Ecological engineering – Grand challenges ahead

by moni on August 16, 2012

K.L. Heong, International Rice Research Institute, Los Baños, Philippines

Ecological engineering in Cha Gao, Tien Giang. The nectar rich flowers along the bunds were resources for bee keeping under the coconut trees (A) and parasitoids.

I would like to draw attention to a special issue published recently by the journal Ecological Engineering Volume 45 (2012) entitled “Ecological Engineering–Its Development, Applications and Challenges”.  The editorial by Clive Jones outlined three grand challenges for the future of ecological engineering (EE)- ethical, relational and intellectual challenges. These three challenges need to be met and integrated into practice to accomplish the ambitious goal of achieving sustainability. Ecological engineering seeks to “integrate human society with its natural environment for the benefit of both”.  There is thus need to clearly articulate ethics and their translation into practice to avoid confusion, misinterpretation and misapplication. General ethical guidelines for ecological engineering will need to be developed.

Relational challenges will need to address the question “What relationships between ecological engineering and other segments of society are necessary?” To meet the environmental challenges ahead ecological engineering must develop methods rapidly and get it adopted widely as quickly as possible. To accomplish this there is need for support and strengthen relationships with other segments.

1.  Science and technology – We can not create and implement EE designs without social science and social science can longer ignore the natural sciences. The multi stakeholder EE activities in Vietnam that involve agriculture, extension, communication specialists and local government officials conducting research and developing multi media campaigns and TV series are examples.

2. EE projects involve multi stakeholder negotiations and management.  The use of the multi stakeholder participatory process (Escalada and Heong 2012) that is employed in project planning and management is one approach.

3. Domain specific and technological knowledge are essential.  EE for pest management cannot be developed without entomologists that understand pest ecology and sociologists that understand farmers’ decision making, communication and adoption.

4. Conservation and restoration are both essential components

Business, especially the pesticide industry, will face challenges in developing sustainable practices that will reduce insecticide use. Yet their active participation is necessary to bring about change. Adhering to the FAO code of conduct in all cases will be a place to start. In Thailand when the Thai Agro-Business Association (TABA) was invited to assist in the “Stop use of cypernmethrin and abamectin”campaign  they actively contributed so as to restore biodiversity and prevent the pest outbreaks. Such interactions are encouraging and more will be needed for EE to be widely adopted to avoid further miseries to farmers.

Another important area is policy. There is need for sound policies to promote sustainability and to conserve ecosystem services. Vietnam is taking the lead in this area developing and implementing stricter pesticide marketing regulations to reduce misuse .

EE is at a challenging intellectual juncture. It requires trans-disciplinary thinking and intellectual fusion that integrates ecological theories, conservation biology, agronomy, plant protection sciences, economics, communication sciences and other system sciences. It is easy to return to the intellectual comfort zone of our own schools and disciplines. Alternatively we can accept the discomfort and build a school of broader thinking with cross fertilization of ideas. The key question is what will be the foundation of the new school?

Ecological engineering is both to restore and to conserve biodiversity, ecological functions and ecosystem services.

Ecosystem health is the desired end point of ecological engineering (Costanza 2012). A rice ecosystem is healthy and free from “distress syndrome” if it is stable and sustainable.  Planthopper outbreaks are distress syndromes that can be avoided. An ecosystem is “healthy”, if  it is active (with continuous biological activities) and maintains its organization (food web structures) and autonomy over time and is resilient to stress (like pest invasions). The three general categories of performance are

1. Vigor – Primary productivity. High and stable yields and productivity. No pest outbreaks.

2. Organization – The number and diversity of interactions between components. High species richness and high food chain lengths. Insecticide sprays tend to disorganize   predator-prey relationships and should be avoided as far as possible.

3. Resilience – Its ability to maintain its structure and pattern of behavior in the presence of stress, for instance in rice the ability to withstand BPH invasions, the ability to recover from leaf and tiller  damages by some pests.

Ecological engineering is defined as the design of sustainable ecosystems that integrate human society with its natural environment for the benefit of both (Mitsch 2012). It has developed over the last 30 years and very  rapidly over the last 10 years. For pest management, the first book was published in 2004 (Gurr et al, 2004) and followed recently by Gurr et al 2012 with two chapters on rice.  In rice pest management the EE idea was first introduced in 2008 at the Rice Planthopper Conference at IRRI (Gurr 2009).

News item


Costanza, R. 2012. Ecosystem health and ecological engineering.  Ecological Engineering, 45, 24 – 29.

Escalada, M.M. and Heong, K.L. 2012. Using decision theory and sociological tools to facilitate adoption of biodiversity based pest management strategies. Pp 199 – 213.  In Gurr, G.M., Wratten, S.D., Synder, W.E. and Read, D.M.Y. (eds) Biodiversity and Insect Pests: Key Issues for Sustainable Management.  John Wiley & Sons.. (for reprint email

Gurr, G.M., Heong, K.L., Cheng, J.A. and Catindig, J. 2012. Ecological engineering stategies to management insect pests in rice.  Pp 214 – 229. In Gurr, G.M., Wratten, S.D., Synder, W.E. and Read, D.M.Y. (eds) Biodiversity and Insect Pests: Key Issues for Sustainable Management.  John Wiley & Sons. (for reprint email

Gurr G.M., Wratten, S.D. and Altieri. M.A. (eds) 2004. Ecological Engineering For Pest Management – Advances in habitat manipulation for arthropods.  CSIRO Publishing, Canberra, Australia.

Gurr, G.M., Wratten, S.D., Synder, W.E. and Read, D.M.Y. (eds) Biodiversity and Insect Pests: Key Issues for Sustainable Management.  John Wiley & Sons.

Gurr , G.M. , Liu , J. , Read , D.M.Y. Catindig, J.L.A., Cheng, J.A., Lan, L.P. and Heong, K.L. ( 2011 ) Parasitoids of Asian rice planthopper (Hemiptera: Delphacidae) pests and prospects for enhancing biological control . Annals of Applied Biology, 158 , 149 – 176. click here for pdf.

Mitsch, W.J. 2012. What is ecological engineering?. Ecological Engineering, 45, 5 – 12.

More links:

Planthopper outbreaks, predominated by WBPH, threatening early season rice in Hunan and some southern provinces of China

Reported in August 2012 or or

Reported in June 2012


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