The monoculture production system, which became widespread over the last century, has greatly contributed to the loss of the positive services offered by biodiversity
Biodiversity is key to providing farmers with the services of nature such as pollination and water purification and also pest and disease control. However, the monoculture production system, which became widespread over the last century, has greatly contributed to the loss of the positive services offered by biodiversity. Nevertheless, farmers are becoming increasingly aware of the benefits of working with nature, and this awareness has also been reflected in recent political decisions and commitments. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations is one of the key actors in reconciling the interconnected fields of biodiversity conservation, agriculture, and food production.
What is biodiversity and what is its role in agriculture?
Biodiversity is where agriculture and food production begin. Biological diversity can be defined as the variability among living organisms and includes inter alia, the diversity of species and ecosystems that represents the interaction between all the living organisms and their environment in a particular context.
As stated in the European Union 2030 Biodiversity Strategy:
“Biodiversity is essential for life. Our planet and the economy depend on it. When nature is healthy, it protects and provides.”
Agriculture includes different types of biodiversity, both cultivated and wild. Cultivated plants and domesticated animals are those that humans have selected for food and non-food purposes from their wild relatives, and which have become part of agriculture. Nevertheless, wild species of animals, plants, mushrooms, and other living things never cease to exist and, one way or another, they have made their way onto farms and cultivated areas because that is how nature works. Some do damage the production and are therefore considered to be pests while others are beneficial as they either directly protect production from the pests or contribute indirectly to it thriving and to its productivity. Overall, however, biodiversity is crucial for agriculture and food security.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO):
“Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture (BFA) – including domesticated crops and animals, harvested forest and aquatic species, and the associated biodiversity found in and around production systems – is indispensable to food security, sustainable development and the supply of many vital ecosystem services”.
Biodiversity loss also means the loss of useful nature services
The ecosystem services provided by nature are an example of why biodiversity makes both natural and agroecosystems functional. Nature services include pollination (on which 75% of global food crops depend), pest and disease regulation, soil regeneration, water purification and also the provision of fresh water.
The main food production model around the world has focused over in the past on monoculture whereby one species of crops is grown with both cultivated and wild biodiversity being excluded from its production. With regards to plants, herbicides have been used to fight weeds in order to allow one crop species to develop while according to scientists, the loss of plant diversity significantly affects water cycles, and “compared to monocultures, diverse vegetation mixes have diverse rooting systems that can access a larger volume of soil and soil moisture. A diverse rooting system facilitates resilience to drought and optimizes the use of soil water and nutrients”.
With regard to insects, fungi, birds, rodents, and other animals, the science that supports monoculture production has focused on all elements of natural systems that damage production, thus being able to develop chemical protection for crops. While being able to partially solve the pest problems with agrochemicals, scientists have neglected the positive elements of biodiversity which could help to reduce chemical use and produce food in a more nature-friendly and also more profitable way.
In a never-ending chemical race, phytosanitary protection is only a short-term solution as pests develop resistance towards these chemicals, and find their way to our crops regardless:
“The evolution of pesticide resistance by insect, pests and weeds has long been taken as the primary natural reason for pesticide dependence and various new varieties of pesticides have been constantly invented to combat the genetic evolutional process.”
Moreover, “in response to pesticide resistance, excessive concentration of pesticides has been applied and new varieties designed” despite the fact that pesticide resistance “is essentially a process of genetic co-evolution in the ecological system” which is a natural process that can be either competitive or beneficial for both. For instance, modern insect-pollinated flowers co-evolved with insects to ensure pollination on one hand, and in return reward the pollinators with pollen and nectar on the other.
This co-evolution has endured for over 100 million years and has created a complex network of interactions between organisms. Therefore, another significant disadvantage of using synthetic chemicals in food production is that, apart from killing pests, these chemicals also affect beneficial micro-organisms, insects, birds, and other animals, which can then no longer offer their benefits to us. This is the case of ladybugs that happily consume the aphids which could transmit viruses to crops such as cucumber, lettuce, squash, melon, and many others in food gardens and farms (Fig.1).
These tiny helpers however, might not even appear on our farms if producers apply insecticides to combat other insects that are harmful. Some studies go further and even quantify the economic benefit of having ladybugs in their production systems. That is the case with the Chinese cotton fields where the estimated increase in farms’ profitability amounts to hundreds of millions of US dollars per year if the ladybugs are allowed to thrive in their production.
Farmers who want to work with nature are aware of the benefits that nature services can offer them, and therefore welcome biodiversity in their food production. This has been happening all over the world, including in Europe where farmers and smallholders learn how nature works and allow it to do its job. Positive and inspiring examples include saving orchards from bankruptcy by introducing local breed of chickens to control pest insects and fertilize land, and also attracting bird raptors to control pest rodents and birds in food production.
More knowledge and sustainable use of biodiversity in agriculture
Although good practices and experiences exist, more knowledge of ecological processes and biodiversity is necessary for farmers to be able to identify solutions for their specific contexts and for their specific challenges, and, furthermore, to take these good practices to larger scales.
The most recent global event that united policy-makers from all over the world on the subject of biodiversity was in December 2022 and included the discussion and adoption of a decision which recognizes and supports “the role of indigenous peoples and local communities, […] smallholders and small-scale food producers, particularly family farmers, in maintaining biodiversity through sustainable agricultural practices”.
Thus, strengthening farmers’ capacity to work with nature is one of the key priorities for policymakers with regard to biodiversity in the context of agriculture. As many countries are in the process of revising and updating their national biodiversity strategies and action plans, in June the FAO organized its second regional dialogue on biodiversity mainstreaming across agricultural sectors in Europe and Central Asia which aimed to “to strengthen countries’ commitments to biodiversity for food and agriculture action through updated national biodiversity strategies and action plans as priority instruments to halt and reverse biodiversity loss and build the resilience of agrifood systems”, while also paving the way for the elaboration of the new “regional action plan for mainstreaming biodiversity across agricultural sectors in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.”
“The seeds of the transformative changes for achieving the new Global Biodiversity Framework’s targets grow in farmer fields. As the Convention on Biological Diversity calls for a ‘whole-of-society’ approach, both widespread recognition and adequate governmental policies to support farmers’ initiatives are critical to take better maintenance of biodiversity, farm in harmony with nature and build fair and inclusive agrifood systems” stated Anna Kanshieva, Biodiversity and Science & Innovation Specialist, FAO Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia, the main organiser of the event.