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Kai Chan’s research is boosting biodiversity and farm productivity in Costa Rica - photo by Martin Dee
Kai Chan’s research is boosting biodiversity and farm productivity in Costa Rica - photo by Martin Dee

UBC Reports | Vol. 55 | No. 2 | Feb. 5, 2009

Factoring Biodiversity into Farming

By Basil Waugh

How do you improve farming operations while protecting biodiversity?

“The people who structure farm payment schemes and subsidy policies are in dire need of tools to help them make those complex decisions,” says Kai Chan, a professor in UBC’s Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability.

Enter Chan and colleague Prof. Gretchen Daily of Stanford University who have published the world’s first planning framework that calculates the production and conservation benefits of investments in farmland.

Chan recently used the framework to create a business case for Costa Rican farmers to invest in a series of windbreaks that are protecting bird habitats and improving agricultural productivity.

“Biodiversity is a tremendous store of natural capital and we’ve got moral duties to protect it,” says Chan, a Canada Research Chair in Biodiversity in Ecosystems Services.

“To do this, we must find a balance between agricultural production and conservation.”

“Most people simply don’t realize that small, targeted changes to farms can have a positive impact on biodiversity, without affecting their bottom line,” Chan adds.

Chan and Daily’s framework has antecedents. In the 1980s, planning algorithms revolutionized wildlife reserve and park design, helping decision-makers to better tailor large regions to biodiversity needs. But these do not apply to smaller scale decisions such as on individual farms, Chan says.

“When you consider the huge amount of land devoted to farming around the world, you get an idea of the need for a biodiversity planning algorithm that addresses the needs of the agriculture industry,” says Chan.

The framework identifies how the components of a landscape, such as field and vegetation types, contribute to individual species. It then analyzes the species’ survival chances based on its need for habitat types and the distribution of habitats across the landscape. Then it predicts how changes in habitat will affect individual species and the total richness of species.

To test the framework, Chan traveled to Costa Rica where -- like many areas in Latin America -- biodiversity has been ravaged by logging and agriculture industries. The results of his work with farmers were recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academic of Sciences.

Chan and colleagues used the framework to identify windbreaks as way to improve productivity of cattle and crops, and to help protect 17 species of birds, including many that migrate from the U.S. and Canada.

“Cattle, bananas and coffee were under stress from high winds and underperforming, so there was a clear economic argument for investing in wind barriers,” says Chan. “We investigated how different wind barriers would impact biodiversity.”

Using the framework, they determined that by planting a mix of native trees, shrubs and other plants they could not only shelter the farm from wind for less than the cost of a wood fence, but also provide an important habitat for these birds.

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Last reviewed 01-Feb-2009

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