Watching the fields of Sandhill cranes recently has given me refreshed vision for seeing the fields without the birds as I pass them on the highways: vast blankets of crop stubble, stoic pivot irrigation structures waiting through the winter lull, and field edges that are often barely lines on the ground.
I’m seeing the desert afresh. All the life and vibrancy of the birds is replaced by the endless miles of nobody doing anything, punctuated by the small islands that teem only in comparison.
The single largest land use on the planet is agriculture. We’ll never ever be able to save sufficient biodiversity if we just aim for the park and wilderness set asides. If you were falling off a cliff, I reach for more than just your wristwatch to grab onto. But how on earth do we feed everybody if we don’t use industrial ag?
Here’s an interesting thought: industrial has never yet fed everybody- the bulk of the world still eats from small farms within a half days walk from their homes.
What it is doing is creating enormously areas of depleting fertility and sharply reduced biodiversity, which can’t possibly be a good long term plan. Can it be done differently? In some places, it is.
EcoAgriculture Partners, in Washington, DC, is considering the problem through three lenses: productivity (the people need to eat), ecology (a farmer needs the process to be sustainable if their children’s children’s children are to inherit fertile land), and economy (a farmer needs to make a living). The interconnectivity of these three pillars of ecoagriculture practice comes clear when one is out of balance.
If the farmer can’t make a living, the long term unsustainability of a project will count for less than the short term economic assistance it can provide. If the people don’t have enough to eat in the here and now, they’ll eat the seeds of the next year’s crops rather than plant them. If ecologically unsound practices endure too long (a measure which varies by practice and place), the whole community will have to move and find new lands to live off of, a prospect their new neighbors may find less than appealing.
Strong proponents of PES programs (payments for ecosystem services), EcoAgriculture Partners (EP) hopes to use PES money to give tangible value to farming practices that benefit the whole community: water filtration and infiltration, erosion control, and carbon sequestration all come to mind; somewhat difficult to measure, but not impossible.
Sometimes their work leads them to study and quantify ecoagricultural communities already existing in balance with their landscape. The integrated land management being used on the Kikuyu escapements of Kenya are one recently lauded example. KENVO (Kijabe Environmental Volunteers) works with local communities and farmers to balance the environmental pressures mounting as both Kijabe province and downstream Nairobi experience rapid population growth.
(from the FAO)
In another project, grant monies were found to compensate small cattle farms in the Matiguás–Río Blanco area in Nicaragua for planting trees in their pastures. Not forests, just what the English might refer to as a ‘woods pasture’: trees prevalent enough to provide some shade, soil retention, and water infiltration benefits, but sparse enough that pasture still grows readily beneath and between the trees.
This style of silvopastoral integrated agriculture has been practiced in a variety of cultures around the globe, each experiencing increased carbon sequestration, water quality improvement, water infiltration improvement, reduced soil loss, and increased on-farm biodiversity.
The project grant helped farmers overcome the gap between investment and return inherent in any tree crop. While not all farmers stayed with the program after it finished, a significant number did, citing the improved pastures that the extra maoisture allowed for, and the decreased mid-summer heat-stress experienced by the cattle who were able to graze in the dappled shade.
So no: barren, lifeless land-as-factory producing farm goods is not necessary, but yes, even as we learn more about the needs of the planet, we must also to learn about the needs of the farmers to learn what the barriers are to implementing practices they believe will improve the ecological soundness of their land.
KENVO image frrom the KENVO webpage.