Thursday, January 5, 2017

Sustainable agriculture through imitating Nature

By Christopher-Joseph Ravnopolski-Dean

[Editor’s Note: On September 25, 2016, we published Christopher’s article, “Sustainable Agriculture in Native America.” A day later I came across the September 23 NY Times article, “Why Industrial Farms Are Good for the Environment,” by Jayson Lusk, whose title alone raised my suspicions, leading me to wonder whether the author might be in the pocket of factory farming.
Rows of lettuce and other vegetables on a large farm in California
[From the NY Times article]
    In response to my query what he thought about the article, Christopher generously (and quickly) responded with today’s essay on sustainable agriculture, a subject about which he is passionate and well-informed. I apologize to writer and reader alike that we are only now publishing Christopher’s follow-on discussion.]

Contemporary commercial/industrial, or conventional, agriculture is one of the largest consumers of water and fossil fuels, if not the largest. This is a fact, which is officially acknowledged by organizations such as the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. It is also well known that we put much more energy into our fields than we get back in return. We put in like ten times more calories in terms of fossil fuel to power our tractors than the calories we obtain from the food we get from the fields so farmed.
    This is the truth about intensive agriculture, and everybody knows this. The conventional answer to this problem is precision agriculture. Factory farmers want to monitor everything with computers, with technology; they want to measure exactly what each plant needs and give it exactly what it needs. I am not well acquainted with their methods, but supposedly this precision is aimed at reducing the ecological foot print of agriculture. You know how much water the corn needs – you give it no more, no less! The fairy tale becomes complete when Monsanto comes into the picture and promises you high-yielding, genetically modified crops, resistant to a long list of diseases.
    The results of Monsanto and precision agronomists are huge achievements of human intellect, but this is not the right direction for agriculture to go in. The right direction for agriculture is ecomimicry [“the practice of mimicking the natural world in the technological world” –Appropedia, Sharing knowledge to build rich, sustainable lives].
    Nature has been growing plants and animals for the last hundreds of millions of years. Have you seen somebody spray fertilizers in the forest or in the savannah in order to sustain them? Or maybe fairies sprinkle pesticides in the forest to prevent diseases and pests from spreading. Or maybe invisible computers are calculating how much water is necessary to grow a prairie?
    No, Nature has devised other ways to deal with the problems that modern agriculture faces. The most important tools that we see in Nature are polycultures. You don’t see huge fields of corn occurring naturally in the wild. What you usually observe in undisturbed(!) natural ecosystems are plants living together with other plant species.
    A conventional farmer’s first objection to this is to say that plants living together will compete. Well, believe it or not, mutualism and symbiosis among different species of plants are quite more common in Nature than is competition. Different plants have evolved together and have benefited from each other’s presence. For example, it has been shown that plant diversity increases the diversity and availability of the natural enemies of pests. It follows that if we can mimic this diversity in our fields, we can hugely reduce pests. But the question is how to mimic it in our agricultural systems?


The question modern agronomists should answer is: How can we mimic natural biomes in our agricultural systems?
    God has already shown us the answers to the questions and problems we have in agriculture; we just need to look for them in the right place. Continuing with monoculture and trying to alleviate problems by making old technologies more precise is not the right way. It may be a huge intellectual achievement, but it is counterproductive – the intellectual effort should be directed at imitating nature in our agroecosystems.
    Native Americans, Asian Indians, and other ethnic groups tried to imitate forests in their agricultural systems and created edible forest gardens. Portuguese and Italian peasants integrated tree crops among their fields for more efficient use of the land. Many other nations discovered intercropping (companion planting) and saw its beneficial effects on pest and water management. All these practices were based on ecomimicry and were able to supply people with nutrition, fiber, and timber. Of course, we would need to make them more productive today, but the key to that lies in better understanding the pertinent natural laws, not in trying to improve on what we’re doing now.
    Modern, progressive scientists are working in this direction. Here are some examples:
    France is working hard on agroforestry – integrating trees into its agricultural fields. First, this practice assures more calories earned per acre. You harvest grains and nuts from the same place, instead of using two separate plots, one for nuts and another for grains. Of course, you will plant fewer chestnut trees in the grain field this way than if you had a separate plot for them, but you will still gain more yield from the same acre. Second, the integration offers a habitat for many predators of pests. Third, it improves soil quality and increases water retention. Fourth, it helps reduce erosion.
    In the United States, the Land Institute is trying to mimic prairies and create a “perennial grain agriculture.” The idea is very simple: take as a model a healthy prairie ecosystem, where nobody waters or uses fertilizers or pesticides but produces edible grains. The Savanna Institute, in the Midwest, does the same thing, but, as evident from the name, by mimicking savannas.
    The difference in the approach that I am describing here from conventional farming is that man is trying to work with Nature. Man is trying to take advantage of naturally evolved relationships and is not trying to impose his rules on Nature. Here, we are following the rules of Nature and trying to figure out what Nature has to propose. In precision agriculture we totally ignore our knowledge of ecology and just try to refine our old practices, which have proven counterproductive. Precision agriculture is not aimed at eliminating the real causes of the problem, it is just directed at reducing the effects of the problem, whereas ecological mimicry is trying to discover the main problem and solve it.


Copyright © 2017 by Christopher-Joseph Ravnopolski-Dean

4 comments:

  1. There is big, big, money in factory farming. Even if you lose your crop you still make money. These farming corporations own America's Bread Basket. It might have been possible back in the 1920s but I'm afraid there is no going back. They will farm like this until the land burns up and blows away. It was a good article and the idea might work in a third world country, but America is bought and paid for.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Farming, large scale or small, is expensive. Very expensive. Many years ago farming was how people ate. Today, the farm is the grocery store.Fewer and fewer engage in growing food and we are ever dependent on large scale farming to fill that void. The work is hard, the return is low. People complain about the technologies incorporated into farming, but want the convenience of driving down the road to the garden section of the grocery store and want their freshly picked vegetables to look as if they just came off the farm truck an hour before and with no insects. That isn't natural. The need for convenience and immediate gratification outstrips common sense.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Farming, large scale or small, is expensive. Very expensive. Many years ago farming was how people ate. Today, the farm is the grocery store.Fewer and fewer engage in growing food and we are ever dependent on large scale farming to fill that void. The work is hard, the return is low. People complain about the technologies incorporated into farming, but want the convenience of driving down the road to the garden section of the grocery store and want their freshly picked vegetables to look as if they just came off the farm truck an hour before and with no insects. That isn't natural. The need for convenience and immediate gratification outstrips common sense.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Urbanization puts a heavy demand on agriculture. Unrealististically so.

    ReplyDelete