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Wesley Martinez Da Costa / EyeEm / Getty Images

By David R. Montgomery

Would it sound too good to be true if I was to say that there was a simple, profitable and underused agricultural method to help feed everybody, cool the planet, and revitalize rural America? I used to think so, until I started visiting farmers who are restoring fertility to their land, stashing a lot of carbon in their soil, and returning healthy profitability to family farms. Now I've come to see how restoring soil health would prove as good for farmers and rural economies as it would for the environment.

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Farms with just one or a handful of different crops encourage fewer species of pollinating and pest-controlling insects to linger, ultimately winnowing away crop yields, according to a new study.

Up to half of the detrimental impacts of the "landscape simplification" that monocropping entails come as a result of a diminished mix of ecosystem service-providing insects, a team of scientists reported Oct. 16 in the journal Science Advances.

Monocrop palm oil plantation Honduras.

SHARE Foundation / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0​

"Our study shows that biodiversity is essential to ensure the provision of ecosystem services and to maintain a high and stable agricultural production," Matteo Dainese, the study's lead author and a biologist at Eurac Research in Bolzano, Italy, said in a statement.

It stands to reason that, with declines in the sheer numbers of insects that ferry pollen from plant to plant and keep crop-eating pests under control, these services will wane as well. But until now, it hasn't been clear how monocultures affect the number and mix of these species or how crop yields might change as a result.

Aiming to solve these questions, Dainese and his colleagues pulled together data from 89 studies cutting across a variety of landscapes, from the tropics of Asia and Africa to the higher latitudes of northern Europe. They tabulated the number of pollinating and pest-controlling insects at these sites — both the absolute number of individuals and the number of species — along with an assessment of the ecosystem services the insects provided.

In almost all of the studies they looked at, the team found that a more diverse pool of these species translated into more pollination and greater pest control. They also showed that simplified landscapes supported fewer species of service-providing insects, which ultimately led to lower crop yields.

The researchers also looked at a third measure of the makeup of insect populations — what they called "evenness." In natural ecosystems, a handful of dominant species with many more individuals typically live alongside a higher number of rarer species. The team found as landscapes became less diverse, dominant species numbers dwindled and rare species gained ground. This resulting, more equitable mix led to less pollination (though it didn't end up affecting pest control).

"Our study provides strong empirical support for the potential benefits of new pathways to sustainable agriculture that aim to reconcile the protection of biodiversity and the production of food for increasing human populations," Ingolf Steffan-Dewenter, one of the study's authors and an animal ecologist at the University of Würzburg in Germany, said in the statement.

The scientists figure that the richness of pollinator species explains around a third of the harmful impacts of less diverse landscapes, while the richness of pest-controlling species accounts for about half of the same measure. In their view, the results of their research point to the need to protect biodiversity on and around crops in an uncertain future.

"Under future conditions with ongoing global change and more frequent extreme climate events, the value of farmland biodiversity ensuring resilience against environmental disturbances will become even more important," Steffan-Dewenter said.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.

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Strips of native prairie grasses planted on Larry and Margaret Stone's Iowa farm protect soil, water and wildlife. Iowa State University / Omar de Kok-Mercado, CC BY-ND

By Lisa Schulte Moore

Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses bring the state a lot of political attention during presidential election cycles. But in my view, even though some candidates have outlined positions on food and farming, agriculture rarely gets the attention it deserves.

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The estimated Population in drought areas is 60,851,010. Brian Fuchs / National Drought Mitigation Center / United States Drought Monitor

By Dan Nosowitz

While the northern reaches of the continental U.S. are finally starting to feel a little chill, the Southeast is dealing with something very different.

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Indonesian firefighters battle a forest fire, one of many spewing toxic haze across the region causing an increase in reports of respiratory illnesses, in Kampar, Riau on Sept. 23. WAHYUDI / AFP / Getty Images

By Sakinah Ummu Haniy, Hidayah Hamzah and Mirzha Hanifah

Indonesia's forest fires have made headlines globally over the past few weeks. This year's forest fires have affected millions of people. Schools have closed in some areas due to unsafe levels of air pollution, while many people are suffering from respiratory illnesses. The haze has spread so far as to affect Singapore and Malaysia.

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Pexels

By Daisy Simmons

Food may be a universal language — but in these record-breaking hot days, so too is climate change. With July clocking in as the hottest month on Earth in recorded history and extreme weather ramping up globally, farmers are facing the brunt of climate change in croplands and pastures around the world.

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The most threatened mammals are the Scottish wildcat (pictured above) and the black rat. Andy Catlin / 500px / Getty Images

Brexit may have dominated the headlines in recent weeks, but another crisis is underway in the UK: One in seven of its wildlife species face extinction, and 41 percent have declined since 1970.

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Production of hemp was banned in the United States in 1937 under the Marihuana Tax Act.

A strain of Cannabis sativa, its low concentrations of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) mean it won't get you high. The internet is abuzz, though, with claims that it's a green fix for a host of environmental ills.

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Erin Houghton presenting the project to a Soil and Water Conservation Society tour group in 2015. NEW Water

By Samantha Harrington

When heavy rain falls in northwest Wisconsin, fertilizer and manure can wash off farm fields into nearby waterways. This pollution contains phosphorus, which can cause algal blooms and foul surface water.

"We know we're going to see increased precipitation events. We know we're going to have more severe precipitation events," says Erin Houghton of NEW Water, Green Bay's wastewater utility.

State regulations require the utility to reduce phosphorus in the water it discharges. But instead of building a $100 million treatment plant, NEW Water decided to tackle the problem at its source.

The utility worked with crop and soil experts and farmers to minimize runoff. They experimented with planting cover crops, tilling the soil less, and planting grass buffers alongside fields.

Houghton says the goal is "keeping those nutrients and soil where they need to be, and on those fields, and really working for that farmer."

She says the early results are promising, so NEW Water is expanding the project into a 20-year plan. The utility is confident that by preventing runoff in the first place, it can reduce phosphorus pollution without an expensive new treatment plant.

As the climate warms, the problem could get worse.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Yale Climate Connections.

Chiot's Run / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

By Alex Robinson

The effects of climate change are nothing new for maple syrup farmers like Larry Yoder.

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Orange-red oil palm fruit produces two kinds of oil: "palm oil" from the flesh, "palm kernel oil" from the seed. dolphfyn / iStock / Getty Images

By Helen A. Lee

We cook with it. We bathe with it. We use it for mood lighting. Palm oil is an ingredient in processed foods, cosmetics, hygiene products, biofuels and candles; experts estimate it's found in 50 percent of the items on grocery store shelves. Inexpensive to produce, palm oil contains no trans fats, and has a high melting point, making it versatile and easy to spread. The result: increasing demand. In 1996, global production totaled 16 million metric tons. By 2017, it was 60.7 million.

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