Nature, food and people: there’s no magic bean for sustainable agriculture

If you believe your Twitter feed, every Jack and his beanstalk has the quick-fix solution we need to beat the sustainable food challenge. ‘If you want to eat meat, switch to pigs, birds & fish to generate fewer emissions’. That’s convenient, because ‘lettuce is three times worse than bacon for the environment’.

These solutions all sound pretty sexy. But reducing the environmental impact of food production is not as simple as choosing one crop or livestock type over another.

Food production is a social-ecological system. That means it’s a system based on a mutual relationship between nature and humans. The ecosystem (i.e. the farm) influences human lives and actions, via ecosystem services. And humans influence the ecosystem’s structure and function, through direct management and indirect drivers like regulations, subsidies, financial markets and consumer demand. Continue reading

Box–Gum woodland pollinators: the case of the mysterious urn heath

Have you heard of urn heath (Melichrus urceolatus)? I hadn’t, until July last year. It grows along most of Australia’s east coast, but only in Box–Gum Grassy Woodland ecosystems (update: also in other ecosystems! see Greg Steenbeeke’s comment below). For most of the year, it’s an unassuming, prickly little shrub, usually less than 1 metre in height. Then in late winter, it bursts into a mass of tiny creamy-white urn-shaped blooms. Each individual flower is only a couple of mm in size. But a shrub in full bloom will stop you in your tracks.

Albury urn heath

This is what happened last July, as I took my regular afternoon walk through a local urban nature reserve. The reserve (Eastern Hill in Albury, NSW) is a tiny fragment of the Box-Gum Grassy Woodlands that were once common across the region. Continue reading

Goodies v baddies? Why labelling wild animals as ‘pests’ or ‘friends’ is holding farming back

It’s hard to keep wild animals out of farms. Birds, mammals and insects all affect crop yields, in positive ways (such as flies pollinating flowers) and negative ones (such as when birds damage fruit).

Agricultural research and management programs often deal with these interactions by focusing on simplistic “good” and “bad” labels: aphids are annoying pests, for example, whereas bees are little angels.

Read the rest of our piece at The Conversation.

And see the papers behind the article here:

Saunders ME, Peisley RK, Rader R, Luck GW (2016) Pollinators, pests, and predators: Recognizing ecological trade-offs in agroecosystems. AMBIO 45:4-14.

Peisley RK, Saunders ME, Luck GW (2015) A systematic review of the benefits and costs of bird and insect activity in agroecosystems. Springer Science Reviews 3:113-125.

The Good, the Bad and…the Ecology

There are very few (if any) true ‘wilderness’ areas left, those completely untouched by human influence. This isn’t a tragedy – it’s an opportunity to grow, learn and discover more about the amazing planet we live on. Many ‘natural’ ecosystems have become social-ecological systems, where humans and nature can co-exist, not out-compete each other.

Agricultural systems are a perfect example. It’s hard to keep wild animals out of agroecosystems. They affect crop yields directly and indirectly across the growing season through positive (e.g. insects pollinating flowers) or negative (e.g. birds damaging fruit) interactions with crop plants. Because humans tend to label and categorise things (labels are easier to manage, justify or remove) we generally label these animals as either ‘bad’ or ‘good’ – aphids are annoying pests, bees are little angels. That’s all there is to it.

In reality, no organism is completely ‘bad’ or ‘good’ to the extreme; the effect it has on other organisms around it, including us, varies with context. All the individual plant-animal interactions happening in a single crop system are influenced by seasons, landscapes, management practices, and the social, cultural and economic values of the local farming community. Continue reading

On the importance of Observations to Ecology

We need rules and norms, but we also need records about apparently irrelevant things that, in non-linear systems like ecological ones, might become the drivers of change and, thus, the determinants of history. Ferdinando Boero (2013)

 

I’ve just had a personal career highlight…one that will most likely go unrecognised on my CV. Last month, I had an observational note published in the Victorian Naturalist, an excellent peer-reviewed natural history journal that has an impact factor of 0.00. As most academic career processes focus on quantifiable ‘impact’, it is pretty unlikely that this publication will be recognised in any of my future career or grant applications. So why did I bother?

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One cold weekend last July, I took a day trip with my partner to Lawrence’s Lookout in north-east Victoria – one of the best spots to view the snow across all the alpine ranges that straddle the NSW/VIC border. I wasn’t on work time, and it wasn’t an ecosystem I knew much about. But as an ecologist (a.k.a naturalist), I’m in ‘work’ mode 24/7. Continue reading

Single-crop farming is leaving wildlife with nowhere to turn

Rolling plains of wheat, endless fields of flowering canola, row upon row of fruit trees: these agricultural landscapes are the stuff of stunning photographs.

Filling these paddocks with just one crop, known as monoculture, is a relatively easy, common and efficient way to produce food and fibre.

But international research shows that these monocultures can be bad for the environment and production through effects on soil quality, erosion, plants and animals, and ultimately declining crop yields. Research I have published this week in the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability shows a possible link between monoculture landscapes and fewer wild pollinators.

Is there a better way to grow our food?

Published today at The Conversation. Read the rest of the story here….

Wild pollinator count

Last spring,with the help of Karen Retra, a local permaculture teacher and native bee naturalist, I trialled a wild pollinator count citizen science event. It started off as an experiment – both of us were passionate about wild pollinators and keen to encourage people to think outside the ‘pollinators are just bees’ box. So we organised a week-long ‘wild pollinator count’ for residents in our region (southern New South Wales and north-east Victoria).

The inspiration came from similar counts overseas, like the UK’s Big Butterfly Count and USA’s Great Sunflower Project. There was an opportunity to create a similar event here, and this style of citizen science is a great way to engage people beyond the ‘active’ amateur naturalists and science fans. Time-and-Place events, like local bioblitzes or museum-based events, may not connect with everyone who is interested if they don’t have time or money to attend. In contrast, backyard citizen science has the potential to engage more people, as it allows people to participate in their own time. Continue reading

Pollinator winter

Have you ever wondered where pollinators go in winter? Most of us think of pollinators in spring and summer, when crops and wildflowers are in bloom and bees, wasps and butterflies are everywhere. Media coverage of pollinators peaks in spring months, and most studies of pollinator activity in crops and natural ecosystems are carried out during flowering in spring or summer, for obvious reasons. Continue reading

Why did the pollinator cross the road?

The concept of the ‘edge effect’ has inspired long and varied discussion in the ecological literature. In essence, an edge effect is a change in animal or plant communities seen at a boundary between two types of habitat.

These changes are most obvious in plant communities, for example where a swamp segues into a savannah. So, historically, research into edge effects and ecotones (the zone surrounding the edge where two plant communities meet, and energy fluxes and dynamics change) was mostly focused on plants.

It wasn’t until the mid-1900s that people started considering how edges affected animals. Vegetation ecologists had already discovered that the zone surrounding habitat edges usually had more plant species than either of the two patches that met at the edge.

Then in 1930 Aldo Leopold noticed that game animals, like deer, were often found more frequently at forest edges than in the interior. These animals loitered at edges, where they could feed on all the extra plants and see danger coming more easily. And so the misconception arose that edges = more animals. Continue reading

Learning From Nature

One of the most rewarding things about being an ecologist is the time you get to spend with Nature. As a research ecologist, those times don’t happen as often as you would like – we now spend more time at a computer, reading theory and background, analysing data, writing papers and applying for grants to do more research. However, doing field work gives you the chance to experience magnificent ecosystems, landscapes and wildlife that you might not have seen as a tourist. Those experiences, however fleeting, make the data analysis and administrative headaches all the more bearable!

My recent field work, collecting data for my PhD thesis, was in Victoria’s Murray Mallee (rhymes with ‘Sally’). The mallee is an ecologist’s paradise – full of ecological and geological wonders, and brimming with historical lessons that can guide our future. It is a Mediterranean biome, similar to the French garrigue or South African fynbos, and is one of Australia’s most enigmatically beautiful ecosystems. It’s kind of an ecological transition zone from the coastal plains and ranges of southern Australia, just before you get to the real desert in the heart of the continent. Continue reading