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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.

Anne Kapuscinski, Editor-in-Chief of Sustainability Transitions, contributes to climate change talks at COP21

“Between now and the next 15 years we have to have made the pivot in our policies.”

In an interview with Vermont Public Radio, which aired on December 7th, Editor-in-Chief Anne Kapuscinski, who is also the new Union of Concerned Scientists Board Chair, explains how she contributed to the climate change talks at COP21 in Paris last week. The full interview is available for download here.

New Elementa Research Article links air quality and residential exposure to fugitive oil and gas emissions

New research into emissions from oil and gas development prompts major concerns for air quality and health of residents near wells

In a new study, “Influence of oil and gas emissions on ambient atmospheric non-methane hydrocarbons in residential areas of Northeastern Colorado,” by Chelsea R. Thompson, Jacques Hueber, and Detlev Helmig; it has been found that concentrations of ambient atmospheric non-methane hydrocarbons (NMHC) present in residential areas located near wells in Erie, Colorado, are significantly higher than expected, (18 – 77 times greater than regional background), some of which are higher than those typically found in large urban centers.

As a result of increased oil and gas drilling in recent years due to hydraulic fracturing technologies, there are currently 25,000 active wells in the Denver-Julesburg Basin. This has raised public concerns pertaining to air and water quality, due to the negative effects of elevated levels of NMHC and potential for enhanced ozone production. Despite a tightening of emissions standards for the oil and gas industries in 2008, a comparison of data sets from previous years shows that ambient levels for oil and gas-related NMHC in Erie and further afield in Boulder have increased, while most cities in the US have experienced dropping hydrocarbon concentrations as a result of cleaner vehicle emissions and stricter industry regulations. Elevated levels of NMHC are of concern due to direct exposure from certain compounds, and also due to their role in photochemical ozone production. Northeastern Colorado has been exceeding the National Ozone Air Quality Study every year since being designated a non-attainment area in 2004; the Thompson et al. study adds to other recent work that has pointed out a significant contribution of oil and gas emissions to Colorado’s ozone problem.

The authors of this article note: “Benzene levels in both Platteville and Erie/Longmont could be detrimental to human health if chronic lifetime exposure should occur.” This study presents highly significant new information as the State of Colorado aims to further tighten regulations. Although emissions per well may be decreasing, the increased number of wells in the region may negate the effects of these improvements.

Associate Editor Lisa A. Miller explains more about her support for Elementa


Elementa has the potential to be a really valuable resource to both the scientific community and the public, including policy-makers.”


Please tell us a little bit about your position and your areas of research.

I am a chemical oceanographer and Climate Geochemist with the Canadian ministry of Fisheries and Oceans. My research focusses on the air-sea exchange of climatically-active substances, mainly carbon dioxide, but also organic aerosols. I look at how climate impacts the oceanic production and release (versus consumption and absorption) of atmospheric carbon dioxide, and how those processes feed back onto the climate system. This involves the study of biogeochemical processes controlling not only concentrations within the water, but also the actual transport across the air-sea interface, and much of my work has been focused on the biogeochemistry of sea ice and the sea-surface microlayer. 


Why did you decide to become an Associate Editor for Elementa‘s Ocean Science domain?

Jody’s description of the plans for Elementa made it sound like a very worthwhile and interesting endeavor, and I knew that she would be a very good person to work with on this.


What are your thoughts on the quality of the Ocean Science articles already published in Elementa?

I have been very impressed by the quality of the articles, so far. Of course, having had a hand in assuring the quality of those articles, I’m biased…. 


Is it important to you that Elementa is a multidisciplinary journal?

This has proven to be more valuable than I had anticipated. At first, I was disturbed that the articles are being mixed in the list on the website – in most multidisciplinary journals, I usually find that articles outside my immediate fields of interest are too esoteric, and it’s oppressive to have to wade through their titles to find the papers that interest me. However, with Elementa, as more papers have accrued, I have found that I really appreciate having the articles mixed, because so many of them actually are clearly relevant beyond their domains and into mine. I’ve been surprised by how many of the articles from outside the Oceans domain I open and peruse.


Why do you believe that research surrounding human impacts on the atmosphere within the epoch of the Anthropocene to be of significance?

With the possible exception of the search for a cure for cancer, this may be the single most important scientific problem facing our era. Again, I’m biased – it’s what I study, and I wouldn’t be doing it, if I didn’t think it was important. However, it is true that human impacts on the Earth system have the potential to influence nearly every aspect of human experience through climate and health, and our understanding of this complex system is still only rudimentary.


What are your thoughts on the importance of open access journals?

I think this is very important, and not just for scientists working in small institutes in developing countries that cannot afford many journal subscriptions. I do not know how much the general population, interested amateurs or ‘lay scientists’, are actually reading open-access scientific journals. However, from my apocrophyl perspective, it seems that people are becoming more scientifically literate, and it’s hopefully valuable for solid, peer-reviewed science to be available to anyone with the motivation to dig and try to understand these things. Of course, there’s a risk with that – we’ve heard way too many stories in recent years in which a little bit of knowledge in public gadflies has created tremendous difficulty for some climate scientists, but that’s a risk we have to learn to live with and manage.


Do you think it is important that Elementa is a nonprofit publication?

Yes, I do believe that is very important to helping keep publication costs down for individual scientists. Particularly during this period of transition in scientific publishing, there is still a problematic disconnect between the institutional budgets that support publishing. With the rise of open-access journals, libraries are saving money in subscription fees, while individual scientists are having to pay higher publication fees. However, few institutions have figured out how to apply the savings in one area to the higher costs in the other, and some fundamental financial restructuring is necessary. In the meantime, journals like Elementa, that aren’t trying to actually make money out of all this, really help.


Why do you believe that colleagues should consider submitting their papers to Elementa?

I do think that Elementa has the potential to be a really valuable resource to both the scientific community and the public, including policy-makers. We have some distance to go, before we get there, but we’re on the correct path. Unlike many new journals that have arisen over the last decade, journals where none of the names of the editors are recognizable, Elementa is, indeed, a real journal, being edited by real scientists, and we are publishing high-quality papers of broad significance. I understand why some of my colleagues are hesitant to let their students submit to Elementa – it’s not yet clear that we will indeed ‘take’ and become the force we hope to be. However, we are attracting papers from established scientists with substantial stature, and that bodes well for our future. As long as we keep up the hard work.


Editor-in-Chief Joel D. Blum explains the benefits of publishing cross-domain articles


“The Elementa Editors feel that this publication model fits much of the research carried out on the Anthropocene.”

Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene was established with the intent of helping to break down traditional disciplinary barriers within natural science, sustainable engineering, and sustainability transitions. To help accomplish this goal contributions to six Knowledge Domains, each with an editorial staff of experts, form one overarching journal. But we have found that many articles cross between the Knowledge Domains, making their assignment into a single domain somewhat arbitrary.

To accommodate publication of this interdisciplinary research we now accept “cross-domain” articles that can be submitted simultaneously to two domains and if published will be included in both domains. This will provide additional visibility of appropriate articles across disciplines. As an example from my own research, when I publish work on the transformations and cycling of mercury between global reservoirs, I frequently face the difficult question of which disciplinary journal to publish in.

With cross-domain publication in Elementa, projects such as these can now gain visibility in multiple fields such as Ocean Science plus Atmospheric Science, or Ecology plus Earth and Environmental Science. The Elementa Editors feel that this publication model fits much of the research carried out on the Anthropocene, and encourage authors to submit “cross-domain” articles.

Elementa Sponsors the Deep Carbon Observatory Early Career Workshop

“Bringing together a diverse group of early career scientists from 15 countries.”

In February 2014, Elementa was proud to be a co-sponsor of the Deep Carbon Observatory Early Career Scientist Workshop, hosted by the University of Costa Rica in San José. This week-long workshop brought together more than forty early career deep carbon scientists from around the world. Equal parts scientific talks and fieldwork, the workshop was designed to cultivate new collaborations and initiate a network of early career scientists within DCO. Elementa was delighted to attend the workshop, speaking with the attendees about open access publishing options. We were particularly enthused to participate in an initiative that cultivated interdisciplinary collaboration.

Learn more about the workshop by visiting the Deep Carbon Observatory website.