Wednesday, January 25, 2012

My Munchable Soapbox: One vs. Many

Over the past century, agriculture has shifted from primarily small-scale, multi-crop systems to vast monocultures. While planting row upon row of the same crop allows for efficient planting, tending, and harvesting, it also undermines the long-term sustainability of the agro-ecosystem. So let's talk biological diversity. Even beyond just the variety of crops, or agrobiodiversity, to the whole spectrum within a cropping system. Grist published an article on the topic, as part of its winter-long series devoted to the Lexicon of Sustainability.

Why is biodiversity important for food? Well first off, a multi-faceted farm provides actors to play the various roles needed for a system to function. Imagine you lived in a society with only bankers. Not only would be that be rather dull, but moreover, very little would get done and society would rather rapidly decline. Ok, perhaps not exactly the same, but thousands of acres of corn evokes a similar image. Such a system makes it difficult for multiple types of pollinators to thrive, soils to replenish, and niche pockets of micro-organisms to carry out their important tasks (decomposition, mineral provision, etc.). No boutique shops in this world of dominating conglomerations.

What does this system look like in practice? The image below is from the Lexicon of Sustainability Project's case of Rick Knoll's farm. Rick's "dirty farming" integrates weeds, trees, crops, animals, and soil to create a complex, self-regulatory food chain. One critical point here, is that often reducing the various webs of interactions in an agricultural system ultimately necessitates the use of powerful chemicals and other less-than-desirable control methods. If we take our homogeneous corn field again, of course it will be prone to pests and overpowering weeds! There is nothing left with which to compete. No flower beds to harbour helpful insects; no chickens tromping between beds fertilizing and weeding simultaneously.

Now, I can't claim to be a farmer, and this is much more difficult than my few paragraphs make it out to be. Making a living off of an organic, integrated crop-livestock system with the current slough of incentives, lobbies, and market mechanisms in agriculture is a challenge at best. Still, considering biodiversity and farm diversity should be a forethought rather than an afterthought. If we want to reach long-term sustainability of our food systems, we need to revisit the tenets embedded in this more holistic approach.
Source: Lexicon of Sustainability Project
...Stepping off of my soabox...

No comments: