Indicator species for agrobiodiversity in rice paddy fields: Research and its application in eastern rural Taiwan



  • Hualien District Agricultural Research and Extension Station (HDARES), Council of Agriculture, Taiwan


  • 14/10/2016

  • REGION :

  • Eastern Asia


  • Chinese Taipei (Hualien County)


  • Taking the agricultural production and the ecological environment conservation into consideration at the same time has already become the target of sustainable agricultural development. The production of organic rice in the eastern rural Taiwan covers more than 56% of whole organic certified areas of Taiwan. Most of the rice produced in satoyama-like, satochi-like or satoumi-like areas, which means the rice production is highly related to the surrounding landscapes. In recent years the Hualien District Agricultural Research and Extension Station (HDARES) has been specially working on revitalising the agricultural production landscapes in ways that benefit both the agricultural productivity and biodiversity in the eastern rural Taiwan. One of the key task is to figure out indicator species for agrobiodiversity in rice paddy fields as well as its application in eastern rural Taiwan. Based on the mid-term research projects conducted form 2012 to 2015, the significant findings and applications include: a) discovering two indicator species sensitive to agrobiodiversity of the organic paddy fields; b) relationship between the habitat heterogeneity and agrobiodiversity in the paddy fields; c) cooperating with the Tse-Xin Organic Agriculture Foundation to incorporate above indicator species into the Green Conservation Label as an incentive to encourage farmers’ environmentally friendly farming and consumers’ supports; d) habitat manipulation and diversification of paddy fields to facilitate ecosystem services and to reduce chemical inputs.


  • organic cultivation, paddy field, agro-biodiversity indicator species, stakeholder participation, habitat manipulation


  • 1) Dr. Mei-Ling Fan, Deputy Director of Hualien District Agricultural Research and Extension Station (HDARES), Council of Agriculture, Taiwan, who led a pioneering study on developing agro-biodiversity indicators in paddy fields in Taiwan. To put those indicators into practice, she helped HDARES cooperate with the NPO, Tse-Xin Organic Agriculture Foundation, and came up with an innovative idea to incorporate indicators into the Green Conservation Label. She has also helped to coordinate relevant government institutions and universities in Taiwan to conduct a 4-year integrated project called Integrated project of enhancing ecoagriculture and sustainable development of rural Taiwan through international cooperation (2017-2020). 2) Chih-Ying Yu, Assistant researcher of HDARES, Council of Agriculture, Taiwan, who dedicates her research to developing innovative techniques that create native wild flower turfs to attract natural enemies thus reduce the incidence of pests and diseases. 3) Lily Lin, Assistant researcher of HDARES, Council of Agriculture, Taiwan, who dedicates her research to developing innovative techniques on habitat manipulation for conserving natural enemies against agricultural pests, as well as to promoting integrated pest management in organic way.

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Summary Sheet

The summary sheet for this case study is available here.


Paddy is one of the major crops in the monsoon Asia. Through environmentally friendly farming and proper management of paddy fields, the biodiversity in the socio-ecological production landscapes (SEPLs) can be revitalised and conserved. In Taiwan paddy fields occupy around 150,000 hectares of land in Taiwan. They can be considered the largest artificial wetland of freshwater habitats. Proper management of paddy fields plays a crucial role in maintaining ecological functions of artificial wetland. Besides food production, paddy fields provide other ecosystem services including flood control, groundwater recharge, water quality, local climate mitigation, fish culture and other non-rice products, culture, landscape and biodiversity conservation (Natuhara, 2012). However, during the process of agricultural intensification, conventional farming is often accompanied with toxic pesticides and chemical fertilizers, cementing field banks, irrigation and drainage systems and simplified food production as monocropping. These not only intensely degraded farming environment, but also directly endanger biodiversity in the agro-ecosystem (Swift, 1997; Medley et al., 1995; De Jong, 1997; Tilman et al., 2001; Resdsma et al., 2006; Vitousek et al., 2009; Natuhara, 2012).

Environmentally friendly farming activities are crucial to agro-biodiversity management and how to maintain a sustainable agro-ecological farming system has gained growing concern (Vickery et al., 2004; Imaizumi et al., 2006; Power, 2010; Swinton et al., 2007; Zhang et al., 2007; UNU-IAS, 2010a; UNU-IAS, 2010b, UNU-IAS, 2012). Additionally, it is necessary to balance biodiversity conservation and agricultural productivity (Butler et al., 2007). Agricultural policies have started to act forward the adjustment of two goals, namely, ensuring food security and increasing biodiversity; moreover, new farming methods such as organic farming have been developed in past years to cope with the goals (Seufert et al., 2012).

The Hualien District Agricultural Research and Extension Station (HDARES) was established in 1939 and her major task is to conduct agricultural experimental research, demonstration and promotion in HuanlienCounty and YilanCounty. The environment of eastern rural Taiwan is especially suitable for promoting organic farming. In Hualien and Yilan areas, the proportion of organic crops cultivation area, which is supported by the HDARES, is very high in Taiwan and the organic rice accounts for more than half of the whole organic certified areas in Taiwan which is still increasing constantly.

In recent years, due to the emerging problems of food safety and the mainstream value of biodiversity, consumer’s demand on organic rice has increased and they are willing to buy it with relatively high price. Based on the situation that public recognition on the biodiversity value has been raised, local crop farming assisted by HDARES should not only be considered in terms of economic productivity, but also be beneficial to farmers’ and consumer’s health as well as the biodiversity in and surrounding the farmlands. Just as the goals of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, we would like to figure out the underlying causes of the biodiversity loss and help to mainstream biodiversity into policies and practices. We would like to play a vital role in leading ecoagriculture in Taiwan in line with the concepts and practices of the Satoyama Initiative.

Since 2011 we have conducted a field research that aims to discuss the difference of invertebrates’ community structure between organic farming and conventional farming in paddy fields of eastern rural Taiwan. It is expected to develop agro-biodiversity indicator species which is helpful in monitoring integrity of agricultural environment and promoting environmentally friendly farming. This study was conducted on the area with the first organic fields and the largest planting ratio, Fu-li County, Hualien of Taiwan. It aims to explore the differences of invertebrate community structures and its biodiversity brought along by organic farming and conventional farming. We highly expected to extract indicator species which are more sensitive between different farming methods from invertebrate assemblages and can represent biodiversity in paddy fields in eastern Taiwan via comparisons of invertebrate community structures in paddy fields under different farming practices and multivariate analysis. It is strongly hoped that results acquired are of certain help in monitoring rural environmental health and encouraging environmentally friendly farming.

Research sample area

The research sample area is situated within Fu-li County, Hualien of Taiwan. Fu-li County has the oldest organic cultivation history and the highest organic planting ratio in Taiwan (Figure 1 and Picture 1).

Figure 1 Location and sample sites of the case study area

Picture 1 Fuli Village in Hualien County, Taiwan as the sample area for research

Main Body

1) Study of indicator species sensitive to agrobiodiversity of the organic paddy fields

Epigeal fauna of paddy fields is usually established due to its close relevance to pest management. We believe that significant strategies for sustainable development of agriculture can be gradually made through studying the structural changes of this fauna which helps understand the human impact. In this research, the team focused on the species identification and amount counting which follow vertical stratification and found out that the epigeal fauna had complex structure and covered different ecologically functional groups. We hope to screen out the indicator species which can exactly reflect the changes of the environment of paddy fields thus combine agricultural activities harmony with nature. Based on the situation that there have already been many regulations and suggestions on the application of indicator internationally, we mainly consider the guidance in OECD (1999, 2001) and then combine with field research to make selection. Besides, for the degradation of ecosystem service and loss of biodiversity in the farmland landscapes resulted from the changes of gradient of agricultural intensification, experts have different trend predictions (Perfecto and Vandermeer, 2008). Functional agrobiodiversity advocates that proper practices can increase and improve the functional supply, food production which brought by agricultural biodiversity. These proper measures are encouraged to be widely applied in the planning of landscapes for agricultural production (ELN-FAB 2012). We agree that agricultural operation which through enhancing ecosystem service with reduced ecological stress is good for the conservation of biodiversity. Therefore, we investigated arthropod species between organic paddy field and conventional paddy field. We conduct research on the farmlands and set goals for different phases:

a)      Find out proper indicator species to reflect the situation of farmlands.

b)      Understand the correlation between agricultural habitats and the fauna. Use this result to be the reference for assessing the degree of integrated ecosystem service in paddy fields.

c)      Implement the application of indicator species with the multi-stakeholders participation, and increase the added value of agricultural products. During the process, some of our core spirits are corresponding to the Three- Fold Approach in Satoyama Initiatives (Table 1).

Table 1 Indicator species for agrobiodiversity in rice paddy fields in line with the Three-Fold Approach in Satoyama Initiatives:

We choose Fuli Village as the sample area for research, selecting paddy fields under organic farming and conventional farming. Species were identified as inner ecological function usually have similar niche for living conditions and contribute ecosystem service. We try to classify different species according to ecological function: predators, parasitoids, pests, graminivores, scavengers, pollinators and visitors. There are the important research findings:

a)      Paddy fields under organic farming have 1.3 times of the richness compared with fields under conventional farming.

b)      Though having higher proportion of rice harmful species and predator as well as larger number of species, paddy fields under organic farming have potential to resist different kinds of pest damage in the future.

c)      Through the selection of predators, Tetragnatha maxillosa Thorell (1895), Tetragnatha javana Thorell (1890) and Micraspis discolor Fabricius (1798) not only have higher frequency of occurrence but also have higher sensitivity to different farming. The number of these species has obvious positive correlation to the whole biodiversity. We select them as the indicator species, reflecting farmland biodiversity (Figure 2).

The habitat environment of the paddy fields under conventional farming has changed due to the impact of the farming method, which is specifically reflected in the change of the proportion of the ecological functional group.

Figure 2 Tetragnatha maxillosa Thorell (1895), Micraspis discolor Fabricius (1798) and Tetragnatha javana Thorell (1890) are appropriate to be used as agro-biodiversity indicators and species promoting environmentally friendly ecological farming.

Picture 2 Investigating arthropod community structures in paddy fields under different farming practices.

2) Study of relationship between habitat heterogeneity and the agrobiodiversity and ecosystem services in paddy fields

Through pilot research, we found out that farming methods with different intensive degrees have influence on the formation of biological groups. When the experimental scale extends to whole Fuli Village, we were more curious about the impacts of habitat heterogeneity on the formation of biology under meticulous distinction of environmental conditions. And we found out that the environmental conditions of the paddy fields and their surroundings can be divided into four types: Artificial inputs, Status of field banks, Adjacent land-use, Drainage/ Irrigation (Table 2). These environmental conditions separately affect the species composition of different biological functional groups. Take the predator of natural enemy we focused on as an example. The quality of this functional group (number of species, proportion of dominant species) and the quantity of it (total quantity) are degraded by the increasing times of weeding and the influence of cementation, rendering the decrease in number of species and the total quantity as well as increase in the proportion of dominant species, which make it difficult to conduct rice pest control. As for the promotion of environment friendly agriculture, there are the researches for our reference, and the habitat heterogeneity surrounding the paddy fields also plays an important role. The negative influence resulted from the deterioration of habitats is as terrible as the traditional pesticide application.

3) Incorporating indicator species into the Green Conservation Label as an incentive to encourage farmers’ environmentally friendly farming and consumers’ supports

The Green Conservation Label is promoted by the Tse-Xin Organic Agriculture Foundation with the help of the Forestry Bureau. The core value of this label is to promote environmentally friendly farming and encourage purchases of Green Label products. To put those indicators into practice, HDARES cooperated with the Tse-Xin Organic Agriculture Foundation and came up with some innovative measures as followings:

a)   Add indicator species which can reflect the current situation of farmlands such as Tetragnatha maxillosa Thorell (1895), Micraspis discolor Fabricius (1798) and Tetragnatha javana Thorell (1890).

b)   Explore the agricultural production which is beneficial to establishing the habitat environment during the production process and use it as the standard for awarding the Green Conservation Label.

c)    Constantly inspect the production process of rice through farmers’ scanning observation, to know whether various farming measures have contributions to establishing the habitat environment and then apply adjustments.

This is a brand new attempt for both of us. At that time the awarding of the existing Green Conservation Label was mostly focusing on encouraging the agricultural production of the surrounding farmlands where there were protected species. We successfully apply the indicator species which are common in the paddy fields and can reflect the biodiversity of farmlands as one of the standards for issuing the Green Conservation Label, and based on the existing standards, we suggest adding qualifying condition which is maintaining habitat heterogeneity which is beneficial for the biodiversity. Therefore, the application scale of the Green Conservation Label is extended, encouraging more interested farmers into environment friendly producers (Figure 3). We cooperated with Tse-Xin Organic Agriculture Foundation, farmers, Rice Production and Marketing Group, Agribusiness Company (Yin-Chuan Organic Rice) and Forestry Bureau in this case. And what we did can successfully keep farmers’ income and keep biodiversity (Figure 4).

Picture 3. We extended the application scale of Green Conservation Label and cooperated with Tse-Xin Organic Agriculture Foundation, farmers, Rice Production and Marketing Group, Agribusiness Company and Forestry Bureau in this case.

Picture 4. We cooperate with this Farmers of Rice Production and Marketing Group

4) Habitat manipulation and diversification of paddy fields to facilitate ecosystem services and to reduce chemical inputs

Besides the research and application of agrobiodiversity indicator species for rice paddies, we collected and selected a variety of Taiwan native wild flowers and mixed different native plants that differed according to environmental adaptability, plant growth characteristics and purposes, to create wild flower turf. Native wild flower turfs are blended with a variety of plants that could increase tolerance to environmental changes. They also blossom with the seasons also provide insects and other biological nectar and pollen. They can be applied to farmland ridge or orchard to build diversity habitat (Figure 3). Because plants are the basis of ecosystems, by recovering diversified native plants could attract diversified species and increase farmland biodiversity and stabilize farmland ecosystems as well as reduce the incidence of pests and diseases (Figure 4).

For the management of habitats, there are the following principle suggestions: (a) promoting low input farming practices, (b) reserving grasslands on rice paddy field banks, (c) maintain the diversity of the landscapes surrounding the paddy fields, (d) preventing excessive consumptions and disturbance on biotic community, (e) conduct proper drainage and reduce water used for irrigation. We also provide platforms like farmer schools for farmers to make feedbacks and share the relevant technologies.

Figure 3. Techniques introduced to farmers for creating native wild flower turfs

Figure. 4. Most of the native wild flowers are nectar-rich flowering plant, which can attract natural enemies and pollinators come to our field, so that they can help farmers to reduce chemical pesticide usage.

From transplanting to become a bowl of rice on the table of consumer’s, every step of agricultural practices may affect the ecosystem of paddy fields. Take the research on indicator species and the following guidance for habitat management which we promote as examples. Through one year of promotion, the number of farmers who recognize the concepts of indicator species and habitat heterogeneity and obtain the Green Conservation Label has increased from 7 to 24.

5) Outlook: the 4-year integrated project of enhancing ecoagriculture and sustainable development of rural Taiwan through international cooperation

With financial support from the Council of Agriculture in 2017-2020, HDARES will cooperate with the following institutions to conduct a 4-year integrated project called Integrated project of enhancing ecoagriculture and sustainable development of rural Taiwan through international cooperation, including National Dong Hwa University (NDHU), National Taiwan University (NTU), Agricultural Engineering Research Center (AERC), Miaoli District Agricultural Research and Extension Station (MDARES), Chinese Taipei Committee, International Commission on Irrigation Drainage (CTCID).

The strategic framework for the above integrated project is shown as Figure 5. The framework for stakedholder colloboration is shown as Figure 6. The main research strategy is to combine efforts of social science and natural science studies with a focus of enhancing landscape resilience and community adaptive capacity that can be learnt especially from relevant international institutions such as IPSI, LEGATO, UFZ, University of Tokyo and the water conservation organization ICID. There are five research strategies as followings:

(a)    Increase the diversity and resilience of agricultural production landscapes

(b)   Increase agrobiodiversity of paddy fields and enhance ecosystem services by habitat restoration within and surrounding the farmlands

(c)    Enhance adaptive capacity of rural communities through collaborative planning and multi-stakeholder participation

(d)   Explore relevant international policies for promoting ecoagriculture in Taiwan

(e)    Learn from innovative international technology and practices and contribute Taiwan’s experience to international societies

Figure 5 The strategic framework for the 4-year Integrated project (2017-2020)

Figure 6 Conceptual framework for promoting stakeholder participation in the planning and management processes


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Website link of the Hualien District Agricultural Research and Extension Station (HDARES)