Looking in the Right Places: Finding Opportunities that Increase Yields while Reducing Harm to Biodiversity

By Saul Cunningham, Team Leader for Biodiversity in Managed Landscapes, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Australia

Following on the heels of International Day of Biological Diversity and the Chicago Council’s Global Food Security Symposium, today’s post marries the issues tackled by these two events. Dr. Cunningham, from Australia’s CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences, describes how there is no one prototype for both increasing agricultural production and preserving biodiversity within landscapes. Rather, the framework he and a group of researchers developed embraces the variation among systems.

Anyone with an interest in landscapes that support people, food, and nature will be aware of the repeated challenge that ‘the world needs to double food production by 2050’. At the same time you will have heard that agriculture has been one of the most important drivers of biodiversity loss. So, one must wonder, will the pursuit of production increases drive us down this same path, with continued erosion of biodiversity?

Many thinkers, including contributors to the Landscapes Blog, have pondered this dilemma. In the scientific literature there are papers offering the view that it is possible to keep growing production in a sustainable way, offering various versions of the idea of “sustainable intensification.” But what does this mean? Is this really a solution, or just a positive way of re-stating the challenge? With these questions in mind, my colleagues and I organised a workshop in Australia (funded by CSIRO). Our idea was to identify researchers with experience examining the impacts of agriculture on biodiversity around the world, and to put them in the same room to compare notes. We ended up bringing together 14 researchers from 8 countries, with significant research experience everywhere across the globe.

In sharing our experiences, it became increasingly clear that every landscape has its own story, and its own set of challenges. The strategies for increasing production and conserving biodiversity were very different in different places. Obvious perhaps in retrospect, but it underlined for us that while the challenge can be expressed as a single problem, it is wrong to think there is a single solution. In other words, if there is a thing called sustainable intensification, it will look very different in different places, and might not even exist in some. This is not just because agricultural practices differ around the world, but because the priorities and possibilities of meaningful biodiversity conservation outcomes differ in different landscapes. This latter point has not received enough attention, perhaps because so much of the literature on production methods starts (understandably) from the agronomic perspective. The constraints on better biodiversity outcomes include history, habitat patterns in the existing landscape, intrinsic biodiversity potential, and interactions between people and biota.

Scientists have been criticised for too often drawing the unhelpful conclusion that the world is very complex, and therefore we need more research! To avoid this trap we tried to seek patterns and principles among the complexity. One fundamental axis of variation is what we called the contrast between the agricultural system and the endemic ecosystem: some agroforesty systems are low contrast, while at the other extreme a woodland that has been cleared for cereal cropping is high contrast. Another important axis of variation is extent: in some places one agricultural system dominates a wide landscape, whereas other systems are patchily distributed in a matrix of other land uses with differing biodiversity values. Different combinations of contrast and extent lead to very different opportunities for biodiversity conservation gains and for production increases.

There are opportunities that increase yields while reducing harm to biodiversity, but we will only find them if we look in the right places.

Read More:
Cunningham, SA, et al. 2013. To close the yield-gap while saving biodiversity will require multiple locally relevant strategies. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 173(1):20-27.

Photo credit: Neil Palmer (CIAT)
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2 Responses to Looking in the Right Places: Finding Opportunities that Increase Yields while Reducing Harm to Biodiversity

  1. Emily-Jane says:

    As a scientist who is also somewhat disillusioned with endless calls for more research, I can appreciate the benefits of your search for patterns and principles among complexity. Even though these may yet be unclear, I think we know enough about the general directions in which to move; e.g. providing shelter belts around cropping and grazing landscapes, and increasing soil carbon, to name just a couple. Even if we don’t quite get it right, any action in these broad directions is better than none at all.

  2. tmgieseke says:

    Yes, look in the right places and value the right behaviors and outcomes. Functioning ecosystems are the foundation of a significant part of our economic system and expressing value is the foundation of a functioning economic system.