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CAB Review

The positive contribution of invertebrates to sustainable agriculture and food security.


This study focuses on three main groups of organisms: soil invertebrates, biological control agents (BCAs) and pollinators. These groups play key roles in agricultural systems, and have the potential to be used, moved or manipulated for the benefit of agriculture. Soil invertebrates are a key component of agricultural landscapes. They participate in essential soil processes that maintain healthy productive soils in the face of changing environmental conditions. Reducing the diversity of a community of soil invertebrates reduces its beneficial functions and services, with drastic ecological effects such as long-term deterioration of soil fertility and agricultural productive capacity. The introduction of a keystone species may have detrimental or beneficial effects depending on the context. The interaction between soil invertebrates and soil micro-organisms is critical: the activities of soil invertebrates regulate microbial activity in soils, and micro-organisms enter into intimate relationships with soil invertebrates to help them degrade highly complex compounds such as cellulose. Different groups of invertebrates provide biological control of crop pests. In many situations, they form the basis of, and tools for, the integrated pest management (IPM) approach. Given that the losses caused by pre- and post-harvest pests can be very substantial, the potential benefits of using invertebrates as BCAs are vast, but as yet only partially tapped. The potential for soil invertebrates to assist in this function is still largely unknown. Pollination services by animals, especially by insects, are among the most widespread and important processes that structure ecological communities in both natural and agricultural landscapes. An estimated 60-90% of the world's flowering plants - including a range of economically important species - depend on insects for pollination. Crop pollination used to be (and often still is) provided by wild pollinators spilling over from natural and semi-natural habitats close to crop fields. This service has generally been free and therefore has received little attention in agricultural management. If wild pollinators are lacking or additional pollination is required, as is the case in many intensive agricultural production systems, farmers in some developed countries can buy or rent managed honeybees or sometimes other species (e.g. bumblebees, alfalfa leafcutter bees and alkali bees). Both options - i.e. use of wild species and managed bees - have recently come under pressure, a development that is sometimes referred to as the 'pollination crisis'. Of the interactions and overlaps between these key groups, that between soil invertebrates and BCAs is the most important, and further research is needed to evaluate the scope and impact of manipulation of the soil ecosystem to conserve or encourage beneficial BCAs.