Turning industrial agriculture into eco-agriculture: a plea for more effort

Mara Neef is a postgraduate student who wrote this article as part of her Euroleague for Life Sciences course work at Lincoln University.

Biodiversity is declining in countries with industrial agriculture, such as New Zealand and the European Union member states. An increase in food production and the protection of biodiversity are often perceived as opposing goals. I suggest that both challenges can and must be tackled through common effort in order to achieve sustainable benefits. We need to find ways to combine industrialised agriculture with ecological restoration efforts. This approach resembles the concept of eco-agriculture which promotes a balance between ecological and economic benefits (Li et al. 2012). A focus on promoting functional biodiversity, i.e. the biodiversity that is useful for farmers in terms of providing soil fertility, can be the stepping stone for establishing restoration sites within agricultural landscapes. With the main purpose of bringing back “useful” organisms into the farming system, such restored sites can also be the habitat for other endangered species.

Eyrewell Forest, in Canterbury New Zealand, is currently undergoing conversion to dairy farming. Small restoration patches, such as the recently planted site pictured here, are integrated into the irrigated dairy pastures. To promote this concept further, more research on how agricultural systems can benefit from enhanced biodiversity is needed (photo courtesy of Rebecca Dollery).

Next to soil organisms, pollinators are needed in food production but a decline in pollination services has been noted. Menz et al. (2011) have shown that small-scale restoration benefitted mobile pollinators as well as more specialist pollinators in California. Bird species also use smaller restored patches for nesting and food in addition to larger area habitats (Fischer and Lindenmayer 2002). Although larger non-fragmented areas are needed to ensure viable populations, small patches can be used to connect those larger habitats as stepping stones.

Another benefit to farmers from ecological restoration is to grow native wild plants in order to meet environmental guidelines, such as N concentrations in freshwater systems. At Lincoln University in New Zealand, Franklin et al. (2015) have suggested that N can be best removed by plantings of mixed native species, resulting in benefits for biodiversity restoration and the farmer who might otherwise pay fees for surpassing the N threshold for their property. More of this kind of research is needed to deliver science-based proof of such mutual benefits.

Science cannot achieve stronger cooperation between ecology and agriculture on its own. Governments need to provide incentives for research in sustainable agriculture and functional ecology, as well as for the implementation of such new findings by private land owners. For the European Union, the coviability approach was developed to model the effect of subsidy schemes on the coviability of farmland biodiversity and agriculture, taking into account species richness and profits (Mouysset et al. 2014). With this tool, new policies can be evaluated for their effectiveness in reaching both food production and biodiversity protection goals before they are implemented.

There are several work-ons that will ease the transition to eco-agriculture.

  • More governmental research funding for relevant areas, e.g. integrated pest management, crop rotation, functional biodiversity
  • Higher budget for monitoring effects of biodiversity on profitability of farms across different farming systems
  • Better communication of biodiversity benefits to farmers and policy-makers
  • Increased use of modeling tools to predict effects of current and alternative farming systems and subsidy schemes

With integrated approaches like these, an economically and ecologically viable transition towards eco-agriculture might be possible.


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