Friday, April 3, 2020 - Farmlands can act as havens for wildlife species in a world of eroding their habitats, a new study explains. However, for that to happen, a shift needs to be made towards mixed cultures. Such a change would also make the farms themselves more resilient, which would also benefit us and help solidify the global food supply against environmental shocks.
Although the study focused on bird species in Costa Rica, the team explains birds can serve as a “natural guideline” for the health of other animal families throughout the world, as well.
The team looked at long-term farming practices in Costa Rica and how these impact local bird biodiversity levels. Overall, farms that plant diverse crops can provide habitat for a larger number of bird species than monoculture farms, they found, and are also more stable as habitats over time.
Climate change is already having an impact on wildlife, and, given the tectonically-slow rate of international action on the issue, there’s little reason to believe this effect will end soon. The paper explains that farming practices “really matter” when trying to boost climate resilience and protect biodiversity. Given the speed with which ecosystems can completely break down, and considering the importance of ones such as the Amazon Rainforest in the global carbon cycle, that’s definitely something we should be working towards.
As rainforests are cut down to make room for plantations of bananas or sugarcane, the amount of habitat available for wildlife shrinks — we’ve been clearing a lot of forest in the last few years, so that available habitat has shrunk quite dramatically, the team explains. At the same time, climate change is making dry seasons longer and hotter, placing even more strain on the animals living here and the plants which support them.
“It’s the one-two punch of land-use intensification and climate change,” said Nick Hendershot, a graduate student in the department of biology and lead author on the study.
“Wildlife populations are already severely stressed, with overall decreased health and population sizes in some farming landscapes. Then, these further extreme conditions like prolonged drought can come along and really just decimate a species.”
The study drew on 20 years’ worth of field data to map which species of birds live in natural tropical forests and in different types of farmland. Costa Rica has various agricultural systems in place throughout the country, which gave the team a chance to compare and contrast monoculture systems, diversified multi-crop farms, and natural forests. Monoculture farms analyzed in the study included pineapple, rice, or sugar cane, while ‘diversified’ farms either mixed several types of crops or were bordered by ribbons of natural forest.
All in all, diversified farms harbored more species of common birds, but also provided shelter for some of the most threatened ones. “Which species are in a given place makes a huge difference — it’s not just about numbers alone, we care about who’s there,” said Gretchen Daily, director of the Stanford Natural Capital Project and the Center for Conservation Biology, and a senior author on the paper.
“Each bird serves a unique role as part of the machinery of nature. And the habitats they live in support us all.”
There is a lot of room to expand on diversified farming, both in Costa Rica and around the world, the team reports. It wouldn’t benefit just wildlife — mixed farming practices have been shown to boost crop yields, and they increase food security by making the crops more resilient against environmental shocks.
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