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Organic farming enhances pollination but may reduce yield compared to non-organic agri-environment schemes

Science for Environment Policy - Thematic Issue 57 - June 2017

There are several types of wildlife-friendly farming scheme, some of which are more prescriptive than others. A recent study compared the effects of different wildlife-friendly farming approaches, including organic farming, on pollination. The findings suggest that organic farming practices enhance pollination services but may compromise crop yield. ‘Conservation Grade’ farming schemes – biodiversity-focused practices funded by sales of labelled food products – can support both pollination and yield.

Insect pollinators, such as bees and butterflies, are in decline across the globe. This decline is driven by a combination of beehive pests, such as varroa, habitat loss, climate change and use of agricultural chemicals.

Policy responses have generally focused on improving habitat and, in particular, on increasing flower availability, as a lack of flowers has a significant impact on bee populations. Areas with more flowers generally have more pollinators, a more diverse range of pollinators and higher levels of pollination.

In Europe, the main tools for increasing floral resources in agricultural landscapes are wildlife-friendly farming schemes (including EU-funded agri-environment schemes – AES). This study compared three types of wildlife-friendly farming in England: Entry Level Stewardship (ELS, a flexible AES, non-organic), Conservation Grade (CG, a more prescriptive AES, non-organic) and organic farming (organic versions of AES).

The English governmental scheme Environmental Stewardship included several options for enhancing floral resources in non-crop habitats. This study used entry-level stewardship (ELS) as a baseline scheme, which covered 65% of England’s agricultural land area in 2013, and included an option for sowing patches of flower mixes and legumes. Conservation Grade is a non-governmental scheme, under which farmers must provide wildlife habitat on at least 10% of the farmed area (4% of the farmed area must be pollen and nectar rich), funded by the purchase of food products accredited with the ‘Fair to Nature’ brand. Finally, organic farming is a more traditional method of biodiversity-friendly agriculture – involving ecological processes to aid production, such as using legumes to enhance soil fertility rather than depending on chemical fertilisers.

According to the researchers, this is the first study to compare how these methods differ in terms of floral resources, number of different types of pollinators and pollination services they provide.

The study, which was carried out in summer 2013, included four sets of three farms (one in each management type) in southern England. The researchers investigated crop and non-crop habitats in terms of their flower density and diversity, pollinator density and diversity, and pollination services, measured using phytometers — potted plants that cannot be fertilised by their own pollen and are pollinated by insects — a method known to be effective for measuring pollination. They chose to use the potted plant Californian poppy (Eschscholzia californica) — an ornamental species not found in the natural environment…

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SOURCE: EC – Science for Environment Policy