May 9, 2012

Biodiversity and Organic Agriculture: A Symbiotic Relationship

Last week, we highlighted recent research and discussion around organic versus conventional agricultural methods as a means to feed the world. Today, Dr. Lise Andreasen, International Coordinator for the International Centre for Research in Organic Food Systems (ICROFS) in Denmark, explores how organic agriculture can play a role in a landscape approach to sustainable intensification of food production. Similar to the conclusions in last week’s blog post, Andreasen argues that the issue is not so simple; it is influenced by how organic production is placed within a landscape context and how closely it holds to the underlying principles of organic agriculture.

Agroecological methods are fundamental for organic agriculture. The principles of organic agriculture express the core idea that agriculture and farming should emulate and sustain living ecological systems and cycles, maintain and enhance the health of soil, plants, and animals, and be managed in a precautionary and responsible manner to protect the health and well-being of current and future generations and the environment. This should be achieved mainly by the appropriate ‘design and management of biological processes based on ecological systems using natural resources, which are internal to the system’ – also referred to as agro-ecological methods. Based on this, it seems to be a logical conclusion that biodiversity is good for organic agriculture and organic agriculture is good for biodiversity. But is it always true – and automatically so?

In 2008, ICROFS was responsible for a review of previous research on the impacts of organic agriculture on biodiversity (as part of a knowledge synthesis on the potential and barriers for the development of organic agriculture for the Danish Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries). The overall conclusions were that:

  • organic systems (crop management and combination of crops) generally support biodiversity in fields and at farm level better than conventional systems – due to higher crop diversity, higher proportion of clover grass areas, higher number of spring crops, the absence of pesticides, and the lower levels of fertilisation;
  • the presence of organically managed areas in a landscape has a positive effect on biodiversity also in the conventionally managed areas, for example, the positive effect on bees increases exponentially with the percent of organic land in intensively farmed landscapes;
  • the impact of organic systems on biodiversity is higher in homogenous landscapes than in heterogeneous landscapes.

Research projects supported by ICROFS also address the impact of organic agriculture on biodiversity at landscape, ecosystem, species and genetic levels. They explore the complex set of interactions between management systems, cropping intensity, landscape structure, and the period under which the land has been cultivated organically with the use of planned diversity such as ‘beetle banks’ and intercrops. For example, a higher diversity of flowering plant species was found in hedgerows bordering organic fields compared with conventional fields, and this difference increased with the number of years since conversion of the organic fields.

Yet, simulations undertaken by the project indicates that modern organic agriculture, as it is undertaken in industrialised countries, does not always guarantee improvements in biodiversity. To do so, it needs to be coupled with extensively managed and/or uncultivated areas. European studies also demonstrate that a certain percentage of organic land in a landscape benefits insects in non-cultivated field margins and also along neighbouring conventional fields. However, the development of organic agriculture taking biodiversity into consideration across landowners in a landscape approach is difficult to find.

Now, there is a distinction between organic principles and practices, and certification. Organic certification based on organic standards is primarily a control and marketing tool, as well as a tool for governmental support to organic farmers. However, though the standards are often interpreted as the norm for organic agriculture, they do not include all aspects associated with the organic principles of agriculture. For example, management of biodiversity and consideration for climate impacts are not criteria. Some organic organisations and certifiers are, however, trying to go further than the organic standards by facilitating farmers in preparing farm plans for preserving biodiversity and reducing their climate impact.

Reconciling biodiversity conservation and food security requires intensification of agriculture through improved use of agro-ecological methods that build on in-depth understanding of biological and technical processes at various levels of scale. These methods have profited from ecological, bio-chemical and molecular research and from farmers’ experience. It is possible that higher productivity, stability of yields, resilience, and sustainability (adaptability) may be achieved by means of appropriate ‘eco-functional intensification’ – such as increased diversity in terms of genetic variation in crops, crop mixtures, inter-cropping, agro-forestry, and un-cultivated areas (habitats) at field, farm, and landscape levels.

Organic agriculture and agroecology are developed based on the idea that goals for increased food security may be reconciled with the goals of biodiversity conservation. But to what extent does the current state of organic agriculture fulfil needs for biodiversity preservation as seen by ‘conservationists’? Should the motto be ‘intensification & separation’ or ‘extensification and integration’? And further, how can the organic principles of agriculture be better-incorporated and interpreted in standards and the certification framework to include ecosystem services such as biodiversity and climate mitigation?

Further Reading:

2 Comments

  • Dr Mohammed Ataur Rahman
    May 9, 2012 at 4:45am

    more species should bring under cropping culture and thus the biodiversity will enrich and organically growing is only the way to retain the symbiotic and synergerstic capability

  • rewati
    May 9, 2012 at 7:23am

    Organic agriculture helps to sustain the health of soils, ecosystems and people. It combines tradition, innovation, science that helpful for environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved.
    Documentary “Back to the Land … Again” presents the art of organic agriculture today by highlighting the work and dedication of a collection of Wisconsin farmers.

    Watch documentary on – http://www.cultureunplugged.com/play/7222