Covering more than a third of the terrestrial, ice-free surface of the planet, agroecosystems are one of the principle interfaces between humans and the environment. Agroecosystems are often areas of both intense pressure and promise, supporting dense human populations, as well as rich and diverse plant and animal communities. While producing agricultural outputs, agroecosystems also supply other ecosystem services vital to human well-being, such as fresh water, clean air, carbon storage, and places for outdoor recreation. In addition, agriculture also supports nearly half the global human population as farmers, laborers, and agribusiness organizations, and contributes on average approximately six percent to the global gross domestic product. But agricultural practices that we use to enhance food production can also cause critical, and at times irreversible, environmental damage. Agriculture’s environmental footprint is pushing humanity to the threshold of global planetary boundaries, driving a need for change for a sustainable and resilient food and fiber future. Thus, a critical challenge for agroecological science is to understand how to best manage agricultural landscapes to avoid eroding the human and other communities they support, and how to maintain agriculture resilience within the boundaries of global sustainability.
What if, instead of searching for problems, we instead search for high-performing places and aim to emulate those? These places that are performing substantially better than expected (positive deviation) are called bright spots. I suggest that bright spots in agroecosystems are areas that provide a range of different ecosystem services – including food production – in quantities of interest to local human communities, and support a healthy, diverse ecosystem. My goal is to find the solutions that are already present in the landscape and learn from them. Where are we producing food AND other ecosystem services? Where do we have a healthy environment, conserving species, while still producing food? My work with Dr. Elena Bennett currently explores these question in the Montérégie region of southern Québec, with plans to extend our works across Canada. I am also part of a working group exploring the link between resilience and the future of our food system, jointly lead by the Natural Capital Project and the Stockholm Resilience Center.
Threatened Species in Novel Ecosystems
A rapidly changing world is a challenge that many animals must face, along with the ability to recognize and adaptively react to the changes. As conservation biologists, we must be able to recognize when and how animal populations are declining and properly address the situation to find solutions. This means we must try to 'see' the world as animals see it.
During my PhD at McGill University in the Department of Natural Resource Sciences, my goal was to 'see' the world as a Red-headed Woodpecker, a threatened Canadian bird species. Working with Dr. Jim Fyles from McGill and Dr. Joe Nocera from Trent University, I explored why this once common, widespread species was disappearing across its range. I found that Red-headed Woodpeckers were stuck in an ecological trap, where individuals appeared to 'choose' nesting sites that they were more likely to do worse in. These maladaptive habitat choices were occurring at both small and large scales across the landscape of southern Ontario. I showed that competition with the invasive European Starling was by far the largest threat facing Red-headed Woodpeckers from successfully breeding, due to starling takeovers of the nests early on in the breeding season. Other factors, such as low reproductive output by the species, may also attribute to the population declines in the province.