Sensitivity to agricultural inputs and dispersal limitation determine the response of arable plants to time since transition to organic farming

Romain Carrié, Henrik G. Smith, Johan Ekroos

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review


Transitioning to low-input agricultural systems such as organic farming has been acknowledged as a way to mitigate negative effects of agriculture on biodiversity. However, the speed, magnitude and context dependence of biodiversity recovery after converting to organic farming remain uncertain. In this study, we explored the response of plant communities to time since transition to organic farming in a variety of production contexts. Using a spatially replicated space-for-time substitution design, we surveyed plant communities in small-grain cereal and ley fields in conventional and organic farms, distributed along independent gradients of time since transition to organic farming and proportion of seminatural grasslands in the landscapes. We selected a set of response traits to explore the mechanism of potential time lag in that response to conversion. These traits were selected to characterize the sensitivity of plant species to agricultural inputs and their ability to respond swiftly to environmental changes. We found an increase in plant species richness and evenness in cereal fields with increasing time since transition to organic farming, and a similar but less pronounced pattern in leys. After 30 years of continuous organic farming, organic cereal fields harboured more than twice the number of plant species than newly converted fields. Importantly, we found that the dependence on insect pollination, sensitivity to herbicides and dispersal capacity of plants modulated the effects of time since transition on plant communities in cereal fields. This suggests that both management and biotic interactions shape plant community structure in response to organic practices over time. Policy implications. Our study highlights that benefits of organic farming for plant diversity are likely to take decades to become substantial after conversion. We found this slow recovery of plant communities to be driven by both the gradual improvement of habitat quality after conversion and species' dispersal limitation. Assessments of biodiversity benefits of organic farming should therefore consider this time delay to avoid underestimating its environmental performance. Farmers should also be supported during this ecological transitional phase during which yield-enhancing ecosystem services reliant on plant diversity might build up.

Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Applied Ecology
Issue number6
Pages (from-to)1227-1242
Number of pages16
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2024
MoE publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed

Fields of Science

  • agri-environment schemes
  • biodiversity
  • conversion
  • farming system
  • traits
  • transition
  • weeds
  • 4111 Agronomy

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