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UK-India farming research delivers sustainable crop results

UK-India farming research delivers sustainable crop results
Courtesy: NurPhoto / Contributor | NurPhoto Via Getty Images

A University of Reading team have led a first-of-its-kind research to explore the process of co-flowering with crops to attract bees and boost crop yields and livelihoods of farmers in India.

The research published in the ‘Journal of Applied Ecology’ on Monday focused on the moringa crop, a nutrient-rich "superfood” in southern India. By planting companion marigold flowers and red gram crops alongside Moringa trees in orchards, the research team increased the abundance and diversity of flower-visiting insects, ultimately improving pollination and boosting crop yield.

“Planting wildflowers on agricultural land is a tried and tested method seen in many arable fields and orchards in the UK and across Europe. This farming technique is known to boost insect pollinator numbers,” said Dr Deepa Senapathi, of the University of Reading.

“We worked with farmers in South India to design the best co-flowering crops and boost the numbers of native bees and other insect pollinators visiting the moringa orchards,” she said.

The study, carried out by ecologists from the UK university and India’s M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, worked with smallholder farmers in the Kannivadi region of Tamil Nadu in 24 moringa orchards. They helped them plant red gram and marigold flowers in 12 orchards while the other 12 had no co-flowering crops planted in them.

Flower visitor numbers and diversity were 50 per cent and 33 per cent higher in sites with red gram and marigold flowers compared to those without. Sites with higher numbers of flower visiting insects also showed better quality of crops, with bigger moringa pods. The sites with red gram and marigold flowers which had previously suffered from a lack of pollination saw higher yields. Numbers of harvestable moringa fruits increased by 30 per cent in the orchards with co-flowering crops, compared to those without. 

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“Greater yields and higher quality fruit will translate to a healthier and better food supply for smallholder communities. The farming communities can also use the red gram as a protein source in their diets and receive extra income from selling the marigold flowers,” noted Senapathi.

The study was produced as part of the TROPICAL project, led by the University of Reading team using UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) funding from the Global Challenges Research Fund, to investigate how research evidence from the UK could be used in tropical landscapes where pollinator dependent crops are grown.

India has many crops of high economic and nutritional value, such as mango and moringa, where there is potential to significantly increase and improve crop pollination services. The researchers note that intensive farming practices, using large amounts of chemical pesticides and fertilisers, and loss of natural habitats have negatively impacted biodiversity in India, including native bees and other pollinators. 

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Smallholder farmers in the tropics, whose crops depend on native pollinators, are particularly vulnerable to these impacts. The results of the study show how farmers can boost yields while also managing their lands in a more sustainable manner.

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