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Ecological networks reveal resilience of agro-ecosystems to changes in farming management

Abstract

Sustainable management of ecosystems and growth in agricultural productivity is at the heart of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. New management regimes could revolutionize agricultural production, but require an evaluation of the risks and opportunities. Replacing existing conventional weed management with genetically modified, herbicide-tolerant (GMHT) crops, for example, might reduce herbicide applications and increase crop yields, but remains controversial owing to concerns about potential impacts on biodiversity. Until now, such new regimes have been assessed at the species or assemblage level, whereas higher-level ecological network effects remain largely unconsidered. Here, we conduct a large-scale network analysis of invertebrate communities across 502 UK farm sites to GMHT management in different crop types. We find that network-level properties were overwhelmingly shaped by crop type, whereas network structure and robustness were apparently unaltered by GMHT management. This suggests that taxon-specific effects reported previously did not escalate into higher-level systemic structural change in the wider agricultural ecosystem. Our study highlights current limitations of autecological assessments of effect in agriculture in which species interactions and potential compensatory effects are overlooked. We advocate adopting the more holistic system-level evaluations that we explore here, which complement existing assessments for meeting our future agricultural needs.

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Fig. 1: Variations in taxonomic composition.
Fig. 2: Core/periphery substructures in food webs.
Fig. 3: Food web properties varied significantly between crop types.

Data availability

The raw FSE data are free from intellectual property rights. The data can be requested by enquiry to the Environmental Information Data Centre of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (http://eidc.ceh.ac.uk/contact). Archived information about the FSEs are available from the National Archives of The Government of the United Kingdom (http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20080306073937/http://www.defra.gov.uk/environment/gm/fse/).

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Acknowledgements

We thank J. Bigham, P. Curtis, P. Kratina, B. Parker and R. Bailey for their comments and discussion. X.L. and C.G. were supported by Queen Mary University of London. X.L. was additionally supported by the Chinese Scholarship Council and C.G. was additionally supported by the Freshwater Biological Association. D.A.B. acknowledges the support of the FACCE SURPLUS PREAR and ANR (ANR-17-CE32-011) NGB projects.

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A.M. and D.A.B. designed the research. D.A.B. and A.T.-N. contributed materials and datasets. X.L. implemented the analysis. X.L. and C.G. analysed the data. A.M., X.L., C.G., A.R., G.W. and D.A.B. discussed the results. A.M. and D.A.B. led the paper writing with input from all authors.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to David A. Bohan.

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Competing interests

A.R. is employed by Syngenta, which develops and markets genetically modified seed products.

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Supplementary Methods 1–2, Supplementary Figures 1–6 and Supplementary Tables 1–3

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Ma, A., Lu, X., Gray, C. et al. Ecological networks reveal resilience of agro-ecosystems to changes in farming management. Nat Ecol Evol 3, 260–264 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-018-0757-2

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