Biodiversity can be good for farmers’ bottom line

A meadow with more than ten species yields more than a meadow with only one species, researchers say. (Credit: Valentin Klaus/ETH Zurich)

Many farmers associate grassland biodiversity with lower yields and financial losses, but a new study shows it could actually boost revenue.

“Biodiversity is often considered unprofitable, but we show that it can, in fact, pay off,” says Nina Buchmann, professor of grassland sciences at ETH Zurich.

As reported in Nature Communications, researchers quantified the economic added value of biodiversity based on a grassland experiment that examined different intensities of cultivation.

“Our work shows that biodiversity is an economically relevant factor of production,” says Robert Finger, professor of agricultural economics and policy.

If 16 different plant species grow in a field instead of just one, the quality of the forage remains more or less the same, but the yield is higher—which directly correlates to the income that can be made from milk sales.

“The resultant increase in revenues in our study is comparable to the difference in yield between extensively and intensively farmed land,” says lead author Sergei Schaub, a doctoral student in Finger’s and Buchmann’s groups.

Intense farming

Switzerland has so-called ecological compensation areas, i.e., grasslands for which farmers pay particular attention to promoting biodiversity. However, these areas often have poor soils and the yields they produce cannot compare with those of high-quality grassland.

Fortunately, the researchers could use data from the long-term Jena Experiment, which—among other questions—compared different farming practices at the same site.

“Our results show that biodiversity has an economically positive effect on all areas, regardless of whether farmers mow and fertilize them four times a year or just once,” Schaub says.

The more intensely the land is farmed, however, the more difficult it becomes to maintain a high level of biodiversity, because only a few plant species can withstand fertilization and frequent mowing, Schaub says.

Finger adds that Swiss farmers already take more advantage of this economic effect than their counterparts in other countries. Generally speaking, biodiversity on the areas used for forage production in Switzerland is already relatively rich in biodiversity because the seed mixtures are adapted to local conditions, he explains.

Biodiversity as risk insurance

The researchers say they didn’t expect to get such conclusive results. Another economic aspect that they didn’t even factor in: “Biodiversity is also a kind of risk insurance,” Buchmann says.

Diverse grasslands cope better with extreme events such as droughts or floods, he explains, because different plant species react differently to such environmental influences, which partially compensates for any losses arising. “This means yields become more stable over time,” Buchmann says.

The researchers believe the results are a clear indication that it’s worthwhile for farmers to increase the diversity of plants growing on their land.

“Preserving or restoring diverse grasslands can be a win-win situation,” the researchers write. Not only because this increases farmers’ yields and operating revenues, but also because it improves and promotes important ecosystem services such as pollination or water quality.

Source: ETH Zurich