Diversifying farming practices offers environmental, social and economic benefits

A new study published in the journal Science that shows increasing agricultural diversification simultaneously benefits both environmental and social outcomes, creating multiple win-win situations.

This first-of-its-kind study synthesized the work of 58 researchers from 24 studies, across 11 countries and 2655 farms. Historically, research on diversified farming systems tended to look at the outcomes of using diversification practices on environmental outcomes alone, but this study added key socioeconomic metrics like yield, food security and human well-being.  While potential tradeoffs between environmental and social outcomes have not been well understood, this comprehensive study shows very few negative consequences to diversifying farms—in fact, when more diversification practices are used more environmental and social benefits were identified, particularly for biodiversity and food security, without reducing yields.

One coauthor, Ingo Grass of the University of Hohenheim explains, "Agricultural diversification has been accused of perhaps being good for biodiversity, but having a few negative aspects too – especially with regards to not being able to achieve sufficiently high yields. But what we actually see, is that there is no reduction in yield from diversified agriculture – not even when we include data from large-scale European agriculture."

Measuring the impacts on social (e.g., human well-being, yields, and food security) and environmental (e.g., biodiversity, ecosystem services, and reduced environmental externalities) outcomes, the study assessed five diversification strategies: 

  1. Livestock inclusion and diversification (e.g., managed mammals, birds, bees, and fish)
  2. Temporal crop diversification (e.g., crop rotation and cover crops)
  3. Soil conservation and fertility management (e.g., compost application)
  4. Non-crop plantings (e.g., flower strips and hedgerows)
  5. Water conservation (e.g., contour farming)

The study found that applying multiple diversification strategies creates more positive outcomes than individual management strategies alone. According to the lead author, “Our results from this comprehensive study are surprisingly clear. While we see very few negative effects from agricultural diversification, there are many significant benefits. This is particularly the case when two, three or more measures are combined. The more, the better, especially when it comes to biodiversity and food security.”

To realize the benefits revealed by this paper, well-designed policies with strong incentives to motivate the adoption of multiple diversification strategies in unison are needed. But according to Professor Claire Kremen of the University of British Columbia, these efforts will pay off, “

The study shines a light on real-world farming conditions in many different regions and contexts worldwide. With the clear positive outcomes of these diversification strategies it suggests that governments and businesses should invest more in incentivizing farmers to adopt such strategies, which will in fact help them while also promoting agricultural sustainability and planetary health,” she says.


Photo Credit: Christina Kennedy, Silvopastural arrangements promoted as part of Sustainable Cattle Ranching project, Coffee Region, Colombia

Banner Photo Credit: Olivia Smith, A produce field is seen through a walkway between tall hedges of trees on a diversified, organic farm in Oregon, USA