Food Security, Equity, & Ecological Sustainability: A Multi-indicator, Process-oriented Framework for Food Systems Research

Our goal is to assess current data and knowledge and synthesize it to build a global theory that explains which properties and practices within social-ecological systems benefit both biodiversity conservation and food security. This holistic, systems-oriented approach to understanding and maximizing multifunctionality in socio-ecological systems radically differs from existing work on food security and biodiversity conservation.

Renewable Energy from Wastewater: A Synthesis of the Agricultural, Energy, & Transportation Sectors & Environmental Tradeoffs

Energy sustainability is a goal of many cities, states, and countries. Thirty-seven U.S. states plus the District of Columbia have implemented renewable portfolio standards to promote the use of renewable energy (Database of State   Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency, 2013). Renewable energy sources include: wind, solar, biomass, hydroelectric, geothermal, landfill gas, and ocean. Each source has its own environmental and socio-economic advantages and disadvantages.

Role of Green Infrastructure

The purpose of this project is to test the hypothesis that the SESYNC process for team-synthesis research can be accelerated by new cyberinfrastructure specific to the research question, particularly when the domain scientists participate in the development process of the cyber tools. The socio-environmental research will be focused on the perception, role, and function of green infrastructure across urban and climate gradients in the U.S.

Goin' Fishing for a Solutions-Driven Community

May 23, 2013

Learning Exchanges for Conservation group

Communications Coordinator

What does sustainability mean to you? To SESYNC, it can mean meeting human needs in an equitable way, while supporting the natural systems upon which present and future life depends. This concept of sustainability is especially relevant when applied to our appetite for seafood: in many instances, we are harvesting fish stocks faster than they can reproduce and catching unwanted or unsellable species, called “bycatch,” that are discarded.

Overfishing is a major socio-environmental problem within the marine realm—it’s jeopardizing both ocean ecosystems and the food security of the billion-plus people that depend on seafood as their primary source of protein. Over the past several decades, we have come to understand that the oceans’ bounties are in fact highly sensitive and terminable. People from every corner of the globe have responded by making positive changes from ocean to table, implementing sustainable fishing practices and making informed, sustainable consumer choices at restaurants and stores.

One of the most effective tools for improving the vitality of fisheries has been to foster communication between fishers and other fisheries stakeholders. That’s where SESYNC researchers Lekelia (Kiki) Jenkins and S. Hoyt Peckham come in.

Earlier this month, Drs. Jenkins and Peckham hosted a workshop at our Annapolis facility to identify lessons learned for how to best organize and conduct fisher learning exchanges—meetings that provide fishers with the opportunity to share challenges and solutions—and to develop a research plan for determining which elements of these exchanges lead to conservation outcomes. Because fisher exchanges are produced all over the world, Drs. Jenkins and Peckham were also interested in conducting comparative analyses, as well as bridging these communities—from Mexico to Malaysia and Madagascar to the Caribbean—to establish an international network of learning exchange practitioners.

This workshop, comprised of participants and organizers from the fisheries, as well as the academic, NGO, and governmental sectors, had actionability on their minds: workshop products should have a real application beyond their research relevance. In their 2½ days together, participants outlined a guide for practitioners to create their own learning exchanges, as well as a research plan to empirically identify best practices through comparative research of ongoing exchanges. Both address the ultimate socio-environmental goal of improving both marine ecosystem health and the wellbeing of fisher communities.

At SESYNC, the other core staff and I had a lot of fun as flies on the wall, watching the interactions between group members and how they used the open space of our facilities. In one of the most meaningful moments for participants during the workshop, the group collected around the kitchen to share personal stories about their experiences with learning exchanges, and the successes they’ve seen borne of them. The profound, shared impact of these individuals’ work laid the framework for building communities amongst fishermen and organizers of fisher exchanges—the central objective defined by Drs. Jenkins and Peckham in their workshop proposal.

We’ll be sharing final results and products from this workshop as they become available, so watch our website, Facebook page, and Twitter feed for updates

Learning exchange stories
Participants gather in the SESYNC kitchen to share personal stories about learning exchange successes.

Picking crabs
Participants enjoy a night of picking blue crabs, the Maryland state crustacean!

Promise & Peril in Assessing Nature’s Value

May 17, 2013

Limits of Ingenuity

Faculty Research Assistant

Research Program Manager

Last Monday on May 6, SESYNC’s Research Program Manager Jessica Marx and Environmental Science Research Assistant Kelly Hondula attended an event at Resources for the Future, co-sponsored by SESYNC, entitled “Responding to Ecological Loss: The Promise and Limits of Ingenuity.” This interdisciplinary and diverse panel—moderated by SESYNC Director of Social Science & Policy, Jim Boyd—brought together scholars, policymakers, and business folks to discuss how technological advancement and conservation priorities can work in concert with each other rather than as opposing forces. When faced with looming ecological loss, can technological innovation develop solutions to vast environmental problems? The panelists tackled this question through a variety of lenses—from scholarly disciplines ranging from economic history to psychology, and from both an NGO and corporate perspective.

Examining the value of nature from historical and psychological perspectives can provide insight into decision-making processes that influence and alleviate present-day problems. The economists argued that the historical loss of natural capital progressed alongside advancements in intellectual and social capital, although at a great cost. A contradiction that the panelists tried to resolve was: as natural capital is lost and ecological resources are degraded, do we value what is left more due to scarcity, or less due to generations adopting new baselines of what is acceptable? The value of nature has certainly shifted over time—not only its economic value, but its inherent and biophysical values. As a psychologist on the panel noted, our perception of what is nature has shifted too—from something “out there,” whether we classify nature as the wilderness or as something we humans are a part of, to even the development of “technological” natures that attempt to mimic natural objects and landscapes.

This discussion made clear that the value of nature spans disciplines and cannot be accurately represented by traditional market ideology. Although we intuitively know that values such as ethics, emotion, and the importance of biodiversity shape our decision-making processes, these forces aren’t currently accounted for in the price signals that have historically led to losses in the natural functioning of socio-environmental systems. The psychologists argued that it would be incredibly naïve to think that we even understand the full extent of the value we’ve lost in ecosystems. Therefore, assigning economic value to resources cannot be the only method we use to combat ecological loss. This idea brought consensus among the panelists: innovation and ingenuity of institutions rather than of technology is where the best opportunities lie in tackling lost ecological functions.

Using the market to value assets is our “normal” approach,” but it is only one tool with which we can approach socio-environmental systems. And historically, this method has not been able to develop the social capital necessary to collectively solve our environmental issues that are inherently rooted in a social world. Instead, we need to broaden our understanding of how collective action, cooperation, and trust can be innovative solutions to address society’s needs while maintaining natural systems.

View video of the entire seminar below:

Endangered Species Day 2013

May 16, 2013

ES Day

Postdoctoral Fellow

In 2006, the U.S. Senate designated the third Friday of May as Endangered Species Day to raise awareness about imperiled species and the successes in species recovery due to protections by the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA). This year also marks the 40th anniversary of the passage of the ESA.

Endangered species recovery is a socio-environmental issue because species conservation involves not only the species of concern, but also the human populations that interact with the species. For example, people may depend upon the use of resources, such as timber in an endangered species’ habitat, and protection of that habitat may change or even eliminate that resource’s availability. Wildlife managers must balance these social and economic considerations with the species’ ecological requirements when creating recovery plans to conserve species.

Because each species has a unique combination of specific biological needs, threats, and social context, management actions and recovery goals can vary tremendously among species. However, that does not necessarily mean that recovery plans are inconsistent or not based on the best available science. As a postdoc at SESYNC, my research aims to understand to what extent the recovery targets for endangered species are based on species’ needs, which are relatively transparent, compared to social, political, or economic factors, which are often not explicitly stated in the recovery plans. One of the goals of this work is to encourage more transparency in the managers’ decision-making process. This research would also quantify relationships between recovery targets and various species attributes, which may be used to establish targets for species with too little biological data to set species-specific targets. There are many such species, including the majority of the 338 Hawaiian plant species that are listed under the ESA.

Celebrate this year’s Endangered Species Day by learning about the endangered and threatened plant and animal species in your area, or listening to the success stories about species that have improved their status on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service website. To find out more about Endangered Species Day, including events in your area and podcasts by the Endangered Species Coalition, visit If you are in the Washington, D.C., area, consider attending the Endangered Species Day events at the U.S. Botanic Garden on May 17.

Click here to learn more about Judy.

Agriculture & Cultural Landscapes: A Reflection on the AAG Annual Meeting

May 9, 2013

Rachel at farmers market
Rachel at a farmers market in Los Angeles.


Graduate Research Assistant

As one of the discipline’s five themes, human-environment interactions are foundational to the field of Geography. Two-way relationships between humans and the environment affect physical and cultural landscapes. This year’s Association of American Geographers (AAG) annual meeting in Los Angeles, CA, offered several thought-provoking sessions around one of the most fundamental human-environment interactions: agriculture.

At this year's meeting, I participated in a paper session entitled “Interracial Dynamics in Urban Agriculture or (How) Race Matters in Urban Agriculture." Presenters addressed human-environment interactions and, in particular, how they play out through cultural landscapes in urban settings. Cultural and ethnic groups engaged in urban agriculture often leave group imprints—which can be structural, aesthetic, linguistic, and ecological—on the community gardens and farms in which they work. For example, in their research on Puerto Rican community gardens in New York City, Laura Saldivar-Tanaka and Marianne E. Krasny point to casitas (small wooden houses used for leisure and cultural activities) and ethnic vegetable crops (such as brujo [oregano], sweet peppers, and kimbombo) as reflecting the gardeners' country of origin.

My paper in development, entitled "Sustainable agriculture in the Jewish community: A Baltimore, Maryland case study," explores a new Jewish cultural landscape emerging on a sustainable community farm. In developing a new cultural landscape, the humans involved on the farm interact with and thus impact the surrounding environment—for instance, by producing etrogs, an otherwise obscure citrus fruit used for ritual activity during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. The farm's resultant, bucolic setting reflects Jewish culture, history, and tradition based on crop variety, architecture, and ritual structures.

Cultural landscapes are a product of human impacts on the environment, but the interaction goes both ways: the surrounding environment (be it a rural farm, urban community garden, or individual-size backyard plot) impacts human culture and behavior. Elements of agriculture may be normalized or incorporated into a farmer's preexisting culture or lifestyle. Agricultural activity may also present new educational and economic opportunities. In his paper “Race, Community Geography, and the Development of an Urban Agriculture Curriculum and Community Partnerships at a Predominately African-American University,” Daniel Block described a new urban agricultural initiative at Chicago State University (CSU), a predominantly African-American institution. The urban agricultural project is intended for the development of black entrepreneurship. CSU's initiative intends to use agriculture as a vehicle for professional development and entrepreneurial endeavors.

While in Los Angeles, I spent time investigating the cultural landscapes surrounding agriculture both within and outside the AAG meeting. My investigation took an experiential turn as I checked out several farmers markets throughout the city. The produce, signage, and vendors reflected cultures different from those in my hometown, and this variation was apparent through the markets' cultural landscapes. For example, I learned how to best prepare and serve cactus leaves (a plant non-native to the DC metro area). Try them in a smoothie! As local farming initiatives continue to grow and diffuse throughout the United States, I look forward to exploring the new human-environment interactions and cultural landscapes that emerge.


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