Farmers: Relying on nature for pest control ain’t gonna cut it after all, science says

When it comes to pest control on the farm there will always be pros and cons in the surrounding environment — ones that either lessen the burden caused by nearby rodents and bugs, or ones that simply make things more difficult. Certain types of birds might eat pesky insects, for example.

However, common misconceptions about how beneficial the natural environment is for most farmers aren’t accurate, new research suggests.

“There’s a widespread assumption among ecologists that when you have more natural habitat around farm fields you get more enemies of the crop pests, and that these enemies will control the pests and provide a benefit to growers,” said Daniel Karp, lead author on a new study coming from the University of California, Davis.

What Karp and his team did was gather the largest pest control dataset ever created, using information from 132 studies conducted in 31 countries around the world. The studies involved over 6,700 agricultural sites from diverse climates and environments.

While yes, some studies did show that in some parts of the world, the elements from the natural habitat did help farmers control pests. That said, an equally significant number of the studies showed that the natural environment had a negative effect on crop yield. Overall, the research suggested there was “no consistent trend” regarding landscape, crops and pests. Nearby habitat conservation could “bolster production in some systems and depress yields in others,” the team said.

Other research that Karp has been involved in, published in 2016, elaborates on five reasons why natural habitats might fail to enhance pest control:

  • A natural habitat might enhance pest populations.
  • There may be no natural enemies to the pests in the region.
  • Cropland might be a bigger influencer on pest control than the natural habitat has the potential to be.
  • Intensive agricultural practices might override any benefits provided by natural habitat.
  • Multiple factors, from small to big scales, lead to range of incongruous ways pest control is impacted.

The recent paper aims to let farmers know that there is no one-size-fits-all relationship between cropland, pests and natural habitats.

“This paper isn’t telling farmers to clear habitat by any means,” Karp said. “There may be a lot of other benefits from natural habitat, such as pollination or carbon sequestration. But we need to be forthright about knowing when habitat conservation will be advantageous in terms of pests and when other means of pest control are needed.”

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