New citizen science platform allows everyone to shape agroecological transitions

The One Million Voices of Agroecology platform maps sustainable practices around the world and promotes the global exchange of knowledge and experiences within the agroecology community
People working on tea plantation. Photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh

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Citizen science actively involves people in the generation of new scientific knowledge.

Engaging the broader community, beyond those who already consider themselves to be scientists, is an important aspect of agroecology. In practice, the extent to which citizens are involved in such projects can differ considerably.

To help promote inclusiveness, the Transformative Partnership Platform on Agroecology (Agroecology TPP) recently launched a citizen science digital platform as part of the One Million Voices initiative, with the support of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC)

Developed together with the Agroecology Map team, the One Million Voices of Agroecology platform easily allows users – be those farmers, producer organizations, consumers or anyone else interested in agroecology – to characterize and evaluate their diverse agroecological practices and locate them on a worldwide map. An additional feature also enables users to comment on other users’ entries, fostering global exchange and co-creation of knowledge within a community of agroecology practitioners. 

The online launch event, attended by over 280 people and moderated by Agroecology TPP Coordinator Matthias Geck, featured 10 speakers representing different fields of research as well as farmers’ and civil society collectives.

“This is just the start. We are hoping this platform will be the gateway to us beginning to interact fully with farmers and other food-system actors around the world in order to set the agenda for agroecology science from the bottom up,” said Fergus Sinclair, Chief Scientist at CIFOR-ICRAF and Co-convenor of Agroecology TPP.

The aim of the One Million Voices initiative was to develop a citizen science tool that not only enables people to exchange information, but also supports the widespread adoption of agroecology, and, at the same time, contributes to the collection and co-creation of new knowledge on the performance of agroecology, according to Lisa Fuchs, Social Systems and Engagement Scientist at CIFOR-ICRAF and Scientific Coordinator of the Agroecology TPP.

“One of the fundamental things, beyond all the other things that citizen science does, is that it tries to respond to a targeted research question,” Fuchs said. “So, defining a research question that is relevant in the context of citizen science supporting agroecology was a fundamental part of the dialogue.”

The process of defining relevant research questions and features for this new tool involved conducting a global review of existing citizen science initiatives that are relevant to agroecology, which has been published in a Working Paper. Furthermore, it entailed engaging dialogues and partnerships with regional networks in West Africa, Latin America (Andes), Southeast and Central Asia, as well as South Asia.

Joint prioritization of emerging interests led to a focus on three core research questions: (1) which agroecological practices are implemented around the world – and how they are characterized, (2) what impact these agroecological practices have across contexts, (3) who practices agroecology and participates in agroecology movements.

The platform itself has three main features. Users can: (i) register and map a location where they practice agroecology, (ii) share which practices they implement and how they perform, (iii) connect with other users, filter the data, comment, exchange, and mobilize. Fabio Ricci, Global Project Communications Coordinator at CIFOR-ICRAF and Communications Officer for the Agroecology TPP, gave webinar participants a guided tour of the app which can be replayed on the website of the platform.

“Not everyone will use the tool, but you need to have the platform for people who can share data,” said Eduardo Fernandes Formighieri, a research scientist and co-founder of Agroecology Map. “In general, people who work in agroecology, at least in Brazil, love to share knowledge and learn. One of the points when we started the original Agroecology Map, which the One Million Voices platform builds on and feeds into, was to organize knowledge and connect people to one another as well as to the information.” 

Citizen science builds on the voluntary time, efforts and skills of participants. The reasons for participation are different for various stakeholders and can range from participating for fun to expecting something in return. It was, therefore, vital to understand the motivation for participation and think about giving back to participants through long-term benefits from research outcomes, as well as short-term benefits such as advice, data visualizations, or access to educational materials and information.

“When we started putting the original Agroecology Map together seven years ago, a lot of people asked us why they should provide their data and what they would get in return,” said Marcelo Soares Souza, a software developer and co-founder of Agroecology Map. “We are always thinking about how to give something back to them, and this includes respect and a sense of being part of something. The map shows what they do really matters.”

Swati Renduchintala, an Associate Scientist at CIFOR-ICRAF who works on Andhra Pradesh community-managed natural farming in India, said the virtue of agroecology is to bring the wisdom of communities to the forefront, a key element that has been neglected in conventional industrialized farming systems. 

“This knowledge and wisdom need to be documented,” she said. “The incentive to share knowledge goes well beyond the economic or monetary sense. This platform will bring new voices and the community of practitioners and farmers into the mainstream citizen science narrative.” 

Accessibility and simplicity are other key aspects considered to encourage participation in the One Million Voices of Agroecology platform. Providing the platform in different languages – currently four and counting – is one way of making it accessible. The team indicated planning for further updates that include the use of artificial intelligence for speech-to-text translation. A smartphone application is also in development. Another key aspect is that it is very easy to register a location and practice, while all the additional features are voluntary.

“The platform is very simple but very strong,” said Sergio Iván Larrea Macias, the facilitator for the McKnight Foundation Community of Practice in the Andes. “It allows interactions, and to share experiences, not just among farmers. The agroecology movement is very complex and has many stakeholders – scientists, technicians, farmers, policymakers. The vision of the future is to help them interact.”

The importance of building on existing networks in order to save time, maximize scale and increase the chances of success was also discussed. In the agroecology space, one such example is the Asian Farmers Association for Sustainable Rural Development (AFA), which is a regional network of 20 farmer organizations in over 13 countries.

“When the idea was proposed to co-design a citizen science project for agroecology, we saw it as an important opportunity because for us it can give voice to smallholder farmers who are producing food in an agroecological manner,” said Irish Baguilat, a Coordinator for UN Decade of Family Farming and Women Farmers’ Agenda at AFA. “We see this initiative as one way to recognize that small-scale farmers are not only food producers, but also producers and holders of knowledge that complement what is being produced by scientists and researchers.”

Manfred Kaufmann, a Program Officer at the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, closed the session by demonstrating how the new platform intersects all three dimensions of agroecology – a movement, a practice and a science – by giving everybody a voice and facilitating the sharing of practices and co-creation of scientific knowledge.

“We are only at the beginning of the journey,” Kaufmann said. “The platform needs to be populated with contributions, and we are counting on all partners to widely share the platform and motivate their networks to help make it a living space of documentation and interaction. To use another agroecological metaphor: let’s prepare the soil to make sure that this platform will fall on fertile ground and will grow organically over time.”

This research was funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and is part of the Transformative Partnership Platform on Agroecology.

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