Effects of agricultural management practices on earthworm populations and crop yield: validation and application of a mechanistic modelling approach.
There is little consensus on how agriculture will meet future food demands sustainably. Soils and their biota play a crucial role by mediating ecosystem services that support agricultural productivity. However, a multitude of site-specific environmental factors and management practices interact to affect the ability of soil biota to perform vital functions, confounding the interpretation of results from experimental approaches. Insights can be gained through models, which integrate the physiological, biological and ecological mechanisms underpinning soil functions. We present a powerful modelling approach for predicting how agricultural management practices (pesticide applications and tillage) affect soil functioning through earthworm populations. By combining energy budgets and individual-based simulation models, and integrating key behavioural and ecological drivers, we accurately predict population responses to pesticide applications in different climatic conditions. We use the model to analyse the ecological consequences of different weed management practices. Our results demonstrate that an important link between agricultural management (herbicide applications and zero, reduced and conventional tillage) and earthworms is the maintenance of soil organic matter (SOM). We show how zero and reduced tillage practices can increase crop yields while preserving natural ecosystem functions. This demonstrates how management practices which aim to sustain agricultural productivity should account for their effects on earthworm populations, as their proliferation stimulates agricultural productivity. Synthesis and applications. Our results indicate that conventional tillage practices have longer term effects on soil biota than pesticide control, if the pesticide has a short dissipation time. The risk of earthworm populations becoming exposed to toxic pesticides will be reduced under dry soil conditions. Similarly, an increase in soil organic matter could increase the recovery rate of earthworm populations. However, effects are not necessarily additive and the impact of different management practices on earthworms depends on their timing and the prevailing environmental conditions. Our model can be used to determine which combinations of crop management practices and climatic conditions pose least overall risk to earthworm populations. Linking our model mechanistically to crop yield models would aid the optimization of crop management systems by exploring the trade-off between different ecosystem services.