The battle between food production versus habitat protection and biodiversity preservation has waged for several decades now, as people have realized that, oftentimes, agriculture as we know it and environmental protection do not go hand in hand. In fact, the battle has perhaps intensified as global population recently reached seven billion people and will approach nine billion according to some estimates within the next few decades. That’s a lot of mouths to feed. One of the central tenants to this war is whether or not agricultural land and land for nature’s sake should be segregated or integrated. Essentially the question is this: should we change our farming practices so that it is more wildlife-friendly and habitat-preserving or keep the two seperate? In this article found in the Biological Conservation journal, the authors, Tscharntke, Clough, Wanger, Jackson, Motzke, Perfecto, Vandermeer, and Whitbread, who incidentally come from several world-renowned universities including, Georg-August University (Germany), Stanford, Leuphana University (Germany), UC Davis, and Michigan, attempt to address this question and begin to find a practical, real-world answer to it.
According to several studies cited in this article, many species cannot survive in an “agricultural ecosystem,” even when it has been modified to be more wildlife-friendly. The conclusion of these studies was that wild land must be protected, and that the efficiency of land use in farming could be increased and planted with higher yield strains of plants. Our authors, however, condemn this solution, because of its oversimplification of the issue, and argue that the current level of agricultural efficiency is sufficient and the biodiversity in an agricultural ecosystem is not negligible.
One of their first issues with the above strategy is that they claim that global hunger is not linked as much with inadequate food production as it is with access to this food. 90% of the world’s famers work less than 2 hectares of land, which means that small-scale farms are the backbone of global food security, not large-scale, corporate farms. Because many small-scale farmers do not have the money to convince crops to grow on their land that wouldn’t normally grow there (eg wheat probably won’t grow in the rainforest), it means they are probably growing crops native to the area. This also means that areas of hunger are also most likely areas that do not have any sort of arable land suitable for farming. The authors also claim that one-third of food is wasted (spoils etc), and one-third is fed to livestock. These statements combine to form the basis for their argument: increasing crop yield would not necessarily solve our growing hunger problem and could reduce biodiversity, because higher-yield crops might not be native to the area and could prove detrimental to existing biodiversity by leaching more from the environment and changing the biotic and abiotic conditions.
Another interesting argument the authors make is that while it is true that in temperate regions, farms tend to reduce biodiversity, in small tropical farms, high levels of biodiversity can still exist. They give the example of coffee beans; the different strata of trees provide a complex habitat for many different species, and yet the coffee plant is still a high yield one, and there is not a global shortage of coffee. Also in tropical areas, higher yield attracts more people to farm there, which leads to more deforestation, which leads to less biodiversity.
The last point the authors of this article make is that “cultural ecosystem services” must be taken into account. The claim that in developed countries, people tend to prefer a more complex environment around them, “hedges, flowering field margins, fallows, and forest margins” amongst others; this provides many different habitats for many different species, thus protecting biodiversity, by the mere presence of different types of farmland. The attention surrounding the decline of common farmbirds is also cited as proof that people are invested in protecting and appreciating biodiversity in an agricultural setting. Increased pesticide use is also something the authors claim could be dangerous if farming was intensified, and that this could further harm biodiversity, and that often times having a complex system of species within a farm land could act as a natural system of checks and balances for pests.
No one denies that wild land needs to be protected and global hunger should end, but this issue is more complicated than other studies have made it out to be, and Tscharntke, et al. simply want those shades of gray to be recognized in this previously black and white argument.
Tscharntke, T., Clough, Y., Wanger, C., Jackson, L., Motzke, I., Perfecto, I., Vandermeer, J., Whitbread, A. 2012. Global food security, biodiversity conservation and the future of agricultural intensification. Biological Conservation. 151 (1): 53-59.