The increase of extreme weather events stresses the urgency for agricultural cropping systems to become resilient. At the same time the pressure increases on the agricultural sector to deliver, apart from food, agro-ecosystem services as well.
Agro-ecosystem services are, in short, agricultural services delivered by nature’s basic functions such as: water storage, clean drinking water, biodiversity, soil quality, reduction of nutrification, insect pollinators, carbon sequestering and many more. Although the public and the farming sectors have a shared interest that these services are delivered, in practice the services are often taken for granted by the public and assumed to be secured and guarded by the agricultural sector. Because of increasing pressure on the food supply chain, farmers are increasingly less in the position to deliver these ecosystem services. With the exception of the occasional subsidy in the EU, farmers are not being paid for agro-ecosystem services; at the same time governments have considerable expenses when needing to compensate the lack of these services delivered, such as extra costs for water purification, water storage, erosion prevention or restoring biodiversity.
Research WUR on strip cropping
The project ‘strip cropping’ as initiated by Wageningen University (WUR) aims to shape a practical model for strip cropping as part of research on innovative resilient agri-food systems. Bejo supports this research project actively in order to anticipate new forms of sustainable agriculture in the earliest stage possible. During an interview with WUR research lecturer and project leader on the strip cropping project, Dirk van Apeldoorn, it became clear that using biodiversity and interactions within a given population are at the fundamentals of this research project. Research is concentrating around finding win-win plant combinations to be cultivated in the best fitting strip cropping systems. This includes research on optimal strip cultivation design with trials of different strip widths of 6, 12 and 24 meter or with different combinations. At Wageningen and Lelystad four crop combinations are investigated: cabbage – wheat, carrot – onion, potato – grass and sugar beet - barley.
According to Van Apeldoorn, the first results of the trial look very promising. Supported by the first practical results, Van Apeldoorn estimates that it should be well possible to achieve strip cropping yields comparable to yields of large scale monoculture plots. Furthermore, when the right crop combinations are used, it should also be possible to achieve additional benefits with regard to pest control and suppression of fungal diseases. Logically, strip cultivation demands an adjusted field planning and a number of practical loose ends, such as the use of overhead irrigation, still need to be solved.
Raise climate change resilience…
This last topic brings the conversation to a possibly even stronger argument for the agricultural sector to embrace strip cropping: the protection against extreme weather conditions and the strengthening of climate change resilience. Every year after the sowing of carrot, onion or beet, growers nervously check the weather forecast every day. Whether it be great rainstorms, very strong winds or extreme drought all these conditions often have a disastrous effect on the germination of seeds. Because of climate change, these extreme conditions are seemingly happening more often. While distributing the crops over different fields leads to lower risks anyway. Cultivated strips also have the positive side effect to function as a small scale windbreaks. The different demands of the strips provide a buffer for wet and dry conditions.
… and natural disease barriers
Cultivation in strips also has great advantages when it comes to disease control of fungi like Phytophthora in potato or downy mildew in onions. The strips function as social distancing for crops which “flattens the curve” and confines the infection to the place of entry. Even when using resistant varieties it is of a shared interest to all farmers to avoid and prevent occurrence of large scale infections anywhere on their farm. This is the only way to sustain the functioning of a resistance trait in such resistant varieties so all can benefit from this for as long as possible!
Van Apeldoorn is expecting that strip cropping will eventually be adopted by the agricultural sector and will thus generally also result in a wider crop rotation.
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Biodiversity and plant interactions are at the fundamentals.