How to manage agricultural biodiversity

How to manage biodiversity for food and agriculture


Agricultural practices to manage agricultural biodiversity


Biodiversity is associated with a high diversity and stability of crops in a landscape. These can provide forage and nesting ground for insects and larger animals. Biodiversity helps in regulating the functioning of ecosystems by improving the variety and level of biological processes that help in agricultural production. A diversity of goods can also help to meet demand of consumers, by providing a range of good that often have higher nutritional value as crops that are cultivated in monocultures. The inclusion of perennial crops in agricultural field can provide essential habitat for pollination species and predators of pest species and by this regulate functioning of biological control (against insects and weeds). Perennials also require less nitrogen than most annual crops; lower application of fertilizers will result in less runoff that causes downstream pollution which can result in aquatic dead zones (algal blooms) that harm diversity in water bodies. Although perennial crops are often associated with lower profits than annual crops, they play an important role in maintaining the health of the overall ecosystem (including erosion protection). This means including perennial crops in agricultural fields could be promoted by policies, so that farmers receive more incentives to include living barriers, nitrogen fixing legumes and other perennial crops in their farming system.


Biodiversity is an important regulator of agro-ecosystem functions, not only in the strictly biological sense of impact on production, but also in satisfying a variety of needs of the farmer and society at large. In particular it increases resilience of agro-ecosystems and is as such a means for risk reduction and adaptation to climate change. Agro-ecosystem managers, including farmers, can build upon, enhance and manage the essential ecosystem services provided by biodiversity in order to work towards sustainable agricultural production. This can be achieved though good farming practices which follow ecosystem-based approaches designed to improve sustainability of production systems. Agricultural practices that promote the use of biodiversity for an increased and more sustainable production op crops include:


  • Maintaining a high level of crop-genetic diversity, both on farm level as in seed banks, which will help to increase and sustain production levels and nutritional diversity throughout the full range of different agro-ecological conditions.
  • Integrating, through ecosystem approach strategies, the planned biodiversity (crop sequences and associations) that is maintained with the associated diversity (for example, wild pollinators).
  • Adopting production system management strategies, such as not disturbing soil, maintaining mulch covers from crop residues and cover crops which increase the biological activity and diversity of the production system.
  • Considering the benefits of having fragmented land (riparian areas, forest land within the agricultural landscape) on the agricultural yield, through improved biological processes such as pollination.
  • Improving the adaptation of good farming practices (i.e. pest management strategies, etc.) which follow ecosystem-based approaches designed to improve the sustainability and agricultural biodiversity of production systems. 
  • Aiming at producing commodities that meet the consumer needs for products that are of high quality, safe and produced in an environmentally and socially responsible way.



Ecosystem approaches


The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has defined the ecosystem approach as ‘a strategy for the integrated management of land, water and living resources that promotes conservation and sustainable use in an equitable way’. The ecosystem approach is based on the application of appropriate scientific methodologies focused on levels of biological organization which encompass the essential processes, functions and interactions among organisms and their environment. It recognizes that humans, with their cultural diversity, are an integral component of ecosystems. The ecosystem approach is based on the following 12 principles (


1.      The objectives of management of land, water and living resources are a matter of societal choices.

2.      Management should be decentralized to the lowest appropriate level.

3.      Ecosystem managers should consider the effects (actual or potential) of their activities on adjacent and other ecosystems.

4.      Recognizing potential gains from management, there is usually a need to understand and manage the ecosystem in an economic context

5.      Conservation of ecosystem structure and functioning, in order to maintain ecosystem services, should be a priority target of the ecosystem approach.

6.      Ecosystem must be managed within the limits of their functioning.

7.      The ecosystem approach should be undertaken at the appropriate spatial and temporal scales.

8.      Recognizing the varying temporal scales and lag-effects that characterize ecosystem processes, objectives for ecosystem management should be set for the long term.

9.      Management must recognize the change is inevitable.

10.  The ecosystem approach should seek the appropriate balance between, and integration of, conservation and use of biological diversity.

11.  The ecosystem approach should consider all forms of relevant information, including scientific and indigenous and local knowledge, innovations and practices.

12.  The ecosystem approach should involve all relevant sectors of society and scientific disciplines.



An alternative approach to conservation emphasizes on natural processes rather than the particular entities (populations of various species) that mediate these processes. At the most fundamental level, these processes are energy fixation (almost entirely through photosynthesis), the cycling of that energy and of a range of organic and inorganic chemicals. These processes take place across all spatial and temporal scales. Maintenance of these processes is seen as important for three main reasons. The first is to allow ecosystems to continue providing goods and services to humans; the second is to maintain or restore naturalness; the third is as a means of allowing populations of species to be maintained, or rather to maintain them. This last case can be seen as essentially a methodology for organism or species-based conservation, discussed above.



Creating a supportive environment


Increasing the effectiveness of conservation   

Because of the complexity and unpredictability of the world, there is no single, definitive approach to effective conservation. Those implementing conservation activities have to deal with the complexities of the physical environment, of ecosystems, of populations of non-human species and of human society, and with the interactions between all these levels. Any given conservation scenario will almost certainly present a unique combination of these. Thus, even if it is possible to obtain a persuasive account of why certain approaches have succeeded or failed, it may be difficult to work out which of these may be widely applicable and which may be products of a particular and unique set of circumstances.

But of course as experience accumulates generalities do emerge and it would be extremely wasteful to ignore all previous activities. Success lies in learning from other experiences without being prescriptive and avoiding a “one size fits all” mentality. A general issue that requires more attention than it has yet received is the opportunity that exists to conserve biodiversity in production landscapes of all kinds. Given the inexorable expansion and intensification of human activities, this is a crucial issue. Those who fund and manage conservation can contribute to improved practice on the ground by working to create a supportive environment for conservation. Those who implement conservation on the ground are best placed to improve its practice.

Engaging with the biodiversity- related conventions

The processes of the biodiversity- related conventions involve the vast majority of the world’s governments and have generated wide-ranging programmes of work that directly or indirectly involve conservation. Constructive engagement with these processes on the part of non-governmental and government organizations that are concerned with conservation are a way of working to make national and international government and policy arenas more amenable to and supportive of conservation efforts.


Achieving internal coherence

Organizations involved in conservation should articulate strategic goals and visions so that those working for them, particularly those on the ground, know what they are supposed to be aiming at. This would provide a vital wider context for local efforts, as well as help bring a sense of cohesion to what are often a highly dispersed group of people. It involves devoting considerable energy and resources to communications, which should be two-way, so that the practical experience of those working locally informs higher-level policy and advocacy work and vice-versa.

Moving away from the centrality of projects

It has become clear that if conservation is to be successful it has to be a sustained and continuing process, like providing health care, for example. This means modifying the time-scale over which interventions take place, accepting the possibility of long-term support, for example through trust funds and other means, and eschewing expectations of rapid results, both in terms of changes in human behaviour and in impacts on biodiversity.

It does not mean that good money should be thrown after bad, that once a commitment has been made, investment should continue regardless of outcomes. There should always be a preparedness to withdraw from a particular area or activity as a last resort. Indeed, any programme working in an area as complex as conservation should expect a certain percentage of failures. But this percentage can be kept to a minimum if great care is taken in deciding what to invest in and where to invest.

No less important than a decision to invest is a decision, after careful appraisal, not to invest in a particular area or activity - that is, a willingness to walk away if there is little realistic hope of any significant success. A further requirement is that any long-term commitment should involve not just financial investment, but also the establishment of mechanisms to ensure that the activities undertaken are subject to continuing review and, if necessary, modification.


Species-based conservation


There is no global consensus as to what constitutes an important species, but species may be singled out for conservation action if they fall into one or more of the following categories: (a) threatened species; (b) ecologically important species; (c) species useful to humans; and (d) species with non-use value.


Threatened species

Threatened species are those that are believed to be in danger of extinction. Threatened species listing systems, such as the US Endangered Species Act and the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species, give clear guidance as to which species are believed in most urgent need of conservation action. But the guidance is incomplete because only a small proportion of the world's species has yet been assessed in terms of extinction risk. Information is most complete for birds and mammals and is very incomplete in most invertebrate and plant groups.

It is widely agreed that it is unrealistic at present to expect concerted conservation efforts to be undertaken for each of these threatened species individually, but there is not much agreement on which threatened species are most deserving of attention. For example, it is often assumed that the most threatened species are those that should be accorded highest priority and should therefore be the principal focus of action. But it can also be argued that some of these species are lost causes and that resources are better spent elsewhere.


Ecologically important species


It can be inferred from basic ecological understanding that keystone species which play a crucial role in ecosystems should be considered to be a high priority for conservation, and the thinking of ecologists is being vindicated by the results of so-called ‘small world’ analyses. “The true keystones in an ecological community are the most highly connected species, the hubs of the network. The keystones are the ecological control centres, so to speak, and clearly the most important targets for preservation.” (Buchanan, 2002, page 154). But there are no rules for determining which are likely to be the keystone species, so identifying them can be difficult and demanding.

Species useful to humans

These include wild species that are harvested for food, medicines, clothing, building materials or other purposes, wild relatives of domesticated species or wild species with biochemical attributes that can potentially be harnessed industrially. In addition, some species are subject to non-consumptive use that can be expressed in economic terms. These are chiefly species that play an important role in tourism.

Species with non-use values

A number of species have an importance that cannot easily be quantified in economic terms. That is, a significant number of stakeholders ascribe a non-trivial existence or bequest value to them. Globally, the most important of these are the so-called “charismatic” species, particularly the charismatic mega fauna, including large carnivores and birds of prey, cetaceans, sea-turtles, elephants, rhinoceroses and the great apes, but also some groups of smaller species such as other primates, parrots, large butterflies, and even some plants. Species may also be important for religious, spiritual or scientific reasons.



The way ahead


The shift in thinking and the changes in approach that will be needed encompass policy, social and economic aspects. They will need to involve and engage consumers and all other actors in the agricultural and food industries. The approaches needed will be particularly concerned with supporting small-scale farmers and in ensuring effective ecosystem function and diversity deployment at the landscape level. A number of actions can already be identified that are likely to have a significant effect and to create the framework for the redirection of agriculture that is needed. These include:


·          Ensuring that international instruments and agendas take adequate account of the contribution that agricultural biodiversity can make to their overall objectives;

·          Implementing changes at national level with respect to the support given to pesticides and fertilizers so as to favour biologically-based options;

·          Testing a range of economic instruments such as payment for ecosystem services in agricultural landscapes, internalizing environmental costs, and increasing the responsibility of the private sector;

·          Promoting approaches that reflect an overall ecosystem perspective, include socio-ecological

·          considerations, and take account of agricultural, environmental and social policies, links and trade-offs;

·          Supporting and expanding the various research agendas that have already been developed by organizations and groups aiming to increase the effective use of biodiversity for food and agriculture;

·          Strengthening local institutions and the capacity to maintain and use biodiversity for food and agriculture at local levels through mechanisms such as farmer field schools, participatory crop and livestock improvement and locally-identified adaptation strategies; and

·          Making consumers aware of the benefits of having a sustainable diet, encompassing a high diversity of foods, for their own health and the health of ecosystems.

Knowledge centre

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