Special Feature: Plant Ecological Solutions to Global Food Security

The latest issue of Journal of Ecology (105:4) includes a Special Feature reviewing how plant ecological research can contribute to Global Food Security. Below, Senior Editors, David Gibson and Richard Bardgett tell us more about their Special Feature. 

A burgeoning human population coupled with ongoing climate change is precipitating a global food security crisis. By this we mean that human food and nutritional needs have to be met in a sustainable and equitable way, reducing harmful effects of farming on the environment.

We need to produce and effectively distribute larger amounts of nutritious food grown without compromising native biodiversity and soils, and without additional habitat destruction. This agenda needs to be undertaken at a time of rapid climate change, which in many parts of the word poses a major threat to food production and the ability of land to support crops and livestock; as such, there is need to build food production systems that are both sustainable and resilient to climate change.

1Producing more food in a sustainable and equitable way presents an enormous challenge. But where does plant ecology come in? As pointed out in Kew’s recent State of the World’s Plants report it is now more important than ever that we focus research on learning more about our planet’s botanical resources and how they can be sustainably used. Plant ecologists can help with this challenge.

At an Editor’s meeting in Edinburgh, during the 2015 BES Annual Meeting, we decided that the time was right to look at how fundamental plant ecological knowledge can contribute to the food security challenge. Of course, the challenge of food security requires consideration of all aspects of the food system, from production to consumption; but how can plant ecology, of the kind traditionally published in Journal of Ecology, help?

To this end we have assembled a Special Feature of 10 new mini-reviews (all free to access for a limited time) addressing a number of important ways in which ecological research in plant community diversity and structure, plant population dynamics and plant interactions, and plant–soil (below-ground) interactions, can inform global food security. We commissioned mini-reviews from researchers representing a broad range of plant ecological disciplines giving them the brief to concisely summarize how fundamental plant ecological concepts contribute to this topic in both arable and pastoral systems.

Each review includes a schematic diagram (i.e., data-free mind model) to clarify the concepts being discussed – for example, see the schematic here from Wolkovich et al.’s paper – and most identify some of the hurdles and constraints that need to be overcome to reap the benefits of plant ecological knowledge in practical agriculture. However, for this Special Feature we were more concerned with identifying the crossover between ecological and agricultural research, rather than making specific recommendations for practitioners.


Illustration of how the ecological concept of phenology maps onto phylogenetic relationships among different winegrape varietes (Wolkovich et al. 2017).

The outcomes are exciting as the reviews show how research derived from plant ecology can directly help improve yield, nutrition, wider ecosystem services, and the resilience of agricultural systems to climate change. The papers point out where additional ecological research is needed. A detailed summary of these articles is provided in our Editorial.

As mini-reviews, the papers in this Special Feature also serve to introduce this new article type to readers and potential authors of the Journal. Mini-reviews should be no more than 3000 words, and outline recent developments in the field. Full details are in the Journal’s Author Guidelines.

We hope that you will enjoy reading the papers in this important Special Feature and be encouraged to submit your best research on this topic to the Journal. This is an exciting time for researchers to take advantage of the concepts developed in plant ecology and contribute to the field of agroecology, and global food security in particular. We encourage submissions of new manuscripts that test plant ecological concepts from an agronomic perspective.

David Gibson (Southern Illinois University Carbondale) and Richard Bardgett (University of Manchester)


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