Harnessing ecological knowledge for sustainable agriculture.

Professor Rob Brooker is a plant ecologist working at sites across Scotland. His research focuses on the interactions between plants, which can be highly beneficial for biodiversity and ecosystem function. These ‘facilitative beneficial interactions’ can play an important role in increasing biodiversity in many habitats, and agricultural productivity and sustainability in farming systems, with positive implications for both people and planet.

Rob began his career studying plant-plant interactions in alpine and arctic ecosystems, building understanding of the factors regulating the composition and function of these plant communities, and predicting how they might change in response to major drivers such as pollution and climate change.

Win-win situation

His current research in crop systems helps show how beneficial interactions between plants can be harnessed to improve food security and reduce negative environmental impacts in agriculture. For instance, intercropping – the growing of two or more different crops simultaneously on the same land – can deliver a range of benefits: cutting weed and disease impacts, reducing the need for chemical inputs such as herbicides, improving the resilience of yields in an uncertain climate, and increasing wider biodiversity.

This research is part of the multi-stakeholder SEAMS (Sustainability in Education and Agriculture Using Mixtures) project working with organisations including Buglife Scotland, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, Linking Environment and Farming, the National Farmers Union of Scotland, NatureScot, the Royal Highland Education Trust (RHET), Scottish Agronomy and the Soil Association Scotland and crucially, farmers running trials of different crop mixtures on their farms. “It demonstrates,” Rob enthuses, “how it is possible to have win-wins for multiple policy sectors”.

Rob is clearly passionate about this. Writing on the RHET blog, he said “There may be a point in the career of many researchers when they take a step away from being dispassionate observers and decide instead to get their sleeves rolled up and try to make a difference. For me, this opportunity has arisen through the SEAMS project.” Integrating results into education, practice and policy is crucial in this Esmée Fairbairn Foundation-Funded project; many of the participating farmers host visits from school groups, helping pupils understand more about sustainable food production and the importance for this of biodiversity, as well as policymakers and food producers.

A white man with a beard and glasses, wearing a blue cap and checked grey shirt, carrying a backpack and smiling at the camera
Professor Rob Brooker

Discovering something new

Rob is frank about the inspiration behind his career: “Honestly, I like being outside and wanted to travel! I thought I’d be a nature reserve warden but then someone suggested I should consider doing a PhD, and I was lucky enough to undertake one that gave me the chance to do fieldwork in northern Sweden.” Bitten by the science bug, he says, “I enjoy finding out new things, whether that’s generating basic fundamental knowledge or testing new solutions to important environmental problems – in both cases there’s a pleasure in simply discovering something new.”

Having worked at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Banchory, he moved to the James Hutton Institute in 2006 and became Head of the Ecological Sciences Department in 2020. He credits his success to “a mix of luck, looking for opportunities, and working hard to prepare for opportunities or making the most of them when they come along.”

Rob is quick to acknowledge his colleagues too: “I’ve been incredibly fortunate in having some excellent collaborators who are both great scientists and with whom it’s been a pleasure to work. The sense of friendship and personal commitment in these collaborations makes the inevitable hard work that bit easier … I also like talking to people!” he admits. “The crop mixtures work has given me a chance to spend much more time talking to farmers and this has given me a better understanding of the issues around integrating biodiversity conservation into farming systems.” This is something he would like to pursue further, “especially in terms of understanding barriers to uptake of this kind of sustainable farming approach.”

Keeping biodiversity conservation on the table

Rob considers innovation to depend upon collaboration, both among scientists in different disciplines, and between scientists and, for example, land managers on the ground. “We need to understand the challenges they face,” he explains. He also argues the case for the novel thinking and approaches that early career researchers can bring. “We need to support their training and development.” Enjoying what you do also helps: “Of course we need to do high quality science which uses our funding to address important questions, but it’s okay to have fun too!” he says.

In the run-up to COP15, the big challenge we all face is “keeping the need for biodiversity conservation on the table,” says Rob. “Biodiversity conservation costs money and is still seen as a potentially easy target by some. The immediate challenge is to continue building the evidence-base about the role of biodiversity in delivering benefits to society, and to develop solutions which provide the win-wins for multiple policy sectors including biodiversity conservation.” His own research certainly ticks all these boxes.

Professor Rob Brooker is Head of Ecological Sciences at the James Hutton Institute. His work is supported by the Scottish Government’s Strategic Research Programme, the Esmeé Fairbairn Foundation, and previously the European Union. Find out more here.

This post is part of a series showcasing Scotland’s innovative, high-impact research supporting biodiversity conservation, in partnership with Scottish Government and NatureScot. Read the rest of the series here.

Further reading

Brooker, R.W. et al. 2014. Improving intercropping: a synthesis of research in agronomy, plant physiology and ecology. New Phytologist 206(1): 107—117. https://doi.org/10.1111/nph.13132

Schöb, C., et al. 2014. Intraspecific genetic diversity and composition modify species-level diversity–productivity relationships. New Phytologist 205(2): 720—730. https://doi.org/10.1111/nph.13043

Brooker, R.W., et al. 2021. Does crop genetic diversity support positive biodiversity effects under experimental drought? Basic and Applied Ecology 56: 431—445. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.baae.2021.05.001

Brooker, R.W., et al. 2021. Facilitation and biodiversity–ecosystem function relationships in crop production systems and their role in sustainable farming. Journal of Ecology 109(5): 2054—2067. https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2745.13592

George, T.S., et al. 2022. Harnessing ecological principles and physiologic mechanisms in diversifying agricultural systems for sustainability: experience from studies deploying nature-based solutions in Scotland. Frontiers of Agricultural Science and Engineering 9(2): 214—237. https://doi.org/10.15302/J-FASE-2021437