Last summer, a group of bakers from around the world met in Belgium for a sourdough bakeoff. Each baker came to the event with a sourdough starter they had produced in their own kitchen from a controlled recipe.
But the researchers who had assembled them weren’t just interested in the bread itself; they were interested in the microbial makeup of the starters. Along with trying the bread, they sequenced the DNA of the starters and the hands of the bakers. What they found was that each baker left a kind of microbial signature in their breads. And not only that, but the hands of the bakers actually had on average 10 times the amount of lactobacillus, the dominant bacterium found in sourdough, than the hands of non-bakers.
This event was part of a larger research project, The Sourdough Project, a citizen science project run by the Rob Dunn Public Science Lab at North Carolina State University. The public science lab received a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to conduct a series of community science projects that use data provided by the lay public. In the case of the Sourdough Project, which asked people around the world for information on their sourdough starters along with samples, the goal was to understand the impacts different bacteria and yeast strains have on the flavor of the breads.
While science has long been thought of as practiced by highly specialized and educated professionals in elite institutions, citizen science, or public involvement in research projects, is becoming increasingly common, especially when it comes to food and agriculture. Data supplied by the public—by farmers, hobby gardeners, home bakers, and food consumers—would often be expensive or hard to access otherwise. Additionally, it often contains context and local knowledge accumulated over time and is free from the influence of corporate interests.
“Citizen science as we talk about it has been around for a long time, but only recently has the term ‘citizen science’ been coined,” says Sean Ryan, Citizen Science Fellow at North Carolina State University (NCSU). “So that may have allowed it to be more identifiable.”
The term citizen science is not completely uncontroversial. Lori Shapiro, a post-doctoral research associate at NCSU who conducts a number of such projects, makes a point to note that she is cautious about using the term.
“We’re trying to move away from the word ‘citizen,’ [because] it’s a politically charged term right now,” she says. Given that participatory science is about including everyone, regardless or background or labels, Shapiro prefers the term “community science.” “One other way to look at it,” Shapiro says, “is it’s just science with very smart, non-institutional people.”
The Role of Community Science in Food and Ag
While there are no concrete numbers on how many community science projects exist—and those numbers would depend on how one defines a community science project in the first place—overall, Ryan says, there has been an increase in this type of research over the last decade.
SciStarter.org, a database of community science projects and information that grew out of a graduate project from the University of Pennsylvania, currently lists over 1,600 projects on their website. In addition, there has been formalization of community science coming from universities, scientific conferences, and the U.S. government.
Some of the most common community scientists, in fact, are farmers and gardeners. Through trial and error, experiencing different kinds of crops, seeds, and weather, farmers already gather much of the agricultural information that scientists use in their research.
“A lot of the work that’s been done in agriculture hasn’t been called citizen science, so it’s kind of connecting those two fields and raising awareness,” says Ryan. A recent international project, for example, asked farmers in Ethiopia, India, and Nicaragua to plant their fields using different methods to assess which had the most potential for adaptation to climate change.
A November 2018 paper co-authored by Ryan, “The Role of Citizen Science in Addressing Grand Challenges in Food and Agriculture Research,” argues that citizen science could be especially useful in the field of food and agriculture considering funding reductions in local and international extension programs as well as the impacts of corporate interests in agricultural education and policy.
It looked at a number of different areas within food and agriculture with existing citizen science projects—or the potential for them—and determined that monitoring crop pests, preserving biodiversity, and food education are topics especially ripe for public involvement.
A number of other food and ag community science projects are currently underway, in fact, including a project collecting data about squash pests and pollinators and a project evaluating the quality of neighborhood corner stores. There are also projects focused on environmental health, measuring pesticide drift in farm communities and investigating the accumulation of heavy metals in soil. The public is also helping monitor the impacts of CAFOs as part of a project underway in a Nebraska town contending with a large Costco poultry plant.
The Sourdough Project researchers received 1,000 responses to their survey, along with 571 starter samples from 17 countries, from non-scientist sourdough enthusiasts—something that would not have been possible had they limited their work to the lab.
“Often having this larger workforce really improves the research being done,” Ryan says.
In addition, the project helped lay people become more interested and invested in science: 275 middle schoolers in Raleigh, North Carolina, made starters and learned about the microbes within them by observing how they changed day to day and noting which had the most bubbles or smelled the strongest. In the end, they baked with their starters and voted on which produced the best bread.
According to Erin McKenney, a post-doctoral associate in microbiology at NCSU who is one of the leads on this project, instead of just talking about chemical processes and metabolic reactions, the kids could actually see and understand them firsthand.
The Great Pumpkin Project
“I’m a big advocate of connecting science with the public,” says Margarita López-Uribe, an assistant professor of entomology at the Pennsylvania State University. “For a long time, scientists have basically worked in silence. [These projects] help people understand that anyone can be a scientist.”
López-Uribe works with Lori Shapiro on a project called “The Great Pumpkin Project,” which, like The Sourdough Project, is run through of the Rob Dunn Lab. The project has two aims: to better understand the pest and diseases that affect cucurbits (the plant family to which pumpkins and other squash belong) and to look at populations of bees that pollinate squash and investigate where they are, where they’re not, and why.
In looking at pests and diseases, the project has a specific focus on the bacterium Erwinia tracheiphila, which moves between cucurbit plants using beetles. What’s unknown is whether this disease is spreading its range and where it will be likely to cause damage next.
The second part of the project, looking at pollinators, requires information about pumpkin, squash, and cucumber species from far and wide. But of course, getting photos of and information about species from multiple regions and countries is a large undertaking: “There is no way we could have just technicians and students and scientists doing all of this work on the ground,” says López-Uribe.
So they’re asking regular gardeners and students around the world to document which pollinators found on their pumpkin flowers and when the pumpkins themselves showing symptoms of bacterial disease. Participants can submit information and photos online through the iNaturalist website. In addition, Shapiro and López-Uribe are planning to turn their research into a book, what Shapiro calls “an evolutionary field guide” to pumpkins and other squash.
Despite the usefulness of engaging the public, there has been some pushback against community science projects and the practice of involving “un-trained” people in scientific research. And while not all research is ideal for participatory science, says López-Uribe, certain kinds of projects work well when done by a broader community of people.
“There are projects based on rigorous experimentation, which are way harder to collect data for through a citizen science platform,” López-Uribe says. “The projects that rely on observational data and have very simple protocols are probably the ones that have the most chance of success.”
Gaining Local Knowledge and Community Input
Community science helps add context and local knowledge to scientific data. Because pumpkins and certain squash species evolved separately in different parts of the world, the local knowledge gained through The Great Pumpkin Project has helped researchers understand the multiple uses for different kinds of squash beyond just nutrition, such as for decoration and even fishing.
“There’s a lot that people know that we don’t hear [about], especially around the history of agriculture and uses of plants,” Shapiro says. “[These are] things that from an institutional standpoint you can’t capture in the same way as someone who has a relationship with that plant.”
Community science projects can also offer a way for regular people to make suggestions about food system issues that affect their lives. This was the case for a project carried out in Camden, New Jersey, that allows local people to evaluate the grocery stores in their neighborhoods.
The stores are part of the Food Trust’s Healthy Corner Store network, which helps grocers in low-income neighborhoods stock their stores with healthy products. The method, called “Our Voice,” was developed by Abby King, a professor of health research and policy and of medicine at Stanford University.
With this method, which has been used for dozens of projects in the U.S., along with in other countries such as Chile, Israel, and South Africa, the first step is data collection. As part of the corner store study, eight local residents/participant/scientists collected information on two to three local stores using a mobile app to take photos, audio narratives, and descriptions of what they saw and how well it was working. Next, participants met to share their data, put it on a map, and discuss it with one another and with researchers. Finally, the participants and researchers met with stakeholders such as community members and store owners to share their data and recommendations.
The community scientists in the grocery store project made a number of recommendations, many regarding the physical location of the stores, which they felt could be safer and more accessible. They also found that there was a lack of knowledge about the Healthy Corner Store initiative in the first place and that there wasn’t signage in the stores indicating participation in the program.
“Participants have a chance to take the things they identified and their priorities for change and directly state that back to other local stakeholders,” says Benjamin Chrisinger, associate professor of evidence-based policy evaluation at Oxford University. He developed the project as a post-doctoral student at Stanford and co-wrote the paper, “Leveraging Citizen Science for Healthier Food Environments: A Pilot Study to Evaluate Corner Stores in Camden, New Jersey.”
“We call it ‘by the people, for the people, with the people,’” said Chrisinger.
As a result of to the community scientists’ recommendations, the Food Trust has begun implementing a marketing campaign as well as looking into infrastructure improvements for Camden’s stores.
Filling the Gaps for Farmers
As the original community scientists of the food and agriculture world, farmers have an abundance of local and generational knowledge that scientists have not necessarily had the time to build. López-Uribe recently started a project on blueberry pollination and is working with families who have grown blueberries for three generations. “They know way more than I do,” she says.
Still, agricultural extension agents can be an important source of information for farmers. And as funding for agricultural extension decreases, both in the United States and abroad, community scientists can help fill in the gaps. According to the aforementioned paper “The Role of Citizen Science in Addressing Grand Challenges in Food and Agriculture Research,” “Citizen science projects are relatively cost-effective and can be designed to promote agricultural sustainability in resource-limited economies. Many parts of the world have similar needs and challenges where community science projects could fulfill the role of extension.”
In addition, it has been documented that resources ostensibly meant to help farmers are often plagued by corporate interests, recommending expensive and destructive chemical inputs in the place of integrated pest management. Because they are not tied to corporations, community scientists can conduct research that helps farmers realize sustainable solutions to problems they face.
“I think there’s a lot of really wonderful knowledge, insightful knowledge that just hasn’t been heard yet,” Shapiro says.