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A landmark study delivers a clear verdict for diversified farmlands

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A landmark study delivers a clear verdict for diversified farmlands

Almost across the board—regardless of the farm type or location—researchers found that the more diversification strategies a farm employs, the more win-win outcomes they rack up.
April 12, 2024

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A large study incorporating data from over 2000 farms spread across 11 countries has made a landmark discovery: almost across the board, diversifying farmland simultaneously delivers environmental and social benefits. 

This challenges the longstanding idea that on-farm practices to boost biodiversity must come at a cost to yields and food security. In fact, the mammoth study, which was published in Science, showed that the opposite was true, with clear overlaps in biodiversity gains and food security, for instance. 

While several studies have examined the effect of individual diversification techniques in isolation, this study is the first to pool together varied methods and explore their social and environmental impacts, combined. The project involved an international team of 58 researchers who collaborated to bring together their published research on the topic, which amounted to 24 studies that had looked collectively at over 2,655 farms—from smallholder plots in Malawi to large scale monocultures in the United States. 

These papers covered dozens of diversifying methods across the studied farms: from farmers incorporating hedgerows and flower strips, to cover cropping and crop rotation, applying compost and biochar, and increasing the variety of livestock on their land. The researchers examined the data to determine how many of these diversification practices were used on each farm. Then they modeled how each of those practices in turn influenced six different environmental and social outcomes, including biodiversity and ecosystem services, food security and yield. Those outcomes were taken as a function of the degree of diversification, and the number of practices adopted, on each farm.

For ease of analysis, the researchers grouped the dozens of different diversifying methods into five thematic groups, to help reveal which approaches in general elicit environmental or social wins—or both. 

What immediately leapt out in the analysis was a striking finding: diversification led to win-win outcomes for humans and the environment. In fact, in every category of diversification practices the researchers analyzed, these practices led to both environmental and social gains.

What’s more, these benefits grew with the number of methods applied to the land. “Farmers can achieve more benefits if they employ several agricultural diversification practices in tandem, rather than just one at a time,” says Laura Vang Rasmussen, a researcher in land-use change at the University of Copenhagen, and co-lead author on the new research with colleague Ingo Grass, a researcher in the ecology of tropical agricultural systems at the University of Hohenheim.

For instance, farms that integrated several diversification methods supported more biodiversity, while seeing simultaneous increases in human well-being and food security, too. Two diversification practices in particular—farming a variety of livestock, and soil conservation methods like biochar application, composting and mulching—led to the most, and the largest, benefits across social and environmental indicators. (Livestock farming might seem like an odd path to increased biodiversity, but research shows that if sustainably managed, grazing animals can help maintain ecosystems that support more animals and plants.) 

 

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The benefits of livestock diversification also increase, when that practice is paired with other diversification methods too, the study found. 

Also notably, measures like crop rotation and cover cropping helped to boost both biodiversity and yield, while measures to introduce hedgerows, flower and insect foraging strips on farmland boosted food security for farmers, as well as some environmental measures. Surprisingly, the research found that introducing hedgerows and other natural elements into the landscape didn’t measurably increase biodiversity — something they ascribe to the variable responses that different species have to habitat and the difficulty of measuring those to reflect a general trend. 

The study also showed that the win-win pattern was consistent across diversified farmlands, regardless of the farm type or global location. Essentially, wherever farmers are diversifying the way they grow food, they are producing environmental and social benefits, hand-in-hand. 

All through this analysis, another striking fact became clear: diversification did not lead to significant yield losses in any case. Agricultural diversification is commonly accused of knocking agricultural yields, the researchers say. But in fact they found no evidence of reduced yields due to these greener practices. On the other hand, when the study looked at national strategies and programs to boost yield through intensive monocultures, many of these programs did not achieve the win-wins that we get from diversifying farms. 

After making a robust case for diversification, the researchers did note the hurdles that lie in its path. Trade agreements and supply chain pressures are forces that lock farmers into specific ways of producing food, and moving to diversified systems can also come with large costs.

The best tools to change this system may exist with governments, who can craft policies and regulations to support the change. One clear solution would be to “invest more in incentivizing farmers, for example through subsidies, to adopt these various diversification strategies,” Vang Rasmussen says.

For governments and farmers alike, co-author Zia Mehrabi offered a one key takeaway in a recent press release about the new research: “This is evidence that this can actually work — we can imagine agricultural systems that are more diverse and serve people and nature at the same time.”

Vang Rasmussen et. al. “Joint environmental and social benefits from diversified agriculture.” Science. 2024.

Image: © Anthropocene Magazine

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