Why focus on biodiversity and conservation now?
When growing up or still living in the country, one of the things that we may at times catch ourselves sharing with the next generation is about what wildlife we used to see around the land where we live and work. We tend to fondly remember as we are going down a road, by a river or waterway the species we used to see. With remembered excitement we share what used to be abundantly around us; the fox, an owl, bald eagles, hawks, doves, wild turkeys, quail, pheasants, rabbits, frogs, snakes, honeybees, and the list goes on. The visual confirmation that these species are at times rarely seen is because we have been losing biodiversity, for many reasons, and scientists have been seeing two to three times the normal extinction rate happening.
As an organic producer, one of the things that are noticeable on the farm is the amount of wildlife and pollinators that start to reappear. Biodiversity is something that people are becoming more aware of what it means and can provide, such as high-quality water, along with soil and air quality and reducing carbon.
NOP Guidance on Natural Resources and Biodiversity Conservation
The National Organic Program (NOP) in 2016 established biodiversity as a tenant by publishing a Biodiversity Guidance Compliance document to help organic producers develop as part of their Organic System Plan (OSP) steps they can take for conservation and be more biodiverse. Since no farm is the same, it was not realistic to try to standardize a format of practices. As a result, the NOP Biodiversity Guidance Compliance Tool was created to help encourage people to look at their farms to engage with conservation practices and have a way to track it.
To help bring the Biodiversity Calculator to life, Dr. Jessica Shade the Director of Science Programs at The Organic Center and Dr. John Quinn an Associate Professor of Biology at Furman University provided a webinar open to the public about the “why” behind the tool and the general ways to set goals and determine indicators.
Even though biodiversity is critical for healthy, functioning organic farms, and is central to the NOP Guidance on Natural Resources and Biodiversity Conservation, the burden of designing and implementing biodiversity plans still falls on the farmer.
To help with this, the tool was built to guide structured decision making, choose targets, and set goals based on the behaviors and outcomes the farmer wants to see adopted. There are three different calculators depending on the type of farm you have.
Determining goals and indicators.
Setting goals and deciding what the key indicators are going to be is the first part of the process. What is key about indicators is that they make the goals that are being set measurable. For example, if one of the goals is to enhance biodiversity on the farm, the goal is too generalized. Drilling down further by determining how the goal is going to be measured, what the indicator is going to be in this case an indicator of biodiversity might be measuring plant varieties, looking for an increase in invertebrates, etc. Choosing something that is sensitive to change is helpful to be able to see a difference and measure easily.
Recommendations based on experience.
When Dr. John Quinn was in Nebraska working with the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and local organic farmers based on his experience, he made a few recommendations.
Determining where you want to be as a function of the management choices on your farm for example, if you would like to see a 5% decline in sediment erosion or a 10% increase in pollinators there is going to be a tradeoff on goals because this is only one part of the OSP and your operation. Increasing biodiversity on a working farm is a compromise. The worst-case scenario is if a target is set and it is impossible to achieve; or too simple. Dr. John Quinn, found it best to make goals that are somewhat aspirational. A mix of your values and data allows targets to be a personal goal as well as scientific goals; don’t just pick a number. At best, avoid ambiguous targets. In some cases, historical baselines can help; however, be skeptical about what baseline is set because you have to ask, what is a natural baseline? If a baseline is going to be used, keep it in context and avoid shifting baselines. Thresholds can be another way to establish a target. The takeaway is, choosing your goals and indicators is a deliberate process, and there is no one right way to establish them, and it is an iterative process. As mentioned, each farm is different, and the indicators set by farmers need to reflect that.
Farmers are the key decision-makers on their land and influencers of other farmers. When the farmers as stakeholders define goals as a region, the collaborative process makes the effort even more effective when specific targets are chosen as a participatory process among multiple farms. Working together builds social cohesion across the process.