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5 Lessons Agriculture Can Learn From Ecology

The agricultural systems that provide us with our food today may seem different from ‘natural’ ecosystems, but they still follow the same basic rules and processes. In the majority of our large-scale agricultural systems, we have ignored these ecological rules and the results have cost the environment plenty. So how can ecology help us transition from a mindset that works against nature, to a mindset that works with it?

What is ecology?

Ecology is the science that studies the relationships between living organisms and their physical surroundings.1 Although humans have adapted and domesticated ecosystems over thousands of years to maximize harvest from the land, the health and balance of these new agricultural systems is still fundamentally driven by the same relationships between organisms and their surroundings. By overlooking nature´s complex processes and relationships, many of the techniques and practices used in conventional agricultural production have impacted its sustainability and the functioning of ecosystems. Here are 5 lessons that agriculture can learn from ecology:

 

1. Systems are interconnected

Mass production systems such as monocultures with intensive practices often treat components of an agroecological system, like nutrients or microorganisms in the soil, as completely separate entities. This makes them more manageable in the short term, and to some extent allows land managers to apply the same solutions in every context. But they ignore one key principle: ecological systems are all interconnected. 

Our agricultural systems do not exist in isolation, but interact with and affect other systems. By understanding that moving one piece within an ecological system will invariably affect another,  we can be more aware of potential consequences and create stronger and better strategies.

 

2. Building resilience

Resilience in ecology is defined as the capacity of an ecological system to recover (or maintain) its functions, its composition and its conditions after a change or a disturbance. Resilience is neither good nor bad in itself. For example, a highly resilient system that is damaged or unproductive (like a degraded soil system) would still require a lot of resources and time to return to a productive state. We can call this ‘unhelpful resilience’. On the other hand, a highly productive crop system with low resilience is less stable, as even the slightest change will affect its functions and conditions.2 Situations like droughts, diseases and floods mean unpredictable and drastic changes to the life systems on earth - including our food production systems. The best way to prepare, mitigate and adapt is to build productive agricultural systems that are highly resilient with a long-term approach.

 

3. Biodiversity is key

Increasing biodiversity plays a very important role in making our systems resilient to changes in the environment. In the context of farming, producing different crop species in the same agroecosystem (known as intercropping) is a great strategy for land managers to take advantage of the positive interactions that some species have with one another, while also increasing the variety of products in one field. For example, rotating legumes (like beans) with cereals (like maize) can enhance soil fertility and the overall productivity of the system.3, 4 

Soil microorganisms are particularly diverse - just one spoonful of soil can contain thousands of species, and they all play their part in different functions like nutrient fixing, absorption and pest control.5 For example, some mycorrhizal formations help plants take up more nutrients from the soil, while also helping plants to become more resistant to environmental stresses, like toxins and droughts.6, 7, 8 Other microorganisms that live in the soil, like bacteria, help to decompose organic matter.9 Agricultural practices should take care to support soil health to maintain the important role of these microorganisms. 

Genetic diversity also plays an important role - if there are more genes available in the population, there is a higher likelihood that some genes are more resilient or adaptable to the environment or seasons.10 Higher genetic diversity in a population promotes the growth of resilient breeds with higher resistance to extreme events and diseases.

Fun Fact: Genetic diversity is also important for flavour! Researchers have found that some intensively bred fruits (resulting in low genetic diversity) have affected their flavour!11

 

4. Supporting keystone species

Some species have a disproportionate effect on their ecosystem relative to their abundance. A good example is the case of predators; although they are not abundant in most ecosystems, they play a fundamental role by predating other animals, which ultimately maintains the number of herbivores at a certain threshold. In ecology, these species are considered ‘keystone species’.1, 12 Keystone species maintain the structure of ecosystems, and recent findings indicate that key species tend to increase the resilience of an ecological system. 

In agriculture, pollinators are a key group of animals. Species like bees, moths, and even certain bats, significantly help some plants reproduce by carrying and mixing pollen. By doing so, they contribute to the formation of foods we eat on a daily basis - with an estimated two-thirds of the world’s major food crops depend on pollinators.13, 14

Learn more about the important role of pollinators

Other species are key in providing protection to crops. Species like ladybugs, spiders, and even wasps, prey on other arthropods that would eat and deplete plant leaves, fruits or grains. Even bigger animals like birds, shrews, and bats, provide fundamental protection to crops. Certain colonies of insectivorous bats can even eat thousands of metric tons of insects each year; without them, the crop losses and their economic cost could pile up to billions each year in some countries.15

 

5. Minimising waste

When we dissect and operate parts of the agricultural system as isolated parts, our systems will tend to be wasteful. Currently, much of our food production practices generate waste, which often causes contamination as a by-product. A clear example is the contamination of water bodies when fertilizers leach from crop fields into the surrounding environment. Problems like the overfertilisation of nitrogen leads to diminishing crop yields in the long term and contribute to gas emissions that impact global warming.16, 17, 18 

Creating a less wasteful and more efficient agricultural system is also reliant on us acknowledging that different components of our systems use different resources in order to carry out their ecological role. For example, while some crops or animals need inputs like synthetic fertilisers or feed, other organisms like fungi or soil microbes use the waste of other components as their energy source. By promoting the microdiversity of the soil and diversifying the way we manage waste (e.g. using manure from animals as fertilizers), while growing different plants that have stronger dynamic interactions with soil organisms, our systems will be much more healthy and productive, while using less inputs and minimising waste.19

Applying these lessons to agriculture

So what is being done with these ecological lessons in the practice of agriculture? Today, different agricultural frameworks like organic farming already include agroecological practices that incorporate ecological and social principles in agricultural management. However, much of our food production still needs to take up these ecological lessons and apply them in practice - which can require a lot of time and initial investment in the short-term, but creates long-lasting resilience and productivity. By acknowledging the complex web of interactions and circles that agriculture shares with ecosystems, we are transitioning from a mindset that works against nature, to a mindset that works with nature.

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References

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  11. Klee, H. J., & Tieman, D. M. (2018). The genetics of fruit flavour preferences. Nature Reviews Genetics, 19(6), 347-356.
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