How to feed the world

Since Bob Geldof’s Band Aid concert in the early ‘80s, the world’s population has increased by more than half.

How will we feed the world now?

Agriculture has already spread over half the habitable surface of our planet — and is destroying Earth’s ecosystems and climate in its wake. We must reconcile competing needs for biomass production, reduced greenhouse gas emissions and habitat protection. The fate of our world depends on it.

Nature gives us countless
gifts for free, and all are
endangered by intensification
of agricultural production.

The 2018 Spotlight finalist Optimizing the delivery of multiple ecosystem goods and services in agricultural systems finds new ways to optimize agricultural land for all needs of society — to ensure both food security and conservation of the species and environment on which it depends.

This impressive volume has struck fertile ground, with an average of almost 7 citations per article to date, as well as more than 70,000 article views and 11,000 article downloads.

Dr Maria Tsiafouli explains why she and fellow ecologists Dr Evangelia Drakou, Dr Alberto Orgiazzi, Prof Katarina Hedlund and Prof Karl Ritz launched the Research Topic, some of its outcomes, and what winning the 2018 Frontiers Spotlight Award would mean for this vital field.

Why was this Research Topic created? 

“Nature gives us countless gifts for free — things like pollination, water purification, nutrient recycling, oxygen production and mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions,” says Tsiafouli. 

To recognize their huge economic value, ecologists call these gifts ecosystem services.

“And all are endangered by intensification of agricultural production — primarily through a reduction in biodiversity both above and below the soil.”

The Research Topic evaluates the impact of human pressures on the provision of ecosystem services and presents new measures for more sustainable management of agricultural areas. 

“To look after ecosystem services, we need synergy between different kinds of ecosystem services — those that support and regulate natural systems and those that provide goods like food and water.”

What type of research is included? 

The articles in this collection consider what it takes to optimize the delivery of multiple ecosystem services in agricultural systems, from many different angles.

“They deal with interactions at multiple scales of time and space, within theoretical frameworks and applied practices, in different climates and different agricultural systems,” explains Tsiafouli.

In general, the research converges around the impact of different agricultural practices and the way agricultural land is located in the landscape, the effects on climate and biodiversity, and solutions for reducing this impact.

What are some outcomes of this Research Topic? 

“The studies can be grouped into four main categories, all of which have produced fascinating results,” says Tsiafouli.

A set of theory articles shows how configuration of agricultural land can be optimized for increasing food production while maintaining agricultural soil quality and biodiversity. One of these has had a particularly strong impact, with 29 citations.

“This article advocates combining ‘land-sharing’ with ‘land-sparing’: single farms or small groups that are a mosaic of intensively farmed and ‘natural’ land, interspersed with targeted, incentivized conservation of larger forests, forest remnants and semi-natural grasslands.”

Another set highlights the significance of pollination and outlines ways to preserve and enhance pollinators and their habitats.

“An eye-opening opinion piece points out that EU pesticide legislation has little scientific evidence to draw on, and pollinators remain in serious danger. The majority of toxicity studies look at exposure in honey bees, while neglecting wild bees and other important pollinating insects — as well as long-term population consequences.”

A third group of articles focuses on agricultural practices related to soil and soil biodiversity and ways to increase multi-functionality in agro-ecosystems.

“A meta-analysis of more than 100 studies on soil bacterial communities showed that abundance of specific species correlates predictably with farming, productivity and nutritional content of the soil — suggesting that bacteria could be used as a soil health indicator that guides land-use decisions.”

The remaining articles reveal how different types of farmlands — such as grasslands, perennial, and high nature-value farmlands — are providing multiple ecosystem services in the long-term.

“One of these describes how vineyards can be managed to provide cultural and scientific ecosystem services — which complement more visible ones like grape production and pest and disease control.”

Why should this Research Topic win the 2018 Spotlight Award? 

These outstanding contributions are already informing and stimulating further research on ecosystems services in agricultural systems.

“But winning the 2018 Frontiers Spotlight Award — with a prize of US $100,000 to fund a conference on the topic — would drive this success onward toward its ultimate goal of feeding the planet sustainably,” says Tsiafouli.

“Our conference would bring together different research disciplines — as well as policy makers, industrialists and consumers — to bridge gaps among concepts, scopes and methodologies.

“In particular, we need to build on theoretical research to create practical, effective ecosystem management solutions for a greater range of climate types, agriculture types and other specific circumstances.”

About the Frontiers Spotlight Award

The annual Frontiers Spotlight Award supports emerging and important fields of research published as a Research Topic in Frontiers journals. The winning team of Topic Editors receives US$100,000 to organize an international scientific conference on the theme of their successful Research Topic. Learn more about the Award

About Frontiers Research Topics

Research Topics are peer-reviewed article collections published around specialized themes. They bring together leading researchers from different institutions, locations and fields of interest, who collaborate and contribute articles.

Published on Frontiers’ award-winning platform, Research Topics are fully open and accessible, and become highly visible collections of work, enhancing both the readership and citations of articles. Learn more about Research Topics

How to enter

Every Research Topic that closes within the award period and is completed with at least 10 articles, will be considered for the Spotlight Award. Shape your field and have the chance to organize your own conference – suggest your Research Topic today!

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Research Topic Editors

Maria Tsiafouli     Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece

Maria Tsiafouli
Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece

Evangelia G Drakou     University of Twente Enschede, Netherlands

Evangelia G Drakou
University of Twente Enschede, Netherlands

Alberto Orgiazzi     European Commission, Joint Research Centre, Belgium

Alberto Orgiazzi
European Commission, Joint Research Centre, Belgium

Katarina Hedlund     Lund University, Sweden

Katarina Hedlund
Lund University, Sweden

Karl Ritz     University of Nottingham, UK

Karl Ritz
University of Nottingham, UK