For more than a hundred years, the United States government has paired university scientists with local farmers to study how best to feed the world. These extension programs helped to more than double agricultural production in the U.S. between 1948 and 2001 by sharing knowledge between farmers and university researchers. These extension programs—which bring knowledge gained through research to agriculture and knowledge gained through practice to education—helped to more than double agricultural productionin the U.S. between 1948 and 2011. Unfortunately, while issues like climate change, burgeoning populations of invasive species, and population growth increase pressure on our food systems today, a reduction in federal funding for extension programs is threatening their success when we need them the most. Enter citizen science. In November, an international team of more than three-dozen researchers published a paper, “The Role of Citizen Science in Addressing Grand Challenges in Food and Agriculture Research,” on how citizen scientists can help farmers and extension programs improve food security in the face of these threats. The researchers analyzed hundreds of academic articles about everything from crop pests and pathogens to biodiversity and ecosystem services, as well as a number of ongoing projects that have not yet appeared in academic journals, including projects listed on SciStarter. They found that, while citizen science produces scientifically robust findings that address real-world issues, most projects do not focus on food or agriculture. The paper, which was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B., concludes that more needs to be done to build collaborations between extension programs and the citizen science community. “These two groups have a lot of overlap in their goals, but are in some ways very disconnected,” said Sean Ryan, a Citizen Science Fellow at North Carolina State University and lead author of the paper. By better connecting extension programs with the citizen science community, researchers can capitalize on each of their strengths and allow them to learn from one another, he said. According to Ryan, extension programs can serve as research hubs, helping scientists to design projects, analyze data, and share results. Citizen scientists can help extension programs “scale up” their projects over geography and time while reducing costs. Volunteer Variations Food systems citizen science volunteers can come from all walks of life. First, there are the farmers themselves, who have direct access to the soil, plants, water, and insects on their land. “Farmers are the best at knowing their land and how that land is managed,” Ryan said. This knowledge is very valuable to researchers, but farmers also have many things to worry about and don’t generally have a lot of extra time to devote to projects unless they can see a direct benefit. Another model is to invite people from the general public who already enjoy social activities, such as apple picking at their local farms, to go one step further by collecting data during their visits. A third model could involve asking citizen scientists to collect data on things like plants, pests, and pollutants found just outside farms to better understand how the surrounding environments influence and are influenced by agriculture. Beyond these groups, Ryan told SciStarter that there is the somewhat untapped group of DIY (Do It Yourself) urban farmers who like to experiment with new and creative ways to grow food in the city. Their efforts could be harnessed and expanded upon through partnerships with extension programs. “Instead of bringing people to the farm, we could bring the farm to the people,” he said.
The outreach of citizen science could even serve communities that currently don’t receive extension program services. For instance, Cape Citizen Science is a stand-alone citizen science project that engages volunteers in the early detection of new disease epidemics in South African crops. From Pathogens to Butterflies While food-related citizen science projects generally lag in number behind disciplines such as physics and biology, the study did highlight a number of examples of active projects. These include TreeSnap, which focuses on genetic resistance in plants; The Great Pumpkin Project, which documents pumpkin pests, pathogens, and pollinators; and Ryan’s own research, The Pieris Project, which looks at the world’s only invasive pest butterfly.
Pictures from Tree Snap, the Great Pumpkin Project, and The Pieris Project. Harnessing Technology The study also examined at the role of technology in empowering citizen scientists who want to study food systems. Examples include drones that can take photos of landscapes; cell phone applications that use artificial intelligence to identify pests; growth chambers that measure Co2 levels; and 3D printers that make tools to measure how moisture moves through plants. Beyond contributing to scientific research, citizen scientists studying agriculture can educate local communities about the food systems they rely on, thus creating an informed citizenry able to thoughtfully contribute in this area. “What is really exciting about developing these kinds of citizen science projects is that they can dramatically enhance the scale of food systems research,” Ryan said, “And they help the public connect directly to the challenges facing them.”
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