Daily CSR
Daily CSR

Daily CSR
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The smooth efficiency of natural solutions: Dr Andrew MacDougall


The smooth efficiency of natural solutions: Dr Andrew MacDougall
Dr. Andrew MacDougall, Department of Integrative Biology, College of Biological Sciences, University of Guelph, Ontario, and his team at the MacDougall Ecology Lab are investigating the efficacy of ALUS' prairie restoration sites in southwestern Ontario and quantifying ecosystem services such as biodiversity, carbon sequestration, and nutrient retention.

Dr. Andrew MacDougall and the scientists at the MacDougall Ecology Lab are measuring the impact of the New Acre Project on farms in terms of clearer air, cleaner water, and biodiversity, from pollinators and insects to soil quality.

Farmers and ranchers join forces with ALUS and the New Acre Project to build nature-based solutions to the climate and biodiversity crises, as well as other ecological stewardship challenges. Among the projects are the restoration of tallgrass prairie and the creation of pollinator habitat.

As a scientist, Andrew works to quantify and comprehend the effects of these ecosystem projects.

“It’s one thing to plant acres of tallgrass or other plant species,” he says. “But the question was, is this actually doing anything? We’ve been able to prove that, first and foremost, this program works.”

Since 2013, Andrew, the scientists at the MacDougall Ecology Lab, and other University of Guelph researchers have been measuring the activity of pollinators and other bioindicators on ALUS farmlands. The research has confirmed the positive impact of ALUS projects, with a 300% increase in pollinators and beneficial insects following the establishment of a project*. The research of the MacDougall lab also shows that ALUS projects provide critical habitat for beneficial insects (insects, centipedes, millipedes, and so on), promote biodiversity in agroecosystems, capture and store carbon in the soil, and prevent 50-100% of nutrients from synthetic fertilizers, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus, from leaching into ground and surface waters at certain times of the year.

Andrew envisions using the information he and his team have measured and collected in the future to create per-acre benchmarks that provide greater insights into the benefits of ecosystem projects. With this information, New Acre Project can assist organizations in clearly communicating the value they create by investing in nature-based solutions.

“For example, we want to show that with each acre of land preserved that’s 25 bird species benefitting, six grams of carbon captured and so forth, for example. That’s the kind of accounting system we’re trying to build,” he says.

Andrew's research shows that even when restoring a small parcel of land, the impact is immediate.

“We find, almost instantly, that creating habitat doubles the diversity of native pollinators and triples their abundance. The birds respond, the bats respond, and that shows us that a lot of biodiversity is starved for habitat on farm landscapes,” says Andrew. “When you build a habitat, they—species—show up really quickly and in large numbers and their populations proliferate.”
The New Acre Project's pollinator initiatives are successful because restored prairies provide pollinators with two things they require: nectar and nesting materials.

“Work by PhD student Ally Dolezal has clearly shown that when you build a prairie strip next to a pumpkin field, the bees sweep in the pumpkin field and then go back to the prairie, and that’s where you can start to get benefit,” says Andrew. “Norfolk  and Elgin  counties are like Canada’s garden basket. They produce a lot of things that need pollinators – from squash and pumpkins to strawberries, asparagus, and apples. The pollinators are super important.”

The environmental benefits of constructing nature-based solutions on farms grow over time. Andrew compares the accumulation of benefits that occurs after pollinators are drawn to a protected piece of land to the compounding of interest on capital.

“Biodiversity shows up first. Then, the root networks build as the prairies develop, and they become very effective at capturing nutrients. That takes three to five years. And then the carbon storage in the soil starts to accumulate,” he says. “The system works.”

Recognizing the importance of carbon sequestration. Andrew and his team are investigating ways to expedite the process. He understands that this is a difficult task.

“It takes a while to build the soil health back, but it can be done,” he says. “Recent collaborative work with the University of Minnesota, on sandy soils almost identical to those of Norfolk County, observed a tripling of soil carbon on retired farmland*.”
Growth opportunities
While some organizations are solely concerned with preserving nature and biodiversity, Andrew observes that many corporations are interested in assisting in the creation and enhancement of natural capital in order to drive measurable impacts. Furthermore, he observes that, while most corporations now recognize the need for sustainable business practices and want to address the impact of climate change on the global economy, they are looking for credible and scientifically validated partnerships to fulfil their impacts and establish positive relationships throughout their supply chain.

This appetite for new investment avenues, as well as the desire to understand the impact of the investment, aligns perfectly with the New Acre Project, which leverages market interest in nature-based solutions to provide private landowners with access to technical and financial assistance to establish and maintain such projects.

“A large part of the world’s arable landscape is now cultivated to some degree for crops, cultivation that makes it difficult for the soil to regenerate and capture carbon,” Andrew says. “We have to find a way to increase carbon mitigation and reward farmers for that.”

The farmers with whom Andrew and his team have worked are all eager to participate and support efforts to assess the impact of their work. Stewardship and sustainability are important to these farmers, but they don't always have the resources or support to take the necessary steps.

The New Acre Project and ALUS make it economically feasible for farmers to manage uneconomical lands differently in order to generate ecosystem services and environmental benefits without interfering with their operations. This, in turn, will not only help to address the climate crisis and global threats to biodiversity, but will also ensure that we can meet the world's food demands.

Andrew's work helps to connect the dots between things like biodiversity and carbon mitigation on farmlands, making it tangible for businesses to see the impact of investing in nature.

“I think it has to happen one farm at a time. This is where the power of ALUS’ work comes in, because they have so many farms—40,000 acres in Canada as a whole now and that adds up,” said Andrew.

“When corporations invest in New Acre Project, they get credit for real, measurable impacts, the farmer gets money and the land is protected. If every organization could do this, it would make a big difference.”