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Ecosystem Services in Biologically Diversified versus Conventional Farming Systems: Benefits, Externalities, and Trade-Offs

Claire Kremen, University of California, Berkeley
Albie Miles, University of California, Berkeley


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We hypothesize that biological diversification across ecological, spatial, and temporal scales maintains and regenerates the ecosystem services that provide critical inputs—such as maintenance of soil quality, nitrogen fixation, pollination, and pest control—to agriculture. Agrobiodiversity is sustained by diversified farming practices and it also supplies multiple ecosystem services to agriculture, thus reducing environmental externalities and the need for off-farm inputs. We reviewed the literature that compares biologically diversified farming systems with conventional farming systems, and we examined 12 ecosystem services: biodiversity; soil quality; nutrient management; water-holding capacity; control of weeds, diseases, and pests; pollination services; carbon sequestration; energy efficiency and reduction of warming potential; resistance and resilience to climate change; and crop productivity. We found that compared with conventional farming systems, diversified farming systems support substantially greater biodiversity, soil quality, carbon sequestration, and water-holding capacity in surface soils, energy-use efficiency, and resistance and resilience to climate change. Relative to conventional monocultures, diversified farming systems also enhance control of weeds, diseases, and arthropod pests and they increase pollination services; however, available evidence suggests that these practices may often be insufficient to control pests and diseases or provide sufficient pollination. Significantly less public funding has been applied to agroecological research and the improvement of diversified farming systems than to conventional systems. Despite this lack of support, diversified farming systems have only somewhat reduced mean crop productivity relative to conventional farming systems, but they produce far fewer environmental and social harms. We recommend that more research and crop breeding be conducted to improve diversified farming systems and reduce yield gaps when they occur. Because single diversified farming system practices, such as crop rotation, influence multiple ecosystem services, such research should be holistic and integrated across many components of the farming system. Detailed agroecological research especially is needed to develop crop- and region-specific approaches to control of weeds, diseases, and pests.

Key words

agricultural food production; agricultural intensification; agrobiodiversity; agroecology; biodiversity; conventional agriculture; conventional farming systems; diversified farming systems; ecosystem services; land-sharing; land-sparing; organic agriculture; sustainable agriculture; sustainable intensification

Copyright © 2012 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article  is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.  You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087