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Seeking a Win-win for Ag and the Environment
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Agricultural and environmental interests are often portrayed as fundamentally at odds. Several new initiatives, however, focus on creating mutually beneficial outcomes for these two vital sectors of Michigan’s economy.

Source: Michigan State University, College of Agriculture and Natural Resources

Seeking a Win-win for Agriculture and the Environment

Agricultural and environmental interests are often portrayed as fundamentally at odds. Several new initiatives, however, focus on creating mutually beneficial outcomes for these two vital sectors of Michigan’s economy.

"Synergistic outcomes are not that uncommon when everyone is willing to cooperate and think outside the box,” said Michigan State University (MSU) AgBioResearch scientist Doug Landis.

One concept that is proving particularly useful in uniting the interests of agricultural and natural lands managers is “ecosystem services” – an accounting of all the benefits that humans derive from biodiversity. Such benefits, Landis said, can be categorized into four broad groups:

  • Supporting services such as soil formation and nutrient cycling that maintain the basic productivity of ecosystems
  • Provisioning services such as the food, fuel, and fiber harvested from them
  • Regulating services such as flood prevention, pollination and pest suppression that protect the systems
  • Cultural services including the recreational, aesthetic and spiritual values that humans derive from the world around us

“All of these services are clearly vital to human well-being and provide a common currency for evaluating the impacts of differing land management strategies,” said Landis, a professor of entomology, who is affiliated with the MSU Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC). His research interests include invasive species ecology and management, and conservation and restoration of rare species and communities. Landis’ work is also supported by Michigan State University Extension (MSUE).

A second useful tool is the interplay of agriculture and natural areas at landscape scales.

“This can lead to the realization that the sustainability of both is fully intertwined,” Landis said. For example, studies increasingly show that pollination and pest suppression on individual farms are maximized when the surrounding landscape contains natural habitats such as forests and grasslands and diminished in landscapes where these habitats are lacking.

“It often is the amount of natural lands within a one- to three-mile radius of a particular farm that provides these services,” Landis said. “This means that nearly all Michigan farmers are dependent on their neighbors to maintain their shared landscape with natural habitats.”

Land managers and scientists are cooperating to use these concepts for the mutual benefit of agriculture and the environment, with particular success in the areas of bioenergy and invasive species management.

Landis and other scientists with the GLBRC have found that perennial bioenergy plantings based on mixtures of native grasses and flowering plants that mimic our historic prairies can provide biomass for energy, reduce greenhouse gas production and enhance beneficial insects. Further, their studies show that such bioenergy crops can support increased abundance of rare grassland birds, including the state’s endangered Henslow’s sparrow.

“Producing these bioenergy crops on marginal or abandoned agricultural lands could boost local economies while changing the landscape in ways that benefit both agriculture and the environment,” Landis said.

Managing invasive species at landscape scales can also benefit both groups and even protect public health. Landis pointed out that the exotic invasive soybean aphid that damages farmers’ soybeans spends the winter months on common buckthorn, a shrubby tree that is itself an exotic invader of forests and fencerows.

“In landscapes where soybean and buckthorn mingle, soybean aphids abound, providing an abundant food source for multicolored Asian lady beetles,” Landis said. “These exotic predators readily multiply on a diet of soybean aphid and have the habit of invading homes in the fall, where they cause annoyance and even prompt human allergies.”

A new project called Buckthorn Watch seeks citizen involvement to locate and eventually remove invasive buckthorn, breaking the cycle of one invasive species fostering another. This project is a collaboration between the Ohio State University, Iowa State University and MSU.

MSU researchers and state land managers are also seeking ways to reduce the damage of invasive spotted knapweed, a plant that some beekeepers like for its midsummer nectar supply. The researchers are assessing the potential of using biological control to slowly reduce knapweed abundance while reseeding these areas to native nectar-producing plants, thereby restoring native plant communities and maintaining a nectar flow for beekeepers.

“One feature that all of these initiatives share is that they require the participation of multiple stakeholders from groups that may seldom interact and need to find common ground on which to build relationships,” Landis said. “This requires a spirit of cooperation – citizens pulling together to solve shared problems, not seeking to maximize individual interests.”

To find out more information, visit http://nativeplants.msu.edu and http://buckthornwatch.org.