Muck Is Last Frontier of Biodiversity, Experts Argue

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"If we do not learn about the organisms in soil and how to manage them to conserve and enhance these services, then we can only expect yet more catastrophic degradation of our resource base," said Swift.

Dirty Threat

Biodiversity conservation campaigns have made people aware that escalating agriculture and clearing forests for farmland threatens extinction to many plants and animals on Earth.

Scientists believe that the same can be said for below ground biodiversity, with negative consequences for both the environment and long-term agricultural production.

"Most developing countries have intensification of agriculture a goal for food and wealth production," said Jon Anderson, a soil biologist at the University of Exeter in England and an advisor to the project.

Preliminary research shows that in places where single crop agriculture is the norm, there is a sharp decline in the abundance of species in the ground with adverse impacts on yields, moisture content, and fertility.

While some of these losses can be ameliorated by using industrial fertilizers and pesticides, dependence on chemical substitution is biologically and economically inefficient. It may also have unintended environmental consequences, according to the scientists.

"We are well fed because of modern agriculture. Most developing countries have not had that luxury," said Anderson. "However, we are now increasingly recognizing…that environmentally friendly agriculture may be more desirable than simply maximizing production."

The below ground biodiversity project will test the hypothesis that diverse agricultural fields, such as those with trees interspersed or planted with several kinds of crops, are beneficial to both the dirt's viability and agricultural production.

"We shall be comparing traditional practices with those more characteristic of industrial agriculture," said Swift. "On the basis of this, we should be able to make recommendations for soil management practices that support food production that is sustainable as well as profitable."

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