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New model predicts impact of new agricultural techniques and climate change on farmland ecosystems

9 June 2009

A consortium of scientists have presented a new way of modelling ecosystems that can predict the impact on farmland ecology of climate change, other environmental changes and novel farming practices. The research is published in Ecological Modelling.

This powerful tool will also uncover approaches that could be used to mitigate impacts of the changes in agricultural management that are likely to result from a need for increased agricultural production in response to concerns over future food security. For example, this new approach could be used to model impacts on biodiversity that would result from new farming practices that accompany the planting of genetically modified (GM) crops.

Dr David Bohan of Rothamsted Research, an institute of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), and his team, along with colleagues at the Scottish Crop Research Institute (SCRI) and biotechnology company Syngenta, have developed a tool to model so-called ‘functions’ of farmland ecosystems. This focuses on grouping animals and plants according to, for example, what they eat, how big they are, when they germinate, when they flower etc. What emerges from this work is a very useful and versatile tool that can be used to assess the impact of any human-mediated or climate-driven disturbance to any ecosystem – a new crop or crop management system, or an increase in temperature or rainfall, for example.

The system is currently being used to examine the impact of altered amounts and timing of herbicide use when a herbicide-tolerant GM crop is grown. The predictions of the model reflect actual results from pioneering farm-scale experiments on GM crops and biodiversity done in the UK in the early 2000s. This work underscores the effectiveness and potential applicability of the new modelling approach. For example, it could be used to investigate the implications of new EU legislation covering pesticide use on crop yields and farmland wildlife under different production scenarios.

Dr Bohan said: "The world’s ecosystems are undergoing marked change and we are seeing declines in global biodiversity that have wide reaching impacts, especially in agriculture. It is absolutely crucial for our future food security that we get a handle on what is going to be affected and how we can do something about it.

"Models are being used with some success to make predictions about future changes in temperature and rainfall but rather little comparable research has been done towards predicting effects of climate change or other disturbances on natural or agricultural ecosystems. So we wanted to close this gap in our understanding.

"Making predictions for large-scale, complex systems is fraught with uncertainty and so we decided to see if we could build a useful model that doesn’t require all aspects of an ecosystem to be brought together at once."

Dr Bohan continued: "Plants and animals are grouped into functions and can then be linked together according to the food they provide to whom and who prefers to eat what."

This creates what is called a food web and the model is used to predict the impact of disturbances caused by climate change or a change in farming practice on the groups and links in the web.

Professor Douglas Kell, BBSRC Chief Executive said: "There are many factors that threaten our future food security - climate change is just one. The value of this work is likely to be especially evident when we begin to introduce the next generation of new technologies in agriculture - whether GM or otherwise. Quantitative and predictive biology are at the core of the BBSRC research agenda; thus, it will become increasingly important for us to get high quality modelled data as we look to mitigate against future food insecurity by utilising brand new technologies. A vital responsibility we have when we develop new ways of farming is to take any decision to go into field- or farm-scale trials based on the highest quality data available."

This project is sponsored by BBSRC and RERAD (The Scottish Government Rural and Environment Research and Analysis Directorate) through the Sustainable Arable LINK program.



The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £450M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors. BBSRC carries out its mission by funding internationally competitive research, providing training in the biosciences, fostering opportunities for knowledge transfer and innovation and promoting interaction with the public and other stakeholders on issues of scientific interest in universities, centres and institutes.

The Babraham Institute, Institute for Animal Health, Institute of Food Research, John Innes Centre and Rothamsted Research are Institutes of BBSRC. The Institutes conduct long-term, mission-oriented research using specialist facilities. They have strong interactions with industry, Government departments and other end-users of their research.

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