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Good farm management can preserve nature without yield losses, says professor at AAAS

Current research shows that with the right management practices, farmers could effectively grow crops while maintaining, and in some cases even enhancing, ecosystem services, said Cornell professor Alison Power, Feb. 13, at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Chicago.

In her talk, "Food Security, Agricultural Systems and the Provision of Diverse Services," Power, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, suggested ways that farmers could continue to efficiently provide food, forage and fiber. They could do so, she said, without commonly "degrading ecosystem services by compromising soil fertility, habitat diversity and water quantity and quality," she said.

Predatory insects, for example, provide natural pest control. But when farmers clear land for farming, those beneficial insects lose their habitat and pests thrive. Instead, farmers could "leave some of the natural areas and create more of a mosaic" of natural areas and farmlands, Power said. That way they could grow crops but still reap the benefits that natural systems provide.

Farms can also degrade water quality through runoff of nitrogen and phosphorus from animal waste. However, Power said, if manure were properly reincorporated into the land, such nutrient runoff could be limited.

And contrary to critics who claim that efforts to maintain natural ecosystem services compromises yields, Power pointed to a growing body of research on sustainable agricultural practices, both in the United States and abroad. Such practices allow farmers to retain nutrients in the soil and experience "significant yield increases without degradation and the loss of ecosystem services," she said.

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Blaine Friedlander