A recent development in agriculture has been the rise of climate-focused farming, sometimes called regenerative agriculture, carbon-farming, or climate-smart agriculture. Whatever we call it, this philosophical approach is often presented as a menu of practices that promote soil building as a way to keep carbon in the ground to help avoid the climate crisis.
Agriculture is the single largest land use on the planet, with more than 40% of the Earth’s surface devoted to crops or grazing. Because of this, what we do on farms and with our soil can be an important part of society’s effort to curb climate change. Beyond climate, these efforts help rebuild and sustain the world’s invaluable soil resources, improve the drought resilience of cropland, prevent erosion, improve water quality, and much more.
One important recent development is a new competitive grant fund called Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities. Launched by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it will invest up to $1 billion for pilot projects that accelerate climate-smart farming practices. These include approaches that further reduce tillage, increase cover crop adoption, and scale up concepts such as agroforestry and silvopasture.
This funding is a great step in addressing the nexus between agriculture and climate. But there is another, equally central, but often overlooked factor in this equation: To fully address climate change and sustain agriculture in an unstable climate, we must also address the biodiversity crisis. By making biodiversity conservation a part of regenerative farming and including it in funding options like the USDA Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program, the agricultural sector can tackle both the climate crisis and the biodiversity crisis simultaneously.
Like climate change, biodiversity is linked with global stability
Biodiversity – the diversity within species, between species, and of ecosystems – is critically important to human health and safety as well as to our economy. Protecting biodiversity is also vital in our effort to address climate change. The more biodiverse a system is, the better the animals and plants that live in these systems can adapt and survive changing conditions. More directly: biodiversity underpins global nutrition and food security.
This fact guides everything we do at Xerces. Insects and other invertebrates represent by far the largest share of animal diversity on the planet, and these small animals provide many services. For instance, pollinators are responsible for 1 in 3 bites of food we eat – overwhelmingly the most nutrient-dense fruits, nuts and vegetables we rely upon for our health. Additionally, insects and other invertebrates are vital for soil health, nutrient recycling, the control of crop pests, and as food for wildlife.
According to a 2020 report by the World Economic Forum, more than half of the world’s GDP is highly or moderately dependent on nature. Additionally, a study published in Bioscience found insects alone are worth more than $57 billion ($70 billion 2020 valuation) a year to the U.S. economy.
Unfortunately, biodiversity is declining globally, faster than at any other time in human history, and keystone animals such as pollinators, freshwater mussels and other beneficial invertebrates are disappearing at alarming rates. A 2021 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported that, where studied, insect abundance is declining on average 1% to 2% per year. For instance, one study found that numbers of common butterflies in Ohio have dropped by 2 percent yearly, resulting in a 33 percent decline over two decades. In another assessment, the United Nations Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services found that more than 40% of invertebrate pollinator species may face extinction in the coming decades. Insects make up over 90% of animal biodiversity and perform many ecosystem functions, meaning the loss of insects has severe negative impacts on ecosystems.
Nature-based climate solutions offer a win-win for climate and biodiversity
Fortunately, adapting programs like the USDA Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities to more fully support biodiversity can help address these alarming declines while also keeping the focus on climate change and farm production.
The science is clear that: (1) Climate change and biodiversity loss are interlinked, and coupling climate mitigation targets with ecosystem-based approaches is essential; and (2) It is impossible to address the loss of biodiversity without addressing climate change, but equally impossible to tackle the full impacts of climate change without working to protect and enhance biodiversity.
Proponents of regenerative agriculture and climate-smart farming note – rightly so – that many of the core regenerative practices improve biodiversity. Continuous vegetative cover of crop fields, reduced tillage, and diversified crop rotations are all practices that lead to more soil invertebrates and more blooms to support pollinators and other beneficial insects. However, the species we see in these environments tend to be more common species, resources such as pollen and nectar may be short-lived, and – with a focus on just cropland – all of these animals are in a landscape with higher risk of pesticide exposure. Thus, we believe climate-smart agriculture needs to incorporate a broader suite of nature-based climate solutions to be most impactful.
Nature-based climate solutions involve actions that both mitigate climate change and protect and restore wild nature. These practices can range from simply protecting as much of the natural landscape as possible, to managing, restoring and/or enhancing natural or semi-natural ecosystems in forests, on farms, along roadsides, along stream corridors, and in towns and cities. Trees and agroforestry are an essential part of this solution, but so are meadow plantings and hedgerows on farms.
Broadly speaking, regenerative agriculture and nature-based climate solutions both involve conserving, restoring, or better managing ecosystems (farms or nature) to remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. A 2017 study in the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences found that cost-effective nature-based climate solutions could contribute about 20% of the mitigation needed between now and 2050 to keep global warming below 2°C. They also provide a wide range of other important benefits, such as cleaner air and water, economic benefits, and increased biodiversity.
Interspacing cropland with natural habitat brings benefits
However, nature-based solutions elevate biodiversity conservation well beyond what is achievable through regenerative agriculture. One important difference is that the focus of regenerative agriculture is primarily in cropland alone. Agricultural nature-based climate solutions focus both on cropland as well as around the edges of farms to provide permanent habitat for beneficial insects and other wildlife. This permanent habitat has been shown to attract a broader array of beneficial insects and, over time, diversity and abundance are higher in these areas. These areas can include resources that are not found in most regenerative agriculture projects including host plants for butterflies, specific native wildflowers used by specialist bees, nesting and overwintering habitat for bees, butterflies, and beneficial insects, as well as habitat for birds and other wildlife.
The USDA, through the Natural Resource Conservation Service, already supports many biodiversity-focused nature-based climate solutions, and there are positive movements within the food industry to further accelerate adoption of these practices. Best of all, none of these approaches are overly complex and they fit well with regenerative agriculture approaches. Here are some of the fundamentals:
- Native plant hedgerows: Hedgerows have been part of Europe’s agricultural landscape for thousands of years. If a diversity of flowering, climate-adapted plants are used, hedgerows can capture carbon, increase biodiversity, and provide benefits to farmers by increasing pollinators and natural enemies of crop pests.
- Wildflower meadows/flowering field borders: Prairie wildflowers and grasses are not only essential for increasingly rare grassland birds, butterflies, and native bees; these deep-rooted plants capture enormous volumes of carbon, help improve water infiltration, and have created the most productive soils on Earth.
- Buffers on riparian and other water courses: Planting or managing native herbaceous or forest habitat as buffers along waterways can create layers of habitat, prevent soil and nutrient runoff, and even shade streams to help mitigate the impacts of climate change.
- Maximize plant diversity in CRP lands: Conservation Reserve Program set-asides can be an important part of addressing climate change in agriculture. Adding additional floral diversity to these plantings can help insects, birds, water quality and more.
- Beetle banks and insectary strips: This conservation biological control approach provides supplemental nectar, pollen, and habitat and increases the diversity and abundance of natural enemies of crop pests.
One important additional benefit shared by all of these practices listed above is that they increase habitat connectivity across farm landscapes. In the face of a changing climate, insects and other beneficial wildlife need easy access to ever-shifting nesting and food resources. There is evidence that some pollinators are shifting ranges in response to climate change, and linear habitats such as field borders, hedgerows, riparian zones, and other green corridors provide the connections necessary for pollinators to move across the landscape. A soon-to-be-released study by the University of Nevada Reno and the Xerces Society finds that even in highly fragmented landscapes, connectivity is possible, especially utilizing the restoration or improvement of agricultural margins.
Nature-based climate solutions are more than just solutions to climate change or the biodiversity crisis. They are also solutions to many of the other challenges we face when managing 40% of the Earth’s surface for agriculture, ranging from water protection to rural quality of life. Building this foundation into the Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program and elsewhere in our farm conservation economy is the most clear-eyed path we have to continue feeding the world – the human world of course – but also the world of our great companions, the bees, butterflies, fireflies, songbirds, gamebirds, fish, and so much more.
By Scott Hoffman Black, Eric Lee-Mäder and Mace Vaughan on 21. April 2022
Find other articles on the Xerces blog related to climate change.