Eifel Retreat

Eifel Retreat – 2020

2020 was a year when the world was very unsure how to adapt to the Covid pandemic. We were not allowed to visit our university offices, to teach students or to travel. Social life more or less came to a standstill. I took the free time as an opportunity to reflect on three questions that have occupied me already for a long time:

1. How is it possible to integrate the vast knowledge of plant biology for the benefit of food-insecure people?

This question occupied me since 1984 when I worked as a field assistant for plant ecologists on the reconstructed ancient runoff farm Avdat of Prof. Michael Evenari in the Negev desert. We studied whole-plant responses to soil-moisture deficits. Results are included in a book “Flux Control in Biological Systems” edited by E.-D. Schulze (1994).

I subsequently began a farmer apprenticeship and noticed that such precious insights from plant ecology were virtually unknown in agricultural practice. During my later work as a scientist I followed the trend of increasing specialization of plant biology towards molecular biology with growing concern. Collaborations between agronomists and plant biologists became even more remotely imaginable because of the increasing levels of details that needed to be integrated. What better way to experience it than in practice, I told myself, and collaborated for a number of years as a modeler with plant breeders and molecular biologists. In spite of having reached most project goals, translating molecular biological information from a large collection of juvenile hybrids to yield variability using crop modeling and machine learning approaches turned out as a challenge too high. Discussions in our consortium were enriching and stimulated search for future solutions.

I reported our experiences 2019 on the first symposium on integrated plant-physiology at Sitges in Spain. I had recently returned from a research trip to wetlands in the Kilombero valley of Tanzania that was under agricultural development. The difficult life of rural farmers in times of global change was touching. It motivated me to conclude the presentation by saying that they need molecular biologists to keep up with technical challenges associated with global change. I suggested to write an article on this issue. Three intensive months of co-writing with colleagues followed which belong to the best moments in science I ever had. We report on several examples in which plant molecular biology and agronomy were successfully linked. Plant physiological ecology, landscape ecology and socio-ecology have been identified as important mediators to make the results practically relevant for ensuring food security through transdisciplinary research. Further details are given in the article:

Langensiepen M., Jansen M.A.K., Wingler A., Demmig-Adams B., Adams W. W., Dodd Ian C., Fotopoulos V., Snowdon R., Fenollosa E., de Tullio M. C., Buck-Sorlin G., Munné-Bosch S. (2020) Linking integrative plant physiology with agronomy to sustain future plant production. Environmental and Experimental Botany 178: 104125 (Submitted manuscript downloadable here in case you have no access to the journal)

2. How can environmentally responsible agriculture be shaped by environmental policy in practice?

International politics interests me since the early 1980s. I hence didn’t hesitate with a positive response when I was asked in the 2010s if I could coordinate translating findings of a collaborative research “Wetlands in East-Africa: Reconciling Future Food Production with Environmental Protection” into a decision tool for environmental and agricultural policy-makers in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania. Reality was more complex than we had imagined. The decision tool concept turned out as inadequate for practical policy-making. We considered other solutions, but these too proved insufficient. Instead of giving up and returning to more familiar topics, I approached the policy-makers and asked what we had done wrong. In essence, we confused technical with political framing of issues, a mistake that appears to be often made in science-policy cooperation. Several visits to East-African ministries and a workshop led to the idea of jointly formulating a new wetland policy-framework based on the lessons learned. The discussions were enormously enriching and provided a serious opportunity for making a significant contribution to reconciling natural sciences with humanities at the environmental policy level.

Agricultural culivation wetland fringe
A wetland fringe hand-tilled for crop cultivation. Ewaso Narok, Kenya.

A number of challenging questions needed to be answered: How and on what basis are environmental policy decisions taken in principal? How could the wetland policy process be designed from a methodological point of view? How can political and technical decision-making be linked and imbedded into the policy process? How can social deliberation of environmental values be promoted? How can plural values be reconciled? What are the roles of institutions, actor coalitions, stakeholders and lobbyists? Must qualitative and quantitative information always be integrated coherently? How can computers, networks and data science be employed to help policy-makers comprehend large streams of information? Should political decisions be based on artificial intelligence? How can the large uncertainties of environmental policy design be managed in practice?

WetlandNgorongoro
Protected wetland. Ngorongoro, Tanzania

We concluded that environmental policy-making cannot be based on scientific-technical schemes alone, but requires even more so political framing and management of socio-ecological issues. Policy-making becomes more efficient and targeted if social deliberation of political issues is moderated by policy makers and government institutions. We developed a new approach which supports this process. A new cognitive-driven information design method is proposed in this context. Details are given in the article:

Langensiepen M., Omwandho Opiyo E., Kaudia A.K., Rugege D., Richard K., Akotsi E., Ashitiva D., Ningu J.K., Munyazikwiye F., Ngaboyamahina T., Urassa J.K., Ugen M., Sebashongore D., Oyieke H., Misana S., Kammesheidt L., Becker M. (2023) Reconciling East-African wetland conservation with human needs: Managing uncertainties in environmental policy design. Wetlands 43, 36

3. How can future imagination of rural farmers be investigated?

For many years I have been trying to understand how farmers shape their futures. As a trained farmer and applied natural scientist, I was initially focussing on technical design issues. However, with increasing experience, I got the impression that it is more important to understand what is going on in farmer’s minds. Together with colleagues from agronomy, agricultural economy and human geography we initially chose socio-anthropological interviewing approaches for this purpose. We travelled to East-Africa for first open questionnaires. Further interviewing was prevented by the Covid pandemic however. As I studied the information gathered, I wondered if understanding future imagination through socio-anthropological surveys is really appropriate. Certainly important, they provide descriptive information about future-making in situated cultural contexts. However, I wanted to understand the principles and dynamics of future imagination which is a psychological process.

I initially focused on cognition, memory processes in particular. This interest did not arise spontaneously as I used to explain the cognitive basis of our ‘number sense’ to students of agriculture and biology in courses on mathematics and modeling already 20 years ago. After some study, however, I understood that perhaps our unconscious memory plays a much greater role in processing environmental information. Relations between conscious and unconscious memories during mental modeling needed to be understood for getting a handle on future imagination. However, its dynamics could still not be explained on this basis alone. The roles of emotions and embodiment of environmental experiences needed to be considered, too. Only the formation of an integrative understanding of the roles of mind, body, environment and culture in forming farmers’ future imagination allowed the establishment of a theoretical framework.

Future imagination of rural farmer
Naswiru Tibanyendela (2nd from left), a PhD student of our group, studying future imagination of a rice farmer (right) in the Kilombero valley of Tanzania

While gathering material for the review, I became aware of sad reports about the widespread deterioration of farmer’s mental health and increasing suicides. I hope that our review will contribute to raising awareness about what farming means to farmers, how important they are for societies and how sustainable farming futures depend on a healthy relation between both. You will find more details about this article once it has been accepted for publication.

Conclusions and way forward

The Covid pandemic provided a rare opportunity for deep reflection on challenging questions at the boundary between natural sciences and humanities which occupied me for a long time. By writing three review articles together with colleagues, we have demonstrated that leaving trotted paths and branching out into unfamiliar terrains can provide new ideas for meeting challenges of our time.