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Stacking of ecosystem services: mechanisms and interactions for optimal crop protection, pollination enhancement, and productivity

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - EcoStack (Stacking of ecosystem services: mechanisms and interactions for optimal crop protection, pollination enhancement, and productivity)

Reporting period: 2018-09-10 to 2020-03-09

The intensification of agriculture imposed by the demand for food from a growing world population is not easy to reconcile with protection of the environment and of non-renewable resources. The resulting loss of natural habitats through conversion to intensive farming has major negative impacts on the environment and on biodiversity: a serious concern addressed by a number of EU agri-environment policies. Moreover, the use of synthetic agrochemicals has often been associated with undesirable negative impacts (EEA, 2013, 11: 240-261), which are addressed by the EU Directive on Sustainable Use of Pesticides (Directive 2009/128/EC).

It is an ethical imperative to develop production protocols in agriculture that address the crucial societal challenge of balancing the demand for high productivity, imposed by the predicted global population increase, with reduced environmental impact and social acceptability of new production strategies.

Agroecosystems are ecologically simplified and artificially managed, but they still depend on multiple ecosystem services provided by a wealth of beneficial organisms and microorganisms, which are essential for biocontrol of pests, pollination and maintenance of soil fertility and farmland biodiversity. EcoStack is a multi-actor endeavor, aiming to develop ecologically, economically and socially sustainable crop production strategies via stacking of ecosystem service provision from optimized biodiversity management and bio-inspired tools for crop protection, in order to enhance the sustainability of food production systems across Europe.
EcoStack is a science driven project, but largely relies on a real multi-actor approach, with a continuous stakeholder and multi-actor engagement, both to define needs and to promote the uptake and use of the produced innovations. This is a fundamental aspect, which has been addressed through initial surveys of farmers’ practices and actor workshops, followed by the establishment of the Stakeholder Learning Platform (https://www.ecostack-h2020.eu/stakeholder-learning-platform-en/) conceived and structured to enhance the impact of the two-way interaction between EcoStack researchers, partners and a wealth of relevant stakeholders.

The work planned and carried out so far is summarized according to specific areas presented below.

THE ROLE OF LANDSCAPE – EcoStack has developed a protocol to enable collation of yield monitor data from GPS enabled combines and has started to link them to the elements of the surrounding landscape, which include, among others: crop boundary features and the diversity and abundance of ecosystem service providers (ESP). The interactions of on-and off crop plants and associated invertebrates are being studied using state-of-the-art molecular approaches and novel visual technologies.

IN-CROP INTERVENTIONS - Field experiments in different pedoclimatic regions across Europe, inspired and driven by laboratory evidence and new approaches, have been designed and are currently being developed to show if and how agronomic practices within the crop, such as variety mixtures, companion cropping, the use of organic mulching materials, soil cover management, and beneficial microbes can enhance in-crop generation of ecosystem services.

BIO-INSPIRED PLANT PROTECTION – We have isolated new biopesticides from natural antagonists of pests and pathogens, developed bioinspired technologies for reducing pest fitness and enhancing the impact of biological control agents, identified and used plant signaling molecules to enhance both direct and indirect defence barriers.

ECOLOGICAL RISK ASSESSMENT – To feed modelling studies, information has been collected on the biology and ecology of ESP key-species, and the sensitivity to major pesticides and their combinations of major biological control agents and pollinators in different European Countries is being assessed.

MODELLING AND UPSCALING – To predict impacts of EcoStack proposed strategies on agriculture, functional biodiversity and environment, integration of agricultural management, landscape characteristics, organism ecology and behaviour is performed using ALMaSS. This has been pursued so far by developing landscape models to support simulation of ecosystem service provides in 11 European countries and, in collaboration with other H2020 projects, we are starting to develop and expand ALMaSS models of ecosystem service providers such as aphids, lacewings, bees, and carabid beetles.

SOCIOECONOMIC IMPACT – To evaluate socioeconomic impacts of implementing EcoStack strategies, over the first 18 months, identified economic, environmental and social effects of EcoStack strategies and measures were systematically compiled in an “Effect Matrix”. A description of the status quo scenario of the current implementation of agri-environmental measures as the baseline for the cost-benefit-analysis was designed, so far, for Germany and Portugal.
EcoStack is based on a dynamic interaction with stakeholders and different actors interested in sustainable crop production and protection through a co-management process, generating tools and actor-networks that will remain active beyond the project. This important structural innovation is complemented by significant progress in the specific areas below.

THE ROLE OF LANDSCAPE – The analysis of ESP impact on yield and its link to the surrounding landscape allows an accurate estimate of the ecological and economic impact of the off-crop components of food production systems and will help to manage landscapes to maximize crop yields while minimizing inputs.

IN-CROP INTERVENTIONS – The core innovation of EcoStack is the “ecostacking” of the “best bets” in approaches to be tailored and implemented at farm level in later years of the project, using the modeling tools developed by EcoStack and through local field trials.

BIO-INSPIRED PLANT PROTECTION – This EcoStack experimental approach is particularly innovative as it proposes the use of natural antagonists beyond the organism level, as a source of natural biopesticides and plant biostimulants, for the control of pests and disease agents. This enables a step-change in terms of how biologically-based approaches can be used in sustainable pest management.

ECOLOGICAL RISK ASSESSMENT – There is no single data source that enables assessment of the actual risks to non-target organisms across different crops, pedo-climatic zones of the EU and for a range of pesticides. EcoStack is filling this gap across different pedo-climatic zones of the EU, contributing to the development of more realistic models.

MODELLING AND UPSCALING – The use of cutting-edge ALMaSS modelling facilitates extrapolation of knowledge from one context to another, so that a sparse matrix of laboratory and field data will be exploited to develop the best solutions for different eco-climatic and pedo-climatic zones in Europe, overcoming the limit of an unmanageable number of empirical field trials.

SOCIOECONOMIC IMPACT – A combination of region specific cost-benefit analysis of the process and product innovations generated by EcoStack, along with the innovative use of ALMaSS to define suitable “realistic uptake scenarios” are the most innovative aspects of an in-depth and unique evaluation and effective enhancement of the socio economic impact of EcoStack.