Evolutionary game theoretical (EGT) models show that natural selection can lead to a tragedy of the commons: a lower overall community performance, because there is selection on individuals that invest extra in acquiring resources or service provisioners (e.g. pollinators) at the expense of others. But in managed systems, such as agriculture, maximum community performance is usually the objective. This difference in selection pressure between managed and natural systems touches on two important research questions in current agro-ecological research: 1) to what extent current traits and responses in crops are still a consequence of natural selection. 2) How do crops interact with their environment. Using this knowledge for crop breeding and management, including using the ecosystem services that nature can supply should lead to a more sustainable, more resource efficient agriculture. EGT provides a tool to understand the difference between an ideal crop and natural species, a way to model effects of the heterogeneity that is introduced by mixing genotypes and/or different crop species, and to predict how crop management may affect and may be affected by natural communities. In this talk, we will discuss our recent advances in the use of evolutionary game theory within this agro-ecological frame work.
First, we will show how EGT can move away from being trait based to being more physiologically based, using the way Arabidopsis thaliana responds to R:Fr signal as an example. The strength of the responses of individual leaves to the signal are used in a 3D plant model to assess how competition shapes the evolution of this plastic response. Secondly, we will discuss how the potential trade-off between shade avoidance and defence may have evolved depending on the ecological setting. We will present the preliminary results of several models, including one that addressed the question when plants should prime for an attack after a signal emitted by a neighbouring plant. Lastly, we explore the idea that EGT suggests that the mechanisms that lead to co-existence in natural systems may be different to the type of diversity that maximizes performance in crop mixtures. Our message is that a better understanding of natural selection in agro-ecosystems can give key insights for ecological intensification of agriculture, and that to this EGT is a very suitable mathematical tool.