Factoring Biodiversity into Farming

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

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

“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

“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.