Ecology in Agricultural Landscapes: seeking solutions for food, water, wildlife

A compendium of agro-ecology sessions at the 2013 annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America

2013 ESA Logo

Media advisory

For Immediate Release:  Tuesday, 23 July 2013
Contact: Liza Lester (202) 833-8773 x 211;


Agriculture alters the landscape more than any other human activity, with trickle-down effects on water, soil, climate, plant and wildlife diversity, wildfire, and human health. Crop and rangeland occupies nearly 40 percent of earth’s ice-free land, and mountains and deserts make much of the remaining surface unwelcoming to agriculture. Our increasing population applies constant pressure for further conversion of wild lands to agricultural production. With yields plateauing in many parts of the world, managers, both private and public, are looking for new ideas to get the most out of agricultural lands, sustain production into the future, and protect natural resources.

Multiple sessions will address the ecological study of agricultural systems at the Ecological Society of America’s 98th Annual Meeting in Minneapolis, Minnesota, August 4 – 9.

Presenting scientists will examine routes to improved soil, water, and nutrient retention, pollinator support, and pest suppression by natural enemies. They will discuss opportunities to increase biodiversity in agricultural areas and mitigate runoff.


Land sharing

Soil erosion….or not. STRIPs project - LIsa Schulte Moore presents at the Aster Cafe on Wednesday August 7 at 5:30pm

Soil erosion….or not. Even small amounts of perennials can have a dramatic impact on the environmental benefits provided by row-cropped agricultural lands. This image depicts the ability of native prairie to keep soil in farm fields, where it can produce crops, as opposed to allowing it to move into streams, where it becomes a serious pollutant.
Lisa Schulte Moore won the inaugural ESA2013 Science Cafe Prize with her vision for change in modern agriculture based on ecological knowledge and experimentation. Schulte Moore, a professor of landscape ecology at Iowa State University, will speak at a public event at the Aster Cafe on the riverfront in Minneapolis, at 5:30pm on Wednesday August 7. Photo, Dave Williams.

OOS 23: Bridging The Public-Private Land Divide – Supporting Biodiversity Conservation and Ecosystem Services By Tapping The Ingenuity In Social-Ecological Systems.
Thursday, August 8, 2013: 8:00 AM-11:30 AM, room 101A

For much of the world, high-intensity industrial farming produces food with high efficiency, but puts the squeeze on other plant and animal life. Wildlife is mostly sequestered on preserves. But is this the best way to maximize food and biodiversity? Or are there other configurations that might improve mobility of wildlife and benefit other ecosystem services without cost (and possibly with benefit) to private land owners?

“We are probably not going to be able to achieve landscape conservation goals for soil, water, and wildlife, specifically grasslands and birds, working on publically-owned lands alone. We will need to incorporate private lands,” said session moderator Chris Woodson, a private lands biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Missouri.

Conservation biologists are looking for conservation-supportive practices that have potential to augment protected areas on public lands and aid existing programs. Private landowners and entrepreneurs are looking for contributions that they can make to conservation and still make a living.

This session brings together managers, scientists, private land owners, and entrepreneurs to discuss ideas, pilot projects, and existing public-private partnerships, and seek areas of mission overlap and opportunities for collective action.

“Lower case c conservation is what we want to see happen,” said session co-organizer Paul Charland, a wildland firefighter with the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Capital C Conservation is official business; it’s the movement as an organizational process. Lower case conservation is all efforts to keep native species. We want to provide a mechanism for everyone to do that.”


Organizers:         Patrica Heglund (; Paul Charland (; Carol Williams; Chris Woodson   (



Connecting the global to the local – agricultural landscapes from field to orbit

SYMP 20: Integrating Agro-Ecological Research Across Spatial and Temporal Scales
Thursday, August 8, 2013: 1:30 PM-5:00 PM

Kate Brauman integrating eco-agro research scales ESA2013

Collage assembled by Kate Brauman. Image Credits – Globe: Reto Stöckli, Robert Simmon, MODIS teams, NASA. Satellite images: shrimp aquaculture in Honduras, Landsat 7, 1999, Jesse Allen, NASA Earth Observatory. Small photos: Kate Brauman.

Big changes in agriculture are visible on the global scale – changes in crop yields, dietary choices, water use, fertilizer application, soil retention, and nutrient pollution. In some parts of the world, yield lags, revealing opportunities to get more out of land already in production. In others, crop production has sagged or plateaued. Will yields keep increasing as they have in the past? It’s hard to see trajectories without local context, said session organizer Kate Brauman of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment. Site-specific field work fills in details.

“Agronomy has been working very successfully for a long time, and it’s been focused on practitioners,” said Brauman. “And global analysis can be hard for someone in the field to interpret. How can we take insights from the local to the global scale and make them useful?”

Ecology has great scientists studying the very local, applied art and science of getting more yield out of our crops and the local ecological effects of agriculture, and great scientists studying global trends, said Bauman. It does not have much of a history of cross-pollination between the groups. This session aims to bridge gulfs of scientific culture and of scale, connecting the satellite’s eye view of global change to the view from the field; computational modeling to on-the-ground experimentation; and snapshot observations to daily, seasonal, annual, and decadal change.


Organizer: Kate Brauman (



Resilient future

Two “Ignite” sessions offer a series of 5-minute introductions to ideas for the future interdependency of conservation and agriculture, from plant breeding and field design, to farm policy.




  • PS-29: Agriculture            Tuesday, August 6, 2013: 4:30 PM-6:30 PM, Exhibit Hall B
    (Poster session)
  • COS 1: Agriculture I         Monday, August 5, 2013: 1:30 PM-5:00 PM, room L100I
    Grasslands, coffee, excess nitrogen fertilizer
  • COS 18: Agriculture II      Tuesday, August 6, 2013: 8:00 AM-11:30 AM, room 101C
    Biodiversity, weeds, spatial organization
  • COS 80: Soil Ecology        Wednesday, August 7, 2013: 1:30 PM-5:00 PM, room M100GD
    Includes soybean symbiosis, prairie grazing gradients, and bioenergy constraints.
  • COS 77: Land-Use And Land-Use History               Wednesday, August 7, 2013: 1:30 PM-5:00 PM, room L100H
    Consequences of armed conflict, restoration ecology, and shifting away from beef(?).
  • OOS 24: Managing Belowground Processes In Agroecosystems  Thursday, August 8, 2013: 8:00 AM-11:30 AM, room 101B
    The invisible world of roots, fungi, insects, arthropods, microbes, and decomposing plants matter matter very much to crop success and environmental health. This session will evaluate the state of the science and “alternative” agro-ecological systems, and discuss management opportunities.
  • COS 126: Pollination        Friday, August 9, 2013: 8:00 AM-11:30 AM, room L100G
    Cranberries, blueberries, and parasitoid wasps.



Press Registration for the Annual Meeting, August 4 – 9, 2013:

We waive registration fees for reporters with a recognized press card and for current members of the National Association of Science Writers, the Canadian Science Writers Association, the International Science Writers Association and the Society of Environmental Journalists. Email Liza Lester,

Meeting abstracts are not embargoed.


The Ecological Society of America is the world’s largest community of professional ecologists and a trusted source of ecological knowledge. ESA is committed to advancing the understanding of life on Earth. The 10,000 member Society publishes five journals, convenes an annual scientific conference, and broadly shares ecological information through policy and media outreach and education initiatives. Visit the ESA website at


To subscribe to ESA press releases, contact Liza Lester at

Zeal to ensure clean leafy greens takes bite out of riverside habitat in California

Perceived food safety risk from wildlife drives expensive and unnecessary habitat destruction around farm fields


Media Advisory

For release: Monday, May 6th, 2013, 12:01 am EDT
Contact: Liza Lester (202) 833-8773 x 211;



Field buffers: vegetation loss likely due to food safety measures. From Figure 3 of the paper.

Farm-field buffers: vegetation loss likely due to food safety measures. From Figure 3 of the paper.

Meticulous attention to food safety is a good thing. As consumers, we like to hear that produce growers and distributers go above and beyond food safety mandates to ensure that healthy fresh fruits and vegetables do not carry bacteria or viruses that can make us sick.

But in California’s Salinas Valley, some more vigorous interventions are cutting into the last corners of wildlife habitat and potentially threatening water quality, without evidence of food safety benefits. These policies create tensions between wildlife preservation and food safety where none need exist, say scientists for The Nature Conservancy, writing in the Ecological Society of America’s journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. The study will be published online ahead of print on Monday, May 6th, 2013.

“Farming practices for food safety that target wildlife are damaging valuable ecological systems despite low risk from these animals,” said lead author Sasha Gennet.

Check the back of your bag of spinach or prepackaged salad greens, and you’ll probably find that they came from the Salinas Valley. Salad is big business in California.

In the aftermath of a deadly 2006 Escherichia coli serotype O157:H7 outbreak traced to California spinach, growers and distributers of leafy greens came together to create the California Leafy Green Handler Marketing Agreement (LGMA) on best practices for the industry, enforced by third-party auditors and inspectors. The LGMA established standards for farm work hygiene, produce processing and transport, and proximity to livestock. About 99 percent of California leafy greens now come from participating farms.

But produce farmers in the Salinas Valley report pressure from some powerful buyers to take additional precautions not mandated by government or industry standards. These buyers insist that swathes of bare ground wider than a football field is long separate the leafy greens from rivers, wetlands and other wildlife habitat.  

Other precautions include treating irrigation water with chemicals toxic to fish and amphibians, and setting poisoned bait for rodents.

“The California Leafy Green Hander agreement is transparent, flexible and science-based,” said Gennet. “Going above and beyond it just creates costs for farmers and doesn’t improve safety.”

It also creates costs for wildlife. Although scant evidence exists of risk of food-borne disease spread by wildlife, the risk of rejection of produce by major buyers is too much for most growers to bear, say Gennet and her co-authors. They measured changes in wetlands and riverside habitat in the Salinas Valley between 2005 and 2009, finding 13.3 percent converted to bare ground, crops or otherwise diminished. Widespread introduction of fencing blocked wildlife corridors. Low barriers even kept out the frogs.

Unlike the LGMA standards, individual corporate requirements for farm produce are generally not transparent to the public. But in surveys, farmers report pressure from auditors to implement fences and bare ground buffers around spinach, lettuce, and other leafy greens.

Such pressures have set back years of collaboration between growers and environmental advocates to make farm edges slim sanctuaries for wildlife, as well as buffers between agricultural fields and waterways. Fallow strips along streams and rivers provide corridors for migrating animals and birds.

“This is an area that is already 95 percent altered – the habitat that remains is critical,” said Gennet. “Removing 13 percent of what is already heavily-impacted habitat and cutting off wildlife corridors is a significant loss.”

The Salinas River and its tributaries are an important rest stop on the Pacific Flyway, a major migration route for neotropical songbirds, and home to raptors and shorebirds. The waterways are also corridors for deer and other big animals moving between the high country of the Diablo Range and coastal Big Sur mountains that flank the valley.

Wetlands and buffers of trees, grasses, and shrubs help to keep runoff from fields out of the waterways, slowing erosion of soil and blooms of algae downstream. An overabundance of fertilizer has created problems for domestic drinking water as well as the ecosystems of the Salinas River watershed and its outlet, Monterey Bay.

“California has a big problem with concentrated nutrients in waterways, and there is a lot of pressure on growers to reduce those inputs – so to the extent that riverside wildlife habitat could be a benefit all around, a coordinated approach to agricultural management and policy makes the most sense,” said Gennet.

“The policies that these distributors are forming are very narrow,” said Lisa Schulte Moore, an agricultural ecologist at Iowa State University who is not affiliated with the Nature Conservancy study. Nervous distributers are looking at specific risks in isolation, she said, and not asking “does the food system create a healthy human environment?”

Schulte Moore works with Iowa farmers to incorporate native grassland habitat alongside corn and soy fields. Her experiments look for native grass mixtures that don’t tend to invade the crops and are highly attractive to beneficial native insects, including the natural enemies of agricultural pests. “If we design the systems right there could be substantial benefits to the agricultural system as a whole,” she said.

The key word, Gennet says, is “co-management.” As a community, we need to approach food health, wildlife health, and water health in the Salinas Valley as parts of an integrated system. She would like to see California growers, buyers, and consumers rely on standards like the LGMA. “We think it’s been a good process, using the newest science and trying to take a constructive approach.  If everybody stuck to those standards, that would be a good outcome,” said Gennet.


Farm practices for food safety: an emerging threat to floodplain and riparian ecosystems. (2013) Sasha Gennet, Jeanette Howard, Jeff Langholz, Kathryn Andrews, Mark D Reynolds, and Scott A Morrison. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment (e-View 05/06/2013; print publication June 2013) doi:10.1890/120243




Outside source:

Lisa Schulte Moore

Associate Professor of Landscape Ecology, Iowa State University




The Ecological Society of America is the world’s largest community of professional ecologists and a trusted source of ecological knowledge. ESA is committed to advancing the understanding of life on Earth. The 10,000 member Society publishes five journals, convenes an annual scientific conference, and broadly shares ecological information through policy and media outreach and education initiatives. Visit the ESA website at