You’ll find hedgerows along many a field in Limburg; they are the most popular type of agri-environment scheme here. Photo: Hila Segre
Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
How can the nature value of farmland be boosted so that it becomes attractive again for insects and birds, but without farmers feeling the pinch in their pockets? Researchers and scientists from fifteen European countries will be looking for answers to that question over the next few years.
It won’t make the headlines, but the shrill carder bumblebee is back in the Netherlands. The insect had been wiped out, but two students of David Kleijn, professor of Ecology at Wageningen University & Research, caught one in their insect net in the Geul valley. It is a sign of the improvement in the quality of the countryside between Valkenburg and Gulpen. David Kleijn has been studying biodiversity in the Geul valley for years. Now, as the leader of the European research project SHOWCASE, he is involving local farmers in that project. Biodiversity is crucial in conserving ecosystems, but the number of different species is declining rapidly around the world. In the Netherlands alone, butterfly populations have fallen by 70 per cent in the past century. A similar picture is seen for birds typically found in farmland. Intensive agricultural practices are one reason for the decrease in biodiversity.
In South Limburg, Kleijn wants to investigate what is needed to make biodiversity an integral part of farming practices. Kleijn believes that researchers have spent too long looking exclusively at the ecological side of biodiversity. “We showed the benefits, for example the higher yields if you have more bees to pollinate your apples or sunflowers. But we always ignored the costs for farmers. Those costs could well be the reason why so few farmers do anything about biodiversity on their farms. Of course there are pioneers, the farmers who everyone is full of praise for. But they do it for a different reason: they are really interested in developing an alternative approach to farming that will boost biodiversity.” Kleijn says the average farmer goes with the flow. They take out a loan with a bank. “The farmer then has to farm the land intensively, looking for economies of scale and using lots of fertiliser and crop protection agents, to be able to pay the interest on the loan and keep up with the repayments. In other words, they end up doing all the things that are bad for biodiversity.”
A WUR student samples spiders in a wheat field by means of the DVac suction sampling method, using a tool that resembles an inverted leaf blower. Photo: Kiki de Waart
Aphids are prominent pest insects in agriculture and fruit cultivation. Natural enemies oppress pests and their effects on crop yields. Photo: Hila Segre
That is the driving force behind the whole system, says Kleijn. He is convinced that if you asked individual farmers, they would be willing to take a different approach, but they feel forced to produce as much as possible for financial reasons when the price of land is 80,000 euros per hectare.
Measures to increase biodiversity therefore require changes to the land management and business operations at the same time. “If you plant a strip of land with flowers to attract bees, hoverflies, butterflies and ladybirds, that’s land you can’t use for crops. You may even need to adapt your machinery. Those are all costs and even if it makes financial sense, it still requires a mental shift. I realise only too well how difficult this is.”
The SHOWCASE team are investigating the financial implications for farmers when promoting biodiversity becomes a regular aspect of the farming business. Kleijn is studying the case of grassland in the Geul valley. “From farms with standard perennial ryegrass to farms with grassland rich in species on Vrakelberg hill. We cover the entire spectrum in the intensity of grassland management.” Plots with perennial ryegrass are mown up to five times a year. The grass is rich in protein and can be fed to cows directly. That leads to milk with high concentrations of fat and protein. Highly biodiverse grassland, on the other hand, is mown less frequently and has a lower protein content. Farmers therefore have to buy in extra feed if they are to produce milk with sufficient concentrations of fat and protein. The researchers are investigating the costs involved.
The SHOWCASE project aims at including biodiversity into farming practices. Take a look at this presentation video to discover the ways in which the project will support the shift towards more sustainable farming.
“At the same time, we’re surveying the biodiversity of the vegetation, both the fertilised fields with ryegrass and the species-rich grass on Vrakelberg, where orchids grow, for example. We are measuring the numbers and species of plants, bees and earthworms. But we are also looking at carbon sequestration and nitrogen leaching – it is important for the delicate landscape of the Geul valley to retain the nitrogen.”
An attractive agricultural landscape with flowers, buzzing insects, ditches with clear water that contain frogs and newts, copses and brushwood: these are all examples of ‘public goods’. We enjoy them as we cycle past, stop for a picnic or survey the scenery from our living room window. Such ‘ecosystem services’, as they are termed, are important. “But these are all things that cost farmers effort without them getting a penny in return, making it perfectly logical for a farmer to say, ‘Fine if you want me to do that, but I also want to be paid for it’. So if we want farmers to switch to extensive farming, they will need to be compensated for the extra costs. It will be much easier to have a public debate about that once we have a good picture of these costs.” That requires input not just from farmers but also from major buyers. Unilever, for example, is looking for a clear-cut method for rewarding producers for measures they take to boost biodiversity. “I know farmers are interested too,” says Kleijn, “but there’s still a large financial gap. I hope SHOWCASE will let us develop business models that promote biodiversity.”
The SHOWCASE project sites are spread across Europe. Each country has its own specific focus. In Switzerland and France, researchers are looking at the effects of reducing pesticide use. The focus in Hungary is on the biodiversity effects of plots where strips are sown with flowers.
I hope SHOWCASE will let us develop business models that promote biodiversity
If we want farmers to switch to extensive farming, they need to be compensated for the extra costs
Grassy road verges with many flowers make a good home for pollinators. Photo: Hila Segre
In Romania and Estonia, the project researchers are looking at ways to combat the abandonment of farmland. “The marginal areas that used to support small-scale farmers are fantastic for biodiversity; there are so many different species of plants and animals! But these farmers eventually gave up as they couldn’t make a living under current market conditions. The land gets taken over by trees or bushes, which leads to deterioration in biodiversity because one species dominates, such as the hawthorn. In SHOWCASE, we are investigating the options for farming that land again, for example by mowing it or using it for grazing.” Kleijn’s colleagues in Spain had to talk until they were blue in the face to persuade fruit growers that putting green cover crops between the trees is a good thing because it attracts insects that serve as a natural pest control. “The farmers think weeds between the trees actually increase the risk of pests. That is why Spanish orchards are always so incredibly bare. We now have fifteen farms where small sections of the orchards are sown with green cover crops. We will be measuring which insects are found there, whether the fruit is more affected by pests or less, whether the fruits are larger or smaller and what happens to the yields. We will assess the results after two harvests.”
The project in the Geul valley involves not just measurements in grassland but also experimenting with lupins as an alternative crop. These flowers attract a lot of insects and are beneficial for pollinators. The plant itself binds nitrogen in the soil and does not require fertiliser. What is more, the lupin seeds are full of protein and fibre. The seeds of the blue lupin are used as animal feed while the white lupin seeds can be incorporated in meat substitutes or used to make special dishes in restaurants. Kleijn sees this crop as offering a potentially viable business model for farmers. It would also help if the government encouraged the crop by subsidising the cultivation of lupin. “Look at oilseed rape. It’s a visually pleasing crop, plus it attracts a lot of insects. Germany and the United Kingdom are full of oilseed rape as it is heavily subsidised for the production of biodiesel. That financial incentive makes the difference; it pushes farmers to start growing the crop.”
European research context
SHOWCASE addresses the following European policy challenges:
- Making agriculture more sustainable
- Enhancing biodiversity
Wageningen University & Research groups involved: Plant Ecology and Nature Conservation Countries involved in Europe: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Estonia, France, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and United Kingdom Duration: 2020 – 2025