A recent article highlights the value of experiences and knowledge about biodiversity and ecosystems embedded in human societies and the importance of nurturing this hard-won ecological knowledge and understanding of social-ecological systems Photo: N. Desagher/Azote

Biodiversity and food security

Insights from the Shire for the future Earth

Social memory of agricultural practices important for biodiversity and food security

Story highlights

  • Study emphasizes importance of social memory, specifically bio-cultural refugia, for minimizing biodiversity loss while ensuring food security for a growing planet
  • New methodological approach combines discourses on food security, social memory, historical ecology and resilience thinking
  • Study highlights the value of human societies experience and knowledge about biodiversity and ecosystems

In a recently published article in Global Environmental Change, centre researchers Stephan Barthel and Uno Svedin together with colleague Carole Crumely from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, emphasize the importance of social memory for combating the twin challenges of reducing biodiversity loss and ensuring food security for a growing global population.

The authors look at the role of what they call bio-cultural refugia, meaning places that not simply shelter species, but also carry knowledge and experiences about practical management of biodiversity and ecosystem services.

"Bio-cultural refugia are areas that have stored place-based knowledge and experience about cultivation of species and habitats that relate to the many varying and distinctly different historical and geographical conditions," explains Stephan Barthel.

Laying out the plot
In the article the authors establish a new methodological approach in which they combine the discourses on food security, social memory, historical ecology and resilience thinking.

To ensure food security, the authors state, we cannot only look at the biological components of agricultural systems. Throughout the history of agriculture crops have been cultivated in different geographical and historical conditions, and it is important to safeguard also the knowledge of different management practices related to these conditions.

Rather than putting together a museum collection to conserve knowledge in the past, the authors wish to provide a perspective that can help protect practices that have been tested in many different conditions and call attention to the practical importance of maintaining diverse agricultural contexts and management practices.

The wisdom of the Ents
Biodiversity has been gradually eroding in many landscapes since the start of industrial agriculture. Extensive use of agrochemicals and intensification of agriculture in monocultures has increased the vulnerability of many food production systems and may destroy the capacity of landscapes to produce regulating ecosystem services, like the fertility of soils, pollination and natural pest control.

Bio-cultural refugia, in contrast, nurture complex assemblages of species, habitats and entire landscapes that produce vital ecosystem services, as well as social memories of how to steward them. Such bio-cultural refugia often result from many years of smallholder practices. In this way smallholders still play an important role in increasing the resilience of the landscapes of food production, and at the same time such farming systems are surprisingly effective in the ratio of energy return on investment.

No tall tales
The social memory that harbours place-based knowledge can be transferred between generations in many different ways. Not only formal ways of knowledge transfer are important, but songs, stories and ceremonies also prove to be significant carriers of the knowledge.

"These channels of knowledge transfer are not recognized by for example the Common Agricultural Policy, and are therefore at risk of disappearing or being disregarded. In this way such policies tend to threaten memory carriers of place based knowledge, biodiversity and regulating ecosystem services," Barthel says.

The story unfolded
In conclusion the authors want to highlight the value of the rich experiences and knowledge about biodiversity and ecosystems that is embedded in human societies, traditions and cultures, and the importance of nurturing this hard-won ecological knowledge and understanding of social-ecological systems.

"This type of knowledge and insight is especially important when it comes to tackling the challenges we are facing in the Anthropocene. A key policy message from the article is the importance of safeguarding interlinked bio-cultural diversity. We see this as a key aspect in future stewardship strategies for our planet," the three authors conclude.

Published: 2013-11-04

Related info


Barthel, S., C. Crumley, U. Svedin. 2013. Bio-cultural refugia - Safeguarding diversity of practices for food security and biodiversity. Global Environmental Change. DOI: 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2013.05.001

Stephan Barthel's research revolves around aspects in relation to management of urban ecosystem services and resilience. Focus is on social as well as ecological features that influence management practices.

Uno Svedin is a Senior Research Fellow at the Stockholm Resilience Centre and former Director of International Affairs at the Swedish Research Council for Environment, Agricultural Sciences and Spatial Planning (Formas).


Latest news