Creating Thriving Ecosystems Through Cultivating Diverse Flora

This article was created based on Sony's video "Challenging the Global Agenda – Food Production and Agriculture Paradigm Shift" interview. The video stories on Sony's innovation and challenge and is available at Sony's official YouTube channel.

"Synecoculture" is a New Approach to Sustainable Agriculture from Sony CSL

Agriculture is accelerating environmental destruction; researching a new method of agriculture that preserves and restores biodiversity

――Dr. Funabashi, what exactly is "synecoculture"?

SonyCSL Researcher Dr. Funabashi

F: There are various ways to produce food. Humans were originally hunters and gatherers, but about 12,000 years ago, agriculture began. Collecting edible materials from the ecosystem was the foundation of food production, until humanity figured out how to farm, how to intentionally cultivate land and grow crops on it. We know, however, that today's methods of farming are not sustainable.

One problem is the overexploitation of resources. There are fears that the trace elements used in fertilizer, and the fossil fuels used in factories that make fertilizer and agrochemicals, will run out. Another problem is environmental destruction. Habitats are destroyed when grasslands and forests are cleared for farms, leading to the loss and potential extinction of many plant and animal species. Industrial production emits greenhouse gases, causes air and water pollution, and so on. Among all human activities today, it is agriculture that is the greatest driving force behind extinction.

Right now, we face a tradeoff between scaling back human activity to protect the natural world and destroying nature in order to pursue human activity. Synecoculture is a radical concept that rejects this tradeoff and proposes a way to support a growing human population while growing the populations of other organisms at the same time.

――How serious is environmental destruction from agriculture? Please explain how things stand now.

F: There have been a number of massive extinction events in the history of our planet. It has been said that the current wave of extinctions driven by human activity is the sixth largest in Earth's history. If human activity continues to expand at its current rate, 75% of the species on Earth could be wiped out within a few centuries. There is a great deal of discussion about global warming, but that is because it is easy to simply point to CO2 and other greenhouse gases as the physical cause of these issues. In the case of biodiversity, the target is purely the number of species going extinct. Because these species depend on widely varying factors to survive, and their numbers are based on complex relationships that cut across socio-ecological systems, it is difficult to get traction on discussing them.

However, when biodiversity is lost, we also lose the ecological services that provide us with benefits. For example, ecological services such as cleaning the air, filtering water so it is drinkable, and influencing the weather. In the worst-case scenario imaginable, the whole Earth becomes desertified, there are extreme temperature swings, and the water cycle becomes polarized between torrential flooding and droughts.

――How would synecoculture ward off a grim future like that?

F: In conventional agriculture, only one crop is focused on and carefully managed from seeding to harvest. This approach, however, focuses excessively on the individual plant. In reality, ecosystems are systems in which many animal and plant species are part of an integrated food chain.

For example, the human body constitutes a single organism, made up of 60 trillion cells. It is difficult to remove a single cell from the body and keep it alive, but cells gathered together form organs like the heart, lungs, skin, and so forth and combine into a single system.

In the same way, isolating a single plant from an ecosystem and cultivating it is very laborious. But if its place within a diverse ecosystem's food chain could be preserved, less effort would be required. Synecoculture is a reformulation of agriculture as an entire ecosystem. Instead of focusing on a single plant, it focuses on holistically harnessing crops, weeds, native trees, insects, and other animals. This is consistent with the Open Systems Science philosophy promoted by Sony CSL.

Using Sony information processing technology to digitally model the ecological functions of organisms

――Why did you choose to pursue the synecoculture concept at Sony CSL?

F: When I was writing my doctoral dissertation in mathematical sciences, I stumbled on a topic that seemed to be beyond the reach of those methods: agriculture. I sensed this was a topic of global importance, and that I would regret it 10 or 20 years down the road if I ignored it. I took my concept to a research lab where I had personal connections and it was well received, but no one was willing to actually fund the project.

Around that time, I happened to attend an Open House at Sony CSL Paris. I listened to the talks and was deeply impressed by the sense of total commitment to their research that everyone conveyed. I thought, just maybe, that I could receive support for my idea of transforming farming at this unconventional and extraordinary research institute. Mario Tokoro was the head of Sony CSL at the time, and I got in touch with him directly. The result was that Sony CSL took me and my research on.

――What kind of research environment do you find Sony CSL to be?

F: So many things about it make it an even more favorable fit than I had ever imagined. To the extent that Japanese manufacturers are involved in agriculture, it's usually so-called "smart agriculture," where IT is applied to conventional farming. But Sony is not involved in that side of the business at all. Additionally, Sony has world-class sensor and information processing R&D. The key to synecoculture is digital modeling of ecosystem functions composed of a wide range of organisms, and sifting through that modeling data to find optimal combinations. Sony CSL provides the best possible environment for an effort like that.

――What are some of the benefits you’ve noticed?

F: I am given tremendous discretion. I rented a 250-square meter field in Tokyo and planted about 1,000 different species in it as an experiment. If I had tried to do that under government or university funding, it would require all kinds of paperwork beforehand. But at Sony CSL, I could jump right into action. Of course, there are failures along the way, but I’ve never stopped pushing onward, and eventually my projects resulted in many successes. I'm delighted by how Sony CSL gives me the freedom to work on my own schedule and allows me ample time to produce results.

An astonishing achievement: restoring vegetation to a desertified region of Africa in just one year!

――I've heard that you are currently doing field experiments in Burkina Faso, in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as in Japan. Why did you choose Burkina Faso?

F: Initially, I conducted experiments with Japanese farmers. Those results yielded theoretical predictions that this system would actually prove more valuable in places threatened by aridification than in places like Japan with ample rainfall and high biodiversity.

With Earth's biodiversity decreasing over time, we are headed toward becoming essentially a desert planet. The Sahel region of Africa (the semi-arid belt on the southern fringe of the Sahara Desert) is considered a harbinger of tomorrow's planet Earth. It is a very unforgiving environment for a trial of synecoculture: highly susceptible to aridification, and afflicted by extreme poverty.

At a networking forum that draws participants from across Africa, I made a presentation about synecoculture, which prompted a local NGO to offer its cooperation in a one-year trial.

――What were the results of that trial?

Before synecoculture

F: The soil was so dry and cracked that if you scattered seeds on it, they would not sprout. We implemented synecoculture alongside other farming methods for comparison. The data showed that only synecoculture yielded remarkably plentiful harvests, while also providing amazingly positive environmental effects. All the plots using other farming methods were in the red, but the synecoculture plot was far in the black. The plot was about 500 square meters, only about the size of a backyard, but the value of its produce was 20 times higher than the Gross National Income per capita of Burkina Faso. No conventional method of farming could have given those results.

Traditional agriculture leads to progressive desertification after harvesting, but synecoculture succeeded in establishing, via designed plantings, a transition from desert conditions to a blend of mosses, grasses, bushes, sunlight-tolerant trees, and shade-loving understory trees within a single year. Although it usually requires massive amounts of effort and time to restore vegetation to land once it has desertified, synecoculture allows the restoration of plants in just one year while also producing an unprecedented amount of food. There is now enormous interest and the Burkina Faso government is working with us on a plan to conduct large-scale synecoculture trials.

Synecoculture participants in Burkina Faso

――Would you say the results met your expectations?

F: They exceeded my expectations. I received regular updates via email, and I thought that the numbers I was seeing must be in error by a decimal place or two. Even though I had the theory to suggest that it was plausible, it surpassed what I imagined to be realistic. When I obtained the granular data and performed statistical analysis, cost analysis, and so on in order to validate the results objectively, I realized that I had something really significant on my hands.

The 2010 Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity included a provision aiming to implement sustainable agriculture by 2020. At present, it does not appear that any country will meet that goal, known as Aichi Biodiversity Targets. But if we can scale up synecoculture in Burkina Faso, it could be the only country to make it, according to my calculations. If one of the world's poorest countries, facing some of the world's worst environmental crises, could be the one country to hit the target of that convention provision, it would be a complete game-changer.

It’s possible, after 12,000 long years of agricultural history, for an entirely new food production system to be established. The first step toward demonstrating that is now unfolding in the Sahel, in the heart of Africa.

Land in Burkina Faso revitalized through synecoculture

――What challenges do you foresee as you move forward with this research?

F: It's hard for people to understand synecoculture. Because food production is directly tied to the human survival instinct, there is widespread fear about changing our existing systems. There is a subjective reluctance to change how we have been farming for more than 10,000 years.

Ten or 20 years in the future, if population growth leads to decreased biodiversity, it's clear from a resource and environmental perspective that today's form of agriculture cannot continue. People don't change their minds until a crisis is staring them in the face, and then it's too late. We need to bridge multiple academic disciplines to create a new paradigm. I believe there are multiple research projects that are worthy of precautionary investments.

For Burkina Faso, they’re at the brink of a life-or-death situation. People there have said to me, "No matter how hard it is to believe synecoculture can do all that, if there's even a 1% chance, we'll take it." That's why my plans have been able to move forward there.

Sony CSL: A highly maneuverable mothership

――What prospects do you see ahead?

F: Because we have results from multiple test farms, I now want to design a system that can be rolled out to ordinary smallholder farms and subsistence family farms. They are the vast majority of world agriculture. No need for big infrastructure, just a smartphone to record data and offer suggestions like "Next you should plant so-and-so plant in such-and-such a way." I'm thinking of developing an open-source software system for such "megadiversity" management. It will gather data from all around the globe and make it possible for the population of other species to grow, instead of shrink, as the human population grows. I want to sustain high levels of biodiversity on a global scale.

Synecoculture research is not about creating innovation using specific technological elements. It's designed from the perspective of considering socio-ecological systems that could minimize the ruthless loss of all living species as little as possible on a global scale. We consume the lives of many living things in order to eat and obtain basic necessities. All those lives come out of ecosystems, so I believe that I cannot justify my own existence if I fail to replenish biodiversity as compensation for my own consumption. To speak more broadly, if there is value in human civilization continuing on this planet, it comes from humanity enriching the biodiversity of the planet through our existence. That is the philosophy that drives my research.

――At Sony CSL, research is not just limited to synecoculture. What do you think other research contributes to society?

F: When a few people start a big project, they may not necessarily have the foremost expertise in that field. With a little luck, a small number of people can create something new. The Wright Brothers' airplane is an example of that. At that time, no one imagined that someday air travel would become a major means of transport. But they built a working airplane and kick-started an enormous industry.

Sony CSL is like a small but highly maneuverable mothership for researchers who have the spirit of the Wright Brothers. It gathers researchers who start something from zero and they may take one step forward, maybe even going from "0 to 10." It shields them from obstacles. I think Sony CSL will have even more mobility in the years ahead. For example, it will expand its reach beyond academia and business into fields such as what I call "peace building." Working in the Sahel where there is much political instability, I learned that the people who build peace there are those who build resources providing livelihoods, starting with farming. The government and the military can do their best to protect livelihoods, but they can't directly create them. In actuality, it's the job of the private sector to support those basic livelihoods. When I talk to policymakers at events like UN conferences, they always appreciate that I am a scientist representing the private sector. If enough awareness is raised of the work we are doing in this area, perhaps it may even be possible for Sony CSL to spin out a small company to supply the digital infrastructure that is essential for primary producers in many countries.


# Field experiment in Africa is a joint project with AFIDRA (Association de Formation et d'Ingénierie du Développement Rural Autogéré) and CARFS (Centre Africain de Recherche et de Formation en Synécoculture).

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