Forests are commonly viewed as ideal habitats for most wildlife, especially forest-dwelling creatures. It would seem that farms are less hospitable environments for wild animals, but a surprising new study has provided a twist in this narrative.
The research suggests that diversified farms create habitats that help bridge the gap between wildlife conservation and food security.
Over the course of 18 years, researchers from Stanford University found that many forest-dependent bird populations in Costa Rica are efficiently supported by diversified farms with varied crops and tree patches.
One particularly interesting finding of the study was that bird populations on diversified farms were increasing as bird populations in natural forests were declining.
The Stanford team, led by Nicholas Hendershot, conducted a comparative analysis of bird populations across different landscapes: forests, diversified farms, and intensive agriculture.
Surprisingly, the steepest declines in bird populations were recorded in forests, followed by intensiveagricultural regions, which were often populated by invasive species.
“Birds are kind of a proxy we use to track the health of ecosystems. And the birds we’re seeing today aren’t the same as we saw 18 to 20 years ago. This paper really documents this pattern,” said Hendershot.
The study implies that while diversified farming can be a tool for biodiversity conservation, biodiversity in turn plays a significant role in ensuring food security.
Birds, with their varied dietary patterns, help in controlling pests by feeding on insects and assist in pollinating crops.
“Identity does seem to matter a lot for pest control and other ecosystem services birds provide. These species are not interchangeable,” said Hendershot.
“We need a constant stream of pollinators servicing farms. About three-quarters of the world’s crops require pollinators to some extent, and that 75% is our most nutritious food – think of all the vitamins and minerals packed into fruits, nuts, and veggies,” said study co-author Gretchen Daily.
“We need a constant stream of birds, bats, and other wildlife to help control pests: they suppress the vast majority naturally. And we need to start building flood protection, water purification, carbon storage, and many other vital benefits back into agricultural landscapes, way beyond what can be achieved in protected areas alone.”
While protected forests play a crucial role in biodiversity conservation, diversified farms offer more than just food production. They act as bridges, connecting fragmented forested areas.
Diversified farms have shown immense potential in supporting biodiversity. “I’m always surprised by how important how you manage a farm is for biodiversity,” said Hendershot.
“We believe the findings of our research are new to science, but in a sense, it merely confirms what Indigenous communities around the world have already known for a long time, which is that humans can and should have reciprocal relationships with the rest of the local ecological community they are part of,” said study co-author Professor Tadashi Fukami.
Costa Rica stands as a beacon of hope and a success story in terms of conservation. With rapid deforestation in the 1980s and 90s, the nation has made a remarkable comeback.
By implementing the world’s premier payment for ecosystem services (PES) program, forests now cover almost 60% of Costa Rica, a significant leap from the 40% in 1987.
The country is working towards doubling its protected forest cover and launching a new PES to motivate farmers to embrace best management practices.
This study will serve as an important guide for Costa Rica’s policymakers by demonstrating the long-term benefits of diversified farming. “We need to recognize the vital work many farmers are doing that supports biodiversity,” said Daily.
The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,
Diversified farming refers to a type of agriculture that involves growing a variety of crops and/or raising multiple species of livestock in the same space.
This farming strategy is in contrast to monoculture, where only one crop or animal species is cultivated over an extended area. Here are some key points about diversified farms:
Diversified farms can be more resilient to pests, diseases, and market fluctuations. If one crop or livestock fails or its market price drops, there are other products that can compensate.
Different crops have different nutrient requirements and pest profiles. By rotating crops, farmers can reduce the chance of depleting the soil or encouraging the proliferation of a specific pest.
Diverse ecosystems often provide more ecosystem services like pollination, pest control, and water filtration.
By producing a range of products, farmers can access different markets and revenue streams, potentially smoothing out their income over the year.
With a mix of crops and animals, some pests that might thrive in a monoculture setting might be naturally controlled in a diverse farm.
By mimicking natural ecosystems, diversified farms can often reduce the need for chemical inputs like fertilizers and pesticides.
There’s growing consumer demand for diverse, local, and sustainably grown products. Diversified farms can often better meet this demand.
Diversified farms often play a crucial role in local food systems, providing a variety of produce and products throughout the seasons.
These farms can support a greater variety of wildlife and beneficial insects because of the diverse habitats and food sources they provide.
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