Developing an outcome-based biodiversity metric in support of the field to market project: Final report

Technical Bulletin 334
By: , and 

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Abstract

Our objective was to create a metric that would calculate the relative impact of common commercial agricultural practices on terrestrial vertebrate richness. We sought to define impacts in fields (including field borders) of the southeastern region’s commercial production of corn, wheat, soy, and cotton. The metric is intended to serve as an educational tool, allowing producers to see how operational decisions made at the field level impact overall vertebrate species richness and to explore decision impacts to targeted species groups (e.g. game, pest, or beneficial species).

Agricultural landscapes are often mistakenly thought to be unsuitable habitat for most species. However, as demonstrated by results reported here, even large-scale, conventional agricultural producers are potentially important partners in biodiversity conservation. Many vertebrate species do inhabit agricultural landscapes, benefitting from the provision of water, food, or shelter within cultivated fields and their immediate borders (e.g., Holland et al. 2012). In the Southeastern US, of the 613 terrestrial vertebrate species modeled by the Southeast Gap Analysis Program (SEGAP) (http://www.basic.ncsu.edu/segap/index.html), 263 utilize row crop and associated agricultural land cover classes as potential habitat (Box 1). While some species may be sensitive to certain operational practices (e.g., tillage, pest management, or field border management practices), others are generally tolerant, and some may benefit either directly or indirectly. For example, field margins and ditches often serve as semi-natural habitats providing foraging resources and shelter for vertebrates and are shown to positively influence species richness and abundance (Billeter et al. 2007; Herzon & Helenius 2008; Marshall & Moonen 2002; Shore et al. 2005; Weibull et al. 2003; Wuczyńskia et al. 2011). Biodiversity responses are, therefore, complex, as an individual species’ responses to agricultural production practices depends on that animal’s resource specialization, mobility, and life history strategies (Jeanneret et al. 2003a, b; Jennings & Pocock 2009).

The knowledge necessary to define the biodiversity contribution of agricultural lands is specialized, dispersed, and nuanced, and thus not readily accessible. Given access to clearly defined biodiversity tradeoffs between alternative agricultural practices, landowners, land managers and farm operators could collectively enhance the conservation and economic value of agricultural landscapes. Therefore, Field to Market: The Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture and The Nature Conservancy jointly funded a pilot project to develop a biodiversity metric to integrate into Field to Market’s existing sustainability calculator, The Fieldprint Calculator (http://www. fieldtomarket.org/). Field to Market: The Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture is an alliance among producers, agribusinesses, food companies, and conservation organizations seeking to create sustainable outcomes for agriculture. The Fieldprint Calculator supports the Keystone Alliance’s vision to achieve safe, accessible, and nutritious food, fiber and fuel in thriving ecosystems to meet the needs of 9 billion people in 2050. In support of this same vision, our project provides proof-of-concept for an outcome-based biodiversity metric for Field to Market to quantify biodiversity impacts of commercial row crop production on terrestrial vertebrate richness.

Little research exists examining the impacts of alternative commercial agricultural practices on overall terrestrial biodiversity (McLaughlin & Mineau 1995). Instead, most studies compare organic versus conventional practices (e.g. Freemark & Kirk 2001; Wickramasinghe et al. 2004), and most studies focus on flora, avian, or invertebrate communities (Jeanneret et al. 2003a; Maes et al. 2008; Pollard & Relton 1970). Therefore, we used an expert-knowledge-based approach to develop a metric that predicts expected impacts to shelter and forage resources, individual species, and overall biodiversity (species richness). This approach is modeled after an ecosystems services concept (WRI 2005), except that we examine services (i.e., resources) provided to vertebrate wildlife rather than service provided to the human population. SEGAP predicts species that are potentially present in an area given landscape-scale habitat availability, configuration, and context (e.g., patch size, proximity to resources, connectivity, potential for disturbance). Based on the prediction of species that may be potentially present, the impacts of management decisions within fields and around their borders can be analyzed based on the impact of those practices to the availability of species’ resources. The final metric provides an index of a producer’s relative impact, but perhaps even more importantly, the underlying database allows producers to explore details such as which species are most impacted or how alternative decisions would impact their score. 

Additional publication details

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype Other Report
Title Developing an outcome-based biodiversity metric in support of the field to market project: Final report
Series title Technical Bulletin
Series number 334
Year Published 2013
Language English
Publisher North Carolina Agricultral Research Service, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, North Carolina State University
Contributing office(s) GAP Analysis Project, Core Science Analytics, Synthesis, and Libraries, Coop Res Unit Atlanta
Description 28 p.