Diversified Agroecosystems Research Cluster

Diversified Agroecosystems Research Cluster

Our research cluster is developing novel approaches to assess linked social and ecological outcomes of diversified agroecosystems.


Uniquely positioned as a research excellence cluster based at the University of British Columbia’s Centre for Sustainable Food Systems, our team members use ecological, social, economic and systems analysis perspectives to improve soil and water quality, minimize nutrient losses, protect biodiversity, and support climate resilience and food sovereignty.

The Diversified Agroecosystems Research Cluster aims to leverage the research excellence represented by CSFS members and global partners to evaluate diversified agroecosystems. Using ecological and systems analysis perspectives for integrated research on bioenergy, water resources, and food production, members will work to maximize crop yields, improve soil quality and biodiversity, and minimize nutrient losses to the environment. The network brings together leading researchers worldwide to create a novel, next-generation, grassroots generated and open-data food systems approach to assessing linked social and ecological outcomes of diversified agricultural systems.

Cluster News and Events

UBC Research Excellence Cluster on Diversified Agroecosystems

Diversified Agroecosystems Cluster is renewed

The Diversified Agroecosystems Cluster has been renewed for the next 2 years. This is a major UBC grant hosted at the CSFS and is a collaboration with researchers across North America.

The Centre for Sustainable Food Systems at the UBC Farm is on the cutting edge of climate adaptation and resiliency in agriculture, according to a recent feature by BioLab Business.

UBC Strategic Plan

Data Helps Drive Diversified Agroecosystems Research

Our data-driven cluster is featured by the UBC Strategic Plan: "Charting a pathway towards a sustainable food system in a way that is holistic and multidisciplinary is the goal of UBC’s Diversified Agroecosystems Research Cluster."

Diversified Agroecosystem Research Cluster

Developing a Long Term Agroecological Research Station

Establishing the UBC Farm as a living laboratory for developing long-term experimental protocols to examine trade-offs and synergies in diversified agroecosystems, and places it as the central hub in a Coordinated Distributed Experimental Network (CDEN) of diversified research farms around the world.


Organic Cluster III Recipients

Three linked UBC Farm projects led by Cluster members have been awarded funding through Organic Science Cluster III, an initiative of the Organic Federation of Canada funded by the AgriScience Program of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Canadian Agricultural Partnership

October 17, 2019

The 'wicked’ sustainability problem of agricultural intensification

Public talk with Dr. Sieglinde Snapp “Action research tackles the ‘wicked’ sustainability problem of agricultural intensification", hosted by the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability.

Summer 2019

Lobby Gallery Exhibition: Nature & Nourishment

In photographs from Asia, Africa, and the Americas, this exhibit took you around the world through the eyes of food systems researchers to explore the agrobiodiversity-food security nexus.

June 27, 2019

Cluster Hire Research Series: Soil Organic Matter Formation and Function

Join Dr. Emily Oldfield for a seminar on how soil organic matter formation occurs, how it is changing, and how it contributes to several ecosystem services like carbon sequestration and productivity.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Food Roundtable: Knowledge from Agroecological Experience

When we ignore the agroecological knowledge of farmers and local communities, what do we lose? Dr. Barbara Gemmill-Herren explores methods to facilitate better capturing of local experiences and impacts that ultimately reflect larger patterns in agriculture.

June 12, 2019

Cluster Hire Research Seminar: Novel insights into the coupling of plant structure and hydraulic function: implications for sustainable crop management

Join Dr. Thorsten Knipfer as he delivers his research seminar on plant structure, hydraulic functions, and sustainable crop management. This seminar is one in a series of nine research seminars taking place as part of the Faculty Cluster Hire in Plant and Soil science, co-sponsored by SAGE, APBI, and CSFS.

June 6, 2019

Cluster Hire Research Seminar: Advancing sustainable food systems in a changing world

Join Dr. Selena Ahmed as she delivers a research seminar on advancing food sustainability in a changing world. This seminar is one in a series of nine research seminars taking place as part of the Faculty Cluster Hire in Plant and Soil science, co-sponsored by SAGE, APBI, and CSFS.

Cluster Initiatives

In the first two years of our research cluster, we have laid crucial groundwork for developing the UBC Farm as a Long Term Agroecological Research Station.This strong foundation has enables the UBC Farm to be used as a living laboratory for developing long-term experimental protocols to examine trade-offs and synergies in diversified agroecosystems, and to be placed as the central hub in a Coordinated Distributed Experimental Network (CDEN) of diversified research farms around the world.

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Cluster researcher Dr. Mark Johnson received funding to establish a “living laboratory for water sustainability” at UBC Farm through UBC Sustainability Campus as a Living Laboratory initiative.

The project will develop a water innovations node for UBC’s Campus as a Living Laboratory initiative to conduct water monitoring and evaluate water use reduction strategies to minimize the water footprint of agriculture at the UBC Farm and support UBC’s Water Action Plan. The project will increase the capacity of UBC Farm as a leading living laboratory for research, teaching, and learning on water sustainability with academic, public sector, and industrial partners. The project will implement new, smart, integrated water and climate monitoring technology at UBC Farm. This will enable living-lab based research to develop water conserving strategies and conduct innovative research across the food-energy-water nexus.

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A Living Lab for Biodiversity Monitoring in Agroecosystems

Biodiversity, across multiple scales and levels, is the foundation of agricultural productivity and contributes essential ecosystem functions and services to food systems.

In 2019, cluster members Matthew Mitchell, Juli Carrillo, and Hannah Wittman secured funding from the UBC Campus as a Living Laboratory Initiative, BRITE, the VPRI Biodiversity Research Excellence Cluster, and the VPRI Diversified Agroecosystems Research Excellence Cluster to implement a long-term monitoring program for biodiversity at the UBC Farm. The UBC Farm provides a unique opportunity to monitor the biodiversity important for agroecosystem food production and other ecosystem services, with future opportunities to connect this to other socio-ecological outcomes relevant to the broader community and food systems. Long Term Biodiversity Monitoring will ensure that the diversity of life at the UBC Farm, including birds, plants, and insects, is recorded each year. This will help us understand how biodiversity at the UBC Farm is changing over time and how this affects important ecosystem services (benefits we can receive from the natural environment) that aid people, help crops grow, and contribute to overall ecosystem sustainability. Read the draft UBC Farm Biodiversity Monitoring Plan here.

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The CSFS in collaboration with farmers, and cluster members, are working on a free, open-source web app to both advance science and help farmers manage the financial and environmental aspects of their business. The project is led by cluster leads Dr. Zia Mehrabi, a Research Associate at UBC’s Institute for Resources Environment and Sustainability and Dr. Hannah Wittman, CSFS Academic Director, and Professor at the Institute for Resources Environment and Sustainability.

Mehrabi along with a team of scientists, farmers, designers, developers, CSFS staff, and undergraduate students have created LiteFarm to help improve sustainable farming through the democratization of agricultural technology. LiteFarm is built to both help individual farmers with their day-to-day operations, and to help the wider farming community through identification of solutions for better farm management practices and outcomes, particularly in small-scale, diversified farming contexts, for which empirical analyses are currently lacking due to a dearth of data and funding.

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Food Roundtable

Cluster members Hannah Wittman, Loren Rieseberg, and Matthew Mitchell secured funding for and hosted a Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies (PWIAS) International Research Roundtable in May 2019 on the intersection between agrobiodiversity and food security/sovereignty. With many cluster members and international researchers participating, workshop participants discussed a vision of agroecosystems and food systems where farmers, citizens, consumers, scientists, and decision-makers collaborate to evaluate, understand, monitor, and manage the links between biodiversity and food security. The outcome of the workshop was to collectively envision a research/action agenda for the next 5-10 years around the intersections of agrobiodiversity and food security, with a manuscript developed from the workshop to be submitted in 2020.

Find out more about the Roundtable Workshop
Learn more about the research project: Systematizing links between food security and biodiversity conservation through citizen science

SESYNC Workshop

In 2019, cluster members Zia Mehrabi and Claire Kremen secured funding for a SESYNC project to assess the benefits and costs of agricultural diversification with respect to the food-water-energy nexus. The project includes 15 current cluster members as well as new invited participants from Europe and Australia; the interdisciplinary team will perform collaborative research and gather for three workshops over the course of 18 months.

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Can Microbes Help Plants Mitigate Climate Change?

Cluster members Cara Haney and Juli Carrillo, along with CSFS as a collaborating partner, have secured two years of funding ($200,000) from the Weston Foundation’s Seeding Food Innovation initiative to test whether beneficial microbes can directly mitigate the detrimental effects of climate change on plant nutrition as well as resistance to insects and drought. This work will lay a foundation to implement microbes in field and greenhouse production to improve food security in Canada and around the globe.

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Soil-Water Dynamics

Cluster member Sean Smukler has secured $281,000 from the Farm Adaptation Innovator Program to assess the field performance of a suite of novel management practices on soil-water dynamics. The study will include controlled experiments, on-farm demonstration trials, and modelling of longer-term impacts and associated farm economics. Using results of field trials, through collaboration with participating farmers, Sean and his team will develop a set of site-specific recommendations that account for variation in soils and climate, to share through farmer networks, producer associations, workshops and digital planning tools.

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Studying Key Pollinators

Native bumble bees are key pollinators of crops like blueberries, squash, and tomatoes, making them critical players in BC’s Agricultural Sector. Collectively, habitat loss, lack of suitable food plants, interactions with commercial bees, and changing climate are all taking a toll on native bumble bee abundance and diversity. In 2019, cluster members Juli Carrillo, Tara Moreau, and Andy Black received an LFS Internal Research Grant for $33,000 to monitor and track native bumblebee abundance across various locations on campus, including the UBC Botanical Garden and UBC Farm. This research pilot study will also determine the preferred host plants, microclimate, and weather variables associated with bumble bee abundance and diversity. Fueled by citizen science, Project BEE Smart aims to increase public ownership and awareness of native bumble bee conservation, and increase the public’s literacy on native bumble bees of our region.

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Adapting to Climate Change in the Cariboo and Okanagan

Cluster members Hannah Wittman and Lisa Powell, along with collaborators Jon Janmaat, John Church, David Connell, and Lenore Newman, and BC ACARN as a collaborating partner, have secured a $210,000 SSHRC Partnership Development Grant to study agricultural adaptation to climate change in two British Columbia regions, the Cariboo and the Okanagan. The research team will identify the challenges to adaptation and work with groups across the academic, governmental, and industrial sectors to identify opportunities for enhancing the adaptive capacity of BC agriculture.

Value of Restored Habitats

Cluster members Claire Kremen and Juli Carrillo have secured two years of funding ($300,000) from the Canada – British Columbia Agri-Innovation Program for a project that aims to assess the value of various types of restored habitats (e.g., grass margins, native-plant hedgerows, grassland set-asides, etc.) in Delta, BC for supporting populations of beneficial insects and how increases in these populations impact crop yields and profitability. By quantifying the impact of restoring semi-natural/natural habitat on farmlands on crop yields and profitability, this project will address many concerns local growers have about grass margins, hedgerows, and grassland set-asides.

Cluster members Evan Fraser, Zia Mehrabi, Hannah Wittman, and Tammara Soma, along with multiple other co-PIs from across Canada, have secured a $399,000 SSHRC Insight Grant to conduct research on the social impacts of digital technology on Canadian growers.

Participatory Variety Trialing and Breeding for Commercial Organic Vegetable Growers and Seed Producers in Canada

Cluster members Alex Lyon, Loren Rieseberg, and Marney Isaac, as well as Canadian and North American collaborators and extension specialists, have secured a five-year, $499,000 grant through Organic Science Cluster III (Organic Federation of Canada and the Organic Agricultural Centre of Canada at Dalhousie University) to perform participatory variety trialing and breeding of cabbage, bell pepper, and squash. The research team will build on a collaborative varietal development research network consisting of organic farmers, university researchers, and industry stakeholders.

These activities will support a comprehensive knowledge generation and transfer program on variety performance and in-depth training in on-farm plant breeding, improving the ability of organic farmers to engage in future variety development. This project will also increase the Canadian capacity for organic vegetable breeding by training undergraduate and graduate students in the basic principles and practices of evaluating and improving plant varieties. Ultimately, the goal of this research is to ensure that Canadian organic vegetable farmers and seed producers have access to high quality vegetable seeds that can perform competitively in Canadian organic farming systems.

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Cluster members Juli Carrillo, Cara Haney, and Simone Castellarin have secured a five-year grant ($746,000) through Organic Science Cluster III (Organic Federation of Canada and the Organic Agricultural Centre of Canada at Dalhousie University) for a project that aims to develop multiple strategies for spotted wing drosophila (SWD) pest management, with a focus on ecological and organic methods of control. The international project team, composed of academic, government, and industry partners, will support six graduate students over 5 years and evaluate four independent but potentially synergistic strategies for SWD management.

Cluster members Sean Smukler and Zia Mehrabi, as well as collaborators Shabtai Bittman and Derek Hunt, have secured three years of funding ($150,000) for a project that aims to increase the capacity of organic vegetable farmers to efficiently utilize nutrients and thus increase the economic and environmental performance of their farming system.

Cluster lead Hannah Wittman and IRES faculty member Amanda Giang secured two years of funding through UBC’s newly established Program for Undergraduate Research Experience. Hannah and Amanda, along with multiple cluster members and other faculty from Science and Arts, have developed an immersive research training experience in socio-ecological systems for undergraduate students through a new interdisciplinary research training course, Socio-Ecological Systems Research (ENVR 448).

Cluster members Simone Castellarin and Juli Carrillo have received an NSERC Research Tools and Instruments grant for $137,000 to purchase two growth chambers for LFS and IRES faculty members, including multiple cluster members, to work on projects that aim to elucidate the mechanisms controlling crop response to environmental factors and climate change. Project leads expect that the research conducted with this infrastructure will provide critical knowledge to support BC, Canadian, and international scientists and farmers in developing crop management strategies to optimize production, minimizing inputs and negative outputs (greenhouse gas emissions) under future climate scenarios. Additionally, the chambers will provide unique opportunities for improving student and postdoctoral training using research infrastructure that enables new experiments in a highly controlled environment where future climatic scenarios can be simulated, and the impact on crop physiology and productivity and soil and insect ecology can be explored.

Cluster members Dr. Dorn Cox and Dr. Zia Mehrabi are leading teams developing open-source farm management tools that will enable farmers to make data-informed decisions about their management practices.

Dorn is a founder of FarmOS, an open-source web-based application for farm management, planning, and record-keeping. Zia is the project lead of LiteFarm, an open-source farm management app developed by UBC undergraduate students. Additionally, Zia plays a leading role in the establishment of a Data-Driven Agronomy Working Group at the CGIAR.

As part of the LFS 496 Career Development Internship program, two undergraduate students trialled FarmOS using UBC Farm datasets. Their main goals were to determine how compatible FarmOS is with UBC Farm’s current data management system, and how well FarmOS provides the capabilities that UBC Farm’s system currently lacks. They documented this trial and provided recommendations to the FarmOS development team in a summary report. With undergraduate engagement through internship and work-learn programs, we will trial LiteFarm and other farm management tools in 2019, with a focus on integrated pest management and biodiversity monitoring, integrated nutrient management, and integrated water management.

Partnerships and Collaborations

Delta Farmland & Wildlife Trust (DFWT)

A new partnership with DWFT, led by cluster members Juli Carrillo and Claire Kremen, has been established to conduct research on impact assessment of restoring semi-natural habitat on farmland. DFWT is a non-profit organization that promotes the preservation of farmland and wildlife habitat on the lower Fraser River delta through co-operative land stewardship with local farmers.

Certified Organic Associations of British Columbia (COABC)

COABC, the organization that oversees the BC Certified Organic Program and its multiple certifying bodies, has signed on as partners to two key cluster research projects: Foodlands Trust, funded by the Investment Agriculture Foundation, and LiteFarm, funded by the Weston Foundation.

Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario (EFAO)

EFAO is a Guelph-based membership organization that supports farmers to build resilient ecological farms and grow a strong knowledge-sharing community through farmer-led education, research, and community building. Cluster member Zia Mehrabi will attend the EFAO Annual Conference (December 2019), where he will foster and expand upon relationships with farmers and industry stakeholders engaged with the development of LiteFarm. He will be leading workshops and focus groups with conference attendees to receive feedback on the functionality of the app as well as ideas for future development directions.

BC Agricultural Climate Adaptation Research Network (ACARN)

Partnership with BC ACARN was strengthened during 2019. Cluster members Sean Smukler, Zia Mehrabi, Susanna Klassen, Sean Kearney, Lisa Powell, Simone Castellarin, and Mollie McDowell participated in research engagement sessions at the BC ACARN Annual Meeting in Kamloops in December 2018, and multiple cluster members will attend the Annual Meeting in Kelowna in December 2019. Additionally, cluster members Juli Carrillo and Claire Kremen are collaborating with BC ACARN on a SSHRC Partnership Development Grant to assess the value of various types of restored habitats in Delta, BC for supporting populations of beneficial insects and how increases in these populations impact crop yields and profitability.

Open Technology Ecosystem for Agricultural Management (OpenTEAM)

In September, 2019, a Memorandum of Agreement was signed with Wolfe’s Neck Center For Agriculture and the Environment for the CSFS to join the OpenTEAM Collaborative. This network will create a farmer-driven, inter-operable technology platform to provide farmers with knowledge to improve soil health. This partnership will help link LiteFarm with the OpenTEAM Collaborative.

Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR)

The Data-Driven Agronomy Community of Practice within the CGIAR’s Platform for Big Data in Agriculture, which Zia Mehrabi played a key role in founding, is finishing its second year in 2019. Zia is leading the working group for setting global baselines for technology access and has recently submitted a manuscript on the topic in collaboration with multiple other cluster members. Read the Community of Practice’s work plan here.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations(FAO) Agroecology Team

Cluster members Zia Mehrabi, Hannah Wittman, Dana James, and Jenn Blesh are working with the FAO Agroecology Team to develop multi-dimensional assessment tools for agroecological outcomes that can be used in contexts around the world.

Food From Thought

The CSFS has partnered with Food From Thought, a research program at the University of Guelph aimed to position Canada as a global leader in the development of innovative solutions that improve both the sustainability and productivity of agricultural production. Cluster members Evan Fraser (the Scientific Director of Food From Thought), Zia Mehrabi, Hannah Wittman, and Tammara Soma, along with multiple other co-PIs from across Canada, have secured a SSHRC Insight Grant to study the social impacts of digital technology on Canadian growers.

Centro Vianei/InterAmerican Foundation


Cluster member Sean Smukler has partnered with ISARA, an engineering school specialized in agriculture, agribusiness, and environment in Lyon, France, to develop a joint Agroecology MSc program for UBC and ISARA students.


2020 Publications

2019 Publications

2018 Publications


Collaborative Opportunities

The Cluster seeks partnerships with global, regional and local institutions, civil societies and agroecosystems networks to develop the Coordinated Distributed Experimental Network (CDEN) and Data-Driven Agronomy technology platform, and for co-creation of innovative strategies for diversified agroecosystems management that are specific to local contexts.

For more information or to connect with the cluster, please email Hannah Wittman.

Logo of the Diversified Agroecosystems Research Excellence Cluster

UBC Research Excellence Clusters is a joint initiative of the Provost and Vice-President, Academic and the Vice-President, Research and Innovation. Clusters receive financial support from the UBC Excellence Funds.