Diverse ground cover for biological diversity
Every living thing has a place in the ecosystem. Biodiversity is the essential basis of all life. It provides us with clean air and water, high-quality soil, plant pollination, food and other useful raw materials, and is the cornerstone of our health and food security. Reduced biodiversity is a huge problem, since the prospects of life and survival are thereby damaged. Industrial agriculture is not only the cause, but also the victim of this destructive process. The key to our future and a full pantry is agriculture that works in greater harmony with nature, providing a habitat for many species, in addition to ensuring our food supply. As the autumn sowing season approaches, the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (ÖMKi) is encouraging the preservation of biodiversity and appropriate mulching.
Globally, we use half of all cultivated land to grow just four species (wheat, corn, rice and soy), as shown by international data. The other half of cultivated land is shared among the “residual” 152 major plant crops grown for food purposes. In addition, industrial agriculture often grows only a single variety or hybrid of a single species, even across thousands of hectares.
Based on a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN, of the fewer than than 200 major plant species used for food production mentioned above, just nine comprise more than 66% of global crop production. As these crops lose their genetic diversity, they become vulnerable to the increasingly extreme and unpredictable effects of climate change.
Unfortunately, even here in Hungary we can encounter “cultivated deserts” which are extremely poor in terms of natural flora and fauna. However, such botanical uniformity can only serve very short-term profit motives. From an ecological point of view, agricultural systems of such complete uniformity are extremely vulnerable. These days, however, diversity and efficiency are no longer mutually incompatible. If we take a slightly longer-term view of sustainability, and try to keep the next generation in mind, we are forced to realize that diversity is our only insurance in case something happens that radically changes our production conditions – such as a sudden shift in the climate. With biological diversity, then there is a chance that elements lost due to environmental anomalies can be replaced, and that the production system as a whole will be more able to adapt. For this reason alone, it is worth noting that we know of more than 6,000 plant species grown as food around the world.
Soil life is at the forefront of biodiversity
The right soil is one of the essential foundations of human life, and the source of our food. Even just a fistful of soil is home to billions of microorganisms. According to a recent comprehensive study, soil is home to 90% of the world's fungi, 85% of plants, and more than 50% of bacteria, making it the world's most biodiverse habitat.
In Hungary, water erosion affects and threatens approximately 3 million hectares of farmland, while wind erosion affects 1.8 million hectares. Together, they cause us to lose approximately 50 million cubic metres of soil every year. It is no wonder, then, that cultivation methods focusing on the soil and its protection, as well as natural forms of renewal, are being taken increasingly seriously.
Eye-catching floral ground cover and scientific research
Organic farming, or ecological farming as it is sometimes called, is based on diversity. Here in Hungary we can also feel the winds of change, as farmers increasingly move from agriculture dependent on chemical plant protection agents and fertilizers to sustainable cultivation using agroecological methods. The proportion of cultivated land devoted to organic farming is expected to reach 10% by 2027, while scientific research supporting organic farming is also receiving ever greater attention.
During the autumn sowing – and not only in areas cultivated using organic methods – Hungarian producers are increasingly using special seed mixes that protect and nourish the soil between rows of grapevines, in orchards, or even on the edges of arable fields as a flower meadow in the summer. Our wine regions are usually located in hilly areas, where the role of soil cover in protecting against erosion is especially important. However, living ground cover – i.e. a planted mix rich in native species, is not only useful in protecting against erosion, but is also a favourite habitat of the beneficial organisms that protect the grapes against certain pests.
ÖMKi is investigating the effects on biodiversity and ecosystem services of inter-row ground cover in Hungarian vineyards as part of the so-called LIFE VineAdapt project. Climate change is also affecting viticulture: periods of drought with increased heat stress are becoming longer and more frequent, and these are often followed by sudden, large amounts of precipitation, exacerbating erosion damage. The effects of climate change bring with them a proliferation of certain established pests as well as the spread of new ones. The LIFE VineAdapt program seeks to change this too.
As part of the study, which is taking place in four countries (Austria, France, Germany, and Hungary), on 46 vineyards across a total of 50 hectares, the experts expect that by taking an agroecological approach they will be able to increase the resistance of vine plantations to natural extremes, thus making them more resistant to the effects of climate change, increasing biodiversity and the efficiency of grape cultivation processes.
The researchers’ main goal is to enrich the ecology of understory growth at vineyards by planting native species, thereby bringing back to cultivation as many so-called ecosystem services as possible, such as the formation of habitats close to nature, the establishment of pests’ natural enemies, the enhancement of soil life, the formation of adequate humus, protection against erosion , the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by increasing water retention, and an increase in the ability of vineyards to absorb atmospheric carbon.
Dr Dóra Drexler, the director of ÖMKi, put it as follows: “It is well known that making habitats more diverse increases nature’s contribution to successful agricultural production, but in the practice of domestic viticulture, we are only now quantifying and turning this contribution into an integral element of cultivation methods.”
“Last year's extreme drought showed that in order to protect and improve the fertility of soils with poorer water retention capacity, it is necessary to create a new, more drought-tolerant inter-row ground-cover seed mixture. It is not absolutely vital that a given cover plant mixture stays green even in the worst drought, but it must be able to successfully regenerate after dry periods” added Dr Tamás Miglécz, the lead project researcher conducting botanical experiments for the study.
"It was also useful to observe that among the species found in the Living Inter-Row mixture, which contains six species, was developed on the basis of our previous research, and is currently on the market, the species that performed best in the driest locations in 2022 were bird’s foot trefoil and wild carrot. These two species should definitely be considered when creating a new, specifically drought-tolerant mixture. And, based on the early results of our multi-species experimental mixture, it seems that viper’s bugloss, perennial flax, kidney vetch, and common chicory also show adequate establishment in the vineyards, making them promising elements for the composition of the new mixture."