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Organic agriculture promotes evenness and natural pest control

Abstract

Human activity can degrade ecosystem function by reducing species number (richness)1,2,3,4 and by skewing the relative abundance of species (evenness)5,6,7. Conservation efforts often focus on restoring or maintaining species number8,9, reflecting the well-known impacts of richness on many ecological processes1,2,3,4. In contrast, the ecological effects of disrupted evenness have received far less attention7, and developing strategies for restoring evenness remains a conceptual challenge7. In farmlands, agricultural pest-management practices often lead to altered food web structure and communities dominated by a few common species, which together contribute to pest outbreaks6,7,10,11. Here we show that organic farming methods mitigate this ecological damage by promoting evenness among natural enemies. In field enclosures, very even communities of predator and pathogen biological control agents, typical of organic farms, exerted the strongest pest control and yielded the largest plants. In contrast, pest densities were high and plant biomass was low when enemy evenness was disrupted, as is typical under conventional management. Our results were independent of the numerically dominant predator or pathogen species, and so resulted from evenness itself. Moreover, evenness effects among natural enemy groups were independent and complementary. Our results strengthen the argument that rejuvenation of ecosystem function requires restoration of species evenness, rather than just richness. Organic farming potentially offers a means of returning functional evenness to ecosystems.

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Figure 1: Evenness of natural enemies across cropping systems.
Figure 2: Predator and pathogen evenness in the field-enclosure experiment.
Figure 3: Effects of natural enemy evenness on multiple trophic levels.

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Acknowledgements

J. Owen and M. Thomas provided comments on the manuscript. G. Chang, R. Ramirez and A. Snyder provided survey data from potato fields. This project was supported by the National Research Initiative of the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

D.W.C. and T.D.N. designed the field experiment, with contributions from W.E.S. and M.R.S. The field work was conducted by D.W.C. and the literature review was done by D.W.C. and T.D.N. The manuscript was written principally by D.W.C. and W.E.S., with input from T.D.N. and M.R.S.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to David W. Crowder.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Tables S1-S8, References and Supplementary Figures S1-S5 with legends. (PDF 309 kb)

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Crowder, D., Northfield, T., Strand, M. et al. Organic agriculture promotes evenness and natural pest control. Nature 466, 109–112 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature09183

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