The importance of biodiversity and supporting ecosystems in agriculture

Biodiversity on the Farm

Farmers have sought to learn more about the importance of biodiversity on the farm, both to maximize performance of their operation and to protect the environment.

Farmers realize the importance of biodiversity more than most—the variety of plants, animals and microorganisms within an ecosystem, both above and below the soil.

That’s because farms are ecosystems in and of themselves. The subterranean soil, the animals that live there and the crops themselves each play an important role in the broader environment. A change within this delicate system can have wide-reaching effects, and farmers understand that the decisions they make on their land must be considered carefully.

“Farmers are stewards of the land and the environment,” says Dustin Spears, a farmer in northern Illinois. “We want to protect the land and the wildlife around us. We live out here, and we enjoy nature as much as the suburban and urban person looking for their weekend getaway.”

There are many agricultural practices that farmers use to promote biodiversity. Many of those  explored below have been around for at least 40 years, but have seen an upsurge of interest from farmers in recent years. With more research underway, we can expect to see perpetual advances in environmental stewardship and biodiversity moving forward.

Image of field and farmer
Image of field and farmer

“Farmers are stewards of the land and the environment,” says Dustin Spears, a farmer in northern Illinois. “We want to protect the land and the wildlife around us. We live out here, and we enjoy nature as much as the suburban and urban person looking for their weekend getaway.”

Farmers are practicing more conservation tillage

Tilling the soil is the practice of using a tool, like a plow, to turn up the soil. This practice helps to turn over the residual nutrients left behind from the previous crop, providing loose soil for seeds to take root while simultaneously disturbing weed growth. However, this practice can also increase the potential for topsoil erosion and the release of carbon from the ground into the atmosphere.

Conservation tillage minimizes soil disturbance by using tools that turn over the soil lightly or, in some cases, hardly at all. The practice can leave some crop residue on the soil’s surface to lessen the opportunity for the soil to erode. Because of its positive implications for operating costs and environmental stewardship, conservation tillage is increasing on farms around the globe. On average, traditional tillage operations use roughly 9.1 liters of diesel fuel per hectare. By comparison, conservation tillage requires less than 3 liters. This dramatic decrease in fuel cost and consumption alone empowers farmers to invest in improving their operations while helping to curb agriculture’s carbon footprint, which currently comprises roughly 13% of global emissions. Beyond the farm, the global adoption of no-till and reduced-tillage methods is restoring and promoting biodiversity in some of the world’s most fragile ecosystems, such as the rainforests throughout South America. With many more farmers adopting these practices, the future is looking even better.

Farmers are planting more cover crops

Cover crops are those planted by farmers in between the harvest of one main crop and the planting of another. These crops, such as rye or radishes, can assist with soil conservation, keeping soil from eroding and returning nutrients and benefits to the soil for future crops. In a survey by the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE), more than 1,900 farmers across the U.S. alone increased the use of cover crops on their farms by 30 percent each year because of the many benefits they provide.

In addition to their direct benefit for cultivating seasonal harvests, cover crops also provide habitat for birds and insects, another important component of biodiversity. The results are so far-reaching that many local governments around the world are providing financial support and incentives to farmers who are perpetuating more sustainable outcomes through cover crops. One example is Project O.S.C.A.R (Optimising Subsidiary Crop Applications in Rotation)—an EU-backed research and development initiative that brings crop scientists, agronomists and small businesses together from around Europe, South America and Africa to find ways to promote cover crop adoption throughout their respective regions.

Image of dirt and coverings
Image of dirt and coverings
In addition to their direct benefit for cultivating seasonal harvests, cover crops also provide habitat for birds and insects, another important component of biodiversity.

Farmers are conserving land

Many farmers are also receiving payments from local governments to set aside portions of their land for conservation, such as the Conservation Reserve Program in the United States. These initiatives encourage farmers to remove or withhold environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production. Additionally, farmers are also encouraged to allow that area to grow various native plant species that are known to improve environmental health. This land also serves as habitat for wildlife and can improve water quality.

Land conservation is truly a global effort. In Brazil, farmers are working with Conservation International and local stakeholders to implement better techniques to restore biodiversity throughout its many distinct ecological regions. In Indonesia, another key biodiversity hotspot, farmers are participating in the Sustainable Agriculture Landscape project, which helps farmers meet the objectives of producing food and conserving habitat.

Image of farmer driving equipment
Image of farmer driving equipment
Using insight-driven technologies such as GPS systems and smart combines, farmers are able to leverage digital tools to further reduce their environmental impact. 

Farmers are planting buffer strips

Buffer strips are wide strips of land left or created between farming fields that help ease soil erosion and prevent water runoff. Often comprised of grasses, flowers and other native plants, these strips of land also promote biodiversity by providing a habitat for birds and animals. They are particularly beneficial in areas with hilly terrain.

Using insight-driven technologies such as GPS systems and smart combines, farmers are able to leverage digital tools to further reduce their environmental impact. With more information at their fingertips, farmers are even able to identify opportunities to relocate underperforming areas of their fields to serve as conservation plots, bringing added value by increasing productivity throughout the rest of their operation.

Farmers work with conservation districts and environmental groups

Many farmer and environmental groups connect to learn from each other, exploring best practices to improve soil health, water quality and air quality. One such group is the Iowa Soybean Association, which works to “employ principles of cooperative conservation, planning, applied evaluation and adaptive implementation (to engage) partners in action-oriented, on-the-ground programs, projects and initiatives.”

“We have improved how we farm over time, and while we have some work to do to continue to improve, I’m confident we will continue to balance the needs of producing food sustainably with the needs of the environment,” said Spears. “We want to use the least amount of inputs possible, such as pesticides, insecticides and herbicides. We don’t want to overuse inputs, as that may impact the environment and hurt our bottom line. Farmers are much more precise with our applications—and we’ll continue to get better. It’s as important to farmers as much as it is for anyone who eats the food we produce.”

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