Mixing farms, forests and grasslands protects biodiversity from effects of intensive farming

The loss of biodiversity in insect and invertebrate populations due to intensive farming can impact the resilience of ecosystems to environmental change. New research in Nature Communications suggests this impact on biodiversity can be counteracted by having a varied ecosystem at larger, landscape scales, and that maintaining a diverse landscape of farms, forests and grasslands could allow sustainable intensification of agriculture. The researchers looked at almost 600 species in Germany finding that simpler landscapes supported fewer invertebrates with important specialist functions like pollination of specific plants. 

 

Dr. Nicholas Jordan, Professor, Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics, University of Minnesota (webpage):

Expertise: use of biological diversity to improve on-farm productivity and resource efficiency, while reducing harmful environmental effects of agroecosystems. 

“The study explores how diversified agricultural landscapes—where different kinds of land-use occur, and different land-use types are closely intermingled—compare to more simplified landscapes in terms of biodiversity. The key findings are two: diversified landscapes can have dramatically more “functional biodiversity”. This biodiversity functions to provide “ecosystem services”, like pest control and soil fertility, that can help farmers produce crops and use fertilizers and pesticides more efficiently and less environmental impact. Second, and importantly, the study also finds that diversification of landscapes can maintain functional biodiversity even when high-intensity agricultural production is occurring in much of the landscape. Thus, landscape-scale diversification can compensate for simplification at field scales.

“The latter findings show that the power and efficiency of planning and implementing diversification at landscape scales. To assess the generality of this finding, similar studies are certainly needed in a range of agricultural landscapes and production systems, including annual crop production systems. However, these results strongly underscore the value of “strategic landscape diversification”, i.e., carefully targeting agriculture diversification to landscape locations where relatively large increases in biodiversity and associated ecosystem services results from relatively small changes in land use.

“The study is particularly significant in the light of mounting evidence that such strategic diversification can also significantly increase the production of agricultural commodities. These commodities include agricultural biomass that can now be processed into a wide range of high-value materials and products, including but by no means limited to biofuels and bioenergy. Therefore, strategic landscape diversification can increase total agricultural production. The study shows that diversification can also powerfully increase biodiversity conservation. It is an important addition to the body of work that shows that farmers can increase production, resource conservation, and profit by strategic landscape diversification. Such “win-win-win” strategies as essential to achieving the widely-shared goal of sustainable intensification of agriculture.”

 

Dr. Mark Rasmussen, Director, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Professor, Department of Animal Science, Iowa State University (webpage):

Expertise: knowledge of U.S. agriculture and integrated farming practices which conserve natural resources and enhance sustainable productivity.

“The intensification of agriculture through the use of monoculture crops is a result of our focus on productivity and yield.  As we have specialized and narrowed our food and feedstock basis (agriculture is a feedstock provider to a non-food industry too) to a few crops we have greatly restricted biodiversity.  As a result there are risks to resiliency and severe environmental consequences and we rely more on synthetic crop protection technology and synthetic fertilizers to maintain productivity.  This kind of intense agriculture goes against the basic principles of ecology which relies on biodiversity and complex biological interactions to enhance resilience.  The sustainability of a system propped up by synthetic technology remains questionable in the long term.

“It is not distinctly a matter of large scale versus small scale agriculture.  It is more a matter of the cropping systems we choose to support economically.  Large scale agriculture can be biodiverse too if we choose to support that kind of agriculture.”

 

Declared interests (see GENeS register of interests policy):

No interests declared

 

Reference

Landscape simplification filters species traits and drives biotic homogenization‘ by Sagrario Gamez-Virues et. al., published in Nature Communications on Tuesday 20 October 2015.

 

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  • Farmer with a Dell

    Biodiversity’s halo is kept polished to a blinding brightness at all times.

    Never is any downside to biodiversity acknowledged. The implication is biodiversity always enhances food production, monoculture always threatens our very existence. Just one little factual problem — monoculture evolved as a practical means of controlling detrimental effects of biodiversity: infestations by weeds (common and noxious); insects; vermin; pollen. The tactic is referred to as “clean farming” and it goes hand in hand with effective control of crop damage by weeds and pests. When you have a planet load of people to feed there definitely can be a costly downside to too much of the wrong kind of biodiversity.

    In practice, “biodiversity” makes a convenient excuse for lazy slack-assed farming. Just let everything go and maybe we can glean a few morsels from amongst the thistles and horse nettles…if the snails, beetles, ground hogs, turkeys and deer left us anything. And all of that, of course, is contingent on the beavers not flooding us out in the first place. True biodiversity reduces us to the hunter-gatherer state, all 6.5 billion of us. That’s going to make for a pretty crowded and not-so-happy hunting ground.

    Balanced discussion of biodiversity is urgently needed.