The Mediterranean basin, particularly the Middle-East and North Africa, is characterised by a high dependence on agricultural imports, especially for cereals and legumes. This dependence is likely to grow in the foreseeable future, as a result of global changes, i.e. ongoing demographic expansion, changes in eating habits, and changing climate (PluriAgri study, 2015) as Latati et al. (2017) have already shown for Northern Africa. During the past 30 years and in response to policies targeting intensification of agricultural production, farm households have followed trajectories that have generally increased incomes and market orientation of agricultural systems. The economic pressure, however, encouraged specialisation, resulting partially in monocultures. This lead to environmental degradations, e.g. loss of biodiversity, that threaten the provision of ecosystem services (ES), but the efficiency of inputs and labour remained highly variable. Citizens in European countries increasingly demand more environmentally-friendly agriculture and healthier food production, a trend that could further increase (e.g. organic, local products, etc.). Moreover, there is a strong need to develop a modern and sustainable agriculture in the Southern Mediterranean countries as a keystone for the stabilization of rural populations, by offering them real economic perspectives and better social conditions.
To address the challenges of production in the Mediterranean area, Biodiversify will favour species diversity over time (in rotation and during fallow periods) and space (intercropping and agroforestry) to enhance resource use efficiency (especially water and nutrients), increase resilience to abiotic stresses such as drought, and control of weeds, pests and diseases without the systematic use of pesticides. The project will evaluate the effectiveness of high species and cultivars/landraces diversification (HSD) to improve production of grains for human consumption (durum/bread wheat, chickpea, fava bean, lentil, etc.), and forage (grass/legume swards), both for on-farm self-consumption and market use. At field, farm and region scales, HSD will reduce the sensitivity of farming systems to climate change and will support food security at territorial and regional levels, as well as contribute to alleviation of rural poverty. Recent European and FAO initiatives have promoted HSD as a sustainable means to intensify world agriculture in developed and developing countries (Griffon, 2006; de Schutter and Vanloqueren, 2011). Biodiversify goes beyond the proof of concept of agroecology proving more resilience for agroecosysems: it will quantify in situ, in a range of pedoclimatic and socio-economic conditions, the way in which HSD effectively increases multiple ecosystem services and reduces the need for external inputs (fertilizers, pesticides and fossil energy). Biodiversify will therefore verify that solutions based on HSD increase the efficiency of natural abiotic resources (light, CO2, nutrients), water maintaining or increasing yield (crops and forages), and providing high levels of ecosystem services while protecting the integrity of ecosystems and farmers' health, by eliminating as much as possible the use of pesticides. Implementing high biodiversity-based agriculture requires a re-design of current cropping and farming systems with higher plant biodiversity, including a wider use of different crop cultivars and species (Duru et al., 2015). The diversity of species will be greatly enriched by i) the reintroduction of legumes (Peoples et al., 2019) and ii) other neglected species in agricultural rotations, by iii) using multi-services cover crops to provide multiple ecosystem services during fallow periods in successions of arable crops (Justes et al., 2017) or in alleys between perennial crops (Garcia et al., 2018), and by iv) developing agroforestry systems where additional crops/forages are cultivated under trees.
In order to reach this goal, Biodiversify will explore a sample of emblematic Mediterranean cropping systems with a gradient of crop biodiversity and structural complexity: i) diversified rotations of annual cash crops with the re-introduction of legumes in the rotation, ii) the introduction of multi-services cover crops in fallow period between succeeding cash crops in rotation and as covers in alleys of perennial crops, iii) intercropping (mixture of arable crops) and iv) agroforestry (mixture of herbaceous/arable and tree crops). More specifically, Biodiversify will focus on three main production systems that are distributed across representative climate conditions and socio-economic contexts and support the basis of the “healthy Mediterranean diet”: 1) cereal-based cropping systems for grain and forage production, 2) vineyards for grapes and wine production, and 3) tree-crops agroforestry systems, such as olive-based systems for olive and oil production. This research will be conducted by a transdisciplinary consortium in consultation with farmers and stakeholders to consider their socio-economic constraints and opportunities (financial capacity, manpower, machinery, etc.), as well as the ability of the local agri-food chains to process and market products of good quality and added value.
Biodiversify will achieve its main goal through the following specific objectives:
- Understand how traditional biodiversified Mediterranean agricultural systems combine crop species and crop and tree biodiversity, in an efficient “functional biodiversity” for providing sustainable and resilient agroecosystems. This understanding will then allow hybridization of farmers’ knowledge with new research results and technologies for improving agricultural productivity and resilience of farming systems in the face of global changes (climate, social, market, technology). The analysis will result in a comprehensive description of performances and evaluation of ecosystem functions related to biodiversity.
- Engage, in collaborations with farmers and other stakeholders, in a co-evaluation and co-design process to develop biodiversity-based cropping systems for increasing the benefit of the whole value chains, in order to:
- Generate knowledge on crop interactions and cultivated biodiversity;
- Co-design novel cropping systems including new species, and new spatio-temporal arrangements;
- Devise new value chains including new labels, e.g., for pesticide-free products.
- Assess multi-criteria performance, sustainability and resilience of biodiversity-based systems in the context of different settings (intensification, farm type, agro-environmental zones, market access), based on:
- Modelling multiple biotic interactions and long-term control of pests and diseases (including aboveground-belowground interactions and resistance/resilience effects);
- Evaluating yields and ecosystem services of different soil-crop and soil-crop-tree systems;
- Assessing ecosystem services and impacts of agricultural practices on biodiversity;
- Analysing the economic performance of existing and novel production systems, and the implementation constraints and policy instruments that support HSD and ES provision.
- Develop specific activities of dissemination, extension, and education, oriented towards i) farmers and advisors (current and students), ii) policy makers, and iii) society for informing consumers and citizens on the inter-relationships between agricultural production and environment, biodiversity and human health (i.e. impact of pesticide use).