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Tackling food security could threaten biodiversity

rothamsted research

An increasing number of plant species are under threat from the demands being put on agriculture to produce more food to support the growing world population which is increasing by 160,000 every day. In a study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B today, Dr Jonathan Storkey has brought together data for the first time on the threat status of plants found in arable habitats across Europe and warns of the importance of protecting plant diversity as we focus on increasing food production.

Dr Storkey from Rothamsted Research, which receives strategic funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, argues that “‘arable plants’, have an intrinsic cultural value and also constitute the foundation of the food-web for farmland wildlife”. He added that “countries with the highest wheat yields have the most threatened arable plant species, with every extra tonne per hectare of wheat produced resulting in approximately ten more species becoming threatened”. When compared to other European countries, the UK has relatively high rates of fertiliser and herbicide use which is reflected in increased crop yield. As a consequence, a large number of arable plants are represented on the UK Plant Red Data List including several iconic species that were characteristic of farmland 50 years ago.

However, ‘arable plants’ which rely on cultivated fields to survive, for example the corncockle and corn marigold, naturally compete for resources with the main arable crop and therefore there is a direct conflict between the need to find a balance between conserving them for their biodiversity value and the drive for increased crop production and greater food security. “Farmers are unwilling to tolerate weeds in areas of the field managed for maximum yield and conservation measures should, therefore, take a land sparing? as opposed to land sharing? approach”, argues Dr Storkey. He suggests that “areas of rich arable plant diversity should be targeted and managed specifically for conservation as part of environmental stewardship schemes”.

It is clear that a mixture of farming practices will be required to meet the future food and energy demands and the wider implications of agricultural intensification will need consideration. Many commentators use the term “sustainable intensification” which describes intensive agriculture with whilst minimising environmental impact. Rothamsted Research, with its 160 year history, has a strategic approach to sustainable crop management, bringing together sophisticated scientific techniques with traditional farming methods.

Professor Maurice Moloney, Director at Rothamsted Research, welcomed this work, adding that “the work of Dr. Storkey neatly encapsulates the fundamental dilemma facing world agriculture over the next decades. By 2050, we shall require 70% more food to be grown on currently available land. The need for productivity will collide with the need to preserve biodiversity. It is the job of crop scientists and agroecologists to work together to find creative solutions to this problem.”

The study provides a valuable benchmark to assess future efforts to conserve this important group of plants.


  • Rothamsted Research is almost certainly the oldest agricultural research station in the world. Over its 160 year history, Rothamsted Research, which receives strategic funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, has built an enviable international reputation as a centre of excellence for science in support of sustainable crop management and its environmental impact. Its scientific research ranges from studies of genetics, biochemistry, cell biology and soil processes to investigations at the ecosystem and landscape scale.
  • The most recent Vascular Plant Red Data List, released in 2005, is an assessment of the of the status of Britain’s threatened, wild plants, ranging from the extreme case of ‘extinct’, through ‘critically endangered’ and ‘vulnerable’ to ‘least concern’ incorporating species that have suffered the steepest recent declines as well as those that have always been rare.

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