Down on the farm

August 04, 2003

Human populations depend upon agriculture for food, fiber and forage to feed livestock. And although scientists now better understand the relationships between biological diversity and ecological processes, considerable debate still exists about biodiversity's role in how ecosystems actually function.

"Nowhere is the importance of understanding this relationship more evident than in agricultural areas, where the productivity, stability, and resilience of the system are clearly critical for human existence," says Alison Power of Cornell University.

To shed more light on what scientists studying agricultural systems have learned, Ivette Perfecto of University of Michigan--Ann Arbor, together with Power, have organized a symposium, "Biodiversity and Ecological Processes in Agroecosystems" to be held during the Ecological Society of America's Annual Meeting in Savannah, Georgia.

"For millennia, farmers have manipulated the diversity and composition of plants," says Power. "And because agricultural systems include a whole host of processes such as disease regulation, nutrient extraction, and productivity, agroecology has a lot to contribute to improving our understanding of how biodiversity influences a given ecosystem."

Some of the nation's leading experts in the fields of community ecology, ecosystems ecology, population genetics, and biogeochemistry will explore the range of ways in which biological diversity influences agricultural productivity and sustainability, including: Among the line-up of speakers are Laurie Drinkwater, also of Cornell University, Katherine Gross, of Michigan State University, and Russell Greenberg, of the Smithsonian Institution.

Drinkwater's talk, "Managing biodiversity to restore ecosystem function in intensive agricultural systems" will focus on how such key internal plant processes as efficient use of nutrients, ability to compete, and net primary productivity can be restored and maintained in intensive agricultural systems. She will also address how plants--for example through root architecture--influence both above-and-below-ground ecosystem processes.

Noting increased concerns about the environmental and economic costs of pesticides and the increased interest in the potential ecosystem services that weed diversity within row crops may provide, Gross will share the results of 15 year's worth of study on the impacts of various agricultural management strategies. Gross' presentation "Determinants and benefits of weed diversity in row-cropping systems" will also showcase a newly initiated experiment which she says will be a powerful tool to test how biodiversity affects ecosystem function on row-crop farms.

Greenberg will discuss the results of studies of Mexican coffee farms with different levels of shade and floristic diversity in his presentation, "Food web structure of the coffee agroforests: does biodiversity make a difference?" Greenberg and his team looked at the relationships of birds, spiders, ants, and herbivores and identified the significant interactions taking place within these very diverse, tropical, agroecosystems.

Other speakers will include Ivette Perfecto, University of Michigan; William Murdoch, University of California, Santa Barbara; Jason Harmon, University of Minnesota; Valerie Eviner, Institute of Ecosystem Studies; and David Andow, University of Minnesota.

For more information on these events, or to find out more about the Ecological Society of America's 88th Annual Meeting, please visit our website Held at the Savannah International Trade and Convention Center August 3-8, 2003, in historic Savannah, Georgia, these sessions are part of a gathering of over 3,000 scientists and researchers. The theme of the meeting, "Uplands to Lowlands: Coastal Processes in a Time of Global Change," highlights the challenges facing ecological scientists, modelers, and policy makers.
Founded in 1915, the Ecological Society of America (ESA) is a scientific, non-profit, organization with nearly 8,000 members. Through ESA reports, journals, membership research, and expert testimony to Congress, ESA seeks to promote the responsible application of ecological data and principles to the solution of environmental problems. For more information about the Society and its activities, access ESA's web site at:

Ecological Society of America

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