Multi-country evidence that crop diversification promotes ecological intensification of agriculture

Abstract

Global food security requires increased crop productivity to meet escalating demand1–3. Current food production systems are heavily dependent on synthetic inputs that threaten the environment and human well-being2,4,5. Biodiversity, for instance, is key to the provision of ecosystem services such as pest control6,7, but is eroded in conventional agricultural systems. Yet the conservation and reinstatement of biodiversity is challenging5,8,9, and it remains unclear whether the promotion of biodiversity can reduce reliance on inputs without penalizing yields on a regional scale. Here we present results from multi-site field studies replicated in Thailand, China and Vietnam over a period of four years, in which we grew nectar-producing plants around rice fields, and monitored levels of pest infestation, insecticide use and yields. Compiling the data from all sites, we report that this inexpensive intervention significantly reduced populations of two key pests, reduced insecticide applications by 70%, increased grain yields by 5% and delivered an economic advantage of 7.5%. Additional field studies showed that predators and parasitoids of the main rice pests, together with detritivores, were more abundant in the presence of nectar-producing plants. We conclude that a simple diversification approach, in this case the growth of nectar-producing plants, can contribute to the ecological intensification of agricultural systems.

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Figure 1: Multi-site, multi-year comparison of diversification of rice (intervention) with conventional practice (control).
Figure 2: Parasitoid activity in rice with diversification (intervention) and with conventional practice (control).
Figure 3: Response of ecosystem service provider guilds and taxa to insecticide and the presence of nectar-producing plants (sesame) on bunds around rice fields.

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Acknowledgements

This work was supported by the Asian Development Bank (TA7648-R-RDTA) and National Basic Research Program of China (973, grant no. 2010CB126200). G.M.G. is supported by a Chinese Government Thousand Talents fellowship. We thank the farmers who hosted field experiments and J. Tylianakis (Christchurch University, New Zealand) for comments on this manuscript. Assistance with arthropod sorting and taxonomy was provided by Y. Yang, G. Wenqin, L. Ding and D. Biqing of Zhejiang Academy of Agricultural Sciences, and F. Zhang and X. Sheng of Jianhua Plant Protection Station, China.

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G.M.G. and K.L.H. conceived and designed the project; Z.L., Z.Z., J.C. and G.C. led the Chinese studies supported by X.Z., X.Y., H.X. and P.Z.; H.V.C. and L.Q.C. led the Vietnamese studies; C.C. led the Thai studies; N.C. and P.Z. performed the bait plant study; and P.Z. and X.Z. performed the factorial study; P.V., J.L.C., L.P.L., J.C. and S.V. identified arthropods; H.I.N., D.J.P. and G.M.G. analysed the data; G.M.G. led the manuscript writing with input from all authors.

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Correspondence to Kong Luen Heong.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Gurr, G., Lu, Z., Zheng, X. et al. Multi-country evidence that crop diversification promotes ecological intensification of agriculture. Nature Plants 2, 16014 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/nplants.2016.14

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