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Diversity of Opinions on Diversity

CedarCreekLowDiversity.jpg
Cedar Creek plots weeded to maintain low diversity have low plant cover, explaining their low productivity. But why does that space stay open?

Part two of the mostly positive review by Jeremy Cherfas, on the Agricultural Biodiversity blog, argues that my Darwinian Agriculture book understates the benefits of mixing varieties (e.g., with different disease-resistance genes) within a field.

I added a comment there, noting that I had included a comparison of this strategy to an alternative way of deploying the same amount of genetic diversity. But his overall point remains valid. I think I over-reacted to what I see as a tendency to think about crop diversity mainly at fine spatial scales, while ignoring diversity at larger spatial scales and over time.

While I'm on the subject of plant diversity, I talked to Dave Tilman about the suggestion in the book that the low plant cover (see above) in his low-diversity treatments could be an artifact from their weeding protocol. He apparently has data showing that seedlings of the one "resident" species in his monoculture plots do poorly, relative to seedlings of other species. I've seen the same mechanism as an explanation for high tree-species diversity in the tropics -- species X doesn't do well near species X, perhaps due to disease.

The fact remains, however, that photons hitting soil, rather than leaves, drive water loss without contributing to photosynthesis. So it's not surprising that low-cover plots have low productivity. Crop monocultures, however, usually achieve full cover, limiting the relevance of this work to agriculture.

If I get to do a second edition, I will try to correct these flaws. Meanwhile, I see thoughtful negative comments as positive, consistent with my goal of stimulating more-insightful discussion.

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