Enhancing pollination is more effective than increased conventional agriculture inputs for improving watermelon yields
Peer reviewed, Journal article
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Original versionEcology and Evolution. 2020, 10 (12), 5343-5353. 10.1002/ece3.6278
Agricultural practices to improve yields in small‐scale farms in Africa usually focus on improving growing conditions for the crops by applying fertilizers, irrigation, and/or pesticides. This may, however, have limited effect on yield if the availability of effective pollinators is too low. In this study, we established an experiment to test whether soil fertility, soil moisture, and/or pollination was limiting watermelon (Citrullus lanatus) yields in Northern Tanzania. We subjected the experimental field to common farming practices while we treated selected plants with extrafertilizer applications, increased irrigation and/or extra pollination in a three‐way factorial experiment. One week before harvest, we assessed yield from each plant, quantified as the number of mature fruits and their weights. We also assessed fruit shape since this may affect the market price. For the first fruit ripening on each plant, we also assessed sugar content (brix) and flesh color as measures of fruit quality for human consumption. Extra pollination significantly increased the probability of a plant producing a second fruit of a size the farmer could sell at the market, and also the fruit sugar content, whereas additional fertilizer applications or increased irrigation did not improve yields. In addition, we did not find significant effects of increased fertilizer or watering on fruit sugar, weight, or color. We concluded that, insufficient pollination is limiting watermelon yields in our experiment and we suggest that this may be a common situation in sub‐Saharan Africa. It is therefore critically important that small‐scale farmers understand the role of pollinators and understand their importance for agricultural production. Agricultural policies to improve yields in developing countries should therefore also include measures to improve pollination services by giving education and advisory services to farmers on how to develop pollinator‐friendly habitats in agricultural landscapes.