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Designing InnoVative plant teams for Ecosystem Resilience and agricultural Sustainability

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - DIVERSify (Designing InnoVative plant teams for Ecosystem Resilience and agricultural Sustainability)

Reporting period: 2020-04-01 to 2021-03-31

Society globally faces major challenges in producing sufficient nutritious food for human populations, while using natural resources sustainably, avoiding environmental degradation and further biodiversity losses, and coping with climate change. Agriculture plays a pivotal role in delivering these goals and must adapt. The pressure on farmers to produce food sustainably with fewer agrochemicals poses a significant challenge for maximising yields and reducing losses, with no single solution. Crop scientists must devise novel crop systems for farmers to increase efficiency and reduce pollution, breeders need new knowledge and tools to develop crop varieties suitable for novel cropping methods, and agronomists need knowledge of managing these cropping systems. Scientists acknowledge that agriculture could learn from ecology: natural habitats with high levels of biodiversity often show increased productivity and resource efficiency and are less prone to environmental stresses. Ecological principles used to identify plant traits and mechanisms that enhance the functioning of biodiverse systems could be applied to optimise multi-species crops or ‘plant teams’.
Plant teams offer a promising solution to stagnating crop yields and inter-annual yield instability, particularly under a changing climate. Plant teams that can be grown with limited pesticide use will benefit society through fewer pesticide residues in the environment and crop products. Plant teams that are less dependent on agrochemical inputs will help farmers address challenges from pesticide withdrawals and the carbon cost of fertilisers. DIVERSify aims to promote more widespread growing of plant teams containing legume crops, increasing the availability of plant protein for healthy and nutritious diets.
The overarching goal of DIVERSify was to provide a novel system for sustainable crop production by developing arable and grassland 'plant teams' with improved productivity, pest and disease control and environmental benefits. The six objectives were: 1) identify current best practice for plant teams; 2) determine the mechanisms promoting positive crop-crop and crop-environment interactions; 3) devise improved plant teams and identify potential breeding targets for crops used in plant teams; 4) work with farmers to test plant teams and their management; 5) construct a decision aid for plant team selection and agronomy; and 6) work with stakeholders for participatory knowledge exchange.
DIVERSify’s work has shown that optimised plant team cropping diversifies the crop and the farming system, leading to increased productivity, greater agrobiodiversity, improved ecosystem services and, in some cases, reduced risks from environmental stress. It also provides an opportunity to diversify incomes by innovating with stakeholders along the value chain.
Initially, we consulted agricultural stakeholders in Europe and Africa to identify best practice and challenges in plant team cropping. The resulting scientist-stakeholder partnerships led to participatory research with farmers and refinements in best practice guidelines (Objective 1). Guidelines and protocols were shared with farmers via the ‘InfoHub’ on the project website and are supporting follow-on participatory research by partners.
The stakeholder workshops highlighted knowledge gaps in species combinations, sowing designs, and densities. We conducted plant teams trials across Europe and in Lebanon over 3 growing seasons covering >50 plant teams (cereals, legumes, oilseeds, species-rich forage), generating scientific evidence of best performing species combinations and varieties under low/high input management and different pedoclimatic conditions. Data were analysed to reveal the mechanisms and crop traits underpinning plant team benefits in terms of crop yield and quality, soil fertility, resource use, pest and disease control, and agrobiodiversity (Objective 2). This led to a novel concept for plant breeding using an ‘Ecological Approach’ and an open access plant trait database to support future plant team breeding.
A new minimalistic mathematical model (M3), developed with crop breeders, used trial data to simulate plant team performance under different growing conditions and future climates. The model codes and outputs, along with field assessment protocols and findings on best-performing plant teams, were disseminated to scientists, breeders and farmers to aid selection of cultivars and breeding targets for plant team improvement (Objective 3).
Our network of participatory farmers across Europe, supported by scientists, conducted >40 on-farm plant team trials over 3 years, with parallel trials at partners’ research farms. These generated knowledge about practical management of plant teams and downstream processing of products. Solutions for ‘trouble-shooting’ practical challenges were shared with machinery stakeholders to highlight market opportunities. On-farm trials were demonstrated by farmers and scientists to farming communities to encourage wider adoption. Information on the agronomic, socioeconomic, and environmental performance of plant teams was widely disseminated using multiple resources and innovative films to showcase practices that optimise outcomes (Objective 4).
The CropMIXER tool was co-designed with agronomists to support crop choice and management decisions: a web-based interface allows users to search an open database of plant teams trials using specified criteria (Objective 5). The tool is available via the project website; the future ambition is to fill gaps in coverage. The DIVERSiplotter data visualisation tool and a meta-analysis of plant teams trials provide open access resources for scientific and breeding communities.
DIVERSify partners actively engaged with stakeholders in research, farming, agritechnology and policy to identify solutions to the challenges of crop diversification and increase adoption. We created diverse resources for different end users, carried out hundreds of knowledge-sharing activities, and reached national and global audiences exceeding millions. We consulted farmers and researchers to provide recommendations on the regulatory and socioeconomic enablers to increase plant team uptake, summarised in a policy guide and toolbox on the project website. We collaborated with colleagues in aligned projects to build on synergies and amplify impact (Objective 6).
DIVERSify created a short pathway to impact by working directly with farmers, agronomists, breeders and other stakeholders to co-construct innovations, showcase results, create tools and exchange practical experiences to widen adoption of diversity-rich cropping practices. We devised novel tools and dissemination materials for plant team research and practice: a process-based mathematical model that advances contemporary modelling approaches; an innovative decision aid to support plant team agronomy; and open access resources for research and crop breeding. Our participatory approach built farming capacity to grow plant teams and provided evidence-based recommendations to promote uptake. In line with our overall goal to enhance the socioeconomic performance and environmental resilience of European agriculture, we have optimised a novel system for sustainable food production and nutrition based on plant team crops and value chains with reduced environmental impact.
A faba bean-oat 'plant team' growing in eastern Scotland