In part one of this two-part blog, Iris Berger, a PhD student in Conservation Science at the University of Cambridge, talks about her field research in India and how farming with nature may help safeguard biodiversity whilst meeting humanity’s growing food needs.
On either side of the road, dry rice fields stretch to the horizon. The human footprint on the landscape is strong, but a flamboyant array of farmland birds – from rose-ringed parakeets and green bee-eaters to white-throated kingfishers and Indian rollers – remind me that people and wildlife have managed to coexist in India for centuries . However, a glimpse of forested hills re-emphasizes the challenges facing conservation. Increasingly fragmented, degraded, and shrinking, these hills are the remnants of once vast forests. They are of vital importance to numerous specialist species (such as spectacular Malabar pied hornbills and delicate Indian pittas) and, of course, India’s charismatic megafauna – tigers, elephants, rhinos, leopards, and gaur.
Agriculture is the biggest driver of global biodiversity loss, so how to meet human food needs without eliminating the ecosystems that support us is one of the most pressing questions facing humanity. The spectrum of debate surrounding this question is simplified to “land sparing vs. land sharing”. Land sparing advocates intensive production, arguing that if yields are maximized on existing farmland then natural habitat can be preserved, and, ideally, some agricultural land can be returned to nature. Conversely, land sharing favors the adoption of farming practices that enable farmland to support higher biodiversity, however, such practices typically result in lower yields, so more land would be needed to meet food needs.
Most studies suggest that land sparing is better for most species. However, land sparing requires high yields, and conventional means of achieving these are unsustainable and are already resulting in stagnating or decreasing yields in some areas. In response, researchers and practitioners around the world are trialling methods for achieving high yields sustainably. These methods range from expensive and technical interventions – such as urban aeroponics and precision farming with robots – to low-tech, low-cost practices, such as zero-budget natural farming (ZBNF).
ZBNF seeks to achieve high yields by maximizing ecosystem service provisioning (soil nutrient cycling, water retention, pollination, natural pest control etc.) through the promotion of farmland biodiversity, but if ZBNF can achieve high yields then more land could be set aside for natural habitat – in other words, ZBNF could reconcile land sharing with land sparing. The Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, home to six million farmers, is conducting what may be the world’s largest experiment in agroecology: complete conversion to ZBNF by 2030.
Armed with Leica’s Ultravid 10×42 HD-Plus binoculars and rangefinder, I’m on a quest to identify ZBNF’s conservation implications. It’s not enough to simply compare the on-farm biodiversity of different farming practices, these must also be compared to natural ecosystems that provide a pre-human intervention baseline. My fieldwork has therefore involved work in a vast range of different landscapes across Andhra Pradesh, from misty rice fields that saw me knee-deep in mud and a meter away from a cobra, to tiger-frequented forests so thick with barbed rattan that traversing between point-count locations required a significant improvement in my machete handling.
The Leica Ultravid 10×42 HD-Plus binoculars have proved invaluable in identifying elusive and fast-moving birds, given their exceptional ability to preserve light. To estimate the density of different bird species across habitats, I use a distance sampling method that requires knowing the distance to a given bird – hence the need for my Leica rangefinder. I often resort to audio records due to the dense undergrowth, which requires a bulky sound recorder and reaffirms my gratitude for the light weight of Leica’s optical tools – it also ensures that I treasure my fleeting encounters with peacocks, scarlet minivets, Malabar trogons, emerald doves, and purple sunbirds all the more.
Learn more about Iris and her work at www.irisberger.org
Iris has been using the Leica Ultravid 10×42 HD-Plus binoculars and the Leica Rangemaster CRF 2400-R for her research.