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Agriculture and Environment

Agriculture and Environment

Agriculture is responsible for some great things. Just think of a juicy beef burger from a restaurant or the milk you have on your cereal to name a couple. However, agriculture and the environment have a pretty fractious relationship: intensifying agricultural practices are damaging ecosystems and releasing greenhouse gases, while a warming climate is making cost-effective agriculture more difficult. Today we shall be going into more depth about the consequences of intensive agriculture and also the effect modern global warming has on agricultural practices.

Relationship between Agriculture and the Environment

Agriculture and its surrounding environment affect each other in a variety of ways. Ecologically considerate agricultural practices benefit the environment, but intensive agriculture can negatively impact surrounding ecosystems and the environment on a larger scale.

Importance of Agriculture to the Environment

When agriculture is carried out in an environmentally-friendly way, it can positively impact the environment; here's how:

  • Soil fertility: One of sustainable agriculture's main goals is to improve soil fertility. This can be done by innovative methods of planting crops, such as intercropping, crop rotation, cover cropping, and the use of compost. Healthy soils lay a solid foundation for producers of surrounding ecosystems.
  • Ecosystem preservation: in many regions, ecosystems struggle to flourish in harsh climatic conditions. But with effective agricultural practices, the foundations of the ecosystems (such as pastures and crops) can be sustained.
  • Habitat creation: considerate agriculture, which invites species to build ecosystems around farms, is a fantastic way of creating habitats. For example, cultivating hedgerows and wildflower meadows around farms can attract many pollinators, and leaving waterlogged patches in between fields can improve connectivity between aquatic ecosystems.
  • Global producer populations: planting crops in agriculture increases global producer populations, meaning there is more carbon dioxide absorbed from the atmosphere by photosynthetic producers.
  • Ecological succession: many species fail to thrive in certain areas because they depend on an early stage of landscape (such as open meadows for pollinators). These habitats cannot be maintained naturally and will overgrow, so agriculture allows selective species to thrive in more areas.

Intercropping involves planting wildflowers between crops to increase the size of the gene pool and reduce susceptibility to disease. The planting of fast-growing crops that outcompete weeds is caused cover cropping. Crop rotation involves interchanging the types of crops that are planted in each area of the field throughout the year. These are regenerative methods and aim to improve soil fertility and reduce the need for fertilisers and pesticides.

Negative Impact of Agriculture on the environment

Agriculture is a business and relies on productive output to earn money. Therefore agricultural workers often do not have the option to implement environmentally-friendly initiatives and must use the most cost-effective methods possible. Here are some of the ways agriculture damages the environment.

Pollution

Intensive agriculture is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. Heavy machinery and vehicles used to transport produce burn fossil fuels and release carbon dioxide. In contrast, ruminants release endless amounts of methane (they are the largest cause of methane emissions on the planet). This is especially prevalent in overfed cattle being rushed to their carcass weight.

Ruminants are ungulate mammals that possess a rumen (first stomach). These include cattle, sheep, and deer.

Carcass weight is the weight where the fat-muscles ratio of the livestock are ideal and they are slaughtered.

Cows

Figure 1: cows are ruminants and fart endlessly.

Water pollution is also a problem in agriculture. The overuse of agrochemicals, especially artificial fertilisers, can damage soils and make them infertile. Nutrient-rich soils may leach and cause eutrophication of nearby waters. When algal blooms decompose, they release toxins that can ruin drinking water.

The leaching and eutrophication process is one you must get to terms with in environmental science; it comes up a lot! Nutrient-rich soils runoff by leaching from rainfall into nearby water bodies. Once these aquatic ecosystems become over-saturated with nutrients, algal populations increase exponentially and suffocating algal blooms form on the surface. These algal blooms block sunlight for deeper producers and are broken down by decomposers when they die, which sucks up all the oxygen. This ecosystem is now described as anoxic (meaning without oxygen) and struggles to support life.

Biodiversity

Farmlands are harmful to species diversity in the surrounding area in the following ways:

  • Farmers use only certain species to maximise the efficiency and output of produce, which often leads to a limited gene pool. This causes farm animals and crops to be susceptible to disease.
  • Pesticides kill any unwanted crops and pests so the desirable crops can thrive. This rapidly reduces the biodiversity in the surrounding area and the gene pool of all the crops in the field.
  • Overgrazing of land leads to the destruction of certain species' habitats which will often not grow back. The soil is often exposed and can be eroded by harsh winds and rainfall.
  • Removal of trees, shrubs, stumps, hedgerows, and the draining of ponds and marshes removes the habitats of many species and ecosystems.
  • Minimal use of intercropping and crop rotation reduces plant biodiversity.
  • Using fertilisers can lead to eutrophication in nearby rivers and lakes, devastating ecosystems.
  • The release of effluent (liquid waste) into nearby water bodies can harm the wildlife that lives there and decrease soil quality.

The gene pool is the abundance and variation of genes in a population.

A monoculture is farming a single crop or animal in a specific area.

Intercropping involves planting different species in the spaces between rows of crops, while crop rotation is the planting of different species alternately in the same field.

Soil Quality

We've covered how the over application of fertilisers can damage soils, but there are many other ways in which inconsiderate agriculture harms soils:

Soil quality is essential for farmers because it provides the foundation for crops to absorb nutrients and grow quickly.

  • Changes in land use: deforestation of arboreal areas, the introduction of too many grazing species, and agricultural practices on unsuitable land (e.g. uncultivated land) increase the vulnerability of soils.

  • Soil contamination: the application of chemical fertilisers, pesticides, as well as poor management of wastewater, can contaminate soils and reduce fertility.

  • Desertification: the degradation of agricultural lands from human activity and climate change is called desertification and results in productivity plummeting. Unsustainable and ecologically inconsiderate agriculture are drivers of desertification.

  • Soil erosion: heavy rainfall disperses soil and increases erosion. Physical interference from farmers and overgrazing animals disturbs the soils and pulls plant roots out, ruining the structure of the soil and allowing erosion to happen more easily.

Uncultivated land is land which has not been tended to in at least 15 years and often lacks any sort of ecological foundations to sustain an agroecosystem.

Sustainable agriculture aims to implement methods of growing crops and livestock that are reproducible in the long term while also having minimal environmental effects. Goals associated with sustainable agriculture are:

  • The promotion of biodiversity in wildlife and crops.
  • Conserving freshwater.
  • Reducing chemical pesticide and fertiliser use.

Disturbed soil

Figure 2: here is an example of soil which has been physically disturbed and has become infertile.

Land Aesthetic

How picturesque countryside landscapes are is very important to a large demographic in this country and across the world. Sustainable farms may conserve ecosystems (surrounding forests, hedgerows, nearby rivers), but intensive agriculture often clears these areas to ensure the maximum efficiency of agricultural land. Robust, industrial structures replace traditional farms, while naturally occurring woodland is replaced with endless pastures.

Negative Environmental Impact on Agriculture

Increasing global temperatures affect livestock and crop production in agriculture, threatening global food security.

Impacts on livestock:

  • Animals will lose more energy from increased metabolism and sweating in the heat.
  • Disease will spread faster between them in warmer temperatures.
  • Heat waves will stress them and may affect growth and reproduction.
  • Droughts will limit grazing availability as grazing land will dry out.

Impacts on crops:

  • Unpredictable rainfall and droughts will make it more difficult for farmers to manage land.
  • Invasive pests from northward migrating species and the faster spread of disease mean that more agrochemicals will be required.
  • Decomposers act faster in warmer temperatures, so they may cause an influx of excess nutrients into soils and reduce fertility.

Positive Impact of Environment on Agriculture

The environment often provides the foundations for agriculture, and without the very unique and amazing environment that the Earth possesses, farming would be much more tedious! Here are some of the ways the environment positively impacts agriculture:

  • Producer dispersal: over millions of years, the planet's producers have been expanding the areas they inhabit through seed dispersal. This has allowed agriculture to happen worldwide because land filled with photosynthesising producers is always fertile. Producers form the basis of the ecosystem and attract animal life, forming a cycle of life and decomposing matter which fertilises the soil.
  • Greenhouse gases: despite having a bad reputation, greenhouse gases are crucial in maintaining a temperate climate. Greenhouse gases absorb infrared radiation reflected from the Earth's surface and re-emit this radiation back towards Earth, warming the planet. Without them, any productive agriculture would be basically impossible in consistently freezing conditions.
  • Pollination: pollinators (e.g. bees, butterflies, moths) are essential in sustaining functional agroecosystems. They maintain plant biodiversity by pollinating flowering plants and also play a role in pollinating a variety of crops, such as peppers, tomatoes, and aubergines.

Hopefully you are now aware that although agriculture is responsible for some good things, there are negative consequences of intensive agriculture.

Agriculture and Environment - Key takeaways

  • Sustainable agriculture has positive impacts for the environment, such as maintaining surrounding biodiversity, fertilising soils, and creating habitats.
  • However, intensive and ecologically inconsiderate agriculture can damage nearby aquatic ecosystems, release GHGs like carbon dioxide and methane, and contaminate soils with agrochemicals.
  • Intercropping involves planting different species in the spaces between rows of crops, while crop rotation is the planting of different species alternately in the same field.
  • Climate change and global warming makes agriculture more difficult too. Disease spreads faster, migrating invasive species are dangerous, and livestock expend more energy in the heat.
  • The environment is beneficial to agriculture, as ecosystems provide stable foundations for agricultural development and pollinators benefit crop populations.
  • Sustainable agriculture aims to implement methods of growing crops and livestock that are reproducible in the long term while also having minimal environmental effects.

Frequently Asked Questions about Agriculture and Environment

Sustainable agriculture can be beneficial for maintaining biodiversity in surrounding ecosystems and providing habitats, but intensive agriculture releases waste and reduces soil fertility.

Agriculture releases waste in the form of methane from livestock, carbon dioxide from machinery, and poorly disposed animal waste. Intensive agriculture disturbs soils and increases erosion, reduces surrounding biodiversity, and contaminates soils with chemicals.

Sustainable agriculture can help to sustain struggling ecosystems by providing habitats and help species which struggle during ecological succession.

The environment can impact production massively. Soils dry out and livestock use more energy in warmer temperatures, while pests and invasive species can interfere with crop production.

The relationship is a complicated one, but mostly involves intensive agriculture harming the environment and a positive feedback occurring where warming temperature cause productive agriculture to be more difficult.

Final Agriculture and Environment Quiz

Question

What is an agroecosystem?

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Answer

An agroecosystem is a natural community modified for agricultural processes. It encompasses the interactions between species and the environment.

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Question

How much land area can polycultures save?

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Answer

29%

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Question

What crop is typically grown in agrisilviculture systems?

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Answer

Coffee

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Question

Which of these is not an abiotic component of an agroecosystem?

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Answer

Pollinators

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What is planned diversity?

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Answer

Planned diversity consists of the plants, animals and beneficial microbes deliberately added to an agroecosystem.

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What is unplanned diversity?

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Unplanned diversity consists of other organisms in the agroecosystem after conversion to agriculture, such as weeds.

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Why is low genetic diversity a problem in crops?

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Answer

Low genetic diversity leaves crops susceptible to pests and diseases.

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What is functional biodiversity?

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Answer

Functional biodiversity quantifies the components of biodiversity that influence how an ecosystem operates.

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What is polyculture?

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Answer

The interspersion of different, complementary crops that provides mutual benefits.

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What type of agroecosystem creates synergies and imitates natural systems by using holistic techniques?

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Answer

Permaculture

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Which type of agroforestry practice combines crops and trees?

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Answer

Agrisilvicultural systems

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Question

True or False: farmers are an abiotic component of an agroecosystem.

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Answer

False

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True or False: increasing planned diversity increases unplanned diversity.

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Answer

True

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What is resource biota?

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Answer

Resource biota is organisms contributing to the agroecosystem's productivity through services such as pollination and decomposition.

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What percentage of pest species were less abundant in a diverse agricultural system?

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Answer

53%

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Question

Name two pollinators, alongside their Latin names.

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Answer

European honeybee - Apis mellifera (and subspecies, such as Apis mellifera carnica)

Buff-tailed Bumblebee - Bombus terrestris

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What is pollen commonly produced by?

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Answer

Flower stamens.

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What is a special technique that wild bees use to obtain firmly attached pollen?

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Answer

Buzz pollination

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What kind of plant-animal interaction is pollination?

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Mutualisic

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The following animals are pollinators:

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Wasps, flies, geckos

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Name five commercial crops that depend on pollination

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Answer

Tomatoes, apples, almonds, blueberries, strawberries

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What is the largest pollinator animal?

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Answer

The lemur (the black-and-white ruffed lemur, specifically)

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What are the oldest pollinators we know of?

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Answer

Beetles

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What plants evolved to be pollinated by beetles and have since not changed much?

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Answer

Magnolias

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What is the leading cause of pollinator decline worldwide?

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Habitat loss, fragmentation and degradation.

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Can diseases from domesticated bees and insufficient research cause harm to wild pollinator species?

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Answer

Absolutely!

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How much have pollinator numbers declined in the UK since 1980?

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Answer

30% according to JNCC

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How much can wild bees improve crops, according to a test done in Virginia, USA?

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Answer

36% yield or the equivalent of $110,000/year.

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Can apiculture be harmful? 

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Answer

Yes: They can compete with wild species and consume their resources

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Name two Laws implemented in the UK that affect pollinator wellbeing.

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Answer

  • The Environment Act 2021 
  • The Habitats Directive


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Do bats provide pollination services in the UK?

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Yes

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What order do moths and butterflies belong to?

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Answer

Lepidoptera

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What order do bees, wasps, etc. belong to?

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Hymenoptera

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How does sustainable agriculture affect biodiversity?

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Answer

Sustainable practices like intercropping and crop rotation, as well as implementing hedgerows and marshy areas improves biodiversity.

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How does considerate agriculture improve soil quality?

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Answer

Limited use of fertilisers, use of compost, and covercropping all improve soil fertility.

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What is an example of ecosystem preservation?

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Answer

Agriculture in warm, arid regions with limited precipitation.

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What is ecological succession?

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Answer

The natural growth of a habitat without maintenance.

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What kind of air pollution does agriculture release?

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Answer

Carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning machinery and methane from ruminants.

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How  does agriculture pollute waterways?

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Answer

The leaching of nutrient rich soils (from overuse of fertilisers) seeps into nearby waters.

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What is the main problem of water pollution for aquatic ecosystems.

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Answer

Eutrophication and the resulting anoxic environment.

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What is the gene pool?

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Answer

The abundance and variance of genes in a population.

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Why do pesticides need to applied appropriately?

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Answer

Because pests are often essential components of ecosystems, and wiping them out can damage the functionality of the ecosystem.

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Question

What is effluent?

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Answer

Liquid waste.

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Question

How is soil contamination affected by intensive agriculture?

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Answer

Clearing of land, increased erosion, soil contamination, and desertification.

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Question

What is desertification?

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Answer

The degradation of agricultural land from human impact and climate change.

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Question

How does agriculture lead to more soil erosion?

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Answer

Physical disturbance of the soil and overgrazing makes it more susceptible to erosion.

Show question

Question

What are the aims of sustainable agriculture?

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Answer

Goals associated with sustainable agriculture are the promotion of biodiversity in wildlife and crops, conserving freshwater, and reducing chemical pesticide and fertiliser use. 

Show question

Question

How are livestock affected by warming temperatures?

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Answer

they expend more energy and are more susceptible to disease.

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Question

What are weeds?

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Answer

Invasive, unwanted plants which take nutrients, water, and space from the desired crops.

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Question

What are some examples of common agricultural pests?

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Answer

Aphids, weeds, locusts.

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