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Citizen Science Needed to Help Feed the World

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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.

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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.

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.”

Want more citizen science? Check out SciStarter’s Project Finder! With 1100+ citizen science projects spanning every field of research, task and age group, there’s something for everyone!

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Ecology

Globe Climate: Canada’s resource reckoning is coming

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Good afternoon, and welcome to Globe Climate, a newsletter about climate change, environment and resources in Canada.

This afternoon, the Alberta government announced that it is restoring a coal mining policy it revoked last spring. At the time, the move provoked a widespread public backlash detailed by The Globe. The original decision, which opened up more than 1.4 million hectares to exploration, was made without public consultation. Premier Jason Kenney previously defended the changes.

Lots more on coal and Canada’s resources industry in this week’s newsletter edition.

Now, let’s catch you up on other news.

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Ecology

‘Incredibly destructive’: Canada’s Prairies to see devastating impact of climate change

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As the climate continues to warm at an alarming rate, experts warn if dramatic steps to mitigate global warming are not taken, the effects in Canada’s Prairie region will be devastating to the country’s agriculture sector.

According to Environment and Climate Change Canada, the country is warming, on average, about double the global rate.

Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the U.S. recently found 2020 was earth’s second-hottest year on record, with the average land and ocean surface temperature across the globe at 0.98 of a degree C above the 20th-century average.

However, the agency found the northern hemisphere saw its hottest year on record, at 1.28 degrees C above the average.

“(In Canada) we are looking at about 6.4C degrees of warming this century, which isn’t much less than one degree per decade, which is just a terrifying rate of warming,” Darrin Qualman, the director of climate crisis policy and action at the National Farmer’s Union said.

Qualman said there is “massive change coming” to Canada’s Prairies, which will be “incredibly destructive.”

“It’s not going too far to say that if we made that happen, parts of the Prairies wouldn’t be farmable anymore,” he said.

According to the federal government, in 2018 Canada’s agriculture and agri-food system generated $143 billion, accounting for 7.4 per cent of the country’s GDP.

The sector employed 2.3 million people in 2018. The majority of the 64.2 million hectares of farmland in Canada is concentrated in the Prairies and in southern Ontario.

The effects of climate change are already being felt on the ground in the Prairies, Qualman said, adding that the NFU has already heard from farmers complaining of “challenging weather.”

“People are sharing pictures of flattened crops and buildings, et cetera, that have been damaged,” he said. “And we’re still at the beginning of this.”

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Ecology

Insect-based dog food aims to cut your pet’s carbon pawprint

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Meat has an enormous carbon footprint, with livestock liable for about 15 per cent of worldwide emissions, as we have beforehand mentioned on this e-newsletter. That is prompted specialists to suggest consuming much less meat for sustainability (and well being) causes.

However what about your pet? One research discovered that the methane and nitrous oxide emissions generated by canine and cat meals within the U.S. alone had been equal to about 64 million tonnes of CO2, or roughly the quantity produced by 13.6 million automobiles. And it might be getting worse, with a development towards feeding pets “human-grade” meat.

That is prompted some pet meals makers to look to lower-carbon protein sources — together with bugs.

Research present that producing insect-based meals requires far much less feed, land and water and generates far fewer greenhouse fuel emissions per kilogram than meats comparable to beef, pork or rooster.

That is one of many causes increasingly more pet meals containing insect protein are hitting the market. Purina, a model owned by multinational Nestlé, launched a line of canine and cat meals containing black soldier fly larvae in Switzerland in November.

In Canada, Montreal-based Wilder Harrier began promoting canine treats made with cricket protein in 2015 and pet food made with black soldier fly larvae in 2019. It plans to broaden to launch a line of insect-based cat treats later this yr and cat meals in 2022 due to “a ton of demand,” mentioned firm co-founder Philippe Poirier.

Wilder Harrier initially labored with animal nutritionists on insect-based merchandise to unravel a unique downside — specifically, the founders’ canines had allergy symptoms to frequent meats utilized in canine meals. Poirier mentioned now about half its prospects hunt down the product due to their pets’ allergy symptoms and about half for environmental causes.

Dr. Cailin Heinze, a U.S.-based veterinary nutritionist licensed by the American School of Veterinary Vitamin, has written concerning the environmental influence of pet meals. She mentioned we’re typically “not as involved as we probably ought to [be]” concerning the environmental footprint of pets.

Alternatively, she famous that the longer-term influence of newer diets, comparable to vegan meals and people containing bugs, hasn’t been nicely examined in comparison with conventional pet meals.

Maria Cattai de Godoy, an assistant professor of animal sciences on the College of Illinois who research novel proteins for pet meals (together with bugs, yeast and plant-based substances), mentioned such substances are rigorously examined to find out their security and diet earlier than being added to pet meals. 

“This can be a very extremely regulated trade,” she mentioned, however admitted it is also evolving.

Relating to bugs, she mentioned constructive information “reveals promise in direction of utilizing them increasingly more in pet meals.” Insect-based proteins have additionally earned the endorsement of the British Veterinary Affiliation, which says some insect-based meals could also be higher for pets than prime steak.

However Godoy famous that there isn’t any one-size-fits-all resolution, and pet homeowners ought to take into consideration the wants of their very own particular person pet and analysis whether or not a specific weight loss plan can be appropriate.

She mentioned that other than the kind of protein, issues like packaging and manufacturing strategies may also make a distinction. For instance, utilizing meat byproducts that may in any other case turn into waste would not drive elevated meat manufacturing the identical approach as utilizing human-grade meat.

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