosystem services like maintenance of soil fertility, enhancement of water conservation, and reduction of the spread of foodborne pathogens, and how these services in turn affect the profitability and sustainability of farms.

Findings based on socioeconomic and ecological approaches will be integrated to model how farmers navigate conflicting policies and market requirements and to identify the consequences of their choices for biodiversity, ecosystem services, and sustainability.  The integrated model will form the basis of a decision-support tool that will enable farmers, local policy makers, and nongovernmental organizations to evaluate the complex effects of various policy incentives and supply-chain requirements on farm productivity, profitability, and regional biodiversity.  The project will provide education and training opportunities to engage in socioecological scientific research for more than 20 post-doctoral researchers, graduate students, and undergraduate students. The project also will develop infographics and fact sheets, and conduct community events, workshops, and other forms of outreach for farmers, consumers, policy makers, and the public.

“Through this project we are excited to learn from farmers who promote biodiversity on their farms, including the benefits they get from doing so, and the barriers to using these practices,” said Bowles. “By taking this interdisciplinary approach, we hope to inform smart policies that would allow more farmers to rely on biodiversity for increasing the profitability and sustainability.”

Read more about the grant on the NSF website.