The key to effective agriculture that both sustains the environment and provides clean bounty is rich biodiversity. And a new study out of Germany has found that the organic sector is doing it best, utilizing an array of crop and habitat varieties that are helping to improve the land and protect vital pollinators like butterflies and bees.
An international team of scientists from the Technical University of Munich (TUM) looked at farms located in 12 regions throughout Europe and Africa for their study. Some of the farms grow organic crops, while others abide by conventional standards. Each farm was evaluated based on the types of farming methods it employs, as well as various landscape features that affect soil health.
The farms were all chosen at random, but at least half of them had to have organic certification that was in place for a minimum of five years. Farms were selected in Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Spain and Uganda, and included grassland-based cattle farms, arable farms, farms growing permanent crops such as grapes for wine and olives for oil, and small-scale subsistence farms in developing areas.
Compared to non-organic fields, organic arable fields were found to have more species overall, indicating a healthier and more biodiverse environment. Organic farms were also found to provide greater benefits to the four taxonomic groups of plants, earthworms, spiders and bees, all of which were present in greater quantity and variety on organic farms compared to non-organic farms.
Overall, organic farms were found to contain greater varieties and quantities of both plants and pollinating bees, suggesting that organic cultivation methods foster more biologically rich natural habitats. And while less pronounced, variances in the types of field boundaries used on organic farms were greater compared to non-organic farms.
“Organic farming is beneficial to the richness of plant and bee species,” stated Proessor Kurt-Jurgen Hulsbergen, one of the study’s authors, about the findings. “However, observed benefits concentrate on arable fields.”
There is still room for improvement with organics
The superiority of the organic agriculture model is affirmed by the Rodale Institute, which urges farmers to transition to organic methods to improve soil health, produce healthier crops and ultimately protect their land from destruction. Ideally, organic production methods utilize a complete, fully-integrated plant and animal ecosystem that eliminates the need for pollutive fossil fuel fertilizers and toxic crop chemicals.
“From an environmental standpoint, organic agriculture builds life in the soil while avoiding the use of toxic chemicals that can accumulate in soil, water, food and people,” explains the organic advocacy group. “Non-organic farming relies on dwindling fossil fuel resources, while organic farmers build their own fertility into their systems, which improve over time and do not rely on outside inputs.”
There is still quite a bit of room for improvement, though. The German study found that, while there are definitive benefits to existing agricultural systems that rely on organic methods, the need for even more diverse habitats is critical. Many organic farms, it turns out, could stand to implement more wooded areas, grass verges and fallow lands to help further improve biodiversity.
“Surprisingly, viewed across all regions, we did not find a higher number of natural habitats on organic farms than non-organic farms,” stated Max Kainz, head of the TUM project. “However, it was clear that habitat diversity is the key to species diversity. The results of the study underline the importance of maintaining and expanding natural landscape features — something that the EU’s Greening Program has been trying to accomplish.”