In my first professional vocation, I trained as an environmental scientist and plant ecologist. As a young researcher at the Department of Applied Biology, Cambridge University, U.K., I investigated how we could best establish vegetation by direct seeding on industrial, infrastructure development and other sites where soil was absent or infertile. In 1983, I founded an ecological landscape design & build company called CDTS, a company still operative today. We pioneered new techniques and approaches to developing resilient vegetation by working with nature, by using wild and native cultivated species to re-build soils to generate healthy new plant communities. We bought seed from commercial suppliers but where possible used seed of native provenance, or, in for some projects, collected local wild seed. We held a belief that locally adapted genotypes, especially those that had adapted to the hostile conditions of the sites we worked on, should be an integral component of the vegetation we nurtured. Furthermore, they provided a home or hosted insects and animal life that helped maintain the local ecological diversity.
As I did some early research for the project WCAFB, I came across the work of Benedikt Gross , an ‘antidisciplinary, speculative, computational designer’ based in Ravensburg, Stuttgart and his project Avena+ Testbed, Agricultural Printing and Altered Landscapes. Initiated in 2013, Gross was exploring the relationship between landscape, agriculture and digital fabrication.
His premise was that the digital technologies of Precision Farming coupled with pressures on farmers to consider biomass energy rather than food crops through EU subsidies, would lead to reconsidering how and with what we seed our fields. His experiment involved using algorithms to partition land use between crops and wildflowers. These wildflower corridors were to provide access to more diverse insect life and fauna, helping reduce pests and vermin, consequently reducing pesticide usage. Mapping the land surface by GPS then seeding with a specially modified seed drill, created a dual vegetation structure. The oats (Avena) germinated much earlier than the wildflowers to reveal the hexagonal patterning of the vegetation in the field creating a dramatic new aesthetic when viewed from the air. Maturation of the vegetation in summer shows a healthy crop with bands or seams of wild flowers in between the oats energy crop.
This speculative design project by Gross reminded me of the ecological design approach that our landscape architect in CDTS tried to achieve in the early days of the company through patterning different vegetation types over a site. Applying design thinking, Gross was also ahead of the curve in agricultural biodiversity experimentation. However, recently, two institutes in the U.K. and Switzerland began investigations into whether inclusion of annual wildflower strips in cereal monocultures could help reduce pesticide applications. Early results of a five-year trial conducted on fifteen farms in England by the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology were positive. Another project called Flowering Habitats by Agroscope, Switzerland, showed significant benefits of including wild flower strips in a monoculture cereal crop. The strips helped promote pest control reducing cereal leaf beetle infestations to economically acceptable levels. Additional benefits include refuge for bees, an essential insect for crop pollination.
The above findings are of critical importance as many recent reports show continued critical declines of insects and birds on agricultural land in the U.K., France and Germany.
Interestingly, the report of the UK and Swiss experiments was published in Core77, a leading online design publication. Perhaps, this heralds a growing interest in designers that do not traditionally work in the agricultural environment to think how their skills might be applied to help rethink farming and rural practices. I believe that designers should, indeed, get involved!
 Tschumi, M. et. al., 2015. High effectiveness of tailored flower strips in reducing pests and crop plant damage. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 7 September 2015, Volume 282, issue 1814, available here, http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/282/1814/20151369, accessed 26.04.2018.