Why Biodiversity is Important for Agricultural Production

Why Biodiversity is Important for Agricultural Production

Dr. Stanisław Świtek

Associate Professor within the Department of Agronomy, Poznań University of Life Sciences

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The last 100 years have seen a massive increase in agricultural productivity. The yield that can be obtained from a unit of land has increased several times. This was made possible by the large-scale use of plant protection products and fertilizers, as well as the mechanization of agriculture and advances in breeding. Unfortunately, the progressive intensification of agriculture has negatively affected the natural environment. Habitat has decreased, and the agricultural landscape has lost its diversity. The intensification of agriculture has reduced the number of birds, insects, and plants that occupy marginal habitats. In the long term, environmental degradation is not indifferent to agricultural production itself and implies negative consequences.

Ecosystem Services

The importance of nature and its processes to humans is well reflected in ecosystem services. They are usually presented in 4 categories:

  • Provisioning: Nature (ecosystems) provides humans with products such as water, wood, fiber, fuel, and genetic resources.
  • Regulatory: This category includes services like climate regulation, erosion protection, biological control, and plant pollination.
  • Cultural: Nature provides spiritual, educational, and ethical values.
  • Supportive: This fourth category includes services that support essential processes, such as the circulation of elements, water, and soil formation.

It is assumed that the level of ecosystem services, the level of benefits we derive from ecosystems, is directly proportional to the level of biodiversity. The greater the biodiversity, the greater the level of ecosystem services, the more stable the system, and the greater the benefit to humans. Ecologists often compare biodiversity loss to a flying plane from which rivets fall out. Initially, their loss has no visible effect—the plane continues to fly. However, there is a critical point: one more lost rivet (species), after the loss of which wings fall off the plane, and it crashes. The situation may be similar to our biodiversity. It is possible that if we do not yet see the effects of its loss, it could happen at any time. On the other hand, immediate action can save us from disaster.

An example is pest control. In properly functioning ecosystems, there are complex networks of relationships between different species. Certain species are competitors to those that can cause losses in crop production by limiting their populations. These can be natural enemies.

The Importance of the Diversity of Soil Life

The richness of soil life is so little understood that we know less about the organisms that inhabit it than those from the ocean’s depths. If we could add up the mass of all the living organisms inhabiting the soil in an area of 1 hectare, it would give a mass of several hundred kilograms or perhaps even several tons. It is as if several cows were constantly chewing, digesting, and excreting on the same unit of land. There are more than 1 billion bacteria in a single gram. Even though soil organisms are little understood, we can be certain of their importance to soil health. Without them, the decomposition of organic matter would not be possible. Nothing that went into the soil could decompose. Soil organisms are, therefore, responsible for cycling organic matter and making nutrients available to plants. Soil organisms can stimulate the development of plant roots and increase their resistance to stress while also reducing the growth of pathogenic fungi. They directly affect soil health, which translates into plant health. How a farmer cultivates the soil, what crops he grows, and what inputs he uses in the process affect the microbial activity and composition of the organisms.

The Importance of Preserving Genetic Resources

Gene resources represent one of the most liberating challenges in terms of renewability. However, genes, once lost, are impossible to restore. In response to this challenge, seed banks are being established globally to preserve the genetic heritage. Despite the efforts, we are seeing a steady decline in the diversity of cultivated plant species and the abandonment of traditional crop varieties. In these forgotten varieties, key traits are often hidden that can increase plants’ disease resistance, adapt them to drought conditions, and improve crop quality. Breeders, searching for valuable traits, often find an unexploited treasure trove of gene resources.

Pollinating Insects – A Symbol of Diversity

The annual value of pollination services is €135 billion, and the number of crops that benefit from pollination is estimated at 84% globally. From the point of view of nature, it is essential to protect all pollinating insects, not just the well-known honeybee. As one of the livestock species, the honeybee is not at risk of extinction. The population is large enough in selected areas to compete for resources with wild pollinating insects. Wild pollinating insects, in particular, should be in our care. One reason for this (thanks to their morphological diversity) is that they are adapted to pollinating different plant species. A part of a plant is so specific that a honeybee cannot pollinate it. The flower does not allow it. The EU has strict regulations on the use of plant protection products. The number of insecticidal substances is extremely small; all others were removed due to scientific evidence of their adverse effects on pollinating insects.

Agricultural Landscape

The unique character of the agricultural landscape is due to the activities of agriculture. The farmer is the most important professional group, which affects the formation of this landscape through daily decisions. From what plants, how diverse will the field be, whether a solitary tree will be left, or maybe a new one will be planted? Whether a spit of land, a wasteland, or a flooded area will be left. All these decisions translate into the final appearance of the landscape and its functions. Beneficial organisms—predatory insects or birds of prey that reduce rodent populations—need habitats where they will breed and overwinter. How a farmer makes decisions is critical to everything else.

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We are one of nine innovation communities established by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), an independent EU body set up in 2008 to drive innovation and entrepreneurship across Europe.   The EIT Food Regenerative Agriculture Programme aims to support farmers across Europe in transitioning to regenerative agriculture. It promotes sustainable farming practices that not only positively impact soil quality but also contribute to the production of food with higher nutritional value. The EIT Food Regenerative Agriculture Programme includes on-site training for farmers, advising, as well as webinars and manuals on regenerative practices for specific crops, available to all interested farmers. Furthermore, we organize events promoting regenerative agriculture and carry out educational activities for consumers. Our approach is based on collaboration among various stakeholders, such as farmers, researchers, startups, the processing industry, and consumers, to jointly create beneficial and lasting conditions for
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