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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

Yukon and Northern BC First Nations tackle climate change using Indigenous knowledge and science

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YUKON, June 18, 2021 /CNW/ – The Government of Canada is working together in partnership with Indigenous and Northern communities in finding solutions to adapt to the impacts of climate change in the North.

Today, Minister of Northern Affairs, Daniel Vandal, along with Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Economic Development and Official Languages (Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency), Larry Bagnell, highlighted progress on three unique, Indigenous-led projects that are helping communities in Yukon and Northern British Columbia adapt to the challenges posed by climate change.

The Minister and Parliamentary Secretary met virtually with Carcross/Tagish First Nation (C/TFN) to learn about their community-led climate change monitoring program. C/TFN has partnered with Tsay Keh Dene Nation (TKDN) and Chu Cho Environmental of Prince George, British Columbia, to build a community-led monitoring project that examines environmental data and Indigenous knowledge to create a holistic picture of how the climate is changing across C/TFN and TKDN traditional territories. The project combines tracking of current and historical climate trends with knowledge shared by Elders while also providing opportunities for youth mentorship and climate change awareness.

The Taku River Tlingit First Nation (TRTFN) is also leading a unique project to assess the impacts of climate change within their traditional territory. Climate change is causing many of the culturally significant ice patches to melt, exposing organic artifacts to oxygen and leading to rapid deterioration. The TRTFN ice patch mapping project will involve performing archaeological assessments to prevent the degradation of artifacts. Research will be guided by traditional knowledge, Elders and oral histories, when available, and heavily involve community, Elders, youth and Knowledge Keepers.

The Pelly Crossing Selkirk Development Corporation is leading the Selkirk Wind Resource Assessment project through the installation of a Sonic Detection and Ranging (SODAR) system. The initiative includes a feasibility study leading up to the construction of a renewable energy facility, including wind, solar and battery energy storage. Expanding clean energy within the region will have direct benefits for communities, including reduced reliance on diesel, job creation and revenue generation for Selkirk First Nation. 

These projects are delivering important environmental, social and economic benefits that lead to healthier, more sustainable and resilient communities across Yukon and Northern British Columbia. They also build community clean energy capacity and help to avoid the impacts of climate change.

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Ecology

Atlantic Provinces Ready For Aquaculture Growth

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Aquaculture is an important economic driver for rural, coastal and Indigenous communities, and Atlantic Canada is well positioned to increase aquaculture production as global demand for sustainably sourced seafood grows.

That is why the ministers responsible for aquaculture in the Atlantic provinces have agreed to the ongoing development and management of their industries based on common principles. A new memorandum of understanding has been signed by the four ministers, which extends the previous agreement signed in 2008.

“In a time when food security is especially important, it is good to see our aquaculture industry has grown steadily and is poised for continued growth in 2021 based on environmentally responsible, science-based policies and practices,” said Keith Colwell, Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture for Nova Scotia. “Our Atlantic partnership continues to help the industry grow sustainably.”

Cooperation between the provinces and the aquaculture industry has led to improvements in pest management, environmentally sustainable aquaculture methods, aquatic animal health and policies to support the shared use of marine and freshwater resources. It also aims to align regulation and policy between the provinces to make the regulatory requirements easier to understand by industry and the public.

Each province has a comprehensive and robust legislative and regulatory framework to ensure environmental sustainability, economic prosperity and public accountability. The provinces update their legislation and regulations regularly. Nova Scotia revamped its regulatory framework in 2015; New Brunswick received Royal Assent for a new Aquaculture Act in 2019 and is working on the supporting regulations; Newfoundland and Labrador completely revised its aquaculture policy in 2019; and Prince Edward Island has recently drafted a new Aquaculture Act.

The ministers have agreed to continue to use science-based evidence for management decisions, thereby increasing public and investor confidence in the Atlantic Canadian aquaculture industry.

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Ecology

COMING SOON: A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy 2.0

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We all want the same thing: a clean and responsible energy future for our children and future generations while continuing to enjoy a high standard of living.

On December 11, 2020, the Prime Minister announced a new climate plan which he claimed will help achieve Canada’s economic and environmental goals.

The proposed plan by Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) entitled “A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy” will have an initial investment of $15 billion of taxpayer’s money. It is built on 5 pillars of action:

  1) Making the Places Canadians Live and Gather More Affordable by Cutting Energy Waste

2) Making Clean, Affordable Transportation and Power Available in Every Community

3) Continuing to Ensure Pollution isn’t Free and Households Get More Money Back

4) Building Canada’s Clean Industrial Advantage

5) Embracing the Power of Nature to Support Healthier Families and More Resilient Communities  

In my paper, “A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy 2.0” I will objectively critique each pillar in the government’s new climate plan and provide alternative solutions to the same issues.

  This is an alternative plan that supports workers, protects lower income earners and creates economic growth while respecting the environment and focusing on the dignity of work.

  This plan abandons virtue-signaling projects and relies on Canadian ingenuity to build our economy and restore Canada’s role of responsible leadership in the world.

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