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Impact of local and landscape complexity on the stability of field-level pest control

Abstract

Agricultural production has increased dramatically in the past 50 years, supported, in part, by the simplification of agricultural landscapes. While the benefits of increased food production are difficult to dispute, simplification, at both the local and landscape level, has fuelled declines in biodiversity and ecosystem services. In addition to the concerns that this loss of complexity necessitates higher levels of pesticide use in general, local and landscape simplification may also increase pest outbreaks and, consequently, infrequent but particularly high pesticide use with potentially damaging consequences for the environment and human health. We find that increasing cropland in the landscape—and larger fields generally—increase the level and variability of pesticide use while crop diversity has the opposite effect, as predicted by ecological theory. In all cases, accounting for non-random planting decisions and farmer-specific behaviour strongly influences the magnitude of the estimated statistical relationships. This suggests that, while complexity increases stability and reduces high deviations in insecticide use, accounting for crop and farmer-specific characteristics is crucial for statistical inference and sound scientific understanding.

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Fig. 1: Distribution of major crops in Kern County, 2005.
Fig. 2: Effect of local and landscape characteristics on the level, variance and semi-variance of annual insecticide use.
Fig. 3: Effect of cropland extent and crop diversity on level, variance and semi-variance of insecticide use at different distances from the focal crop field.
Fig. 4: Individual crop models (including year dummies) for level, variance and semi-variance of insecticide use.

Data availability

All data are freely and publicly available from the Kern CAC office (http://www.kernag.com/gis/gis-data.asp) and CA Department of Pesticide Regulation (https://www.cdpr.ca.gov/docs/pur/purmain.htm). Administrative boundary polygons for Fig. 1 and Supplementary Fig. 8 are derived from the U.S. Census Bureau TIGER/Line shapefiles (2016; https://www.census.gov/geographies/mapping-files/time-series/geo/tiger-line-file.2016.html). Figure 1 is derived from raw data. Underlying regression output for Figs. 24 is presented in Supplementary Tables. Data used to repeat the main analysis are available in Supplementary Information.

Code availability

No new or custom computer code packages were developed. Stata code to repeat the main analysis is available in Supplementary Information.

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Acknowledgements

We acknowledge the Kern CAC office and the CA Department of Pesticide Regulation for producing and maintaining the publicly available data used here. We thank F. Davis, D. N. Farrant, B. Halpern, B. Kendall, B. Lee, H. Lenihan, A. MacDonald, M. Moritz, N. Parker and N. Tague for insightful comments.

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Contributions

A.E.L. conceived and conducted the study, drafted the manuscript and contributed substantially to revisions. F.N. contributed methodological approaches, drafted the manuscript and contributed substantially to revisions.

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Correspondence to Ashley E. Larsen or Frederik Noack.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information Nature Sustainability thanks Audrey Alignier, Niklas Möhring and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Methods, Figs. 1–9 and Tables 1–12.

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Supplementary Data 1

Data needed to repeat the main analysis.

Supplementary Data 2

Code needed to repeat the main analysis.

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Larsen, A.E., Noack, F. Impact of local and landscape complexity on the stability of field-level pest control. Nat Sustain 4, 120–128 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-020-00637-8

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