New Guide Highlights Climate Benefits of On-Farm Biodiversity Conservation

Participants on a CalCAN biodiversity farm tour inspect a hedgerow at Preston Vineyards. Hedgerows sequester carbon in their woody biomass and roots and provide vital habitat to birds, beneficial insects and pollinators.
Participants on a CalCAN biodiversity farm tour inspect a hedgerow at Preston Vineyards. (Photo: Renata Brillinger)

Climate, agriculture, and biodiversity—the variety of species and their relationships within a particular habitat—are all closely intertwined, according to a recent publication from the Wild Farm Alliance, a CalCAN coalition member. The conservation or degradation of all three depends largely on our land management decisions and climate actions in the coming years, though the publication—Biodiversity Conservation: An Organic Farmer’s and Certifier’s Guide—makes a strong case that we have the knowledge we need to protect them. The guide offers farmers and conservation professionals a wealth of information, strategies, and tools to implement practices that support biodiversity and benefit the climate.

Such guidance comes at a crucial time. As the guide points out, “We are in the midst of a Sixth Mass Extinction. Not since the age of dinosaurs has the world been on the verge of losing so many species in so little time. With growing resource needs and a warming world, losses are predicted to intensify.” As we lose biodiversity, we also lose the abundance of ecosystem services it provides, like pollination, natural pest management, nutrient recycling in soils, and water purification and storage. Those services not only make farms more resilient to drought and pest pressure, but also slow the onset of climate change. Greater biodiversity, above- and below-ground, contributes positively to soil, plant, and overall ecosystem health, which in turn results in higher rates of carbon sequestration in soils and plant biomass.

The inverse is also true: more extreme and erratic weather brought on by climate change will negatively impact biodiversity, as species lose the climate conditions and habitat in which they have evolved to survive. That’s why the Wild Farm Alliance included “Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Building Climate Change Resilience” as one of eight core biodiversity principles in the new guide.

Farmers’ decisions can make a difference. Given that roughly 40 percent of earth’s landmass is in agricultural use worldwide, farms and ranches offer enormous potential for biodiversity conservation and climate mitigation. For example, farmers can create networks of carbon-rich habitat by protecting and restoring waterways, wetlands, grasslands, woodlands, and other sensitive landscapes. And they can further enhance carbon sequestration and habitat by incorporating perennials, like pollinator hedgerows and fruit, nut, and shade trees into their fields and pastures. But the extent to which farms currently take such actions varies widely across the agricultural landscape.

We hope this guide will change that. Although the initial impetus for the guide was to assist organic farmers certified under the National Organic Program (NOP) in complying with updated biodiversity conservation regulations, the guide goes above and beyond this scope. It offers farmers and conservationists dozens of pages of on-farm biodiversity stewardship practices (many of which the USDA has identified as climate smart), as well as strategies for researching regional conservation goals and planning processes for operators and certifiers.

Farmers, ranchers, and conservation professionals will be familiar with many of the 24 “Activities that Support Biodiversity” listed in the guide, such as protecting riparian areas, managing water efficiently, providing habitat for natural enemies of pests, and improving pastures and rangelands. What is unique about the guide is the additional and useful information it provides for each activity. Every activity is followed by: 1) the NOP regulations the activity addresses; 2) three scenarios (with pictures) of different levels of compliance in the field; 3) examples of associated agricultural practices; and 4) the agricultural and ecological benefits of the activity. The pictures below—from the activity “Building Climate Change Benefits in Crop Production”—show some of these user-friendly sections.

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NOP compliance examples for “Building Climate Change Benefits in Crop Production.”

 

Examples of agricultural practices for “Building Climate Change Benefits in Crop Production.”

Of course, it takes more than well-presented information to convince busy and financially-strapped farmers to adopt new practices, especially if the benefits are long-term. We know that farmers often need incentives and technical assistance to transition to different methods, tools, and sometimes even products. That’s why we were pleased to see the guide mention related Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Conservation Practice Standards (CPS) for each biodiversity-supporting activity. The NRCS is a federal agency that provides technical assistance and well-established financial incentive programs (also called cost-shares) to farmers looking to better steward their land by implementing and upholding Conservation Practice Standards.

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NRCS Conservation Practice Standards related to “Building Climate Change Benefits in Crop Production.”

While some species in the complex food webs of farms undoubtedly pose challenges to farmers—e.g., pests—this guide demonstrates that the vast majority perform what are often unrecognized or undervalued services. As the guide puts it: “Increased farmscape complexity leads to more beneficial interactions among organisms that are part of food webs above and below the ground. More benefits from biodiversity come from more complex food webs. Farms that support a diversity of crop and non-crop species usually experience fewer serious pest problems, more pollination and pest control, more stable production, and more profits than those without diversity.”

 

To check out the guide for yourself, visit: http://www.wildfarmalliance.org/biodiversity_guide

Note: CalCAN served as a technical advisor in the guide’s development and is proud to share Wild Farm Alliance’s final product.

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