UF/IFAS study offers critical insights to encourage sustainable agriculture, protect Florida grasslands, wetlands

  • The term ‘sustainable agriculture’ involves boosting food production while conserving habitats and natural resources and reducing reliance on pesticides and fertilizers.
  • While experts agree there is still much to learn to support its potential, they say sustainable agriculture models could promote food security, regulate climate change, promote biodiversity, improve water quality and more.
  • University of Florida scientists partnered with researchers from multiple institutions to understand long-term impacts of increasing agriculture production on grasslands and wetlands in hopes of developing strategies that could promote sustainable agricultural productivity across large landscapes.
From left, Yuxi Guo, Jiangxiao Qiu and research team collect samples on the Archbold Biological Station Buck Island Ranch in Lake Placid, Florida, where wetlands and grasslands are embedded and surround the property. Photo courtesy Yuxi Guo.

Florida grasslands and wetlands are wide expanses of land that cover about 25 percent of the earth’s surface and 70 percent of agricultural production. Individually, they offer benefits, also known as ecosystem services, to people and the environment.

Together, they provide provisioning services such as beef and milk production that support global food security. They also perform essential ecosystem services such as carbon storage, soil health, flood abatement, increased biodiversity and habitat preservation.

However, in some landscapes in Florida, grasslands and wetlands are connected due to their unique topography and hydrology. It is unclear whether boosting agricultural production — also known as agricultural land intensification — impacts wetlands and grasslands simultaneously and in similar manners. Does increased agricultural productivity impact biodiversity, water quality, shoreline stability, stream flows and other functions performed by these connected wetlands and grasslands?

These are some of the questions tackled by a team of 18 scientists from seven  universities, federal agencies and nonprofits who collaborated with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) in a study recently published in the journal Nature Communications.

The study synthesized 17 years of data from the Archbold Biological Station Buck Island Ranch in Central Florida and sheds light on the direct and spillover effects of agriculture land intensification on multiple ecosystem functions provided by grasslands and wetlands.

“The result is an analysis aimed at understanding the consequences of management practices applied to grasslands while leaving wetlands untouched,” said  Jiangxiao Qiu, an associate professor of landscape ecology at the UF/IFAS Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center (FLREC) and the study’s senior corresponding author.

“By focusing on grasslands and wetlands altogether, the study’s findings have far-reaching implications for ecosystem management, landscape management and conservation efforts,” said Qiu.

While operating as one of the state’s largest working cattle ranches with more than 10,500 acres, it is located within the headwaters of the Everglades that is home to an agroecology program. Here scientists and rangers work to understand the impact and ranching and improving its sustainability and surrounding ecosystems. Photo courtesy Yuxi Guo.

The team hopes the findings provide valuable insights for policymakers, land managers and conservationists in making informed decisions regarding land-use practices.

“Our study provides a comprehensive assessment on typical agricultural land intensification in Florida, offering practical alternatives for achieving a multifunctional agroecosystem in a balanced approach,” said Yuxi Guo, a post-doctoral researcher in Qiu’s lab and lead author of the study. “Findings fill a critical knowledge gap about how surrounding natural wetlands respond to planned agricultural land intensification. The study also represents a holistic assessment of agriculture, both onsite grasslands and surrounding wetlands.”

A multidisciplinary team of collaborators took a deep dive into the complex relationship between land-use practices and the ecosystem services provided by grasslands and wetlands. They synthesized long-term datasets from 2003 through 2020 comprising more than 11,000 field measurements and 53 physical, chemical and biological indicators from 29 grasslands and 24 wetlands.

Some key takeaways include:

  • Sustainable agricultural intensification can enhance forage quality and livestock production in both grasslands and wetlands. However, this intensification comes at the cost of water quality regulation, methane mitigation, non-native species invasion resistance and biodiversity.
  • Sustainable agricultural intensification could improve ecosystem service multifunctionality.
  • The impacts on grasslands extend to alter or modify the multifunctionality of interconnected wetlands.
  • The spatial flows, or movement and interactions, of resources and organisms should be considered when studying land-use intensification effects on the various sets of ecosystems within grasslands and wetlands when designing management practices.

The researchers also highlight considerations for planning sustainable agriculture and land management. These include:

  • Researchers emphasize the importance of adopting multifunctionality and landscape perspectives when planning for sustainable agriculture intensification.
  • Developing a framework that provides a comprehensive approach to assess the spillover effects of land-use intensification allows for its assessment and spatially cascading effects. This framework can provide a comprehensive understanding of how changes in land use can impact ecosystems at different scales, enabling policymakers and land managers to make informed decisions.
  • Finally, understanding the variations in tradeoffs and synergies across scales is crucial for effective intensification strategies.

“We’ve highlighted the crucial balance among food production, rural economy, and ecological sustainability and we believe our findings will lead to well-informed decisions and policies, ensuring the protection of our invaluable grasslands and wetlands, while fostering a productive agricultural sector,” said Guo. “By considering the broader ecological context and interconnections between different land uses, we can achieve sustainable intensification while minimizing negative environmental impacts.”

Collaborators on the study with UF/IFAS were representatives from the Archbold Biological Station Buck Island Ranch in Lake Placid, U.S. Department of Agriculture, ARS, University of Central Florida, University of Illinois, Texas A&M and Cornell University.

“This study was only made possible because of the shared long-term vision, mutual trust, and seamless collaborations among universities, government and conservation organizations.” said Qiu, “We are excited about working with Extension, agency and landowner networks to further put this science into real management implications and conservation actions to sustain Florida’s grasslands, working ranches and wetlands.”

 

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By Lourdes Mederos, rodriguezl@ufl.edu

 

ABOUT UF/IFAS
The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS brings science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents.

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Posted: January 31, 2024


Category: Agriculture, Conservation, Crops, Forests, Livestock, Natural Resources, SFYL Hot Topic, UF/IFAS, UF/IFAS Extension, UF/IFAS Research, Water, Wildlife
Tags: Agroecology, Archbold Biological Station Buck Island Ranch, Climate Change, Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, Ecosystem Services, Everglades, Food Insecurity, Food Security, Grasslands, Jiangxiao Qiu, Ranch, Sustainable Agricultural, Sustainable Agricultural Intensification, Sustainable Agriculture, UF/IFAS Fort Lauderdale Research Education Center, Wetlands, Yuxi Guo


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