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Landscape complexity and US crop production

Abstract

Agricultural expansion and intensification have simplified Earth’s landscapes, thereby adversely affecting the biodiversity and ecosystem services that support agricultural production. Field-scale research suggests that increased landcover complexity can improve crop productivity, but less is known about how complexity and crop productivity interact at broader landscape scales. This study evaluates the relationship between landscape complexity and crop yields for counties in the conterminous United States from 2008 to 2018. Our results suggest that the number and quantity of landcover categories on a landscape has a stronger influence on yields than how these landcover categories are arranged on the landscape. Specifically, increased landcover diversity is associated with yield increases for corn and wheat of more than 10%—an effect strength similar to the impact of seasonal precipitation and soil suitability. Notably, landscape configurations that are both moderately complex and also highly diverse are associated with yield increases of more than 20% for corn and wheat. Our findings suggest that increasing the complexity of landcover may provide a way to improve crop productivity in the United States without further extensification or intensification of agriculture.

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Fig. 1: Compositional and configurational complexity in the United States.
Fig. 2: Response of yield to compositional complexity.
Fig. 3: Response of yield to configurational complexity.
Fig. 4: Response of yield to composition and configuration interactions.
Fig. 5: Response of yield to bioclimatic controls.

Data availability

All data used in this study are publicly available at the sources referenced within the Methods. The compiled dataset is available from the authors upon request. Sources include: http://www.prism.oregonstate.edu/, https://www.mesonet.org/mesonet_connection/V2_No8.pdf, https://ndawn.ndsu.nodak.edu/help-corn-growing-degree-days.html, www.nass.usda.gov/AgCensus, https://gdg.sc.egov.usda.gov/, https://nassgeodata.gmu.edu/CropScape/ and https://www.epa.gov/eco-research/level-iii-and-iv-ecoregions-continental-united-states. A descriptive exploratory data analysis of the compiled dataset used in this study is available at https://github.com/katesnelson/aglandscapes-what-or-how.

Code availability

Code employed in this study for model evaluation is available at https://github.com/katesnelson/aglandscapes-what-or-how or from the authors upon request.

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Acknowledgements

This work was supported in part by US Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant number 2020-67019-31157. Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the view of the US Department of Agriculture.

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Both authors conceptualized and wrote the paper. E.K.B. led construction of the dataset used for analyses, including processing of raw climate and landscape data. K.S.N. led the modelling analyses.

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Correspondence to Katherine S. Nelson.

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Peer review information Nature Food thanks Matteo Dainese, Poggi Sylvain and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Nelson, K.S., Burchfield, E.K. Landscape complexity and US crop production. Nat Food 2, 330–338 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-021-00281-1

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