SLU news

Many solutions for diversifying of the farming landscape

Published: 12 November 2019

Our agriculture has become more specialized. Fewer crops, larger fields and specialization with animals in some places and crop production in others. Now it is time for more variation in the farming landscape - diversification. It can give us more and better food. It also favors biodiversity and is important for climate. But how can we change our agricultural systems and what will drive the change?

The goal is to create more variety both in the fields and the surrounding landscape for both cultivated and wild diversity.

This was the topic of a seminar at KSLA recently where researchers from SLU and other universities participated plus other stakeholders. Christine Watson was the keynote speaker, She is KSLA´s Wallenberg professor 2019 and affiliated with the Department of Crop Production Ecology at SLU.


We can create more diversity on our fields…

We could grow a larger variety of crops than we do today and we can also rethink how we manage the fields, according to Christine Watson.

One example is crop mixtures, for example a legume and a cereal grown on the same field. The two crops can use the resources in the field more efficiently - both above and below ground. One challenge is to handle crop mixtures in today's production system – agricultural machinery, mills and so on are currently adjusted to handle one crop at a time.

Another possibility is to add more crops in the crop rotation. For example we could easily grow more legumes in Sweden. Considering the quantities of soy we import it is clear that demand exists. Legumes in the plant sequence can improve the yield of the next crop, such as wheat. This is partly a result of nitrogen fixation, but also due to changes in the soil microbial community.

Christine also thinks that we could be more innovative when it comes to the kind of plants we grow. Hemp, for example, is an almost forgotten crop that is a good protein source. But it can improve soil structure and help control weeds in the next crop in the rotation.

Many diversifying measures can help us deal with the climate impact. For example cover crops increase the storage of carbon in soils.   Including a range of  crops can help our agricultural systems to be more resilient in a changing climate, since some crops can endure drought better and others may be better at coping with flooding.

Christine also points out that precision farming approaches can be used as a diversification tool (although today it is often associated with intensive farming). For example, the farmer can identify areas with soil compaction and grow crops that counteracts the compaction there.

Another important thing is to handle the specialization of animal husbandry in one part of the country and crop production in another.

“It's not like we're going back to "old McDonald´s farm" with a cow, a pig, a few chickens and so on. Instead we can improve resource use by planning at the landscape level to and sharing resources between different farms. That waywe can achieve a mix between animal husbandry and crop production at regional level”, says Christine Watson.

…in the surrounding landscape…

Diversification is also about taking advantage of the wild biodiversity. Riccardo Bommarco talked about that. The agricultural production benefits from pollinators, natural enemies, earthworms and all other soil organisms. This richness of life must also be included in our future farming systems. And then we have to make sure that biodiversity thrives in the landscape - it can be about restoring wetlands, putting in flower strips or preserving meadows, hedges, trees and other habitats.

We can also add crops to the landscape that can give us both a valuable yield and a lot of other ecosystem services. One example is sea buckthorn.

…and economically

For a farmer, diversification is not just about crops and biodiversity. It's also about getting several ways to earn an income and that is a strong trend today. Agricultural buisnesses that, for example, also use the land for hunting or have a farm shop can improve their economy.

What should drive the change?

Farmers are important. They have the knowledge and together with researchers and innovators they can find solutions. But they must have the right conditions, not least financially.

Of course, it is important that there is a market for their products - a demand for new interesting crops that can develop our food culture. Line Gordon, director of Stockholm Resilient Centre highlighted collaboration between chefs and producers. Chefs are often interested in good, new ingredients. This demand means that a greater variety of crops are grown in the fields. An example is the Swedish academy (Kålrotsakademin) that promotes the vegetable swede/rutabaga.

Mark Brady from Agrifood Economic Centre talked about EU´s Common Agricultural Policy. What is wrong and how to fix it? today's support system for farmers has not favored biodiversity and diversification. He believes that the only way is to pay farmers for other values as well. He suggests for example that the system should pay  for environmental results and reward farmers for protecting landscapes and biodiversity.

Christine Watson also highlighted the role of education. Do we train advisers who can tackle the challenges of diversification?

 Black beetle on a straw.
Diversifyng means that we take care of the wild biodiversity. Here a ground beetle (Pterostichus melanarius). Photo: Mattias Jonsson
 White and yellow flowers on green field.
Diversifying agriculture by growing more different things. SLU has trials with lupine that may be a more common crop in Sweden in the Future. Photo: Marcos Lana.
Two women in elegant dresses.
Professor Christine Watson, Scotland’s Rural College, UK, has been awarded KSLAs Wallenberg professorship 2019. Photo: KSLA