Elementa author Selena Ahmed explains the relevance of her research on tea in the context of agroecology


“Interdisciplinary collaboration, student involvement, and community engagement are defining characteristics of my research”

Selena Ahmed, co-author of Elementa article Selena Ahmed, Beyond yields: Climate change effects on specialty crop quality and agroecological management, tells us more about her experiences and challenges researching agroecology, and gives us her perspectives on publishing.

Your work examines the effects of environmental and management variation on multiple dimensions of agro-ecosystems in the context of global change. Please tell us more about your current research.

My research focuses on elucidating linkages between agriculture, nutrition, and health in food systems with the objective to inform evidence-based management plans that promote sustainability. This work is based out of the Food and Health Lab that I co-lead at Montana State University with Carmen Byker Shanks. The overall mission of the Food and Health Lab is to carry out basic and applied research on the agroecological, phytonutrient, behavioral, and sensory basis of food systems from farm to consumer to waste. I collaboratively work on two main research areas as part of the Food and Health Lab that are supported by case studies at the local, regional, and international levels. The first area is on Environmental Effects on Specialty Crop Quality and Agroecological Management and the second area is on the Influence of Food Environments on Dietary Quality and Food Security.

I am currently focused on research activities for five federally funded projects that support my two main research areas as part of the Food and Health Lab including the following:

(1)   Climate Effects on Tea Quality and Socio-Economic Responses (NSF CNH)

(2)   Sustainable Socio-economic, Ecological, and Technological Scenarios for Achieving Global Climate Stabilization Through Negative CO2 Emission Policies (NSF EPSCoR)

(3)   Enhancing Dietary Quality through a Community-Based Food Intervention for FDPIR Participants on the Flathead Reservation (NIH INBRE)

(4)   Extension and Outreach Supporting Climate-Resilient Sustainable Agriculture in Montana (USDA Western SARE)

(5)   Climate Effects on the Culture and Ecology of Sugar Maple (USGS NE Climate Center)

I draw from a range of field and laboratory methods in the natural and social sciences to address my research questions including manipulative greenhouse and common garden experiments; biodiversity inventories; phytochemical and bioactivity profiling; crop genetic analysis; interviews, focus groups, and semi-structured surveys; dietary surveys and; sensory analysis.

Interdisciplinary collaboration, student involvement, and community engagement are defining characteristics of my research. The ultimate translational goals of my research program are to identify strategies that reduce vulnerability of agroecosystems and food systems more broadly to global change as well as to design solutions for sustainability towards improving both human and environmental health outcomes.

Selena Ahmed, right, assistant professor of sustainable food systems, examines a sample of maple sap recently harvested and prepared for testing with Rocio Rivas, research assistant and lab manager, in the Montana State University Food and Health Laboratory in Bozeman, Mont. on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2016. Prof. Ahmed is currently researching the climate change effects on maple syrup.MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez
Selena (right) mentoring a research associate, Rocio Rivas, in her Food and Health Lab at Montana State University for her collaborative USGS project on climate effects on maple sap quality.

Photo credit: Adrian Sanchez Gonzalez

Like Elementa, your work is fundamentally collaborative across multiple disciplines. How has a transdisciplinary approach yielded new discoveries in your research?

Looking through a kaleidoscope is a beautiful experience because it enables us to see one scene through multiple forms and colors in a dynamic manner. Likewise, a transdisciplinary approach enables us to see a problem more holistically in dynamic forms and processes. Agroecological, food systems, and global change issues are inherently transdisciplinary in nature and require a transdisciplinary approach to identify challenges and solutions. Taking a coupled natural and human systems approach to understanding social and ecological processes and related feedbacks as well as working with multiple stakeholders in my research has provided diverse perspectives and vantage points to better understand issues and design evidence-based solutions.


Socio-ecological systems framework to examine climate effects of crop quality and farmer responses.This socio-ecological systems framework integrates two underutilized concepts on specialty crop quality and agroecological management that can be applied for future studies on climate effects on specialty crop systems. Agroecosystems (Figure 4a) are the foundation of this framework with natural (or biophysical) components (Figure 4b) that produce crops and human components that interact with these crops (Figure 4c) through dynamic feedbacks (Figure 4d and 4e). Consumers (Figure 4c) may perceive changes in crop yields and quality (Figure 4d) via market signals and sensory profiles that may be more or less desirable for consumers depending on their preferences. Farmers and other natural resource managers may alter the way they manage their agroecosystems in response to consumer decision-making and markets as well as on the basis of their own direct observations, knowledge, and social networks through a range of management, adaptation, and mitigation strategies (Figure 4e). The large arrows linking the agroecosystem (Figure 4a) to exogenous change (Figure 4f) highlights that agroecosystems are human-managed ecosystems that impact, and are impacted by, exogenous variables.

DOI 10.12952/journal.elementa.000092.f004

What fascinates you about the history and sustainability of tea?

I am fascinated by human interactions with the environment and tea provides a remarkable lens to examine these dynamics. Tea is an elegant plant that has influenced cultures, livelihoods, and landscapes for almost 2,000 years. Likewise, humans have shaped tea throughout history and driven the spread of its cultivation and use outside of the motherland of this plant. Hundreds of years of human management of tea in diverse geographic, cultural, and agroecological contexts, each with their own unique terroir, have resulted in a diverse botanical product with a range of tastes and aromas. I am fascinated about what the taste of tea and tell us about a place.

I am further fascinated about how the management of tea influences sustainability. My focal study system is tea agroforestry that relies on a diverse structure and composition for ecosystem services. For the past decade, I have been comparing the biodiversity and resilience of indigenous tea agroforests in southwestern Yunnan with modern intensified tea gardens towards identifying sustainability solutions.

Figure 1.

DOI 10.12952/journal.elementa.000092.f001

Please tell us about your book, The Tea Horse Road: China’s Ancient Trade Road to Tibet.


The Tea Horse Road is a large-format book I co-authored with photographer Michael Freeman that takes readers on a journey along the world’s oldest and highest tea trade route from the motherland of the tea plant in southwestern China to Tibet. The book is an exploration of the rich cultural practices and biological diversity of the lives and landscapes that were touched by the exchange of tea and other natural resources. Agroecological conditions are harsh in the Tibetan Plateau and communities here began to rely on tea from southern Yunnan and Sichuan as a substitute for fruits and vegetables. At the same time, China had a need to defend its northern territory from encroaching kingdoms and desired war horses that Tibet could supply. Thus started what became an exchange of tea from China for war horses from Tibet, with numerous other natural resources, along a network of trails over 3,000 kilometers through forests, gorges and high passes onto the Himalayan plateaus.

Tea farmers harvesting tea from an agroforest in southwestern China.
Tea farmers harvesting tea from an agroforest in southwestern China.

Photo Credit: Michael Freeman (c)

I began working on this book during my doctoral dissertation on biocultural diversity of tea production and consumption. One of the driving forces of my involvement with this book was to disseminate results from my research to a broader audience in addition to a scientific audience. Michael Freeman takes spectacular photographs that very effectively capture the beauty of this ancient trade route as well as has a wonderful knack translating research for a general audience. Working with Michael Freeman has been an incredible learning experience on non-academic publishing. Since the publishing of this book, I have had the opportunity to give multiple book talks to a general audience including at the Seattle Art Museum, the Denver Museum of Natural History, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, and the Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art.

Since working on this book, I am convinced regarding the need to publish via multiple platforms for different types of audiences. The first edition of this book sold out and the second edition was released last summer. I published the non-trade version of my second book with Michael Freeman, Life of Tea, last year. I just signed a contract for my third collaborative book for a general audience on botany and biodiversity of craft-based beverages with Ashley DuVal and Rachel Meyer. I am also working on three additional book ideas with collaborators including a children’s adventure book with Jeff Fuchs, a tasting book with Kevin Gascoyne, and a book on family guidelines to reduce food waste with Carmen Byker Shanks.

Your research has induced criticism and obstructionism from lawmakers who have challenged your NSF funding for a China-focused initiative in the context of US fiscal challenges. How, from your perspective, does this kind of research have broader implications for sustainability research with global implications, including for the US?

My collaborative NSF CNH grant on climate effects on tea quality in China that was challenged by the U.S. House of Representatives in 2014 has multiple broader implications for sustainability research. I have already adapted the theories and methods for interdisciplinary scholarship resulting from this NSF climate and tea project for other study systems in the United States including sugar maple in Northeast United States and agriculture more broadly in Montana, the Northern Great Plains, and the Upper Missouri River Basin.

Beyond being produced and consumed in China, tea is a globally important crop as the world’s most consumed beverage after water, including for consumers in the USA. Findings from our research are informing the design of evidence-based tea agroecosystem management practices that mitigate risks of climate change and support economic sustainability of farmer livelihoods and environmental sustainability of agroecosystems. These solutions can be implemented in tea producing areas globally, including in Hawaii that has a growing tea sector, as well as can be adapted to inform the management of other specialty crops.

Ultimately the efforts of the U.S. House of Representatives to obstruct this international research brought attention to the issue of climate effects on agriculture and spurred a needed dialogue on the role of university researchers in contributing to the science on this topic. I have come to recognize that we must continue with the work we believe is necessary on addressing pressing agroecological and food systems issues towards enhancing sustainability, including in the face of political opposition. Agroecology is after all not only a science, but also a practice and movement. Sometimes when our research faces opposition, it may indicate that progress is being made.

You have recently co-authored an article in Elementa as part of the New Pathways to Sustainability in Agroecological Systems forum. What attracted you to contribute to this forum? More broadly, what attracted you to Elementa as a journal?

The Elementa journal and the Sustainability Transitions domain overall, as well as the forum on ‘New Pathways to Sustainability in Agroecological Systems’ more specifically, very much resonate with my research interests and goals. I immediately felt compelled to submit an article for consideration for publication upon reading the call for submissions for the agroecological forum. I was further intrigued by the unique format and interactive nature of the journal, the categories for types of articles, the opening commentaries of the journal and Sustainability Transitions domain, and the focus on work from both researchers and practitioners. I agree with the editors and guest editors of the ‘New Pathways to Sustainability in Agroecological Systems’ forum that an approach between researchers, farmers, and other practitioners is essential in creating new approaches to improving the function and resilience of agroecosystems. The editors and guest editors are well known scientists in their fields which makes it even more attractive. Ultimately, I respect the goals of Elementa and the Sustainability Transitions domain and wanted to contribute to these goals and be a part of the community of researchers and practitioners that this journal is bringing together.

What does your article, Beyond yields: Climate change effects on specialty crop quality and agroecological management, examine?

This review article synthesizes the scientific literature on the effects of climate change on specialty crop quality to provide examples of specialty crops that are vulnerable to climate risks based on secondary metabolite profiles that influence flavor and medicinal attributes of crops. My co-authored article further provides a review on agroecological strategies to mitigate the effects of climate change on crops and highlights agricultural diversification as a promising strategy for climate resilience. This article goes on to integrate the concepts from our literature review and presents a socio-ecological systems framework that can be applied to examine feedbacks between crop quality, consumer responses, and agroecosystem management.

Figure 2.

DOI 10.12952/journal.elementa.000092.f002

What has been your experience as an Elementa author?

I have found my experience publishing with Elementa as unique compared to other journals in a positive way. Publishing as part of the New Pathways to Sustainability in Agroecological Systems forum has given me the sense of being part of a community that is seeking to advance agroecology as a transdiciplinary science, evidence-based practice, and movement. The Sustainability Transitions domain has been effective in developing a community, which is a key characteristic of sustainability. I have interacted with multiple researchers and practitioners as a result of contributing an article to the agroecological forum as well as have had the opportunity to interact with other authors of the agroecological forum in multiple ways. Thus, the journal very much seems to practice what it presents which is refreshing and a wonderful model for publishing.

What would you like to see more of in scholarly publishing?

I would love to see abridged general audience versions of scientific articles that are presented alongside full scientific articles. This way, researchers can engage the general public and the general public can more effectively interact with research towards ultimately helping transform society towards enhanced sustainability. I would also be eager to see more interactive and community-building publishing platforms such as that modeled by Elementa.