Global meta-analysis reveals agro-grassland productivity varies based on species diversity over time
Ashworth, A.J.; Toler, H.D.; Allen, F.L.; Augé, R.M.
Plos one 13(7): E0200274
Ecological research suggests increased diversity may improve ecosystem services, as well as yield stability; however, such theories are sometimes disproven by agronomic research, particularly at higher diversity levels. We conducted a meta-analysis on 2,753 studies in 48 articles published over the last 53 years to test: if biological N2 fixation (BNF) supplies adequate nitrogen (N) for plant growth relative to synthetic fertilizers; how crop physiological traits affect legume-grass symbiosis; and, how cultural practices affect BNF over a range of soils and climates overtime (in polycultures versus sole grasslands). Globally, net primary productivity (NPP; total aboveground production response of grass and legume in higher-diversity treatments) increased 44% via legume associations relative to sole grass controls (including both with and without N fertilizer). Several moderating variables affected NPP including: (i) plant photosynthetic pathway (mixtures of C3 grasses resulted in a 57% increase in NPP, whereas mixtures of C4 grasses resulted in a 31% increase; similarly cool-season legumes increased NPP 52% compared to a 27% increase for warm-season legumes relative to grasslands without diversity); (ii) legume life cycle [NPP response for perennial legume mixtures was 50% greater than sole grass controls, followed by a 28% increase for biennial, and a 0% increase for annual legumes)]; and, (iii) species richness (one leguminous species in a grassland agroecosystem resulted in 52% increase in NPP, whereas >2 legumes resulted in only 6% increases). Temporal and spatial effect sizes also influenced facilitation, considering facilitation was greatest (114% change) in Mediterranean climates followed by oceanic (84%), and tropical savanna (65%) environments; conversely, semiarid and subarctic systems had lowest Rhizobium-induced changes (5 and 0% change, respectively). Facilitation of grass production by legumes was also affected by soil texture. For example, a 122% NPP increase was observed in silt clay soils compared to 14% for silt loam soils. Niche complementarity effects were greatest prior to 1971 (61% change), compared to recent studies (2011-2016; -7% change), likely owing to reduced global sulfur deposition and increased ambient temperatures overtime. These historical trends suggest potential for legume intercrops to displace inorganic-N fertilizer and sustainably intensify global NPP. Results herein provide a framework for ecologists and agronomists to improve crop diversification systems, refine research goals, and heighten BNF capacities in agro-grasslands.