Biodiversity conservation: A critical issue
Biodiversity conservation is not something that receives a prominent place when discussing sustainable agriculture from a farming perspective. From a consumer and other stakeholder (e.g. government) perspective, it is very important though. Farmers are custodians of the country’s natural resources. They have a responsibility to ensure the natural environment is conserved and that natural resources are used responsibly.
“Should farmers concern themselves with biodiversity conservation?” explores the importance of biodiversity conservation. “What should farmers do about biodiversity conservation then?”, further discusses the practices which farmers can adopt to assist with biodiversity conservation.
Trace & Save’s biodiversity checklist
In order to address the critical issue of biodiversity management, Trace & Save has developed a biodiversity checklist. This checklist allows farmers to indicate which practices that contribute to biodiversity conservation they have adopted, or plan to adopt, on their farms. This checklist is then used to draw up a biodiversity plan for each farm, specific to their farm context.
The checklist also allows us to identify what biodiversity management practices a farmer could still implement. At the time of writing this article 30 dairy farmers had completed this form. This provides the opportunity evaluate the current biodiversity management context on dairy farms.
I will discuss the results of examining these 30 farms’ biodiversity checklists below. The intention is to both show the extent to which practices have been implemented, and to see where we are lacking in terms of biodiversity management. All of the practices in the biodiversity checklist have been grouped into nine overarching categories, which are reported on in the graph below. I will discuss each of these categories, as well as some of the actual practices which fall within them.
The aim of this article is to identify opportunities, not to be critical of farms for not having adopted practices. There are a large number of practices that farmers have adopted, but there are also many important practices that have not been adopted. One of the challenges in South Africa is that very little, if any, support is provided to farmers to implement biodiversity management. Farmers therefore have to implement these practices at their own cost, and in their own time. I believe that the lack of adoption of practices in certain areas is not necessarily due to an unawareness of the importance and benefits of the practices. Farmers also just have a lack of time, people and finances to do anything about biodiversity conservation.
The adoption of biodiversity management practices
With the checklist, farmers are able to indicate one of five responses for each practice. Firstly, that the practice has been fully adopted. Secondly, that it has adopted to some extent. Thirdly, that it has not been adopted at all on their farm. Fourthly, that the practice is not applicable in their specific context. Finally, that it forms part of their future plans.
The graph below shows a compilation of the responses, for each of the nine categories, of the 30 farmers who have completed the biodiversity checklist. The obvious stand-out is that most farms have fully adopted practices which relate to soil management. This makes sense. Pasture-based dairy farmers place a lot of emphasis on soil management, and soil health has become a prominent topic in recent years. The category with the second most adoption of practices relates to limiting pollution on farms. Both of these categories predominantly contain practices which directly influence farm productivity, therefore it is not unexpected that they would receive the most attention by farmers.
Overview of the current biodiversity context on Eastern Cape dairy farms
One of the greatest limitations, and opportunities, for biodiversity management is easily identified in the graph. There is little adoption of practices in the categories which relate to the management of natural vegetation, wetlands, rivers and dams and mammals and birds. These categories are about the conservation of natural areas and wildlife which do not contribute directly to farm productivity. The practices rather indirectly support the health of the agro-ecosystem through the provision of ecosystem services.
Something that is often overlooked is that a healthy agro-ecosystem does actually contribute both directly and indirectly to agricultural production. More emphasis needs to be placed on restoring and maintaining healthy agro-ecosystems through biodiversity management. I believe that there is not enough importance placed on management practices which assist ecosystem services on farms. This is confirmed through our research.
Alien invasive plants are a huge problem in South Africa. Among many other issues, they deplete our already scarce water resources. There is huge opportunity to address this issue more directly on farms.
The level of adoption of biodiversity management practices within nine management categories on 30 pasture-based dairy farms in the Eastern Cape
I will explore each of these categories in detail, pointing out some of the more pertinent practices, and the extent to which they have been adopted. I will also discuss the importance of adopting these practices on farms, and identify where opportunities exist for farmers to have even greater impact regarding biodiversity conservation.
Management of natural vegetation
Mapping all of the land-uses is the most important starting point for biodiversity management on a farm. This has been done on 57% of the farms, with 20% having some adoption and the other 23% having it as part of their future plans. This is a service that is provided to the farmers by Trace & Save. During this process, the natural vegetation is mapped and threatened vegetation types are identified. It is impossible to conserve something that you do not even realise is there.
At this stage the natural vegetation has been identified and mapped to some extent on only 60% of the farms. Only 54% of the farmers have identified threatened vegetation types on their farms. Although this will be addressed through the process of Trace & Save compiling a biodiversity management plan for each farm, it is something that should already be more widely adopted. There are often really critical areas of natural vegetation on farms. If farmers are not even aware of these areas, there is no way that farmers can place any emphasis on managing and conserving them.
Setting aside conservation areas
The other important aspect of managing natural vegetation is actually setting aside areas for conservation. This has been fully adopted on 43% of farms, with some adoption on 33% of farms, and 17% of farms planning on doing so in future. This is a very positive result, as it indicates that farmers are aware that they should preserve natural areas that are left on their farms.
Only 36% of the farmers indicated that they have allowed areas of semi-natural vegetation – where the natural vegetation has become degraded or disturbed at some stage in the past – to transform back to natural vegetation. A further 7% plan to do so in future. This is a challenge, as these areas of semi-natural vegetation can often be converted into productive agricultural land. It is a big ask to expect farmers to not make use of these areas for production. For farmers it is important to identify whether this semi-natural vegetation is a threatened vegetation type. If it is, it has great value as conservation land and should be allowed and supported to transform back into its natural state.
Management of soil
Soil health management is an important aspect of productive pasture-based dairy farming. Thus, it is not surprising that farmers have most widely adopted practices in this category. The most adopted practice is that farmers aim to build soil organic matter in their soils. A large majority, 87%, have fully adopted this approach. The other 13% have adopted it to some extent.
The other practice which has been adopted by all farmers (83% fully adopted; 17% some adoption) is that vegetative cover is maintained at all times. This ensures that soil erosion does not take place. Minimum tillage practices have been adopted on 93% of the farms (77% fully adopted; 17% some adoption). The planting of multi-species pastures is the least adopted of the soil management practices. That said, it has been adopted by 87% of the farmers (67% fully adopted; 20% some adoption). The greatest opportunity for improving soil health management therefore lies within multi-species pastures. A diversity of pasture species supports a diversity of soil and insect life on the farm, which is important for both agricultural production and biodiversity conservation.