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Sustainable food security - with a little help from nature

By 2050, the world’s population will need twice as much food as it consumes now. About 40 % of the Earth’s land is already used for agriculture and the need to produce more food threatens any fertile land that remains. More intensive farming — as it is often practised today — is likely to lead to more deforestation, soil erosion, water pollution and biodiversity loss.

Over the last 100 years, farmers have intensified farming by using heavier machinery and cheap agro-chemicals— pesticides and artificial fertilisers. “Unfortunately,” LIBERATION project coordinator David Kleijn points out, “too much fertiliser, pesticides and heavy machinery can adversely impact the environment.”

Fertilisers upset the natural balance of aquatic and marine ecosystems by increasing the levels of nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, in the water. Phytoplankton and algae start to grow prolifically, using up the oxygen dissolved in the water. Aquatic and marine life start to die, and without clean water our entire existence becomes vulnerable.

To avoid further damage to the environment while ensuring future food security for Europe, the project is looking into the possibility of producing just as much or more crops using nature-based agricultural practices that are less harmful to the environment.

Due to the complexity of farming and its relationship with natural ecosystems and soil, water and other life cycles, the LIBERATION project first had to focus on identifying general relationships between semi-natural habitats, on-farm management and biodiversity. It then conducted more in-depth research to discover how farmers can make the most of these relationships.

LIBERATION project research found that when farmers use natural pollination and pest control methods, crop yields may increase and/or farming may do less damage to the environment. This approach is called ‘ecological intensification’. “The LIBERATION project also quantified the socio-economic value of this approach to get farmers to pay more attention,” explains Kleijn.

Let the bees do some of the work

For example, “pollination by wild bees contributes $US 3 000 to crop production per hectare” reports Kleijn. This is one of the key findings of the LIBERATION project. However, he adds that many farmers are not aware of the significant role bees can play in increasing crop yields. ”When analysing and comparing landscapes with less and more intensified farming, we discovered that as farmers intensify farming, they tend to remove natural habitats that surround a farm or a field. When they do this, they also remove insects and birds that can kill pests and pollinate crops.”

As a spin-off of the LIBERATION project, blueberry farmers in the Netherlands are experimenting with planting flower strips between and around fields in order to attract bees. The LIBERATION project is supplying flower seeds to farmers and advising farmers on which types of flowers to plant. The farmers are then growing and managing these flower strips without any governmental subsidies.

“Scientific evidence convinced farmers in the Netherlands that they should give it a try. A North-American study previously found that the wild bees attracted by the flowers can increase blueberry yields by 25 %” Kleijn reports. This is a significant gain on soft fruit profits that attain a good price in shops. Farmers also reported being motivated and pleased at how the flower strips improved the appearance of their farms, enhancing the image of farming to motorists passing by.

Unfortunately though, even a 25 % increase in yield is not very appealing to arable farmers, who have low margins. “On its own an economic approach is not enough to convince all farmers to farm more sustainably,” says Kleijn. The LIBERATION project coordinator’s long-term vision is to continue to work even more closely with farmers to find context-specific solutions, but also to explore the social aspect of farming and how that can lead to change.

Society must push farming forward too

The LIBERATION project is also developing recommendations to help policy makers drive farmers to implement ecological intensification across Europe. “Governments need to develop a plan to actively start talking to farmers about the need for more sustainable farming that produces high yields,” Kleijn suggests.

After World War 2, government funded field agents went out to farms. They increased awareness about the food shortages and they told farmers what they needed to do to produce more food. These “extension services” gave farmers incentives, pushing farmers to intensify farming and it worked. “Similar programmes are needed now,” says Kleijn.

For example, extension services could mobilise today’s farmers to use cuttings from field boundaries as green manure on arable fields instead of leaving it rotting along ditches and hedgerows. The LIBERATION project is experimenting with this approach at a demonstration site. Removing this biomass from these semi-natural habitats promotes the growth of flowering plants, which have mostly disappeared from arable landscapes. This, in turn, has a positive effect on species providing natural pest control and pollination: bees, hoverflies, and parasitoid wasps. At the same time, this would recycle nitrogen and other nutrients, reducing their emission into the environment.

Blending agriculture and the environment to transform farming is not only up to farmers, governments and policy makers. That’s why the LIBERATION project has also conducted research into the role of retailers in the food supply chain and published 10 key recommendations for them to follow.

“Another approach is to give farmers who use ecologically sound practices a higher price for their product. However, consumers may simply buy the cheapest product, making this approach economically unviable” says Kleijn. Only when retailers and consumers choose and refuse to buy certain produce, they can push farmers to change agriculture for everyone’s benefit.

Picture credit: David Kleijn - Wageningen University

This news item was originally featured on the European Commission website