There is a growing global emphasis on sustainable agriculture to reduce human impacts and improve delivery of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). With increasing investment in critical zone observatories (CZOs), it becomes important to understand how sustainable agricultural knowledge is produced, shared and used between different groups including farmers, scientists and government. To explore these issues, scientists leading the knowledge exchange (KE) component of a China-UK CZO program studied three farming regions with contrasting geologies and varying economic levels, using a practice-based research method. We demonstrate how additional funding for social science research allowed us to understand how farmers access and share farming knowledge through bonding, bridging and linking networks, and how this varies spatially, using interviews and survey questionnaires. Knowledge flows, barriers and opportunities for designing locally suited two-way KE activities were identified. First, we highlight the need for a more locally, socially embedded and reflexive approach to build trust and better address pressing local environmental challenges. Second, we show how social science can usefully inform KE for collaborative, international development science, to draw on local knowledge, promote research impacts and capacity building while avoiding knowledge mismatches. Lastly, a blueprint for the design and funding of future CZOs, social-ecological and planetary health research agendas that combine science, social science, local knowledge and KE is presented, including the need for substantive social science research to take place in addition to science research in human-modified landscapes—enabling the CZ science to be better grounded in, informed by and useful to local communities.
- agri-environmental sustainability
- knowledge exchange
- smallholder farmers
- social capital