The rich variety of plants and animals, known as biodiversity, is the foundation for sustainable agriculture and a healthy environment. Loss of biodiversity makes ecosystems more vulnerable to changes in the environment, with lower genetic diversity and fewer species to support fundamental ecosystem functions such as pollination.
Agriculture is the major user of land globally. Managing this land for food and fibre production inevitably has an impact on the native biodiversity. The intensification of agriculture, to satisfy the demands of an ever increasing world population, has increased the pressure on both flora and fauna.
Striving for the right balance between productive farming and protecting the environment is one of the principal goals of sustainable agriculture. Interested stakeholders must work together to research, develop and promote farming systems that both protect and, where possible, enhance the environment and biodiversity.
Many initiatives have been developed that clearly demonstrate the opportunities for farmers to balance economic and efficient food production with environmental management to promote biodiversity. See for example, the case study Honeybees get to work.
Proactive environmental management of non-food producing areas, such as field margins and set-aside, can mitigate the effects of agriculture. If managed effectively, environmental management will turn back the clock for lost biodiversity – with little or no loss to farm productivity. Conservation agriculture, for example, increases soil organisms providing new food sources to support farmland birds, showing economic farming and environmental protection can coexist in the same field. Improving soil structure by reducing tillage, creating diverse habitats in field margins and other non-productive areas will all benefit biodiversity.
Example: SAFFIE proves new ideas work
In the UK, crops with skylark plots have produced 49% more fledglings a year compared to conventional crops.
Farmers can manage crops and non–cropped areas more effectively to significantly enhance biodiversity without compromising yields or farm profitability. These were the interim findings of SAFFIE (Sustainable Arable Farming for an Improved Environment), the UK’s largest single environmental management project.
The project has already identified farmers that could halt, or even reverse, the decline in skylark populations by leaving small plots of bare soil in the growing crop. Crops with skylark plots have produced 49% more fledglings a year compared to conventional crops at a cost of just $3-4.50 per hectare. The concept of the skylark plots was first pioneered at the Jealott Hill International Research Centre. Other biodiversity benefits are being scientifically evaluated by SAFFIE researchers, including the management of field margins and the practical implications of new best practices for integrated Crop Management.
Operating on more than 26 farms and 10 research sites, SAFFIE is sponsored by private enterprise, supermarket retailers, The National Trust, The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the UK Government. The SAFFIE initiative is already shaping Government environmental policy and farming practice in the UK.