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A new study has estimated how changes to climate might affect the value of European farmland. Based on data for over 41 000 farms, the results suggest that their economic value could drop by up to 32%, depending on the climate scenario considered. Farms in southern Europe are particularly sensitive to climate change and could suffer value losses of up to 9% per 1 °C rise. The researchers say policy, on water and land use, for example, will be crucial to help farmers adapt to climate change and mitigate economic losses.
Natural water-retention measures, which ‘keep the rain where it falls’, have great potential to be used as part of flood-risk management plans. But their benefits for downstream urban areas can bring costs to the upstream agricultural areas where they are installed, a recent analysis explains. The researchers behind this analysis suggest that we need new and/or improved policies and institutions to oversee the trade-offs and benefits for agriculture and flood management, and a better scientific understanding of the measures’ likely impact on urban flood risk.
Traditional, high-nature-value (HNV) grasslands are at risk of being abandoned by farmers in the future — in turn, risking the wildlife they support, warns a new UK study. Farmers interviewed by the researchers had weak motivations to protect grasslands, as they felt that financial incentives for conservation are low and that traditional management practices are inconvenient. More dialogue between farmers and conservationists could be part of the solution, the study suggests.
A common anti-parasitic drug used to control gastrointestinal worms in livestock has been shown to inhibit seed germination of three common grassland species. This recent study is the first to show that anthelmintics may negatively affect plant regeneration. The researchers say that treatments should be carefully timed in order to avoid the strongest impact of the drugs on germination and the consequential negative affect on grassland regeneration.
Combinations of antibiotics used in veterinary medicine could harm the growth of algal communities when they pass into water bodies from treated livestock, according to recent European research. Algae play vital roles in ecosystems by cycling nutrients and producing energy from photosynthesis; veterinary use of antibiotics should, therefore, be monitored in the environment, including for any biological impacts on algal species, the study recommends.
This study is one of few to assess the genetic diversity of crops in an agroecosystem over several years. Researchers analysed the genetic makeup of oilseed rape plants within and outside crop fields over four years. They found similarity between cultivars of field plants in one year and those of feral plants (unplanted) in the following year. They also found persistence of the cultivars within the feral plants, which suggests that feral populations with genetically modified (GM) traits might result from persistent GM traits within field seed banks. The researchers say their findings could aid impact assessments of GM crops.
Silver nanoparticles are used in a range of household products. This study investigated the risk to plants of these nanoparticles in soil, showing that risk was overall low but increased when soils contained high levels of chlorine. The researchers, therefore, suggest that the risk of silver nanoparticles to plants may increase in salty soils or those irrigated with poor-quality water. These findings could be important for future risk assessments.
Plant diversity improves soil stability, the results of a greenhouse experiment and a long-term field study show. This study, which covered a range of different soil types, is one of the first to investigate the effects of plant diversity on soil structure, which is important for provision of ecosystem services, such as carbon storage and the mitigation of excessive run-off. The findings could help tackle the problem of soil degradation, the researchers suggest.
Biodiversity’s contribution to ecosystem services in grasslands — at different levels of the food chain (known as trophic levels1) — has been assessed in a new study. Higher species diversity across trophic levels — particularly for plants, insects and soil microbial decomposers — is important for the provision of multiple ecosystem services related to food production, recreational benefits, or climate regulation. Species diversity across different trophic groups was also found to be just as important in controlling ecosystem functioning as the management intensity of grasslands and environmental factors, such as climate or soil type.
Glyphosate is a widely used herbicide, able to kill a broad range of plants ('weeds') that compete with crops. This study used a validated method to assess its presence in 10 German estuaries that lead to the Baltic Sea. All but one was contaminated with glyphosate, and all were contaminated with its metabolite AMPA. The researchers recommend risk assessments for these chemicals in the Baltic Sea and other marine environments.
Researchers have assessed how changes in production efficiency and dietary patterns can combine to ensure food supply whilst minimising the global environmental impact of food production. The gain in the production efficiency of agriculture was found to be insufficient to meet future food demand whilst preventing additional environmental burdens, if dietary trends continue to grow based on GDP. Changing consumption patterns, including switching to less resource-demanding diets, would contribute towards ensuring future food security whilst preventing further increases in agriculture’s environmental burden. Reducing terrestrial animal production offers significant advantages, but alternative diets can also present environmental and production trade-offs.
Nitrification inhibitors are thought to mitigate climate change by reducing emissions of nitrous oxide — a potent greenhouse gas — from land. However, they may not be as effective as once thought, a new study suggests. The researchers found that, while inhibitors decrease emissions of nitrous oxide, they can increase emissions of ammonia — which is later converted to nitrous oxide. They recommend these effects are considered when evaluating inhibitors as a mitigation technology.
Fertilisers have boosted crop yields but at the same time can have negative effects on the environment. This study investigates fertiliser ‘ecoinnovations’, with reduced environmental impact, in Germany. By gathering the views of experts, producers, traders and farmers, the researchers make recommendations for increasing uptake of environmentally friendly fertilisers, including increasing knowledge and awareness among traders and farmers.
Pesticides used on agricultural land can leach into nearby surface water; this is called run-off and can harm aquatic ecosystems. This study evaluated the potential of ditches to reduce run-off, using Italy’s Po Valley as a case study. Grassy ditches were able to significantly reduce the concentration of herbicides, even during extreme flooding. The researchers therefore suggest that the promotion of vegetated ditches via agri-environment schemes would be beneficial for pesticide mitigation.
A recent study has found that bumblebees in Saxony-Anhalt, Germany are more successful at pollinating urban areas than agricultural land. Urban areas also had higher flower diversity and more potential nesting areas for bees compared to agricultural areas. However, the abundance of bee parasites was also higher in urban areas, although this was not found to negatively impact on pollination. This demonstrates the value of urban green spaces as habitat for pollinators.
Stakeholder support is essential to the success of environmental policies. A recent study has identified stakeholders that can promote biodiversity in European agricultural landscapes. The researchers found farmers were the most influential group of stakeholders, as they make the final decisions on land use. In turn, farmers are influenced in their decisions by a number of actors whose influence is perceived differently on a local and regional level.
A method for developing more cost-effective agri-environment schemes is outlined in a recent study. The procedure can be used over large areas, accounts for hundreds of management regimes and several different endangered species. The model is one of the first to account for the timing of measures and, when applied to Saxony in Germany, proposed savings of over €3 million, while also improving some conservation outcomes.
A method for developing ecological scenarios for assessing pesticides’ risks to aquatic wildlife has been developed. It is based on the selection of vulnerable taxa according to biological trait information, exposure conditions and environmental properties. The method should help decision makers define what to include in ecological models used for future pesticide risk assessments and is proposed as a way to increase the ecological realism of pesticide risk assessment.
Agroforestry — managing trees alongside crop or animal-production systems — has been proposed as a means of protecting biodiversity and enhancing ecosystem service supply. A study bringing together evidence has confirmed that agroforestry does have an overall positive effect over conventional (separate) agriculture and forestry. Its environmental benefits, which should be considered in rural planning policy, include reduced nutrient run-off and soil erosion, and biodiversity protection.
A new study from Poland has confirmed the potential of fungal Trichoderma species to control diseases of oilseed rape crops. The use of Trichoderma can reduce the growth of disease-causing oilseed rape pathogens, which may allow a decrease in the use of harmful pesticides.
Sewage sludge and manure are sometimes added to soil to improve crop production. However, these ‘natural fertilisers’ may contain not only nutrients and organic matter but also antibacterial agents. This study investigated their impact on the microbes in soil, revealing an increase in antibiotic resistance genes. The researchers recommend greater efforts to remove antibiotic residues from wastewater and manure.
Researchers have developed a new approach to hierarchise pesticides based on their risk to or via the aquatic environment, which has been implemented in the Pinios River Basin of Central Greece. The analysis indicated that a number of pesticides were found in concentrations that could cause negative impacts on aquatic ecosystems. The results provide detailed information to inform decisions regarding the monitoring of pesticides in the Pinios River Basin and outline an approach that could be used in other watersheds.
Synthetic biology is an emerging field and industry, with a growing number of applications in the pharmaceutical, chemical, agricultural and energy sectors. While it may propose solutions to some of the greatest challenges facing the environment, such as climate change and scarcity of clean water, the introduction of novel, synthetic organisms may also pose a high risk for natural ecosystems. This future brief outlines the benefits, risks and techniques of these new technologies, and examines some of the ethical and safety issues.
A new methodology for mapping the global distribution of drought risk has been proposed, which should provide guidance on which locations should be further assessed to improve drought preparedness and management policies.
Recycling waste from farming and mining could help improve the sustainable use of phosphorus, a recent study suggests. The study traced the stocks and flows of phosphorus over a 50 year period to reveal changing patterns of global phosphorus use. The results can be used to develop the sustainable management of phosphorus — a finite and critical resource — in the future.
Pesticide exposure can have negative impacts on many species and is a major threat to biodiversity. A new study is one of few to assess the risks specifically for European reptiles. The results suggest that at least one third of European reptile species are at high risk of exposure, with lizards showing the highest sensitivity to pesticides.
Large carnivores play important roles in ecosystems by regulating populations of herbivores and other species. Understanding how human activities affect the role of predators, particularly within human-modified systems such as agricultural landscapes, is therefore important. This study investigated how predator and prey populations were distributed in Transylvania, Romania, and assessed them in relation to human activities. The research highlights how relationships between large carnivores and people need to be considered as part of biodiversity conservation efforts, especially considering the successful recovery of several large carnivore populations within the EU.
Wild plants closely related to crops, or ‘crop wild relatives’, contain genes that could be useful for developing resilient crop varieties and are, therefore, important for food security. This global study quantified their conservation status and availability for breeding. The researchers found major gaps in gene-bank stocks, with over 70% of crop wild relative species identified as ‘high priority’ for conservation action. The researchers say systematic efforts are needed to protect crop wild relatives for future plant breeding, including both protection in gene banks and local conservation.
A tax of €0.05–0.27 per kilogram (kg) of fertiliser could help to limit French farmers’ use of fertiliser, which is driven by the high rapeseed prices resulting from biofuels policy, according to new economics research. This, in turn, may limit fertilisers’ environmental impacts, such as water pollution, the study’s authors suggest.
Global interest in urban agriculture is growing. However, the importance of local context is not reflected in current governance approaches, argues a new study which evaluated urban agriculture in Belgium and Poland. The authors say that considering city-specific factors can help urban agriculture achieve its full potential, and recommend a broader policymaking strategy that considers the benefits beyond food production.
Pesticide-related poisonings in EU Member States must be reported to the European Commission under current legislation, but there is no standard information collection and reporting system. A new system has been proposed, which harmonises data collection, categorisation and reporting, enabling exposure data to be compared among Member States. The new system would improve the monitoring of pesticides in Europe and aid the identification of emerging problems.
Algal (cyanobacterial) blooms are a major threat to marine and freshwater ecosystems, as well as to human health. This study investigated a way to reduce numbers of harmful cyanobacteria using freshwater crustaceans. Data from a large Swedish lake show that this approach can be effective but is best used alongside other methods, such as nutrient reduction.
Pollination and pest control are essential to global food production. This study shows that — as well as their individual benefits — they have synergistic effects on yield. Their joint effect increased the yield of oilseed rape by 23%, and the economic benefit from their combined effects was almost twice that of their individual contributions. These findings have implications for sustainable agricultural policy.
Water policies at European and French national levels have led to a clear improvement in the water quality of the River Seine, a new study has found. A significant reduction in phosphate and ammonium pollution and increasing oxygen concentrations are evident. However, nitrate concentrations are still higher than the recommended level for good freshwater status, despite substantial reductions of surplus nitrogen in agricultural soils over the past few decades. The researchers recommend strengthening current agri-environmental management measures to help the river to return to a fully healthy status.
The rise in intensive agriculture, and associated land-use change, is a major driver of biodiversity loss. This study evaluated these effects via international food trade, calculating estimates of species loss for 170 crops and 184 countries. The results show that the majority of biodiversity loss is due to growing crops for domestic consumption but that industrialised countries can ‘import’ negative impacts from tropical regions.
Huge amounts of soil carbon have been discovered up to 1 metre below grassland in a recent UK study. Yet most carbon inventories do not assess soil deeper than 30cm. Furthermore, this research suggests that intensive management of grassland, involving high rates of fertiliser use and livestock grazing, may deplete carbon at these depths.
Biodiversity scenarios are a useful tool to help policymakers predict how flora and fauna will likely respond to future environmental conditions. Although changes to land use are a major driver of biodiversity loss, scenarios focus overwhelmingly on climate change, a new study shows. The researchers say this imbalance makes scenarios less credible, and make recommendations for developing more plausible projections.
Voluntary non-monetary conservation — where citizens implement actions without a financial incentive — is an emerging approach to biodiversity protection that could be applied in many countries and environments, a new study shows. This study makes recommendations for actions, such as being simple and affordable, and calls for conservation scientists to recognise their value as a complementary tool alongside traditional market-based and coercive approaches, such as payment for ecosystem services and national parks.
Two chemicals used as co-formulants in pesticides have been found to reduce the predatory behaviour of the wolf spider Pardosa agrestis, an insect predator found within agricultural landscapes. A third co-formulant was found not to affect the predatory behaviour of females and increased the prey behaviour of male spiders. This is the first time that pesticide additives have been shown to alter the predatory activity of a potential biological control agent of crop pests.
Land-use changes in the arid south-eastern Iberian Peninsula impact on the supply of various ecosystem services that support human well-being. Research into perceptions of the rapid expansion of greenhouse horticulture and the abandonment of rural and mountainous areas has highlighted trade-offs between conservation efforts and economic development.
Agricultural run-off can contain pesticides, sediment particles and nitrates and is a major threat to the health of the sea. Although there are policy frameworks to reduce run-off water, they often don’t clearly explain how to maximise benefits. A new study provides an economic framework that prioritises methods based on their cost-effectiveness, which could help policymakers to reduce the pollution of marine ecosystems.
Among the ecological effects of climate change are changes to the timing of natural events, such as flowering. To understand why these phenological changes affect reproduction, this study manipulated conditions in a spring herb to prompt premature flowering. This exposed the flowers to frost, and resulting damage caused dramatic reductions in plant reproduction, suggesting that climate change may threaten plant survival.
Grapes are sensitive to small changes in temperature, rain and sunlight, meaning climate change will have implications for wine producers worldwide. This study assessed local vulnerabilities and adaptation strategies in two wine-producing areas in France. The findings may help growers to develop suitable methods of adapting to long-term climate change.
Fish and shellfish farming are facing a new era of expansion in Europe. What are the environmental implications of this, and how can the sector expand sustainably? Watch the video produced by Science for Environment Policy about how aquaculture could develop in greater harmony with environmental goals.
Growing sugar beet varieties which are resistant to their pest, the cyst nematode, is the best way to achieve high sugar yields in northern Germany, recent research has concluded. The researchers say this method is better than growing trap crops or using pesticides to control the pests.
Land and soil are limited natural resources essential to all human life. One of the major environmental challenges facing Europe is an increasing demand for development, which threatens ecosystem services. This Future Brief focuses on how land and soil could be used efficiently to continue to provide these functions and services for generations to come.
How rice paddy fields are managed significantly influences the release of greenhouse gases (GHGs), a recent study concludes. Permanently flooded soils release more methane than soils that are flooded and then dried between production periods, for example. In general, the researchers recommend growing other crops in dried soil between production cycles, as well as limiting nitrogen fertilisers, to minimise the release of methane and nitrous oxide.
How can we better anticipate environmental changes? In our rapidly changing world, risks occur from ongoing changes (such as those occurring in the climate), to more sudden-onset risks, such as mutating microbial pathogens. This Future Brief explores some of the tools and approaches that can be used to identify emerging risk, including strategic foresight tools, citizen science and state-of-the-art monitoring technologies.
Wastewaters from fruit-packaging plants may contain preservative chemicals. When spread onto fields, these wastewaters affect the way soil microbes cycle nitrogen, new research has found. Although this may impair crop growth, according to the authors, the results could also lead to the development of new substances that reduce nitrate run-off from agricultural land.
‘Climate-smart agriculture’ aims to sustainably increase agricultural production and increase resilience to climate change. One aspect focuses on climate-smart technologies. This study interviewed users and producers of these technologies, highlighting barriers to adoption and possible means of overcoming them, including increasing awareness, user-focused design and changes to policy.
Grasslands cover 30–40% of European agricultural areas. Agri-environmental schemes leading to even small changes in grassland biodiversity could elicit extensive benefits. A new study on working farms in southwest England highlights the contribution of the plant diversity of the grassland to the abundance and diversity of insect pollinators and their potential to increase crop yields. The researchers make recommendations for which species to include in seed mixes.
Increases in the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere can be beneficial to crops, by providing a source of carbon for growth. However, very high levels of CO2 have the reverse effect, decreasing the yield and quality of vegetable crops, a new study has shown. The researchers say atmospheric CO2 concentration should be kept below 5 000 ppm to enhance the yield of leafy vegetables such as cabbage and lettuce.
Chickens foraging on soils containing environmental pollutants can accumulate these chemicals in their tissues and eggs. This study assessed levels of dioxins in eggs produced in Poland, in some cases finding concentrations several times above the safe EU limit. The researchers identified the source as preservative-treated wood in the chicken coop, which they say is a public health risk.
Producing and consuming food has a significant environmental impact. In the search for a sustainable diet, researchers in Sweden explored a method of food production that does not exceed the level of globally available arable land per capita, and involves raising livestock on pasture or by-products not suitable for humans (the ‘ecological leftovers’ principle). The researchers developed three diets based on this method and evaluated their environmental impact compared with current diets.
The livestock sector is estimated to contribute 14.5% of all global anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This study estimated the costs of reducing emissions from ruminant livestock using five different practices. The findings will help policymakers to understand the cost effectiveness of different interventions in the sector, and the contribution that different policies could make to addressing climate change.
Soil erosion in Italy could be reduced by 43% if Good Agricultural and Environmental Conditions (GAEC) were fully adopted, a recent study has found. Reducing soil erosion would also increase soil organic carbon stocks, particularly on cultivated sloping land.
Climate change objectives are now featured in a wide range of policies, including the European Rural Development Programme, which promotes sustainable agricultural interventions. This study describes the net greenhouse gas emissions for these interventions across Europe. The findings could help policymakers to better meet multiple social, economic and environmental objectives, although the authors say a broader perspective may be needed to determine the overall benefit of interventions.
Lesser kestrel (Falco naumanni) populations survive equally well in grassland and artichoke fields in Italy, a recent study has concluded. Overall, however, populations are declining and the researchers recommend reducing pesticide use, growing alternative crops such as artichokes, and maintaining grasslands as part of the farming landscape.
New research aimed to identify the factors that lead to the success of Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) schemes. The study analysed 40 different schemes in Latin America to identify factors related to success. The researchers identified four such factors, which could inform policy and aid decision makers in designing PES initiatives with increased chances of success.
Conservation of wild plants related to important crops requires more concerted efforts, according to a new study conducted in Scotland. The study makes recommendations for improving conservation within Scotland, as well as outlining a process that could help other countries to prioritise their wild plants.
The preferred habitats of wetland bird species - including 12 that are endangered - have been identified by a new study. From conducting counts at 137 sites across Sweden, it was found that total species richness was highest in sites that had a tendency to flood; wet grassland areas that were grazed as opposed to mowed; and sites that were far from areas of woodland. The authors suggest this research could help determine the most suitable locations for future wetland conservation projects.
Human activity is transforming natural systems and endangering the ecosystem services they provide, which has consequences for human health. This study quantified the human health impact of losses to pollination, providing the first global analysis of its kind. The researchers say pollinator declines could increase the global disease burden and recommend increased monitoring of pollinators in at-risk regions, including Eastern and Central Europe.
Researchers have developed a new tool for assessing and predicting the damage caused by droughts to crop yields and hydroelectric energy production. The tool could provide useful information to policymakers, helping them develop drought management practices to improve food and energy security and adapt to climate change.
Pesticide-sparing approaches to farming do not have to compromise on crop yields, new research suggests. A study that explored the impact of reduced herbicide use across a variety of different farming contexts found that herbicide-efficient systems could be just as productive as conventional systems — and more so than organic systems — whilst having other important environmental benefits.
Ecological intensification, using land and resources in ways that minimises negative ecosystem impacts while maintaining agricultural productivity, has been proposed as a way to sustainably increase crop yields, but remains under debate due to a lack of evidence. This six-year study of a large commercial farm assessed how using land for wildlife habitat affected food crops. The study shows that it is possible to remove up to 8% of land from production and maintain (and in some cases increase) yield.
‘Network bridging organisations’, such as farmer unions, Regional Nature Parks and Local Action Groups, promote cooperation between farmers, non-state collective actors and state actors under the Common Agricultural Policy. This study finds that farmers who have regular contact with these organisations show a higher commitment to long-term practice change. This could represent an opportunity to improve the effectiveness of payments for environmental services in Europe.
Aquaculture is the fastest growing sector of worldwide food production and is facing a new era of expansion in Europe. What are the environmental implications of this, and can the sector expand sustainably? This Future Brief presents an overview of research into aquaculture’s impacts, and considers how it could develop in balance with environmental goals.
Soil erosion is an important issue in Europe, with consequences for water quality, ecosystem services supply and crop production. In this study, researchers enhanced an existing model to estimate soil loss and create an updated map of soil erosion across the EU. The authors say the tool can simulate the effects of land use changes and management practices and will support effective policy decisions.
Agricultural land use presents a number of environmental challenges, which the European Commission is committed to addressing through a range of agri-environmental policies. A new study points to the importance of aligning agri-environmental policies with farmers’ needs and operations. Using the case of land clearing in Finland, the research underlines the importance of incorporating input from grassroots stakeholders into policy design.
Ozone harms pollen viability of tomatoes, leading to reduced fruit weight, size and quality, a recent study has revealed. The researchers suggest the effect of ozone on pollen could be a useful way to rapidly test for pollution-induced stress on crop plants in risk assessments.
Insect-eating bats are estimated to be worth US$ 1 billion (€0.91 billion) a year to maize farmers around the world, a new study has revealed. Not only do bats reduce crop damage by eating adult corn earworm crop pests, they also suppress fungal infections in maize ears. Bats and their habitats need to be better protected for their ecological and economic contributions, say the study’s authors.
Different management practices using pesticides affect the diversity, number and ecological traits of ground spiders in apple orchards, a new study finds. Because spiders are viewed as good indicators of the quality of an entire ecosystem, the results reveal that organic orchard management may be better for local management and landscape characteristics when compared to those with pesticide use.
The costs and benefits of sustainable land management have been collated in a new review. Data from a global archive was analysed for the costs of sustainable practices and technologies and for land users’ perceptions of cost–benefit ratios. Most respondents had a positive view of the short-term cost-benefit ratio, and a strongly positive view of the long term. Low upfront costs, long-term planning and security of land tenure were identified as important factors to facilitate these practices.
Straw from previous harvests can be used to help increase crop yields and improve the efficiency of water use in arid regions, finds a new study from China. By testing different techniques to improve water efficiency, the researchers found that the most effective method involved using straw to cover the soil when growing maize and wheat together in the same growing season.
Non-conservative tillage techniques, such as milling and harrowing, are the most common way to manage soil in Mediterranean olive orchards. A new study confirms the value of alternative methods based on the use of spontaneous cover crops which can significantly improve soil structure and reduce erosion whilst maintaining yields.
Water scarcity is an important cause of low crop yields worldwide. Yields could be significantly improved by focusing attention on unproductive water losses and improving retention of plant-available water in soils, and particularly the largely unexplored interactions between soils and roots. A new review of scientific literature sets out key soil management measures for crops under drought conditions.
Nutrient leaching, the movement of plant nutrients from soil to water, can have negative effects on aquatic ecosystems due to eutrophication, which reduces the oxygen available in water, causing species and habitat loss. Ecological Recycling Agriculture (ERA), which is based on ecological principles and integrates crop production and animal husbandry, may limit this effect. This study investigated the impact of ERA on agricultural fields in Finland, showing that the practice can reduce nitrogen leaching and may help to achieve agricultural nitrogen-reduction targets.
Worsening soil erosion in north-western Europe may be the result of a switch from traditional dairy farming to cash crops. However, even if all dairy farming ceased, reductions in runoff of up to 76% could be achieved if best agricultural practices are employed, at a cost of approximately €45 per hectare for the first three years, new research from the Austreberthe watershed in France suggests.
An extensive field investigation discovered that 38% of soils in southwest England show signs of enhanced surface water runoff due to soil degradation. The study also revealed which types of fields and soils are linked to the most or least degradation.
Small field wetlands are a simple and effective way to reduce soil erosion and nutrient pollution, recent research suggests. The authors adapted Norwegian designs for the UK environment and created a series of small rectangular lakes on the edges of agricultural fields. After three years, the wetlands had prevented tonnes of soil from leaving the land, and helped alleviate some of the nutrient run-off that would have affected neighbouring waterways.
In the face of substantial evidence that modern land use management practices have increased runoff at the local scale, a new study reveals changes in local land use management practices can reduce the risk of local flooding. However, there is little evidence so far that these local increases in runoff culminate in large-scale flooding effects. To address this lack of evidence, the researchers present a model that maps the downstream rate of flow back to its source areas.
Thematic Issue 52
Land use changes over time have altered relations between soils and water cycles throughout the world. Soils have been lost and degraded, and the closely interlinked processes of soils and water have become an urgent issue for European policymakers. This Thematic Issue aims to provide a review of new research into the links between soil and water issues in Europe, including a message that the soil-water links must be considered at their proper spatial scales.
The use of pesticides in orchards may be threatening populations of wild bees, which are important pollinators that increase crop productivity, a new study concludes. However, the damage was mitigated in areas where the orchards were surrounded by natural landscapes, such as deciduous forests.
Several mitigation techniques can greatly reduce spray drift pollution from pesticide spraying in agricultural systems, shows a new study. Researchers tested the effectiveness of several strategies; results ranged from a 38% reduction in spray drift using low-drift equipment to a 98% reduction when hedgerows are present alongside fields.
A global cropland percentage map and a global field size map have been created for the first time to guide scientists and policymakers interested in global agricultural modelling and assessment. Both maps are for the baseline year 2005 and combined multiple data sets from global, regional and national levels to achieve a high level of accuracy and 1 km2 resolution.
Soil and plants store around 5% of the world’s carbon, but carbon storage in some soils is in decline. Recent research has found that climate change accounted for 9–22% of carbon declines in organic soils in semi-natural habitats throughout England and Wales from 1978–2003. The researchers say monitoring soils rich in carbon should be a priority to ensure that more carbon is not released to reinforce climate change.
This study assessed the effects of herbicides on non-target plants in Denmark and Canada. The findings showed that some plants are more sensitive to herbicides in the reproductive stages of their life cycle and can experience delays in flowering and reduced seed production. The authors say future ecological assessments should consider reproductive outcomes.
Cereal fields provide a staple food, but are also home to a wide array of invertebrates. This study analysed over 40 years of data to investigate the effects of extreme weather, climate and pesticide use on invertebrates in cereal fields in southern England. As pesticide use had a greater effect on abundance than temperature or rainfall, the authors also recommend reducing pesticide use.
The risk of drought in the Norrström drainage basin, Sweden, increased during the 20th century, a new study has found. As the frequency of the dry periods increased, less water was available in the landscape for agriculture and for the resupply of groundwater — despite an increase in precipitation in the area over the same period. The researchers reached this conclusion after screening soil moisture conditions in the basin over the course of the century.
A pilot cloud-based learning platform that brings together multiple datasets, models and visualisation tools has been developed with the engagement of numerous stakeholders throughout the design process. This tool could lead to informed decisions about flood risk at the local level. These types of tools and frameworks are effective ways of facilitating better decision making.
Storage of carbon in soil helps to keep land fertile and regulates the climate, and is therefore an important ecosystem service. However, mapping of soil carbon stocks currently uses unreliable measures. This study used data from a national survey of English grasslands to show that soil carbon stocks can be accurately predicted using simple measures of soil and climatic conditions.
Vermicomposting livestock manure with maize can increase agricultural benefit by 304%, shows a new study. The combination of increased crop yield and the additional earthworms produced as a result of the process led to a substantial increase in output compared to a traditional composting system.
Rewilding, a process of passive management focused on restoring natural ecological processes and reducing human influence on landscapes, could be used to restore the increasing amounts of abandoned agricultural land in Europe to more biodiverse wilderness. A new study has designed a framework to measure potential for rewilding in areas across Europe, highlighting in particular the potential of Natura 2000 sites and suggesting specific aspects of wilderness that future policies could address.
The economic benefits of the ecosystem services provided by constructed wetlands far outweigh the costs of maintaining them, new research has confirmed. Analysis of a wetland that treats the third largest lake in Florida, US, shows that it provides ecosystem services worth $1.79 (€1.64) million per year, against costs of less than half that figure.
Geodiversity describes the diversity of the non-biological parts of the natural world such as rocks, soils, landforms and the processes which shape them over time. New research on how geodiversity information has been used to examine or inform conservation policy has been explored through eight different case studies. The research shows the variety and utility of geodiversity information to support biodiversity protection, both now and in the future.
Continental-scale early flood warning systems in Europe can provide significant monetary benefits by reducing flood damage and associated costs. Specifically, a new study found that the return from the European Flood Awareness System (EFAS) and available flood damage data has the potential to be as high as approximately 400 euros for every one euro invested.
Scientists recommend policies that alternate between mowing and grazing to manage Europe’s high-nature-value grasslands. This comes after a new seven-year study found that a high plant-species diversity helps grasslands to maintain productivity and to resist depletion of phosphorus caused by livestock grazing and depletion of potassium caused by mowing.
The declining number of bee and wasp species in England has been linked to historic changes in land-use in a recent study. Researchers say that policies which promote diverse landscapes offer more opportunities for bees and wasps to nest and forage and are best for conserving these insect pollinators.
Planting a variety of crop species in rotation in agricultural fields increases the diversity of soil microbes below ground, recent research has found. This in turn positively affects soil organic matter, soil structure and aids the healthy functioning of the soil. The researchers say that rotational diversity can help farmers to grow crops in a more sustainable way that promotes soil stability.
Honeybees and bumblebees prefer feeding on nectar laced with certain neonicotinoid pesticides to uncontaminated food, new research has shown. Far from the predictions of some, that bees would avoid food contaminated with neonicotinoid pesticides if given the choice, a new study has shown that bees did not avoid any of the three most common neonicotinoids: imidacloprid, thiamethoxam or clothianidin. Furthermore, they showed a preference for imidacloprid and thiamethoxam over uncontaminated sugar solutions.
Native soils are thought to take up more of the greenhouse gas methane than land used for farming. This study shows that, while agriculture can exert an adverse impact on soil methane uptake, the application of soil conditioners like compost may compensate for loss of the methane sink function. The researchers propose new land management strategies based on this finding.
Ecological networks connect areas of habitat to prevent biodiversity loss and have been established across Europe. The ambitious Dutch National Ecological Network aims to span 728 500 hectares by 2025. In this study, researchers explored the feasibility of this goal in the context of climate and policy changes.
Farmland birds like skylarks are attracted to nest in agricultural grassland, but repeated harvesting for silage causes most nests to fail. This study showed that skylark breeding success in silage was too low to sustain local populations. The researchers say that grass silage is a hostile environment for breeding skylarks and conservation efforts should focus on making other parts of the landscape more attractive and productive for nesting birds.
The ability of organisms to adapt to toxic chemicals like pesticides is essential for their survival, but also an agricultural annoyance. This study shows that interactions between different species can delay the development of pesticide resistance and therefore suggests that biodiversity supports effective pest management.
Urban agriculture is becoming increasingly popular. A recent assessment of rooftop farming in Barcelona shows differing attitudes towards the practice, and provides important recommendations for the development of agricultural policy for the 21st century, such as including food production as a potential use of rooftops in planning legislation.
The risk of eutrophication as a result of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in Europe’s freshwaters fell by 22% in lakes and by 38% in rivers between 1985 and 2011, new research has shown. The researchers analysed data across 88 European river basins using a new statistical approach which could be used to help identify factors which increase eutrophication risks.
The environmental and economic costs of a selection of common crops have been determined by a new study, which hopes to improve agricultural sustainability assessments in Europe. The researchers used life cycle analysis on organically farmed tomatoes and pears, and intensively farmed wheat, apples, and lettuce to show the overall impact of agricultural methods.
Pollination studies have, to date, focused almost entirely on bees , butterflies and hoverflies; however, other kinds of flies also have an important role to play in this vital ecosystem service, a new study suggests. Using data from 33 farms, the researchers found that non-hover flies were in fact responsible for carrying 84% of the pollen transferred by flies between flowers in farmland.
Rising levels of atmospheric CO2 will increase the severity of wheat diseases, reducing yields and threatening food security, a new study suggests. Researchers found that levels of two common wheat diseases increased significantly when plants were grown with elevated CO2. Furthermore, disease levels were even worse when the plants and pathogens had been acclimatised to the higher concentrations of CO2 beforehand.
The biodiversity and abundance of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi — important soil organisms that can help plants to capture nutrients — is greater in organically managed soils with reduced tilling compared to conventional methods, a new Swiss study suggests. This illustrates the impacts that land management practices such as ploughing can have on soil biodiversity and the ecosystem services it provides.
Ireland's national agri-environment scheme can reduce nitrate leaching from beef farming, shows a recent study. Nitrate leached at an average rate of 17.3 kilograms per hectare (kg/ha) on studied plots which complied with the scheme. This compares with 63.1 kg/ha on intensively farmed plots. The programme can therefore help Ireland meet requirements of the EU’s Water Framework Directive (WFD) and Nitrates Directive, the researchers suggest.
Ammonia released by nitrogen fertilisers in Spanish agriculture could be reduced by up to 82% with only a very minimal impact on crop yield, finds new research. This could be achieved by combining optimised management of manure with the use of non-urea synthetic fertilisers.
The effects of changing agricultural practices on farmland birds are explored in a recently published study from Sweden. Overall abundance of 16 common species declined by 23% between 1994 and 2004, which may be partly caused by changes in land use, such as an increase in the amount of wheat cropland. However, effects vary between species, and some species increased or stayed stable in number.
Phosphorus in sewage and manure could be more available to crops than previously thought, suggests new research. The study found that some forms of sewage and manure treatment provided plants with more phosphorus than conventional inorganic fertilisers.
Changes in agricultural policy and practice, such as increased intensification and fertiliser use, are responsible for many historical extinctions of pollinator populations in the UK, suggests new research. The study looked at bee and wasp extinction rates in relation to agricultural practices since the mid-19th century.
Rooftop gardens in cities could provide more than three quarters of the vegetables consumed in them, a case study from Bologna, Italy, suggests. If all suitable flat roof space was used for urban agriculture, rooftop gardens in the city could supply around 12 500 tons of vegetables a year whilst also providing a range of ecosystem services, the researchers say.
Untreated wastewater from the baker’s yeast industry can be used to irrigate crops without negatively affecting the chemical quality of the groundwater beneath, recently published research concludes. Although the wastewater increased concentrations of some groundwater contaminants in an area with a high water table, these levels would not pose a risk to human health even if this water was used for drinking.
Increased soil biodiversity can reduce nitrogen pollution, improve nutrient uptake by plants and even increase crop yields, new research suggests. The two-year study found that levels of nitrogen leaching from soil with an abundant soil life were nearly 25% lower than for soil with a reduced level of soil life. Practices which enhance soil biodiversity such as reduced tilling, crop rotation and organic farming may therefore help reduce the environmental impacts of fertilisers and improve agricultural sustainability, the researchers say.
Rodents poisoned by pest control substances may pose a threat to protected birds if the carcasses are not removed quickly enough. A new study found that dead water voles on farmland were scavenged rapidly by red kites and buzzards, suggesting that regular removal is needed to reduce poisoning risks.
Farmers in one of Europe’s most water-stressed regions would be willing to pay double the current amount for irrigation water in order to ensure a reliable supply, new research from Spain suggests. The study also shows that they appear unsupportive of new policies proposed by the researchers, such as water markets and tighter controls on groundwater pumping, which could help enable a guaranteed supply of water.
Nutrient pollution in The Netherlands is falling as a result of national and EU policies, new research has shown. However, many waters still routinely fail to meet environmental quality standards. The study, which focused on the headwaters of 167 rivers where agricultural fertilisers are the main cause of pollution, showed that up to 76% of these did not meet water quality standards.
Neonicotinoid and fipronil insecticides have a range of impacts on birds, mammals and fish, a new review of scientific literature has found. A house sparrow would need to eat just one and a half beet seeds treated with a common neonicotinoid to receive a lethal dose, for instance. The insecticides may also have equally important effects on vertebrate wildlife, such as reducing insect prey and hence food supply.
New areas of land suitable for agriculture will open up under climate change’s effects, new research predicts, particularly in far northern regions of the world. However, the overall quality of land for farming will decline and many regions, including Europe, could lose large areas of suitable land.
The world’s marine ecosystems are at risk of sudden and damaging changes. The authors of a recent study say that co-ordinated management of the many drivers of marine changes, such as overfishing and pollution, is needed across international, national and local scales to help avoid the ‘regime shifts’ that affect ecosystem services and human wellbeing.
Orchards pollinated by a wide range of wild bee species grow more apples than those pollinated by fewer species, finds a new US study. Its authors suggest that farmers could consider investing in wild bee conservation to improve crop yield.
Beetles that are helpful to farmers can be poisoned if they feed on slugs that have eaten crops treated with neonicotinoids, a new study reports. The slugs themselves are not harmed by neonicotinoids. In American field trials, researchers found that plots planted with neonicotinoid-treated soybeans contained more slugs, fewer beetle predators and had 5% lower yields. The insecticide may be reducing the beetles’ effectiveness as a natural control of slug pests.
Levels of particulate matter (PM) in the atmosphere are linked to ammonia emissions. However, reducing ammonia emissions only as far as targets set out by the Gothenburg Protocol will not necessarily ensure compliance with EU PM limits, according to a new study. Greater reductions in ammonia emissions would reduce the number of days when PM limit values are exceeded, the researchers found.
Using vegetable waste to produce bioplastics can provide sustainable alternatives to non-biodegradable plastic, new research has found. The biodegradable plastic developed for this study, produced using parsley and spinach stems, cocoa pod husks and rice hulls, have a range of mechanical properties comparable to conventional plastics which are used for products from carrier bags to kitchenware and computer components.
This article was amended 10.12.14 to give more information about the nature of trifluoroacetic acid.
How best to integrate the ecosystem services concept into regional planning? A recent study provides a practical example for an area in Germany that is faced with an increased risk of soil erosion under climate change. Researchers used a decision-support system incorporating ecosystem services to show that measures to reduce soil losses could also support a number of other services.
The worldwide decline of pollinators could increase cases of vitamin and micronutrient deficiencies in humans, new research suggests. For instance, pollination is needed for the crops that produce half of all plant-derived vitamin A across much of south-east Asia. Furthermore, areas which depend most on pollination for micronutrient supply tend to be poorer and already at higher risk of deficiencies.
Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is a sustainable approach to reduce pesticide use and risks of adverse effects on human health and the environment. However, its adoption by European farmers cannot be based only on mandatory regulation by the European Union, a new study suggests. The research identified four key factors driving IPM adoption; including market forces, policy instruments and farmers’ attitudes to the environment.
With over half of Europe’s species dependent on agricultural habitats, protecting ‘high nature value’ farmland is vital to biodiversity conservation. However, the identification and assessment of such farmland requires careful co-ordination, concludes a recent study. The researchers present a framework to help with this process and make a set of key recommendations.
Hypoxia – low levels of dissolved oxygen – can cause genetically female fish to develop into males, new research has found. Hypoxia in aquatic environments is often the result of eutrophication, which is caused by pollution from human activities. The findings suggest that hypoxia could cause fish populations to collapse, with consequences for entire ecosystems.
Climate change, tourism and population growth are all accelerating land degradation in the Mediterranean region, according to recent research. This can have severe impacts: the amount of available agricultural land per capita in the region could have dropped by half by 2020, compared with 1961, the study estimates.
This article was updated 6.11.14 to correct an error in the valuation of ecosystem services provided by Mediterranean coastal wetlands.
Human activities are threatening river ecosystems in the Mediterranean. Recent research in south-east Spain has highlighted the need to assess biodiversity and the ecological condition of river ecosystems at both basin-wide and local scales. The researchers say this will provide a better assessment of river ecosystems, aiding management decisions.
Two metrics for informing farmers about the biodiversity on their land are presented in a recent Swiss study: average species richness and farm ‘uniqueness’. These are both easy to understand and comparable between farms, the researchers say.
Monitoring biodiversity on farms is vital for conservation policies but how much does it cost? In a new pan-European study, researchers develop a standardised monitoring programme and estimate it will cost an average of €8 200 per farm to conduct. This cost could be dramatically cut if volunteer ‘citizen scientists’ or farmers help gather data for the programmes.
Small, artificial wetlands can reduce river pollution by trapping soil and nutrients swept off agricultural land by rainfall, a recent study finds. The researchers recommend that they are used as a back-up option to soil management measures also designed to reduce runoff into rivers.
'Feed the crop not the soil' is the message of a new review into sustainable phosphorus use. Currently, phosphorus fertiliser is applied to the soil, and plants then take it up through the roots. However, more precise nutrient management is needed on farms, the researchers say, so that the phosphorus is targeted at the crop just as it needs it.
The impacts of climate change in the Black Sea region are likely to affect agriculture in Ukraine, Romania, Moldova, Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey, new research suggests. The number of days of plant growth was reduced in these countries as a result of reduced precipitation, increased temperatures and low capacity for irrigation to supplement water needs. A strong legal framework is necessary to deal with conflicting future demands for water, say the researchers.
Small mammals clearly benefit from a UK agri-environment scheme (AES), a recent study concludes. Numbers and diversity of voles, shrews and mice were found to increase on and around farmland with 6 m wide field margins and patches of semi-natural habitat - features encouraged under the government-led AES.
Halving meat and dairy consumption in Europe could reduce agricultural greenhouse-gas emissions by up to 42% and nitrogen pollution by 40%, new research suggests. The amount of land needed to grow food for each EU citizen would fall from 0.23 to 0.17 hectares and the reduced intake of saturated fats and red meat could have substantial health benefits, the researchers conclude.
Establishment of cooperative biogas projects is aided by strong community spirit, regional traditions and farmers' sense of responsibility for their local area, finds a new Italian study. The findings suggest that renewable energy policy could benefit from taking account of community aspects at the local and regional levels.
Public participation is an essential part of integrated water management. In a recent study, researchers following the development of a UK catchment management plan found greater cooperation between land managers and environmental regulatory bodies as a result of a participatory process.
The pollination benefits of planting field margins with wildflowers can outweigh the costs of set-up and maintenance, a new study suggests. On US blueberry farms wildflower strips resulted in double the number of wild bees on adjacent crops and significantly increased yield, the researchers found.
Urbanising arable land can have serious economic consequences as a result of the reduction in food production and loss of ecosystem services, according to recent research. The loss of 15 000 ha of productive soils during 2003-2008 on the Emilia-Romagna Plain in Italy cost approximately €19 million in carbon storage, €100 million in wheat production and €270 million in raw materials, the researchers estimate.
Farmers could help to maintain populations of bees and other pollinators by sowing inexpensive seed mixes on their land, a new study suggests. Researchers surveyed pollinators visiting study plots in Berkshire, UK, and explored how sowing different seed mixes and using different management techniques affected the flowers produced and the pollinators visiting them.
Planting early-flowering crops, such as oilseed rape, boosts the numbers of bumblebees available to pollinate late-flowering crops, such as sunflowers, according to recent research. Carefully managing the timing and coverage of flowering crops in the landscape could therefore ensure pollination services and increase yields, say the researchers.
Changing agricultural management practices can significantly improve water quality, according to a long-term study. The researchers found that in a US lake the total amount of suspended sediment fell, and water clarity increased as a result of multiple integrated practices implemented to reduce runoff in the surrounding area. These included introducing buffer strips of vegetation and planting trees.
Pollution from agricultural pesticides can present a serious threat to aquatic ecosystems. Researchers have now developed a guide to identify the most appropriate measures to reduce pesticides entering waterways. It focuses on reducing pesticide entry via spray drift or runoff.
A framework to combine economically viable agriculture with effective biodiversity conservation has been described in a recent study. According to the researchers, their approach provides a simple guide designed to help planners and farmers achieve sustainable agriculture.
Computer models can be powerful tools when developing policies to address nitrogen pollution from agriculture. In a new study, researchers have made recommendations regarding the best design and use of these models to aid the effective implementation of European legislation on nitrogen.
Pollination by wild insects and honey bees improves soybean yield by 18%, new research has indicated. This equates to an extra 331.6 kg of seeds per hectare, boosting the value of the global crop by €12.74 billion. Encouraging insect pollination could therefore reduce the destruction of natural ecosystems to make way for soybean cultivation, the researchers say.
New research from central Italy shows that high nature value farmland in the region can be accurately identified by the presence of just four bird species. Once such groups of species have been identified for different regions, they can provide a quick and inexpensive tool for assessing the ecological value of farmland, the researchers say.
Increases in global energy requirements could lead to a rise in the energy sector's water footprint of up to 66% in the next 20 years, new research suggests. As part of a sustainable future, any energy mix must enable a reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. However, some renewable sources, such as biofuels and large-scale hydropower, have large water footprints, a factor which must also be considered in energy policies, the researchers say.
The land use associated with food imports to Germany outweighs that of exported food, leaving the country with a 'land debt', new research suggests. However, reducing the amount of animal products in the diet and minimising food waste could enable the country to achieve a positive land balance, the researchers conclude.
The EU's Nitrates Directive has led to significant decreases in nitrogen pollution in Europe, a new study suggests. Modelled scenarios with and without implementation of the Directive showed that it had resulted in a 16% reduction of nitrate leaching by 2008. These improvements could be further increased as implementation becomes stricter, the researchers conclude.
Bee pollination improves the shape, weight and shelf-life of strawberries, contributing a staggering €1.05 billion to the European strawberry market per year, new research suggests. By blocking bees from a set of plants, the researchers demonstrated the substantial effects of bee pollination on the quality of the fruit.
Diverse agri-environmental schemes which combine flowering crops with semi-natural habitats, such as grasslands and hedgerows, will be best for bees, new research suggests. The researchers examined the foraging behaviour of honey bees, bumblebees and other wild bees and found that all bees used semi-natural habitats, which were particularly important for wild bees, in addition to crops, such as sunflowers.
A technique that can detect the array of pesticides bees might be exposed to has been developed in Poland. The simplicity, speed and small sample sizes required for screening makes this technique an improvement over other methods, say the researchers behind its development.
Two thirds of natural areas in the Netherlands suffer from at least one of four key environmental pressures including nitrogen pollution, drying, acidification and habitat fragmentation, a new study suggests. Possible solutions to enable the country to meet its commitments under the EU's biodiversity targets include moves towards sustainable farming and reduction of nitrogen outputs, the researchers conclude.
Calculating the costs of nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions to society as well as business is vital to understand the true economic gains of reducing N2O emissions, new research suggests. Increasing nitrogen use efficiency by 20% by 2020 could bring global annual benefits to the climate, health and environment worth US $160 (€118) billion, the researchers conclude.