Utrecht University: Agroecology: From promised land to ripening business

Is it possible and affordable to produce food responsibly and protect nature at the same time? Yes, says PhD student Vincent de Leijster, who investigated this for almond orchards in Spain and coffee plantations in Colombia. Nature can be restored while profits are made. Next Friday, 28 May, De Leijster will receive his doctorate for this research.

Intensification of agriculture and specialisation in single crops lead to increased production of that crop, but at the same time to damage to the environment and loss of biodiversity. In the long term, this has a negative impact on the resilience of farming systems and reduces soil fertility, crop pollination, natural pest control and protection against erosion. If we want to keep the earth fertile and liveable, we will have to start growing food in a different way. Agroecology is a land use approach that aims to minimise soil disturbance, promote favourable soil conditions and biodiversity, diversify crops, recycle biomass and minimise loss and run-off of soil, water and nutrients.

Agroforestry coffee plantation. (Photo: Vincent de Leijster)
On coffee plantations in Colombia, Vincent de Leijster and his colleagues investigated whether biodiversity on existing coffee plantations could be restored by planting trees. “It turns out that after switching to a co-called ‘shadow plantation’, the number of butterflies and their diversity increased within a few years,” says De Leijster. “And planting trees also has other environmental benefits: coffee plantations with trees absorb more carbon than those without trees, and the foliage protects the soil from heavy rainfall and erosion.” Shade decreases coffee production, but improves coffee quality. As a result, farmers can get a better price, and they receive additional income from products like fruit and wood.

Intensively tilled almond plantations.
Intensively tilled almond plantation
In another area, the research focused on almond orchards in Spain, which are threatened with desertification due to climate change and over-intensive management. Within a year, eliminating ploughing, restoring understory vegetation and enriching the soil with compost improved plant biodiversity, carbon stock, soil fertility and soil micro-organism communities. However, there was a trade-off between vegetation cover and almond production: an increase in one leads to a decrease in the other. Although vegetation cover entails lower management costs, it still reduces net income for almond farmers. Price premiums and government subsidies may be needed here to make nature-inclusive management more profitable. In part, these are already in place, but the regulations for qualifying for the subsidy need to be adjusted.

Ripening business
The answer to the question whether it is possible and profitable to produce food in a responsible way and at the same time protect nature is ‘yes’. Despite sometimes lower net incomes, all the agro-ecological plantations studied were profitable, although sometimes less so than conventional production. Agroecology can be the basis for a vital industry with a lot of potential and large-scale implementation is possible, especially when future innovations improve the balance between ecological and economic results.

The project Rehabilitating ecosystem services in agricultural landscapes through agroecological management practices is carried out by Vincent de Leijster in collaboration with PhD supervisor professor Martin Wassen external link and co-supervisors dr Pita Verweij external link and dr Maria Santos.

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