The LIBERATION project

LInking farmland Biodiversity to Ecosystem seRvices for effective ecological intensification (LIBERATION)

Project Coordinator: Wageningen University (NL), David Kleijn

The next few decades will witness a rapidly increasing demand for agricultural products. By 2050 current food demand will be doubled by world population and socio-economic growth. The expanding bio-based economy will increase the demand for agricultural products. Urban development will increasingly compete with agriculture for land use. The growing demand for agricultural products needs to be met largely through intensification (produce more from the same land surface) because there is little scope for an increase in agricultural area without doing irreparable damage to vital natural ecosystems. The steady increases in agricultural productivity per unit area seen through the latter part of the 20th century have now plateaued with little opportunity for further increases in efficiency through conventional methods. The dependency of conventional agriculture and food supply on non-renewable resources (e.g. fossil fuels, phosphate) makes it unsustainable in the long run.

Ecological intensification
Ecological intensification has been proposed as a promising solution. Ecological intensification is the optimization of all provisioning, regulating and supporting ecosystem services in the agricultural production process. As such it advocates to maintain or enhance agricultural production through the promotion of biodiversity and associated ecosystem services.

Ecosystem services in a conventional farming framework
In many parts of Europe, agricultural productivity is amongst the highest in the World but depends on unsustainable high levels of external inputs. Here the challenge for ecological intensification would be to reduce reliance on external inputs while maintaining high productivity levels by reestablishment of soil and landscape ecosystem services (Ecological replacement – see Fig. 1). In other parts of Europe, where productivity is less high, the challenge will be to enhance productivity by optimising ecosystem services rather than by increasing agricultural inputs. This is comparable to the situation in the majority of countries outside Europe (Ecological enhancement – Fig. 1). Intensive production systems are highly sensitive to environmental disturbances and disruption of ecosystem services. A further challenge for ecological intensification is the development of novel poly-cropping systems and landscape-scale management of matrix habitats to increase the stability of agricultural production systems and provide ‘Ecological resilience’.

Ecological intensification
Figure 1: Different ways in which ecological intensification can contribute to agricultural production: it is either unexploited (left column), contributes at the expense of the conventional provider (in this case agricultural production: mid column) or contributes additionally, thereby maximizing ecosystem services, rather than trading them off (right column).

Policy relevance

Ecological intensification is in line with a number of key EU and global policies. It will contribute to the greening of the CAP, will strengthen the Green Infrastructure (COM(2011) 17 final) and is in line with the EU Biodiversity Strategy (COM(2011) 244 final). Furthermore, the approach is at the core of the CBD Strategic Plan for 2011-2020. However, successful adoption of this approach is however critically dependent on the benefits perceived by key stakeholders but, so far, examples of economic benefits of ecosystem services have come mainly from outside Europe.

General objectives of LIBERATION
The LIBERATION project aims to provide the evidence-base for the potential of ecological intensification to sustainably enhance food security with minimal negative impacts on the environment. This requires a basic insight in how biodiversity contributes to various ecosystem services and subsequently how ecosystem services contribute to yield and farm income. Key questions that will be addressed are:
  • How landscape structure and land-use interact in the provisioning of ecosystem services;
  • How farmland biodiversity is related to multiple ecosystem services;
  • Whether there are trade-offs between different ecosystem services;
  • How ecosystem services are related to farm income; 
  • How ecosystem services may be influenced by policy measures at the local, national or EU scale.

Focus on regulating ecosystem services
LIBERATION will focus on the ecosystem services pollination, pest control, nutrient cycling and soil fertility, thus examining both above- and below-ground ecosystem services as well as possible trade-offs and synergies. Implications for greenhouse gas emissions will be explored throughout all activities in the project. Ecosystem service delivery will be expressed in terms of (their contribution to) agricultural yield and in terms of farm income.