The role of earthworms in sustainable agriculture

By Jaswinder Singh

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Greek philosopher Aristotle described earthworms as the ‘intestines of the earth’. (Photo credit: USDA, Flickr)

Sustainable agriculture means the production of food from plants or animals using different agricultural techniques that protect communities, the environment, and animal welfare. The extensive use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers to boost crop yields may have resulted in good yields and productivity, but it has caused the efficiency of the soil to deteriorate throughout the world day-by-day. This modern agricultural practice has caused a steep fall in the biodiversity (above and below the ground) associated with cropland ecosystems.

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Managing plant pathogens by enhancing ecosystem services

 

Pollination, an example of an ecosystem service  © Reinhold Stansich
Pollination, an example of an ecosystem service © Reinhold Stansich

From the 8th-12th April experts met in Bellagio, Italy to develop a strategy to mitigate the effects emerging plant diseases are having on crops in sub-Saharan Africa. Among these experts were Plantwise staff. A major theme throughout the conference was ecosystem services and how agricultural biodiversity can enhance the provision of these services, creating resilient agro-ecosystems.

Click on the link below to read more about the conference:

Bellagio Center conference on dangerous plant pathogens

The Bird, the Borer and the Bean

Yellow Warbler © Tom Tetzner
Yellow Warbler © Tom Tetzner

A recent study carried out in Costa Rica found that insectivorous birds such as the Yellow Warbler help to reduce infestations of the Coffee Berry Borer Beetle on coffee plantations by 50%. This free pest control service is estimated to save a medium sized coffee farm up to $9,400 per year. The study carried out by biologists from Stanford University could provide incentive for biodiversity conservation and enhancement of ecosystem services and also offer hope to coffee farmers devastated by the beetle.

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Leave Them Bee- The Honeybees That Fearfully Avoid Hornets

Vespa velutina, a species of hornet that preys on honey bees © Daniel Solabarrieta CC-BY-SA 2.0
Vespa velutina, a species of hornet that preys on honey bees © Daniel Solabarrieta CC-BY-SA 2.0

In bees, fear is shown through avoiding dangerous food sites, thereby reducing the pollination of plants at the site. Scientists in this study looked at hornets (Vespa velutina and Vespa tropica) preying on the Asian honeybee (Apis cerana) in China. The hornets hunt bees on flowers and are themselves attacked by bees in defense. The study found that bees actively avoided feeders where predators were and decreased visitation to these risky sites. Bees treated the 4 fold more massive hornet species, Vespa tropica, as more dangerous, and these hornets received 4.6 fold more bee attackers than the smaller hornet species.

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Earthworm-farmer friendship, redefined

Earthworms suppress fungal diseases in the soil © pfly (Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0 license)

Earthworms are known as farmers’ best friends because of the multitude of services they provide that improve soil health and consequently plant health. The density of earthworms in the soil is considered to be a good indicator of a healthy soil because they improve many soil attributes like structure, water holding capacity, moisture content etc., and also increase nutrient availability and degrade pesticide residues. As scientists understand these ‘ecosystem services’ provided by earthworms, they discover that this earthworm-farmer friendship is a lot deeper than previously imagined! Continue reading

The road to sustainable intensification of agriculture

The biodiversity of non-cropped areas can benefit farmers © Maggi_94 (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license)

Last week, Professor Tim Benton, the UK Global Food Security programme ‘champion’, wrote a guest blog post about ecosystem services and the need for sustainable intensification of agriculture. This week he follows on from this by looking at how farmers can integrate protection of ecosystem services into their land management without losing out finanically. Continue reading

Ecosystem services and the need for sustainable intensification

Our first guest blog is from Professor Tim Benton. Tim is Professor of Ecology at the University of Leeds, where his research interests focus around agriculture-ecological interactions.  He also currently has a role as “Champion” for the UK’s Global Food Security programme which aims to coordinate food security related research across the major public funders. Continue reading