Agrobiodiversity considerations in land-use decisions

Reconciling agriculture and nature conservation will require greater consideration of agrobiodiversity

Dunja Mijatovic1 and Toby Hodgkin2

Land-use decisions affect the richness and distribution of agrobiodiversity and, where the effects are negative, reduce the contributions of agrobiodiversity to ecological services and climate change resilience. Despite its importance, agrobiodiversity and its custodians are often ignored in both conservation and agricultural development as reflected in the debate about land “sparing” versus land “sharing”. Feeding the world’s growing population amid climate change will require agroecological pathways and greater consideration of agrobiodiversity. This involves a closer look at the ways to increase functional and adaptive diversity in crop populations, cropping systems and landscape mosaics. Finally, we suggest a process for designing land-use patterns that does not undermine land rights and needs of local communities, but promotes agrobiodiversity, local knowledge and innovation.


Around the world, agricultural production systems are being simplified. Patches of forests, woodlands and pastures within landscape mosaics, and diversity-rich systems like homegardens, are being converted into monoculture fields. There are, of course, exceptions to this trend; in some areas, cultivated and wild biodiversity continues to form the dynamic and adaptive fabric of biocultural landscapes (Scoones et al. 1992, Bharucha and Pretty 2010, Barthel et al. 2013, PAR 2016, De Wit 2016).

The simplification of land-use patterns and cropping systems is associated with a reduction of agrobiodiversity1 – a sub-set of biodiversity vital for food and livelihood security. The loss of agrobiodiversity leads to a reduced capacity of agricultural landscapes to support sustainable production and rural livelihoods, particularly in the face of climate change. Despite its importance, agrobiodiversity, and its custodians, are often ignored in both conservation and agricultural development as reflected in the debate about whether land “sparing” or land “sharing” is better for biodiversity and meeting future food needs.

Under land sparing approaches, food is produced on intensively farmed agricultural land while the remaining natural habitat is protected from agriculture (Phalan et al. 2011, Balmford et al. 2012). Under land sharing, biodiversity conservation and food production are integrated across the landscape using wildlife-friendly farming and agroecological methods (Perfecto and Vandermeer 2010). In practice, agricultural landscapes encompass a great variety of land-use compositions, many of which do not strictly adhere to sparing of sharing (Fischer et al. 2008). This is may be one of the reasons why the sparing versus sharing debate remains of theoretical character. To date, there are only a few published empirical studies comparing land sharing and land sparing (Von Wehrden et al. 2014, Kremen 2015).

A major limitation of the sparing versus sharing debate is that it has tended to distract attention from the fact that ensuring food and nutrition for the worlds’ growing population involves many more aspects than agricultural productivity (Frison 2011, Tscharntke et al. 2012). More efficient use of resources, reduction in post-production losses and food waste, and dietary change could all make significant contributions to increasing food availability (Wirsenius et al. 2010, Foley et al. 2011). Further, increased food availability, will not inevitably lead to food security. Achieving food security and adequate nutrition involves addressing issues of poverty, social and gender equity, land ownership and the rights of local people (Chappell and LaValle 2009). Current global food production can theoretically feed the world population, but the way it is distributed lacks efficiency and equity. Almost one billion people face hunger and malnourishment, the majority of whom are poor and lack access to land, credit or education (FAO 2012).

The assumption that increasing yields on agricultural land will reduce the pressure on agriculture to expand into natural areas remains questionable. Generally, the relationship between changes in yields and in extent of cultivated areas, especially in the agricultural frontiers, is complex and subject to many factors that are not related to productivity and efficiency per se (DeFries et al. 2010, Angelsen 2010). Stevenson and colleagues (2013) argue that intensification of production through the green revolution may have “spared” between 17.9 and 26.7 million ha of land from conversion to agriculture. However, others have shown that in the last decades, at the national level, agricultural intensification was not accompanied by decline or stability in cropland area, except in countries with effective conservation programs and increased food imports (Rudel et al. 2009, Ewers et al. 2009).

Tropical forests were the primary sources of new agricultural lands during the 1980s and 1990s (Gibbs et al. 2010). From this it has been argued that reducing the need for agricultural land, through the use of more intensive production practices, will reduce the loss of biodiversity rich forest areas. However, intensive high yield agriculture can be an important driver of forest conversion (Koh and Wilcove 2008). In the case of oil palm in Peru, it was found that high yield production involved a much more significant extent of forest conversion than expansion of smallholder low yield production, which was achieved through a proportionately greater use of already converted land (Gutiérrez-Vélez et al. 2011). Forest conversion is often driven by economic or policy drivers such as the returns obtained from cutting down a forest, the opportunity cost for production of high value crops such as oil palm, or simply the inconsistent monitoring and application of existing deforestation laws (Assunção et al. 2013). There has also been a fairly steady conversion from pastoral to arable land and significant amounts of agricultural land are lost to urban development each year. As urbanization and transnational trade intensify, the correlations between production practices and biodiversity need to be analysed at broader, if not global, scales (Seto et al. 2012, Grau et al. 2013).

It is widely recognized that multiple and, above all, more sustainable agricultural practices are needed to reverse the trend of soil and ecosystem degradation, and help achieve conservation and many other goals including food security and nutrition (Tilman et al. 2011, Cunningham SA et al. 2013, HLPE 2013, Schutter 2014,). Inappropriate production practices may have already reduced the global productive capacity by up to 20 per cent of all cultivated areas (Bai et al. 2008). It has been estimated that about 22% of the total 1.5 b ha of arable land can be classified as degraded and that, each year, about 10 m ha of cropland are lost due to soil erosion (Pimentel 2006). Achieving the goals of soil restoration and food security will involve the use of alternative intensification pathways, which emphasize the maintenance of ecosystem functions and use of biological process to provide ecosystem services (PAR and FAO 2011). While such alternatives exist, they have been largely neglected by major agricultural research funds, reflecting a narrow focus over the last 50 years on increasing yields through increased use of external inputs (Schutter and Vanloqueren 2011). Significant changes in policies and institutions are necessary to make advances in promoting research and practices that will reconcile biodiversity conservation and food security (Brussaard et al. 2010).

In this paper, we suggest that meeting future food production needs in sustainable ways will require greater consideration of the effects of land-use decisions on agrobiodiversity to ensure the flow of ecosystem services, enhance climate change resilience and support evolutionary processes of adaptation.

The contribution of agrobiodiversity to ecosystem services

Simplification of production systems leads to loss of agrobiodiversity that ensures the flow of ecosystem services. Many studies have shown that the quality and quantity of ecosystem services are influenced by the composition, abundance and distribution of plant and animal communities at field, farm and landscape level (Bianchi et al. 2006, Hajjar et al. 2008, Quijas et al. 2012, Tscharntke et al. 2005). In the process of unsustainable intensification, regulating, supporting and cultural services are reduced, while provisioning services are increased. Simplification of agricultural landscapes results in fewer species with lower genetic variation and less functional groups (Swift et al. 2004, Pasari et al., 2013). Understanding how the process of simplification affects different properties of an ecosystem and interactions or trade-off between different services are some of the key questions for agroecologists. However, very few studies comparing sparing and sharing models have looked at the affects of land-use patterns and processes on ecosystem services (but see Chaplin-Kramer et al. 2015 for one approach).

Agrobiodiversity in agricultural landscapes supports the delivery of regulating and supporting ecosystem services such as pest and disease control and pollination (Kremen and Miles 2012, FAO 2011). Forests, wetlands and other ecosystems in agricultural landscapes contribute to a number of ecosystem services that are vital to food production including reduced (you mean enhanced?) soil fertility (Metzger et al. 2006, Power 2010). Uncultivated areas, and forest in particular, provide critical sources of food for people and livestock when crop harvests fail to drought (Mbow et al. 2014, PAR 2016).

Much of the biodiversity present in agro-ecosystems is present in the soil. The immense diversity of belowground microorganisms and animals shapes aboveground biodiversity and the functioning of terrestrial ecosystems (Bardgett and Putten 2014). Interactions among soil biota have large effects on the quality of crops and grassland species, on the incidence of soil-borne plant and animal pests and diseases, and on the beneficial organisms that, for example, cycle nutrients (Bruusard et al. 2007). Soils with high levels of diversity appear to reduce the occurrence of imbalances of harmful micro-organisms including viruses and fungi (Garbeva et al. 2011). Soil biodiversity can also influence pollination since a number of the insects involved spend a critical stage of lifecycles in the soil.

Pollination, which is estimated to contribute to approximately 35% of global food production (Klein et al. 2007) with a global economic value estimated at €153 billion in 2005 (Gallai et al. 2009), depends on both the abundance of pollinators and their diversity. The diversity of wild pollinators increases productivity, and efficiency in many types of crops (Hoehn et al. 2008, Christmann and Aw-Hassan 2012). The continuing effectiveness of pollination depends on habitat protection and low use of agrochemicals (Brown and Paxton 2009; Martins et al. 2015) to enhance not only richness and abundance but also the functional diversity of pollinators (Fontaine et al. 2006, Blüthgen and Klein 2011).

Pest and disease control is also significantly influenced by the presence of different components of agrobiodiversity. Rotation and mixed cropping systems have been commonly used to reduce the likelihood of pest and disease build up or epidemics (Lin 2011). Genetic diversity within crop or livestock species also helps control pests and diseases (Zhu et al, 2000) and variety diversity is one of the strategies used by traditional farmers to protect against pests and diseases (Mulumba et al. 2012, Ssekandi et al. 2016). Lack of diversity has led to major yield losses in the face of pest and disease epidemics (Strange and Scott 2005). The importance of using diversity to manage pests and diseases and the relevance of this to the land sparing and land sharing debate have most recently been discussed by Dudley et al. (2017).

Resilience and Adaptability

Agrobiodiversity and the services it provides also confer resilience of agricultural systems, which can be described as their capacity to continually change, adapt and transform in response to external drivers, internal processes and have the opportunity for novelty and innovation (Folke et al. 2010). Strengthening resilience of agroecosystems to changing conditions, especially climate change, involves a combination of strategies but agrobiodiversity has been identified as playing an essential role (Jackson et al. 2010, Mercer and Perales 2010, Mijatovic et al. 2013). At the field level, species diversity reduces risks associated with erratic rainfall, pest and disease, and extreme weather events (Lin 2011, Nguyen et al. 2012). At the landscape and farming system scale, diversity provides a buffer against adverse weather events (e.g. Philpott et al. 2008, Reij et al. 2008). Farms managed in accordance to agroecological principles showed a faster productive recovery than others, with 80-90% productivity restored within 40 days of the storm (Machin-Sosa et al. 2010). Evidence also points to soil biodiversity as having a key role in determining the responses of terrestrial ecosystems to current and future environmental change ecosystems (Bardgett and Putten 2014).

Diversification of production systems has been widely recognized as a strategy to strengthen resilience and it is most effective when it enhances functional diversity – the component of diversity that influences dynamics, stability, productivity and other aspects of agroecosystem functioning. The functional redundancy of species within different functional group or a collection of species that perform the same functions (e.g. pollinations) plays a fundamental role in sustaining the flow of ecosystem services and conferring agroecosystem’s ability to respond to changes and disturbance (Garibaldi et al. 2013, Fründ et al. 2013). The variation in responses among species/varieties performing similar functions or response diversity may be a key determinant of agroecosystem resilience to environmental change (Cabell and Oelofse, 2012). Response diversity among crop varieties is expressed in different traits and levels of sensitivity to climate variability (Hakala et al. 2012, Kahiluoto et al. 2014).

Crop adaptability depends to a significant extent on the genetic diversity that exists within and between varieties and populations (Mercer and Perales 2010, Oupkaew et al. 2010, Vigouroux et al. 2011). The genetic uniformity inherent in monocultures limits the crop’s ability to tolerate abiotic and biotic stresses and adapt to environmental fluctuations and change (Verboom et al. 2010). Genetic diversity has been demonstrated to enable adaptation to long-term change (Bezancon, 2009; Vigouroux et al. 2011). Strategies for establishing greater resilience need to focus on the introduction of increased genetic variability, both within and between crop varieties (Murphy et al. 2016, Dawson et al. 2011, Jarvis et al., 2011). This can be facilitated by supporting maintenance of a high level of diversity in famers’ fields, orchards and gardens (Enjalbert at al. 2011, Mercer et al. 2012). At the same time, breeding procedures need to change to ensure more diversity of crop varieties and animal breeds is present in production systems. Alternative approaches to breeding that maintains diversity include participatory breeding and evolutionary breeding (Ceccarelli 2009).

Crop wild relatives (CWR), found in managed and wild landscapes, play an important role in adaptation to climate change. CWR have provided farmers and breeders with genes for pest and disease resistance, abiotic stress tolerance, and quality traits (Hajjar and Hodgkin, 2007; Khoury et al. 2010). Gene exchange between crops and their wild relatives has been established as providing new diversity within crop production systems (Jarvis and Hodgkin 1999, Scarcelli et al. 2006, Pusadee et al. 2012;). For example, Hufford et al. (2013) found widespread genomic signatures of crop and wild alleles moving quite frequently between cultivated maize and wild teosinte in southern Mexico. CWR are found in wild areas and pastures but also inside and around production systems. A recent study in Africa showed that twenty CWR, mainly used for food and medicinal purposes, are found in homegardens (Salako et al. 2014).

Beyond the sparing, sharing debate

Land use decisions affect the extent and distribution of agrobiodiversity and, where the effects are negative, reduce the contributions of agrobiodiversity to ecological services, resilience and adaptability. Unsustainable intensification within existing production systems or as a result of land conversion has had negative effects on the amounts of agrobiodiversity and the contributions that it makes. Alternative intensification and agroecological pathways will require that land use decisions take account of the contribution of agrobiodiversity and of the role of rural communities, and their knowledge and experiences in agrobiodiversity management.

Agricultural research has largely focused on ways of increasing productivity per unit area and has, until recently, paid little attention to agroecological and adaptive processes within production systems. This is now changing and there is an increasing interest in the ways in which agroecological approaches can be used to improve sustainable production and the livelihoods of rural communities. Further research is needed that explores the complex interactions of different agrobiodiversity components and the spatio-temporal properties of agricultural mosaics on ecosystem services and the evolutionary processes of adaptation. This involves a closer look and attention to the ways in which diversification can increase functional, response and adaptive diversity and support resilience.

One way to maintain agrobiodiversity is to maintain and increase landscape complexity, to protect natural habitats and develop ecological corridors for wild species such as trees, crop wild relatives and pollinators. The maintenance of traditional land-use systems and increasing diversity in production systems in ways that are part of agroecological approaches are also important in addressing conservation concerns and supporting sustainable improvements in food production.

We suggest that a process for designing landscapes that supports agrobiodiversity guided by agroecological principles would include the following steps: (1) defining the landscape context; (2) analyzing landscape structure and the functions of its different biological, ecological and cultural components; (3) assessing agrobiodiversity (4); understanding and describing local management and adaptive agrobiodiversity management practices; (5) identifying and promoting traditional and innovative agroecological practices that protect and increase agrobiodiversity; and (6) designing spatial plans that support the maintenance of diversity, which are in accordance with local land uses and tenure systems (PAR 2016).

1 Researcher, Platform for Agrobiodiversity Research, Rome, Italy
2 Coordinator, Platform for Agrobiodiversity Research, Rome, Italy


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