Sustainable Ecological Agriculture in China: Bridging the Gap Between Theory and Practice

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Graphical representation of a social-ecological system. The large oval represents an entire social-ecological system including its component social and ecological subsystems. The two large arrows in the middle represent interactions between them.

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For example, the arrow targeting the ecological sub-system represents human influences on nature. They impact the ecological sub-system in numerous and often invisible ways mediated through ecosystem processes and functions, as a result of myriad abiotic and biotic interactions. The arrow targeting the social sub-system represents the outcome of all these factors. Adapted from Chapin et al.

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The arrow in Figure 1 pointing from the social sub-system to the ecological sub-system represents this influence of human-related activities on natural systems. Such interventions typically are top-down and aimed at the control of ecosystem elements e. While proving beneficial in the short-term they erode resilience in the long term. This involves a loss of resilience and sustainability with unintended consequences, which can include a return of the problem an agency originally sought to solve.

Given its validation on the basis of extensive research and real world application, including continual refinement of understanding how to avoid these pathologies 15 , SESR warrants serious consideration as the primary framing system for operationalizing One Health. As alluded to above, SESR developed as an elaboration of thinking that originated with research on natural ecosystem behavior Adaptive management became a core principle and procedural component of Ecosystem Management now widely adopted by natural resource management agencies worldwide.

SESR subsequently emerged from the same school of thought, though Ecosystem Management can be seen as a special application Thus, Ecosystem Management is SESR applied to areas of publicly and associated privately held lands with mapped legal and associated ecological boundaries e. Or, this could be a contiguous habitat area supporting a particular set of ecological processes and interacting species spanning protected area's or state's boundaries e.

SESR application may not require a similar focus or depth of analysis of natural resources as typically conducted in Ecosystem Management. Instead, particularly in the context of zoonotic diseases it stresses coupled human-natural system's hierarchical organization more accurately the embedded structure and importance of considering cross-scale interactions in planning and management. This should include identification of key social institutional , as well as relevant natural system components e.


While this of course requires the assemblage of appropriate kinds of disciplinary expertise vector and host reservoir ecology in the above example , in our experience this is not a limiting factor in the uptake by One Health of SESR, and especially its intellectually challenging conception of resilience. Rather, the main difficulty seems to be that transdisciplinary research and integrative, holistic thinking challenge the conventional reductionist thinking and practice to which most of us are accustomed.

Biomedical academic training and practice in clinical, laboratory, and even farm settings, tends to engrain a linear, reductionist way of thinking. This default frame is often more than adequate, even powerful, including providing elegant mathematical explanations and associated interventions for infectious disease dynamics e. However, the present global emerging zoonotic disease crisis demonstrates the reductionist biomedical frame is inadequate by itself for understanding and managing problems of host-pathogen-environment complexes 16 , 36 , The adaptive cycle explicates resilience and vice versa, while is also arguably key to understanding notions of health and sustainability in One Health.

Although SESR originated with the study of natural ecosystems, viewing humans as outside agents, it was born from the realization that humans—acting as controllers of the natural system—can be thought of as both part of the system, and the problem Even in the absence of human interference, ecosystems exhibit natural rhythms of change, the amplitude and frequency of which are determined by internal processes e.

The discovery that these rhythms alternate periods of increasing organization and stasis with periods of reorganization and renewal was a significant break-through in the field of systems ecology, hence determining ecosystem productivity and resilience across scales Figure 2. A Adaptive cycle. B Panarchy. Cross-scale linkages among adaptive cycles in a social-ecological system, in which successively smaller, faster cycles are embedded in larger, slower ones. C Three dimensional representation of the adaptive cycle. Potential represents resources in the form of stored capital available to effect change, which may include knowledge and financial, social, and natural capital; Connectedness refers to the flexibility or rigidity of controlling variables or processes in response to external variation; Resilience is the capacity of the system to absorb or withstand perturbations and other stressors such that it maintains its structure and functions [i.

Adapted from Gunderson and Holling 22 ]. The adaptive cycle Figure 2A is a metaphorical representation of the temporal and spatial patterning of these rhythms, which originated as a means of describing how conventional environmental management efforts involving ecosystems often fail over the long term It exhibits two major phases or transitions. The first fore loop , from r to K , is the slow, incremental phase of growth and accumulation.

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These collapses can be triggered by politics, invasions, market shifts, or global climate change external to a system whose resilience at a particular scale has contracted due to states and dynamics at scales above and below These collapses, described as panarchy Figure 2C , were first discovered in studies of rangeland management systems. The adaptive cycle metaphor, including regime shift can be applied to relatively abrupt, irreversible agro-ecosystem transitions impacting livelihoods and human well-being The adaptive cycle or the notion of social-ecological system pathologies in reference to landscape transitions has not yet been considered in the One Health literature to our knowledge.

However, the applicability to One Health challenges is apparent as we describe here, using as an example the dramatic agro-ecosystem transformation underway in the Greater Mekong Sub-region GMS.


This mainly involves the widespread industrial intensification of agricultural production and food supply chain, with considerable but as yet not systematically investigated emerging zoonotic disease risks This transformation, involving changing land use and land cover, increased chemical inputs including pesticides and anti-microbials, represents attempts to control a range of key variables including increased food and reduced pests and pathogen.

Thus, increased investment and improvement administrative, operational, organizational, technical, etc. The success breeds confidence and continues even when effectiveness of, for example, pesticides and antimicrobials begins to wane due to emergence of resistant strains. During the Release phase, a crisis stage is reached—i.

Prompted by revolutionaries within or outside of them pushing for change, the system enters the creative destruction phase. Assuming the system resilience remains sufficient, that is, sufficient adaptive capacity remains, and the system has not collapsed to a different state, irrevocably, the opportunity to reconfigure may exist. Thus, the system enters the reorganization phase and, hopefully, the result leads to desirable outcome. A regional agroecosystem consists of many agroecosystem subtypes on the landscape scale, for instance, spanning small-scale traditional and small-holder systems to intensive large scale corporate industrialized systems.

It can be envisioned how each has its own adaptive cycle whose dynamics operate on different time and space scales, including smaller, faster cycles being embedded in larger, slower ones Figure 2B. The larger, slower cycles can constrain smaller, faster cycles, which the latter can disrupt and even cause a regime shift in which the social-ecological system is fundamentally altered.

As seen in the three-dimensional graph of the adaptive cycle Figure 2C , resilience represents a third dimension that expands and shrinks through the cycle as slow variables change. As recently pointed out 15 , a resilient system may successfully navigate itself through each of the phases and into new regime that satisfies societal goals.

In general, however, successful navigation an indication of resilience suggests the capacity to recognize barriers, critical thresholds and principles associated with this front loop that can trap a system—resulting in a pathology.

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System features, allowing escape from these traps, have been provisionally described 15 —representing adaptive management. The first is related to food production intensification found to represent a substantial range of health threats realized most dramatically with the emergence of the H5N1 strain of highly pathogenic avian influenza HPAI Figure 3. Greater Mekong Subregion and ecozones of the case examples. A East and Southeast Asia. B HPAI ecozones. These three perennial flood zones of Thailand Chao Praya River flood plain and Vietnam Red River and Mekong Deltas are centers of concentration of domestic poultry production as well of wild water birds including the primary natural host reservoirs for avian influenza viruses, dabbling ducks.

Chickens and domesticated duck production, trade networks, and wet markets grew explosively beginning in the 's in response to increased export market demand.

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This represented a social-ecological system transformation and ultimately a regime shift from once the first H5N1 virus variant invaded Vietnam's Red River Delta from the Pearl River Basin or elsewhere in China. Following these first epidemic waves outbreaks were brought under control in the Chao Prya, but not in Vietnam where HPAI outbreaks continue to occur. C Liver fluke-Liver Cancer ecozones. Opisthorchis viverrini infection in humans is wide-spread throughout its geographic distribution. Yet its epidemiological characteristics in the Korat Plateau are distinct, reflecting its unique culture and environment.

The Plateau historically had been sparsely populated by human's and likely the liver fluke as well but grew exponentially since WWII while dams and irrigation systems transformed the Plateau's social-ecology including expanding favorable aquatic habitat for Bythnia snails, O.

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As is observed when they relocate today within Thailand, along with this food cultural practice, they would have carried the fluke with them from their area of origin in Southern China as they migrated southward during the last millenium. The principal findings of this effort 42 are summarized as follows. The initial outbreak in Hong Kong, when H5N1 was first isolated, was optimistical but mistakenly thought to have been successfully eliminated by massive poultry culling in However, experts and government authorities either ignored or otherwise were oblivious to the change large, slow variable in SESR parlance taking place regionally.

This consisted of growth of industrial scale poultry operations in Guangdong, China, and particularly the transformation of the poultry production landscape taking place in geographically adjacent Vietnam. This included dramatic changes in breed composition and flock size, and the expansion of this intensification across Vietnam linking the north with the south of the country , as well as into Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand via the Mekong corridor in the south Figure 3B.

These changes were pushed by global forces, driven by the economic opportunity presented by the growing export market. This historically unprecedented production intensification was not accompanied by similarly intensified biosecurity measures.

The operations in China, which included breeding facilities with up to a million birds, constituted a crucible of genetic innovation a small, fast variable. Among the untold new microbial variants generated, H5N1 variants sporadically and unpredictably spilled south over the China-Vietnam border via local trade networks and migrating ducks another small, fast variable. This might have been of limited consequence, as it was geographically speaking with the Hong Kong outbreak, where this agro-ecosystem's insularity helped prevent H5N1's escape to the south and ultimately globally.

But it was the ongoing transformation, which is retrospectively even observable via satellite and on the ground 41 , This new regime effectively represents a regional agro-ecosystem distinct from that previously, structurally and functionally, including a number of less desirable social, economic, political, environmental, conservation and public health features.

This includes most prominently a far less diversified poultry production sector now dominated by large agribusinesses, increased dependence on agrichemicals, drugs, and vaccines. In addition, outbreaks threatening wildlife including in protected areas have been recurring Dr. Paisin Lekchareon, personal comm. Transboundary movements involving product supply chains for multi-country operations may play an important role in AI virus transmission ecology along with human movement. It also offers numerous insights related to the HPAI and newly emerging avian influenza strains in the GMS as a One Health problem area that is intertwined with the multitude of issues related to the intersection of environment, conservation, development, and public health—thus, inevitably sustainable development.

This work included designing and conducting research aimed at filling gaps in understanding environmental and ecological aspects of the parasite's transmission. More generally this resulted in broadening the understanding of the social and ecological dimensions of liver fluke transmission and its role in disease 44 , Among the outcomes prompted by this is the recognition of complex systems thinking including transdisciplinary methods required by the ecosystem approach Despite a diversity of perspectives on the Ov-CCA problem—held by stakeholders with very different perceptions, values, objectives and even social standing e.

Rather, they view it not only as normal behavior, but as an integral part of their daily life. The beliefs and practices related to preparing, sharing and eating fermented fish dishes, along with rice cultivation and consumption are inseparable from their cultural identity, their local natural capital, and social capital as evidenced by fish dish sharing networks in villages An exclusively biomedical model-driven research and intervention agenda prevailed for decades despite evidence of its limited capacity to effect a decrease in infection prevalence or CCA incidence.