Plant reproductive ecology, meet modern agriculture

Animal pollination plays a critical role in seed set and maintenance of genetic diversity for most plant species. When these plants are co-opted into agriculture this becomes just one of many factors that influence productivity, but one that is usually paid scant attention. Many ecologists therefore hope that insights from natural systems can be used to improve production while reducing harm to the environment, and consider better pollination to be one of these strategies. I examined the role of pollen and resource limitation of fruit set in an animal pollinated crop (almonds) with a series of experiments over a six year period and found that in spite of the industry spending millions of dollars on the provision of bees, productivity is still limited by pollination. But the prospects for ecologically inspired solutions are not clear, because modern agricultural practice creates circumstances in which it is very difficult to maximise pollination. With this background I will reflect on the relationship between pollination and food, concerns of pollination decline, and future farming trends.


Saul Cunningham is the Director of the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the ANU. Prior to this he spent 17 years with CSIRO in Canberra, where he developed a research program focusing on the challenge of maintaining biodiversity in landscapes dedicated to agricultural production. In 2015 the Ecological Society of Australia honoured Saul with the “Australian Ecology Research Award.” He was a contributor to the Intergovernmental Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) assessment report on Pollination and Food production, published in 2016.