Farmlands now cover more than one-third of the Earth's land surface and are perhaps our most vital ecosystems to sustain human-kind. As well as supplying us with food, fodder, and fibre, arable fields and pastures host a bewildering variety of organisms from bats and birds to beetles and worms as well as considerable tree cover. Marked by centuries of human effort and ingenuity, these modified ecosystems are cultural treasures whose protection makes spiritual as well as economic sense.
Yet the way we are using many of these lands is exhausting their vitality. Intensive ploughing and cultivation practices, large monocultures, over-grazing, and the removal of hedges and trees are letting rain and wind erode precious soil. Excessive use of fertilizer is polluting waterways and lowering soil quality. Nitrogen pollution poses an invisible but dangerous threat to peatlands. Pesticides are harming wildlife including insects such as bees that pollinate many crops.
Scientists are helping rural communities restore agricultural ecosystems by using nature to boost farm productivity. Some farmers are reducing tillage and adopting natural fertilizers and pest control. Using crop rotations, and growing more diverse crops, including trees, and integrating them with livestock-rearing can restore biodiversity and provide more nutritious diets. Alliances between farmers and pastoralists are being formalised to allow the sharing of resources with livestock being grazed on cropland after harvest. All these steps can revive the land, rebuilding the organic carbon stores and microorganisms that soak up water and maintain the natural fertility of our soils.
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