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Agriculture does not have to be the villain

Photo by Catherine Fayet

Agriculture is a major driver of biodiversity loss and environmental degradation. When you think about “Agriculture”, you may have in mind the same images as I used to: large scale (crop)fields, intensified and homogenous landscapes, tractors meandering in fields, leaving fertilizers and pesticides in their trails… By dividing life on land, such agriculture creates some sort of “paradoxical desert”, where some/desired plants (crops, grassland, fruit trees) grow with the nearly complete exclusion of other forms of life (unwanted insects/animal, unwanted herbs species/weeds…) and without the diversity of natural landscapes recognised by trees and shrubs of various kinds.

With such picture in mind, there is little doubt that agriculture is “the villain” for biodiversity.

Picture taken by Christophe Libert. https://www.freeimages.com/fr/photo/tractor-2-1375987

If agriculture is causing biodiversity loss, then the cessation of cultivation and farming activities (agricultural abandonment) or more environmentally friendly farming practices should be beneficial, right?

For my PhD, I explore opportunities for sustainable solutions for abandoned agricultural lands, including nature restoration and protection/enhancement of biodiversity. In many cases, agricultural abandonment can indeed bring opportunities to reverse the damages of agriculture on the environment. By allowing nature to return, abandonment makes possible to rewild areas, restore degraded lands, and support the return of natural vegetation (and hence, a richer diversity in fauna and flora).

To abandon or not to abandon?

However, as I became increasingly aware of across my research, this does not mean that all agricultural abandonment brings improvements for nature conservation. In fact, in some farming systems, agricultural management can be more valuable for biodiversity than letting natural processes freely and spontaneously come back (as it usually happens after abandonment). This is notably the case in traditional and more nature-friendly farming systems, where landscapes provide a mosaic of green elements (meadows, low intensive grazing practices, forest patches, hedgerows etc) that, combined with extensive management, provide favourable conditions for biodiversity rich areas (also known as High Nature Value farmland).

An example of nature-friendly landscape: annually mowed grassland hosting a wide variety of flora (and fauna), trees and bushes, managed mountain pastures and forest in the background (Les Rousses, Jura, France. Photo by the author).

However, these systems are often found in marginal and remote areas, affected by rural exodus and where agriculture production is hardly competitive in a globalised market. Therefore, they are at high risk of abandonment. Agricultural abandonment in such areas implies the cessation of activities that “control” vegetation (e.g., annual mowing, grazing, tree/bush pruning). Consequently, bushes, shrubs and trees expand with “spontaneous” or “natural” vegetation succession, leading to the gradual closing of open areas. As a result, the biodiversity that thrived in open lands is impacted (you can think of benefits of grasslands for butterfly and other pollinators) while wood species find more space.

(Note that implications for biodiversity are context specific: an increase of forest cover will be more desirable in an already very “open-homogenous” environment, whereas it would be more problematic if it causes the loss of few remaining open spots of a very “woody” landscape).

A typical example of shrub encroachment of low mountain pastures (Jura, France). Without cutting annually, it is hardly possible to effectively control the encroachment by woody species. This pasture is still occasionally grazed, but if this stops, the landscape will quickly become afforested as we can see in the background. Photo by the author.

Assessing such trade-offs and challenges is therefore essential in landscape management decision-making. Hence, although my research focuses on abandoned land trajectories, I acknowledge that, sometimes, the best option can be the return to agriculture. I leant about such examples when I conducted interviews for my paper on post-abandonment trajectories. For instance, diversifying rural economies in regions at risk of abandonment (and where farming is nature-friendly) can support both people and biodiversity (e.g., Fundatia ADEPT Transilvania). In addition, beyond High Nature Value farmlands and grasslands, there is also a variety of approaches to sustainable agriculture. To name just a few, sustainable farming can be promoted with permaculture, organic farming, carbon farming, circular agriculture, agroforestry… Have a look at this really nice and comprehensive report from IUCN for more information on sustainable agriculture practices! 

So why isn’t all farming “sustainable farming?”

There are many challenges on the road towards more sustainable farming systems, including among others: higher costs, lower profitability and productivity (from the reduction of chemical fertilizers and synthetic pesticides), more land needed (to compensate for the generally lower yields), costs of restoration to address land legacies of intensive farming, pressures on production from a growing consumer demand… Most of these challenges are created due to the fact that the economic system and measures for monitoring progress (GDP and profit) do not include the value of nature. If that would be the case, these arguments would be difficult to hold. Therefore, a change of our institutional and economic systems that support better integration of natural capital in agricultural policy and practice (as stated in the EU Green Deal) is needed.

How to find the way for a not only greener, but also friendlier landscape for nature? (Cambridgeshire, England. Photo by the author).

In the end…

Who is the villain? With the intertwined relation between agriculture, biodiversity, and the environment at large, there are as many risks for vicious circles, as there are for virtuous circles (especially considering that agriculture is both affecting, and affected by, environmental degradation).

What do you think is missing to improve the agriculture-biodiversity friendship?

Photo by the author.

To finish on a less serious note. We cannot say that agriculture and biodiversity (always) fight like cat and dog. Although it is sometimes the case, there are many other cases where things can go very well 😉

The author's friendly cat and dogs.

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