Biodiversity and modern agriculture
Biodiversity can be described as the variability evident among living organisms. The concept also encompasses diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems. Biodiversity is important because all plants, animals, insects and microorganisms interact and depend upon one another for important resources such as food, shelter or oxygen. All organisms are therefore interconnected, with each playing its own part in the “circle of life”. Any loss of biodiversity threatens the existence of individual species and puts the ecosystems which human beings depend upon for the provision of food and raw materials at risk. @iStock.com/BerndLang
As the world’s population grows and demand for food and other resources such as water, land and energy increases, the preservation of biodiversity can be perceived as a major societal challenge. Furthermore, the consequences of climate change and the decline of certain species and their respective habitats means that the ability of ecosystems to adapt to these changes is constantly diminishing.
Governments around the world and organisations such as the United Nations recognise loss of biodiversity as a major problem and efforts to address the issue are evident at various levels. For example, the United Nations Decade on Biodiversity promotes a vision of living in harmony with nature through the implementation of the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity1and the European Union contributes through the 2020 Biodiversity Strategy2.
Although modern agriculture has been identified as one of the main drivers of biodiversity loss, sustainable agricultural practices can contribute to the conservation of biodiversity. Thechallenge for agriculture, therefore, is to provide adequate nutrition for everybody (both today and in the future), while at the same time contributing to the preservation of biodiversity. Nearly one third of the world's land area is used for food production. The agricultural system which supports food production depends on biological diversity3. This contributes to securing not only food and income but also raw materials for clothing, shelter, medicines, genetic resources for crop and livestock breeding and delivers other benefits such as soil and water conservation – all of which are essential to human survival and economic prosperity.
In terms of food production, weed control is an essential activity in order to achieve desired crop yields. Weed control and the preparation of soil for planting have been the basis of agricultural practices since farming began. It is unavoidable that food production and weed control practices of any type, whether physical, biological or chemical, will have a strong influence on biodiversity at field level. The regional impact of these practices on biodiversity on a wider scale is determined by the landscape-level features (e.g. size of the fields, hedges, buffer strips, cropping systems), which can be incorporated into landscape planning. Chemical treatments (i.e. herbicides) are the most efficient tool for weed management as part of an overall crop management programme. They should never be used in isolation of other practices to optimise crop growth. Glyphosate is one of the active ingredients used in herbicide products. Its widespread use by farmers and growers is an indication of its agronomic benefits and its effectiveness in managing undesirable vegetation.
The use of glyphosate also contributes to soil conservation and to reducing the footprint of agriculture on ecosystems4 through the facilitation of no-till practices (whereby ploughing is not required) and allowing cover crops to grow which avoids bare soils and provides season-long living roots.
Glyphosate only affects green growing plants without residual weed control activity, so only plants that are directly treated will be controlled. Moreover, modern spray technology allows precise placement, minimising the risks of off-target effects.
Last update: 03 December 2014