By Grant Potter
Modern agriculture often operates at great expense to natural habitats. Cultivating a plot of land can replace most of the indigenous flora and fauna with food crops. This displacement of native biodiversity will accelerate as “global food production…must double by 2050 to head off mass hunger,” according to Jacques Diouf, Director-General of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.
In a given plot of land, the density of trees (y-axis) does not affect the agricultural yields (x-axis). (Graphic credit: PNAS)
Wildlife-friendly farming, a process that allows for the coexistence of cultivated crops and local wildlife, has been largely overlooked as a solution to this growing demand. The assumption persists that a zero-sum relationship exists between crop yields and biodiversity where an increase in one will necessarily cause an equal decrease in the other. A study conducted by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), however, refutes this long-standing assumption. Their hypothesis is that a causal link between biodiversity and crop yields does not exist. An increase in local wildlife should not affect agricultural yields.
The PNAS study took place on 43 small cocoa plantations in Indonesia from 2006-2008. The researchers noted the presence of local wildlife, including trees, fungi, herbs, butterflies, ants, spiders, birds, rats, and amphibians on each of the plantations. They also recorded the cocoa yields that each plantation was able to produce. A comparison between biodiversity and agricultural yield revealed “that supporting species-rich agroforests need not result in a decrease in agricultural output,” says the PNAS report. For all of the forms of wildlife, excluding herbs, a zero-sum relationship was not found. These findings were “remarkable,” says the PNAS report, “because win-win situations based on biodiversity/yield relationships have not been identified,” until now.
The authors of the report stress that these findings are not universally applicable in all agricultural conditions. Their study occurred in a “tropical human-dominated landscape” and the results might not be duplicated “in temperate grasslands and arable fields”. Even with these caveats, the authors describe the amazing potential that their study may have on the future of sustainable agriculture. Without increasing pressure on remaining natural forest habitat,” says the report, “substantial yield increases and on-farm biodiversity conservation in smallholder agroforestry landscapes may be achieved.” More research is needed, but clearly wildlife-friendly farming has the potential to feed the planet without starving ecosystems.
What do you think? Can wildlife and agriculture cohabitate? Let us know in the comments section!
Grant Potter is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.
To read more about wildlife friendly farming see: What works: farming with trees, Helping farmers benefit economically from wildlife conservation, What works: healing the soil with agriculture, What works: Innovations that protect both agriculture and wildlife, Restoring biodiversity to improve food security.